CHITINA — For riverboat captain Mark Hem, dipnetting for Copper River salmon here is a habit, a livelihood, his daily connection to the natural world of Interior Alaska. He owns Hem Charters and partner Sam MacCallister runs Copper River Charters, ferrying customers to dipnetting spots along river.
Combined they have 55 years of experience on the river and a life Hem couldn't have imagined as a 17-year-old when he moved north from New Jersey in the early 1980s, finding work at a Fairbanks furniture company. The next year, his brother mentioned a place called Chitina, and when Hem's employer refused to give him a day off to visit, the young man quit and went dipnetting.
Only one person was on the river that day when Hem and his brother showed up, a scene that left a lasting impression.
"That winter I was sitting with my brother-in-law and one of his friends, and they were talking about ways to make money," Hem said. "I mentioned (Chitina), and his friend said he'd buy a boat, and my brother-in-law said that he'd help him on the boat if I would stay on the beach and help him line up customers. And that's how it started. We came to Chitina that year, and I've been here ever since.
"When I first started in 1983, the dipnet fishery was pretty much over by the July 4 weekend. We operated that way about six years until we figured out from the local people that the fishing was much better later in the year. So we started a program of telling our customers that we would be staying later in the year and that fishing was better. Slowly they started coming, and slowly we started staying longer. And before you knew it, we had built up the entire season.
"It's more than a job. It's an adventure. It's my livelihood. It's really all I've ever known in my adult life. I love the scenery. My wife and I live here in Chitina year-round. It's a nice quiet, peaceful place most of the year. Except when dipnetting is open."
‘What’s not to like?’
These days, the Copper River personal-use dipnet salmon fishery runs from early June until late September, and its popularity has steadily risen. Back in 1989, 6,158 permits were issued; that number has more than doubled today.
To Chitina fans, it's easy to see why.
"This place does have a lot of energy to it," said Sam Hachey, who owns Tanana Herb Co. with his brother Joe and was on the river last month. "There's so much biomass moving through these rivers right now, so many fish coming through here, that at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, the river sounds quiet but it's not. You can really hear it. Beautiful sunrise, sunsets. It's Alaska, what's not to like?"
"I like it because it's a little bit slower, or less people than the Kenai," said Kate Patterson of Salcha earlier this month. "And it's a little bit more work — you have to kind of get your body into it instead of just standing there. You have to actually move the dipnet around to catch something because of the water, the way it moves.
"It looks like a real riverfront because it's rocky. I've seen bears, lots of birds. It's really nice, everyone is really nice to everyone, cheering each other on whenever we catch something."
Salmon run down a bit
After a few bang-up years for Copper River dipnetters, the 2017 season has turned a little, well, average.
Through July 9, some 618,000 red salmon have passed the river sonar at the outlet of Miles Lake, about 85,000 fewer than a year ago and nearly 500,000 fewer than two years ago on the same date. In fact, the Copper saw record returns 2012-2015.
"My partner and I, it's very important that (our customers) catch fish," Hem noted. "So we work very hard to make that happen. That's one reason our business is so popular. We do almost no advertising, it's all word of mouth."
The Chitina personal-use fishery is open to Alaska residents. It's particularly popular among those in the Fairbanks area, about a six-hour drive away.
Of course, popularity soars when a monster run of salmon heads up the Copper River. That's what happened in 2015, when 1.3 million reds passed the sonar and personal-use fishermen took home 225,425 of them.
But the good times of recent years may make it hard when numbers drop, as salmon numbers inevitably do, Tim Viavant, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
"It's going to be ugly when this run drops back to like 600,000, 700,000 fish total run," he said. "Because we've all gotten used to the glory days of just dipping all you want."
Personal-use dipnetters who are head of a household have an annual limit of 25 salmon, with 10 more salmon for each additional household member. Only one king salmon per season per household is allowed.
Fish limit fever
Some people get caught up in the limits, Hem said.
"Most families don't need the amount of fish that they get now," he said. "To eat 30 fish, for a family, you have to eat one or two fish every week all year long. And most people just don't do that. So, a lot of these fish get wasted at the end of the year.
"People have this thing called a limit, and no matter what that is, they think they have to get that. And they don't feel like they have been successful unless they do get that."
But not everyone brings home a limit.
"I come dipnetting every year, and so far today I've caught four," said Patterson of Salcha.
Personal-use fishing continues through September, even though it slows down later in the season. Check the Fish and Game website for details on regulations, openings, harvest and emergency orders related to the fishery.
There are also four excellent how-to videos available on Chitina dipnetting, covering: gear you'll need; eddy fishing; sweeping; and dipnetting from a boat.
Hem charges passengers $110 round trip.
Here's what he suggests bringing: head lamp and batteries (on overnight trips), dipnet, life jacket, tie-off rope, strings, hip boots or chest waders, bucket to wash off your spot, fillet knife, warm clothes, bug spray, 60-quart coolers or smaller.
‘Very dangerous place’
Perhaps the biggest difference between the Copper River and the Kenai is the water itself. The Copper is a fast-moving, glacier-fed river that's cold and deadly.
Mark Somerville, a Glennallen-based Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist, estimated that 10 people have died on the Copper, four since the 2005 season. Many more have fallen in, including Chitina resident David Bruss, who was in a motorized kayak that flipped four years ago. Luckily, the 57-year-old was wearing a life jacket, and after being carried downstream for 20 minutes, a local charter guide spotted Bruss' arm partially raised from the roiling river and came to the rescue.
Somerville emphasized that the silt-laden waters compound the danger of the Copper, weighing down clothes and waders in an instant if you fall in.
"People need to know that Chitina is a very dangerous place," Hem said. A lot of people skate by on sheer luck down here. But the river is very unforgiving. People do drown.
"It's not a very safe place for children."
Six years ago, for instance, 27-year-old Lance Jorgensen of North Pole slipped on a rock, fell into the water and was swept downriver. His body was never found.
"The most surprising thing to me is it doesn't happen more often," Hem told the News-Miner at the time. "It's unbelievable how many people don't tie off."
Jorgensen was the first Hem customer to perish.
"If he'd had a life jacket on he'd be with us today," Hem said. "There was a boat almost to him when he went under the final time."
Steep terrain, rocks often covered with slippery fish slime, and water colder than 45 degrees that rips by at about 12 mph make it critical to both wear a life jacket and tie off to a tree or big rock. One misstep, one slip can prove fatal. And when tying in, only use enough rope so that you can reach the edge of the river, not a 100-foot piece that will allow the current to pull you into the middle of the river if you fall in.
"No matter where you are, it's dangerous," Hem said.
We Alaskans editor Mike Campbell and former Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter Tim Mowry contributed to this story.