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Dipnet charters emerge on the Kenai for those looking to avoid crowds

A group of fishermen fish for sockeye salmon on a dipnet charter on the Salmon Busters Guide Service in July 2016. Owner Alex Douthit is one of three operators guiding Alaska residents on dipnet charters on the Kenai River. (Photo by Alex Douthit)

Tired of fighting the fierce current of the Kenai River while holding a dipnet? Or just sick of dealing with the thousands of people who flock to the river each year to net sockeye salmon?

A handful of guides are willing to help by offering dipnet boat charters.

The Kenai River is already known for its robust sportfishing guide industry, with about 270 guides registered with the state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation. But the number of guides catering to dipnetting — which is strictly limited to Alaska residents — has been slow growing.

Dipnet charters are common in the Chitina personal use dipnet fishery along the Copper River, transporting clients to spots that are difficult to access along the swift-moving river. But on the Kenai, with its easy access to fishing spots, dipnet charters have been slower to evolve.

No need to register

Unlike sportfishing guides, who must register with the state, dipnet charter guides must only have business licenses and follow rules set out for Alaska's personal use fishery.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the organization that advocates on behalf of sportfishing interests on the Kenai, doesn't keep track of the number of dipnet charters, but executive director Ricky Gease said he started noticing charters three years ago.

Given its easy access — you can easily drive to it — the Kenai River fishery has become increasingly popular in recent years. In 2006, about 14,000 permit holders reported dipnetting in the Kenai River, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Last year, more than 23,000 permit holders harvested fish.

All the charters allow dipnetters to work from a boat. That's considered an easier way to catch salmon because boats can cover more of the river and move with the current instead of fighting against it.

Alex Douthit, who owns and operates Salmon Busters Guide Service, said the dipnet charters can be an easy way for people to escape the "zoo" of people fishing at the mouth of the Kenai River.

"It's gotten insane, and everyone gripes about it," he said. "But it's a way of life on the Kenai."

Douthit started doing dipnet tours four years ago as a way to make up for numerous king salmon closures on the Kenai River. Now, with restrictions lifted, Douthit said the majority of his business focuses on chinook charters, but he still books some dipnet charters, specifically on Sunday and Monday, when guides aren't allowed to fish on the Kenai.

He said clients have come from all over Alaska, including Fairbanks and as far away as Barrow.

Kenny Bingaman started doing dipnet charters in 2009 after years of bad king fishing. He said he gets a lot of law enforcement officers using his charter service during their time off and lots of repeat clients. He has specially made dipnets that attach to his boat.

$250 per dipnetter

Bingaman charges $250 per person for an eight-hour trip and requires a group of at least three. That may seem expensive, but Bingaman noted sockeye salmon can retail for $9.99 a pound or more, making a charter more cost effective. He said on an average day he'll catch about 60 fish with clients.

Glen Trombley, owner of The Dip Ship, said he caters specifically to clients who are disabled and unable to use the fishery on their own.

On Monday, the first day of fishing on the Kenai, he took out a couple men, ages 82 and 65. He said both were disabled.

"They've wanted to do it for a long time," Trombley said. "But they never had access."

Correction: A previous version of this contained an incorrect price for Kenny Bingamen's dipnet charter. The cost for the charter is $250 per person. 

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