Every year, some 1.5 million red salmon enter the Kenai River. And every year, hundreds of thousands are caught with dipnets near the mouth of the river.
The Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery opens on Tuesday and lasts through July 31. Over the three weeks, thousands of Alaskans will stand along the shore, wade into the water or take to boats with long-handled nets hoping to get their annual limit of 25 tasty red salmon for the head of a household plus 10 for each qualified dependent.
Nobody counts the number of people who head to the popular fishery. Hundreds of tents pop up on the grass along the south shore during peak weekends in a scene reminiscent of a gold rush boom town.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game spokesman Ken Marsh said 34,515 personal use permits were issued for Upper Cook Inlet in 2011. That district includes smaller runs in Fish Creek, which drains from Big Lake into Knik Arm, and the Kasilof River. But 90 percent of the reds, or sockeyes, taken by dipnet in the district, 537,765 last year, are caught at the mouth of the Kenai.
Extrapolating from those numbers, at least 30,000 dippers may wet their nets in the Kenai between now and the end of the month. If they all show up at once, they will turn Kenai (pop. 7,100) into the second largest city in Alaska.
This year's run looks typical, so far, said Pat Shields, ADF&G biologist with the Commercial Fish Division. "We've only counted five days and we're sitting at 30,406. The average for July 5 is about 33,000."
Fish are counted by sonar 19 miles upriver from the dipnetting area.
"It's still pretty early in the season, too early to tell," he said. "But people will be remembering last year when we had 230,000 salmon come through in one day. I was there."
The record run in the middle of last July had lucky dippers pulling up two, three and even five fish in a single scoop of their nets. It coincided with has historically been the hottest time for dipping.
"Anytime from the 15th to the 25th of July is when we get our really big push," said Robert Begich, an ADF&G biologist stationed in Soldotna. "That's what you'll see in the historical data."
Though regulations for dipnet fishing are simple, they are strictly enforced, said Begich. The concentration of a large number for fishermen in a small area presents what he called "a target rich environment."
He stressed two rules in particular. "Folks need to have their fish clipped and the catch recorded before they leave the boundary of the fishing area," he said.
Clipping means cutting off the top and bottom points of the tail. This marks the fish as a personal-use catch. Scissors are an easy way to do this. A diagram can be found at the ADF&G website.
Recording is the process of filling out a card with information stating when and where you were fishing and what kind of fish was caught -- if any.
The card must be filled out whenever you participate in the personal-use salmon fishery, regardless of whether you have caught one.
Both of these steps must be taken before the fish "is concealed from plain view, such as put in a cooler, or before the salmon is transported from the fishing site, such as your vehicle," reads the regulation.
That means before you leave the parking lot, if you're fishing from shore, or before you reach the dock if your fishing from a boat, Begich said.
He also noted no king salmon may be retained during the dipnet fishery this year. Any king that winds up in a net "may not be removed from the water and must be released immediately unharmed."
ADF&G also specifies what kind of net may be used. The bag-shaped net must be "supported on all sides by a rigid frame" and the frame cannot exceed five feet in any direction; that is: 5 feet in diameter for a round net or five feet diagonally from corner to corner for a square or rectangular net.\
The open area for shore-based netting runs from the mouth of the river upstream to the Warren Ames Bridge, with the exception of a section of the north shore of the river between Main Street and the city dock. The boundaries of the area are well posted, Begich said.
Personal use regulations are found in the ADFG sport fishing regulations summary booklet on pages 13-15 as well as online at adfg.alaska.gov (click on "Fishing," then "Personal Use Fishing," then "Kenai Dipnet Fishery," then "Permits and Regulations").
TIDES AND CAMPING
Dipnetting on the Kenai is open only between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., "regardless of the tides," say the regulations. That may require a bit of planning for boaters since the boat ramp at the Kenai City dock is closed two hours before and after low tides.
"The ramp facilities don't work at low tides," said Kenai Police Dept. Lt. David Ross. "The ramp just goes into mud. We post signs on the road, but people still don't realize that the dock isn't functional at low tides and there are incredibly long lines of people waiting to put their boat in the water."
Extreme low tides will come on July 20 and 21, Ross noted. Low tides will dip to "2 feet 4 inches" at 12:23 p.m. on July 20 and 12:59 p.m. on July 21. The highest tides on both days will be 21 feet, 10 inches. Those dates may coincide with the heaviest run of fish.
"The biggest thing for people to do is to be patient," Ross said.
His department, the city fire department and emergency medical providers are bracing for the busy weekends, he said.
"Traffic management and parking problems are the main issues for us, but there are accidents that sometimes happen on the river as well," Ross said.
Bob Frates, the director of Kenai Parks and Recreation is also gearing up for what he called "a fun three weeks."
"We'll have up to 12 folks pretty much dedicated to helping with it, patrolling the beach, making trash runs."
Parking fees are imposed in areas that, for most of the year, are free. That's necessary, Frates said, because the parking areas close to the river quickly fill up when the salmon are running.
"We'll have overflow parking at the Little League Complex" near the beach, he said. "Camping is also allowed in that area."
Campers may find some space on the north shore of the river, near Old Town Kenai. "But they can camp anywhere on the South Beach," Frates said. That area is reached off Kalifornsky Beach Road. Camping fees are charged for spaces near the river.
Frates advised out-of-town visitors should be aware of the dunes that flank the river. They are off limits to both vehicles and pedestrians, set behind a chain link fence. Trespassing on the dunes can bring a $500 fine.
"Another big issue for us is fish waste," he said. "When you clean a fish, you have to deposit the waste in an appropriate area. That doesn't mean a dumpster or a fishing stream on your way back to Anchorage."
The most appropriate place for Kenai River fish waste is probably right back into the river, he suggested, where it can flow into Cook Inlet.
Frates also urged visitors to "pitch in and take care of your own personal trash. People have a tendency to make purchases then leave them behind on the beach."
Not just food wrappers and garbage, but tents, hip waders, camping chairs and similar equipment, he said.
"We could just about have a garage sale with all the stuff we haul off the beach every year."
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.