KENAI -- It's midweek, but thousands of Alaskans have taken the day off to harvest what's shaping up as a record run of sockeye salmon returning to the Kenai River. Monday's impressive sonar total of 97,000 fish were but a drop in the bucket compared to Tuesday's record-breaking single-day total of 246,396 fish.
Alaskans have noticed the plug of fish and are crowding the banks at the mouth of the Kenai River, about 120 miles south of Anchorage. Seals also joined the fish feast on Wednesday.
Some dipnetters found more finned fun than they could handle.
"I'm going to have to train them to walk back to the car," said Jeff Sherman, who drove down from Anchorage. Sherman caught more than 30 red salmon Wednesday, and his cooler was overflowing so much he had trouble closing the lid.
Some people netted two or more fish in a single dip.
The Kenai River has quickly become the state's largest personal use fishery – a residents-only dip-net fishery during which people sweep huge nets on poles through the waters near the mouth of the Kenai.
Last year, about 34,000 dip net permits were issued for the Kenai, a few hundred less than 2011. But in general, the number of people fishing and the number of salmon caught has steadily risen since the first Kenai River dipnet fishery in 1996 – when only 103,000 reds were taken by 15,000 permit-holders. Last year, some 527,000 reds were harvested.
"It is definitely the most popular personal use fishery in the state," said Pat Shields, area manager for Fish and Game. By contrast, in Chitina, another popular dipnet area 246 miles east of Anchorage, only 9,200 permits were issued in 2011, with dipnetters taking 130,000 fish -- just 25 percent the size of the Kenai fishery.
But huge numbers of salmon and throngs of fishermen also create a big mess.
Fish carcasses, some of them lazily filleted, leaving much of the rich meat on the bones, littered the bank and the water Wednesday.
"I kept pulling in fish pieces in my net instead of live fish," said Melissa Sherman, who took the day off work in Anchorage to try her luck. Sherman said she also had difficulty dealing with the "wall of people" nearby.
With the late run of red salmon only about 20 percent complete and the fishing so good, crowds may grow by the weekend.