Alaska Wildlife Troopers have called upon additional help, as they do every year, as Alaskans start to inundate Kenai and surrounding communities in hopes of catching dozens of red salmon with oversized nets.
Opening day of the Kenai's three-week personal-use salmon dipnetting season was Thursday. From shore and from boats, crowds of residents soaked themselves in the waters of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers as well as the intermittent rainfall bathing the western Kenai Peninsula.
The first day of seasonal fishing madness was slow, said Alaska Wildlife Trooper Lt. Paul McConnell. The coming weeks will see more people traveling the Sterling Highway to the mouths of rivers with historically plentiful runs.
So far, the sockeye run is doing reasonably well. As of Thursday, the run totaled 171,222 reds for the Kenai and 212,521 for the Kasilof, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
King salmon are off limits to dipnetters this year in an effort to protect the coveted fish, and wildlife troopers will be on the lookout for people breaking the rules, McConnell said.
Currently, two additional wildlife troopers and an extra sergeant are helping with enforcement, though the Soldotna troopers post is short two wildlife troopers because it hasn't been able to fill the positions since two troopers were transferred.
As the dipnetting season picks up, five extra troopers will scour the shores of the Kenai and Kasilof for people intentionally and unintentionally breaking Fish and Game regulations.
The Soldotna post typically gets two additional troopers during the busy dipnetting season, when the central Peninsula population explodes as the town of about 7,200 sees some 15,000 visitors. But the Alaska Legislature supplemented the troopers' budget with $175,000 for Cook Inlet fisheries enforcement, affording the agency more hands. Consequently, the Kenai Police Department hired six temporary officers who will enforce municipal codes and help with logistics related to the fishery, said Lt. Dave Ross.
On Thursday, McConnell said, troopers wrote one citation for a group that was catching and keeping Dolly Varden. Rainbow trout are also off-limit to dipnetters.
The most common violations wildlife troopers see during the season are fishermen failing to mark their catches by cutting off both lobes of the tail fins and not recording the catch on their personal-use permits, McConnell said.
Failing to mark the fish results in a $75 citation, while not recording fish is a $100 fine.
Harder to spot are nonresidents participating in the fishery (only Alaskans can legally dipnet) and people catching more than the limit of 25 salmon for the head of the household and 10 salmon for each additional household member.
"Once in a while troopers find violators" while the personal-use fishery is happening, McConnell said. "Not as much I think is perceived that goes on." Troopers hand out a couple citations each season.
However, when winter descends on the Kenai Peninsula and wildlife troopers have more time, they conduct residency investigations by reviewing licenses.
Dipnetters should be aware of a few other things, McConnell said. Signs mark the mouth of the Kasilof this year, and users are required to fish upstream from the markers. He said the signs -- yellow and placed atop square wooden boards, with arrows pointing upstream and reading "Personal Use Fishing" -- may be hard to spot during low tide.
Also, the Kenai River is unlike the Kasilof in that it's not open 24 hours. People are only allowed to dipnet from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
McConnell asked boaters dipnetting in the river to be mindful of their surroundings. The mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof can get choked with netters, he said.
Ross said the Kenai officers are working long hours to ensure safety. They're on the lookout for drivers illegally parking and spending more time at the loading docks than allowed, he said.
Over the next several days, Ross said, exceptionally low and high tides are forecast. This can cause problems at the dock, and the wait can become long.
"It's a lot of people trying to cram into a small area, which the town is really not designed for," he said.