At the end of a fishing day on the Kasilof River, the Russell Fishing Company guides often rope their boats together to make getting down the river easier.
Only one of the boats has a motor, and it’s a little one — only 10 horsepower. Alaska Department of Fish and Game restrictions prohibit motor use on the Kasilof above river mile 3, and below that, motors can only be used after everyone is done fishing for the day and can only be up to 10 horsepower. The restrictions end on July 31, after the end of king salmon season and the peak of sockeye season.
With 12 clients spread among the three drift boats, guide Bill Russell — whom the other guides call by his nickname, “Pops” — tugs the little caravan down the next 2 miles of the winding river, heading for the only ramp to retrieve boats from the river.
Russell Fishing’s boats were a few of the dozens on the river Monday, taking clients out for a chance at some of the king salmon still running to the river. However, after launching on the Kasilof, there’s only one practical place to get back out — the Kasilof River Lodge and Cabins. Situated near the mouth of the river, it’s about an 8-mile float down the river to get there, and $25 to haul out per boat.
As he towed the boats down the river around 3:30 p.m. Monday, Russell pointed out the ramp, a steep hill up a muddy bank from the low-tide surface of the Kasilof River. Sometimes the line can get long with all the guides queued up, boats full of clients, if someone at the top is less than efficient or the river is especially crowded.
“It’s not bad today — a lot of guys who started at 5 (a.m.) would have pulled out around 1,” he said. “When there are a lot of boats, it can get really bad down here.”
The Kasilof River Lodge and Cabins has been the sole takeout facility for the last several years after the Alaska Department of Natural Resources bought and closed a former takeout site at approximately river mile 3. The state has been working on plans to develop the site into a park with a boat retrieval facility for several years but has run into snags.
Last December, the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation went out for public comment with a set of designs for the site, all of which included a traditional boat ramp. The money appropriated for the site was specifically designated for a drift boat takeout, and many at the meeting felt the ramp design would allow for boats to be launched and were concerned about the additional traffic to and from the neighborhood.
In January, DNR Commissioner Andy Mack put the project on hold, saying he wanted the department to go back to the drawing board on the design and look at the effect on the Kasilof River system as a whole. At a public meeting about improvements to the river mouth’s south side on June 14 in Soldotna, he said he took the public’s concerns seriously.
“When we held hearings and reviewed the comments that were submitted, it was abundantly clear to me that there were overwhelming local concerns expressed about the way it was designed and what the overall impacts would be, both to the neighborhood and also to the larger community,” he said at the meeting.
Right now, the state is working on developing a parking area and facilities on the south side of the mouth to support the personal-use dipnet fishery that attracts thousands of people every summer. The timeline for developing the takeout facility is not set at present. Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation Acting Director Matt Wedeking said the state is still working on clearing out contaminated soil from the property, but after that, guides can apply for a special use permit to use the property as client dropoff only before floating further down the river to haul out, as reported by the Clarion.
However, that would present more logistical problems. Guided clients’ cars won’t be there, and setting up a shuttle would take another person and vehicle. Private anglers would have to obtain the permit, have a second car and still float down to the lodge to haul out.
Timing a trip on the Kasilof takes some effort because of the lack of motors — guides can row back up to re-float sections at certain times of the tide, but not all the way. There are few facilities other than at the Crooked Creek State Recreation Site, so many boats pull off into little eddies to let clients off to relieve themselves or bank fish.
Only about half the boats floating the river Monday were equipped with motors at all. Guides have to have a U.S. Coast Guard license to operate a motor of any size on a vessel, and many of them don’t, Russell said. But that doesn’t mean guides want to run motors up and down the river. Many just want the state to develop the takeout site to make trips more efficient and avoid bottlenecks at the bottom, he said.
“I like the river just fine the way it is,” he said.