The personal-use setnet salmon fishery around the Kasilof River will open at 6 a.m. Saturday.
Whether it will be a wonderful opportunity to sample nature's bounty free for all Alaskans, or more of a wild West free-for-all, is a matter of some speculation.
Over the past several weeks, people have been staking out prime spots on the beaches, especially along the coast at Cohoe on the river's south side. The rules allow the fishery to extend one mile north or south of markers at the river mouth and from the high tide line to one mile offshore.
But too many people want spots on the beach.
"It's a popular fishery," said Pat Shields, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's assistant area management biologist for commercial fisheries. "We've received a number of calls at the office about who is entitled to fish."
People have been busy on the beaches, driving in posts to hold lines, stringing nets, attaching buoys and setting up temporary camps to watch over their sets. At high tide, the sea is filled with rows of pink buoys waiting for the big day.
The hot topic of debate on the beach is whether someone can save spots for friends.
Some complain about markers and equipment being stolen in their absence. Others complain about people from Anchorage coming down and claiming that the best parts of the beach are "reserved."
Thursday, Shields had a citizen come by his office claiming that one person was baby-sitting 11 lines, and that a drunk had poked him in the chest and told him to get out of an area.
"The regs say the first net in the water is the one that has the right to fish," Shields said. "That is a point of contention."
Kasilof resident Shawna Wolk is worried about potential confrontations.
"It's an explosive situation," she said.
She knows people who have been threatened and of past incidents on the beach involving alcohol or guns, she said.
But her neighbor, setnetter Ruby Gonzales, had a more upbeat assessment. As she and her husband, Dan, prepare for their seventh year on the beach, she compared the dissension to children's squabbles.
"There is always trouble every year," she said. "But it doesn't amount to much. A little mouthing, that's all."
Shields predicted that Fish and Wildlife Protection officers would be on hand for the opening to head off problems.
The competition for the available space has increased as Alaska's population has risen. The state issues free setnet permits to any applicant with an Alaska resident sport-fishing license. But because the nets must be at least 100 feet apart, the two-mile area only offers about 110 spots, he said.
"I want to tell people to be patient," Shields said.
After a few days, most people catch as many as they want or reach their limit. Then they vacate their space. The limits are one king per household, and a total of 25 salmon for the head of the household plus 10 for each other family member, he said.
"If you can wait a few days, usually you can find a place to fish," he said.
The fishery will be open daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and usually lasts 10 days. Last year, it ran somewhat longer and closed at 6 p.m. June 25. Fish and Game decides when to shut down the setnetting based on a guideline harvest of between 10,000 and 20,000, Shields said.
Last year, 547 people reported catching about 14,200 fish at the Kasilof setnet fishery. That is about a third of the size of the dipnet fishery in the area, he said.
Despite the controversies, the overall experience of setnetting remains a positive one for most participants.
Gonzales said the fishery is a lot of work but deeply satisfying. She looks forward to living in their trailer on the beach and taking home her catch to can.
"It's kind of exciting to sit there on the beach and watch those fish hit the net," she said. "We really enjoy it."
He takes his own family down to participate and described it as a great place for camaraderie and for children. Personal-use setnetting on the beach is a unique Alaska tradition, he said.
"It's about as addictive as golf," he said.
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