How to land Alaska salmon dipnetting bounty with family time to spare

Alex DeMarban
Instead of heading to the blood-caked salmon slaughter along the Kenai River and battling hordes of dipnetters, why not drive north to Big Lake? I landed 30 sparkling beauties in a matter of minutes. Loren Holmes photos

This year, the fishing's never been better.

Instead of heading to the blood-caked salmon slaughter along the Kenai River and battling hordes of dipnetters, I drove north to Big Lake and landed 30 sparkling beauties in a matter of minutes.

And I didn't have to get wet, bloody and bleary-eyed to do it.

That's because I broke down and bought my salmon from a family-owned operation that stretches a commercial net off Cook Inlet's northern shore.

It was the best bang for the buck, at least for a parent with a crazy life and kids too young to help. Better yet, the average fillet was a lot bigger than the ones I typically bring home.  

Don't get me wrong. Dipnetting's perfect for bonding with family and friends and getting all cozy with Mother Nature.

But there's two big problems:

1) It's fraught with risk because you may get skunked, even with a hoop-net large enough to swallow a man.

2) Everyone's doing it, making your chances of entangling more men than fish increasingly likely.

My family can legally take 55 salmon on the Kenai, but we shoot for 30 -- enough to provide us year-round with a few meals a week. Any more than that and my kids would hunger strike.

For whatever reason, my first trip is typically a bust, an all-day feat of endurance standing chest-deep in chilly water for few to no salmon. We typically fare better the second time, enough to boost the total somewhere into the 20s.

This year, me and some buddies planned to slay 'em. Instead of planting ourselves in the sand with the masses, we'd join the current-drifters in wet suits whose floating nets always outfish the ones on shore. 

Then I did the math. Not counting the gear, I typically spend around $250 for those two trips. Throw in the unexpected -- a fish cop once wrote me a ticket for not recording my catch on the grounds -- and the bill can skyrocket. Factor in days away from the kids and the brutal overnighters ...

So this year, I took the advice of a friend and placed an order with Wild Alaska Salmon Products in Big Lake. They caught fish on Thursday and flew it in. The very next night I picked it up, stuffing six coolers with 24 reds and six silvers. They'd been bled and iced, and felt as fresh as if they'd just been killed. The reds cost me $2.75 a pound, silvers cost me $2.50 a pound.

That's less than half the current cost of whole sockeyes at Fred Meyer ($5.99 a pound for reds) or 10th and M Seafoods ($6.95 a pound). It also worked out to less than half the cost of filleted reds at New Sagaya ($11.99 a pound), where whole salmon aren't currently for sale.

The whole deal set me back $570 -- that includes $50 in gas and ice -- a little more than twice what I'd pay for an average year of dipnetting.

Best of all was the extra time for family and friends. By Saturday night, after eight hours spent driving and filleting, I was in the back yard grilling up buttery salmon bellies as the kids jumped on the trampoline. 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com