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Dipnetting: Alaska's annual salmon bloodbath nears apex on Kenai Peninsula

Craig Medred
3-year-old Jackson Gregory of Anchorage whacks his first sockeye salmon at the mouth of the Kenai river on Sunday, July 15, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Mike Leiker of Anchorage caught 6 sockeye salmon in 1 1/2 hours on Sunday, July 15, 2012 at the mouth of the Kenai river.
Loren Holmes photo
A good run of sockeye salmon at the mouth of the Kenai river is good not only for those fishing, but also for the local seagulls. July 15, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A friend of Allyssa Frost's adds another sockeye salmon to the day's catch. The group had collected over 100 salmon in just over 5 hours. July 15, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Jessica Wynn celebrates her friend Rachel Seeger's first dipnet-caught sockeye salmon. July 15, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Rebekah Luhrs of Anchorage hauling in a sockeye salmon from the mouth of the Kenai River on July 15, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
A sockeye salmon fights for its life from a cooler at the mouth of the Kenai River on July 15, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Ray Miller strains against the weight of 25 sockeye salmon on his way back to his car at the mouth of the Kenai River on Sunday, July 15, 2012. "Almost makes me appreciate silver salmon fishing with rod & reel," he said.
Loren Holmes photo
Dipnetters make their way to the mouth of the Kenai river on Sunday, July 15, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Dipnetters pulled in a good catch of sockeye salmon at the mouth of the Kenai river on Sunday, July 15, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
After 5 hours dipnetting in the mouth of the Kenai river on Sunday, Allyssa Frost and her friends had managed to catch over 100 sockeye salmon. July 15, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Holly Thistle, a first-time dipnetter from Big Lake, with her catch of sockeye salmon. July 15, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

KENAI -- Conga lines of salmon killers danced down both banks of the Kenai River on a Wednesday morning. Behind them on the beaches, the encampments of fish slayers spread across brown sand in multicolored smears of tents wedged tight together. On the horizon of the gray waters of Cook Inlet, in Southcentral Alaska, an armada of commercial drift net fishing boats with more salmon slayers headed off to intercept Mother Nature's returning silver horde. 

Overhead, gulls screeched their shrill demands for salmon offal. An Alaska Air National Guard C-130, training pararescue jumpers for the day, droned toward the local airport. Smells of salty sea and blood -- lots and lots of blood -- filled the air.

Not far upstream on the river, blood gushed on an industrial scale from the bodies of salmon as fish-processing plants went about the business of turning silvery fish into what humans calls "product." Closer to the water's edge, blood flowed from beheaded, or sometimes more delicately eviscerated, salmon. The horde of personal-use dipnetters were of every color, race and origin, numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands. 

And their nets flashed in the sun before plunging into the Kenai's gray-green glacial currents. Sometimes there was the struggling silver reflection of a salmon caught and doomed -- pulled from the water in a cold, dead, aluminum net. The fish pulsed with life about to end. People shouted in various English dialects and accents, Midwestern and Southern and even Sarah Palin's odd Minnesotan twang. They shouted in Japanese or French or German or Korean.

Near outhouses and port-a-potties demarking the end a city-maintained road that itself dead-ends at high tide above where fish slaughtering begins on the north beach, a bus from a Korean Christian church in Anchorage disgorged a load of believers, who marched toward the beach along a shifting trail through the collected tents of a gathering of Tahitians. 

This is the reality of Alaska. It likely won't be what's seen on television across the nation on tonight's prime time cable reality lineup. Strange, isn't it, how reality TV can make most of Alaska look a little crazy and yet fail to capture the essence of everyday, off-kilter craziness that makes Alaska so alluring?

Palin once famously observed that "Alaska is like a microcosm of America."

Alaska is a microcosm of America like Time Square is a microcosm of town square in Anytown, USA. Alaska is the American melting pot run through a blender, pumped full of uppers. It's America on steroids, armed and sent to war against the wilderness. The Sterling Highway running into this town is these days plugged with the trucks and cars of warriors with dipnets, river-bound.

What is a dipnet? It's a question lots of ordinary Americans ask. The answer: a dipnet is exactly that which it sounds like, a net for dipping salmon from the water. These nets are huge -- a maximum of five-feet in diameter by law -- with 10- to 15-feet-long handles, sold at local branches of Costco Wholesale and other retailers. 

Alaska is likely the only place in the country where Costco wholesales the implements of slaughter. You likely won't find a .30-06-caliber rifle and boxes of ammunition at Costco in Grand Rapids, Mich., or Coon Rapids, Minn., places where locals arm themselves for whitetail deer hunting the way Alaskans prepare to murder salmon -- though the former happens on nothing of the scale of the latter.

Under Alaska law and with a fishing permit, every dipnetter can take 25 sockeye salmon plus 10 more for each member of the family. That's 55 sockeyes for a family of four. Kenai River fish tend to be big. A dipnetter who high grades his or her catch could easily end up with 55 fish of 10 pounds or greater. That's 550-pounds of salmon -- or about three, average-size Midwest whitetails.

But the kill of the dipnetters is nothing compared to the salmon kill of the driftnetters and setnetters who mine Alaska's seas for the same silvery fish. Dipnets are shovels compared to the backhoes of the commercial fishery.

Alaska's personal-use dipnet kill numbers in the hundreds of thousands of fish. The commercial net kills millions. 

And sometimes Alaskans can't seem to get enough of it. They live for the killing season. They thrive on the killing season. They sometimes seem possessed by the killing season.

On Wednesday, traffic flowing south from Anchorage, the state's largest city, to the Kenai Peninsula salmon killing grounds was bumper-to-bumper along long stretches of the Seward and Sterling highways. On the river, the traffic of commercial boats heading to the offshore killing grounds was at times bow to stern. 

Welcome to summer in Alaska.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com