WASILLA -- Dozens of hopeful fishermen sat beside their nets in the sun Friday afternoon alongside Fish Creek. They'd driven about 15 miles southwest of Wasilla on Knik Goose Bay Road and walked another 20 to 30 minutes down a busy path to get here.
Near the muddy mouth of the river, kids made pies out of dirt and slid in the muck. Seagulls glided looking for fish carcasses that dotted the beach. Men and women wearing chest waders scanned the water for ripples and fins.
They were all waiting for the tide to come in, and with it, a glut of salmon, mostly sockeyes. The reds are a traditional summertime treat for anglers looking for relatively easy-to-reach salmon just outside Alaska's biggest city.
It was the first day of a three-day opening for dipnet fishing on the creek, which will see several hundred people per day on its banks over the weekend, said state Fish and Game biologist Sam Oslund.
"It's a good chance to go down and fill the freezer," Oslund said. "The fish come in pretty fast, it's exciting watching them stack in there."
As of Tuesday, biologists at a fish weir on the creek had counted about 32,500 sockeyes making it upstream to spawn. Based on these weir counts, the Department of Fish and Game is projecting a total escapement of more than 50,000 sockeyes.
Meeting the escapement goal of 20,000 to 70,000 fish meant fisheries managers could open Fish Creek for a three-day window without the risk of depleting the salmon population, Oslund said.
"I'm so glad they opened this up, I was crossing my fingers," said Amy Connaker, who was among a smaller group of people who had been netting salmon at high tide here Friday morning.
Connaker said she hauled in 27 salmon in about an hour-and-a-half, "a fish every three minutes," she noted.
"Once you start going, you can't stop," Connaker said.
Jeff Nelson stood near his cooler gazing out at Knik Arm, his hands hooked into the top of his waders. A man nearby sharpened his filet knife. About 30 feet down the slippery, sloping bank, men with canoes and rafts positioned themselves.
"When they start coming in, people will start running for their nets, then a few will get caught right away," Nelson said. Soon after, a surge of salmon would move into the creek, he said.
"Hopefully nobody gets stuck in the mud," Nelson said. "Sometimes you're helping pull people out. It gets interesting."
Logan Saunders, 7, found out just how sticky the mud could be. He'd sunk in up to his waist while climbing up the bank in a particularly soupy spot. After his dad Dylan Saunders pulled him out, Logan was getting a quick bath in the creek.
Dylan had earlier guided his red canoe down to a spot near the creek's mouth. The canoe held two plastic tubs and the Saunders' net and provided a platform from which to work.
For all the preparation -- and kid-wrangling -- Dylan offered simple advice for a greenhorn dipnetter. "Basically, just stick your net in the water," he said.
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By CASEY GROVE