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Calling all dipnetters: Bounty of sockeye salmon awaits at Kenai for the prepared

Lisa Maloney
Loren Holmes photo

Nowhere is Alaska's bounty of salmon more apparent -- and more accessible to the masses -- than during dipnetting season. You don't need much equipment beyond chest waders and a giant, long-handled net -- and the only skill you really need is a willingness to stand in freezing water until a fish graces you with its presence. But make no mistake about it, this is hard work.

Time it right, though, and one trip to a personal use dipnet fishery can fill the family freezer with salmon for the year. Here's how to take advantage of that bounty, whether you're a first-timer or a seasoned vet looking to refine your system.

Nuts and bolts

New to dipnetting? The rules are actually pretty simple but violations can net you a fine, so read through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's guidelines in the Personal Use section of adfg.alaska.gov website, or in print wherever you purchase a fishing license. Here are the most important points:

• Every person involved with handling or catching fish must be a current Alaska resident and have a valid fishing license. One member of each household must also have a dipnet permit (free, available wherever you purchase a fishing license).

• No king salmon may be retained in the Kasilof or Kenai dipnet fisheries.

• Catch limits are seasonal: In Upper Cook Inlet (which includes Kenai), it’s 25 salmon for a single-person household and an extra 10 for every additional household member. In Chitina, 15 salmon for a single person and 30 for multi-person households, with an additional 10 salmon (per household) allowed during announced supplemental periods -- basically, bonus days.

• Log salmon on your dipnet permit and clip their tails before you leave the dipnetting area or conceal the fish from view. (This includes putting them in a cooler.)

• You can have permits for both the Chitina and Upper Cook Inlet regions in the same season, as long as you record your catches on the proper permits.

• If you prefer 24-hour fishing, try Kasilof; for the biggest fish (not to mention the biggest river and crowds to match), try Kenai, which is usually open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Hit the beach

When the Kenai dipnetting fishery opens Thursday (July 10) morning, it'll bring with it a tide of fishermen, with thousands crowding the North and South Beaches at the mouth of the river on any given day. This is no backcountry outing -- giant shade tents, fold-out chairs and folding tables are the norm. Savvy dipnetters use carts (large, wide wheels only) or sleds to help transport their gear.

The best fishing spots on the North Beach are walk-in access only. If you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle you don't mind taking on the beach, you can drive right up to the best camping and fishing spots on the South Beach. Fees at either beach are $25 for overnight camping, or $20 for 12 hours of parking.

This year South Beach will have only one access point, along Dunes road. The Kenai Landing RV site and boat launch is closed for the summer, making it more difficult for dipnetters with boats.

Camping on the beach is part of the experience, along with the hard work of hauling gear in, then catching and hauling fish out. It fosters a certain camaraderie and festival atmosphere.

But Kenai City Manager Rick Koch warns that a period of high tides may force campers off the beach again. "Any time we get above 22 feet, there's a good chance that people will have to pick up their tents," he said.

NOAA predicts 22-foot-plus tides for July 11-16. When we spoke, Koch didn't expect evacuation to be mandatory, but last year, some of those who didn't evacuate were stranded by the rising water. Campers who need to relocate can camp on the city's softball or Little League diamonds, just up the street from the North Beach access point, at no additional charge.

If you don't want to risk camping on the beach during those high-tide periods, you can rent a motorhome (heads up, parking is no longer allowed throughout Old Town Kenai); rent a bed-and-breakfast or hotel room (they usually book up months in advance, but you might get lucky) or commute to and from one of the many Kenai Peninsula campgrounds.

The easy part

The actual process of dipnetting is pretty easy: Walk your net into the water, then stand there and hope. Sometimes it’s a long wait. Most fishermen wear at least one non-cotton insulating layer beneath their waders, as a buffer against the water's chill. And be aware of what's under you; there are mudflats here, with gravel well below the low-tide line in just a few precious places. The current also varies enormously and can get very strong, very fast. In a few places, the water may be deeper behind you than in front as the tide comes up.

When a fish hits your net, it's unmistakable -- the entire thing thrums and wiggles as the fish fights to break free. Scratch 10 fishermen and you'll get 10 ideas about what to do next (trust me, I've asked). But most agree that you should flip the hoop with the current so it lies flat on the river bottom, then drag the net up onto the beach.

Once you're back on land you can extract the fish (unless it's a king, which must be immediately released), stun it with a blow to the head, then kill it by slicing its gills or, if you have good aim, putting a knife through its brain.

The only thing sadder than getting completely skunked during dipnet season is having your bounty go to waste -- so head the fish, gut the fish, and get them on ice as soon as possible. (If you don't want to haul an entire cooler down to the water as you chase the tide, carry a bucket for ferrying fish back up to the cooler.)

Heads, guts and any other pieces of fish carcass go straight back into the water; leaving piles of fish on land creates a stinky, lingering mess that can net you a fine.

Some people fillet their fish right then and there on the beach, but I prefer to wait until I get home and set up an assembly line with anyone I can bribe or beg to help. One or two people fillet; another cuts the fillets into pieces for smoking, canning or freezing; another packs jars or vacuum-seals the fillets; and so on. The university’s Cooperative Extension Service can give you basic how-to information on preservation methods.

A word on fish waste: Please don't dump what's left of your fish in a park or leave them outside in a trash can; it'll attract bears and create a hazard. Bag the waste and take it to the dump right away if you can, or at least keep the bags inside -- frozen, if possible -- until just before the trash truck comes by.

Be in it for the long haul

As intense as dipnetting can be when fish are flooding in, there's no telling when that will happen. So don't forget to pack your best Zen face; you might spend a lot of time waiting in the water. And even when everything goes right, the sheer mass of people that descends on Kenai every day during dipnet season is bound to slow things down here and there.

"Be patient," said Koch when I asked him if there was anything he wanted to pass on to readers. "There will be days there will be 15,000 people in the one square mile area there. Lines are gonna move slow sometimes, people are gonna get on each others' nerves. Let's all be Alaskans and be courteous."

Dipnetters working from boats should be aware that the city dock closes when tide levels are below 1.5 feet, to reduce the risk of a trailer getting stuck in the mud. There are some minus tides coming up in the next week, so please be patient -- everyone else is in the same boat.

Also, as of July 8 the Beaver Loop shortcut is still closed, so you'll have to take the Kenai Spur Highway all the way down to Bridge Access to get to the dock. If using a private dock, doublecheck its status before you go.

Fishing areas, times and catch limits are subject to change, so check Fish and Game's recorded information for emergency orders and other updates before you go: (907) 267-2512 for the Kenai/Kasilof fisheries and (907)267-2511 for Chitina/Copper River.

Anchorage freelance writer Lisa Maloney has refined her dipnetting system through years of trial and delightful, grueling error. You can reach her at lisa@maloneywrites.com.