Dipnet fishermen work the bank of the Kasilof River in July 1999.
Clarion file photo
As millions of sockeye salmon prepare to storm the rivers in an attempt to make the long journey up to their spawning grounds, a seemingly equal number of people are preparing for their own pilgrimage to catch them all part of the uniquely Alaska activity known as dipnetting.
Unique is almost an understatement for this personal-use fishery, since it is one of the few places that Alaska residents can go during summer and know they are among their own. Non-residents aka Outsiders are not allowed to participate, handle the gear, handle the fish or even drive a boat involved in dipnetting.
As opposed to rod and reel fishing where countless hours can be exhausted trying to land a single salmon, dipnetters commonly pull in two, three or even four fish at a time while attempting to scoop up to 25 salmon from the water, plus 10 more for each additional household member listed on their permit.
However, success in this fishery is not as easy as it may sound. There’s more to it than just knowing it takes place at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers each July, and that the Kenai has larger salmon.
Being informed about tides, weather, historical peaks, characteristics of the run, the schedule of simultaneously running fisheries and numerous other variables can all play into a dipnetter’s success or failure.
As such, Larry Marsh, an assistant area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Sport Fish Division, offered up some helpful hints from his own dipnetting doctrine:
Like any outdoor adventure, having the proper gear and wearing the right clothing is essential, and dipnetting is no exception to this rule, according to Marsh.
“If you’re going to be standing in cold water for four or five maybe even six hours at a time you want to wear something warm,” he said.
Marsh recommends starting out with a base layer of fleece next to the skin for insulation then donning neoprene chest waders and the 5 mm neoprene waders are warmer than the 3.5 mm waders, he said.
Marsh said he also likes to wear neoprene gloves because they help keep his hands warm and lend to a better grip for holding onto the dipnet and slippery salmon.
As to the dipnet itself, to be legal a net must not be larger than 5 feet at its widest point and must have a bag that is at least half the widest measurement of the opening.
However, the sky is the limit in regard to meeting these requirements. Frame styles can be square, round or oval. Some prefer small nets with handles 4 feet long and with a bag width of just 2 feet, while others opt for handles 20 feet long with the full 5-foot bag width.
“I believe people should use whatever size net they can manage safely. Those 5-foot nets can be awkward, especially when dipnetting from a boat. Also, if you get three or four in there at one time, it’s a handful,” Marsh said.
Every year a few unlucky anglers often with nets bigger than they are succumb to the strength of a sea-fresh salmon and get pulled into fast-flowing, deep water. This can result in a best-case scenario of cold water over the top of the waders, or a worst-case scenario of a dipnetter drowning.
To be safe, some dipnetters opt to wear life jackets and keep personal flotation devices readily available.
How to use a dipnet
Once the right net is picked out, the next thing to know is how to use it properly. A key component for success is holding the dipnet perpendicular to shore, according to Marsh.
“This presents the most surface area for the fish to run into,” he said.
Holding the net at a 90-degree angle to shore allows the bag to fully fan out and open up in the current. In contrast, holding the net at a 45-degree angle makes it more likely a salmon will skip off the net, rather than getting stuck in it, according to Marsh.
Holding the net perpendicular in fast-flowing waters is more difficult than it sounds, though, but Marsh said choosing a net with a T-shaped handle can make the process easier.
A sunset dipnetter waits patiently for a bump in his net on the Kasilof River last year.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
“It can reduce stress and strain on the arms and back,” he said.
Marsh said that holding the net to the bottom also reduces discomfort, and has an added bonus of creating a little eddy that can serve to channel salmon into the net, since they often opt for avenues of least resistance in order to conserve energy for their long migration upriver.
Holding the net out is only part of the equation for success, and a dipnetter must get a feel for salmon in the net since they cannot be seen in the glacially silty waters.
“Once you feel a bump or see a splash you’ve got to flip the net. You want to flip it quickly and you always want to flip in the same direction the fish is going,” Marsh said.
Flipping the net by rotating the handle 45 degrees ensures that a salmon that doesn’t get its gills stuck in the mesh cannot swim back out the opening of the net.
Where to fish
Understanding where to hold the net in relation to shore is equally as important as knowing how to hold it.
“It’s been my experience that when there’s just a few fish, they’re closer to shoreline in the calm water,” Marsh said.
Sockeye prefer the shallows near shore because the water velocity is less in this area, so the fish expend less energy than fighting the full force of the current in deeper water, Marsh said.
“But, on bigger runs with lots of fish coming in, they’re further out,” he said.
Marsh explained that this happens as a result of so many fish entering the river that they actually displace each other further from shore and into deeper water.
So how does a person know if they should hold their net in shallow or out deep? Marsh said there are no hard-and-fast rules.
“You’ve got to fish were the fish are. If they’re hitting your legs, back up. If they’re out deeper, go out further. Just exercise caution and don’t go out too deep, putting yourself in a dangerous situation. Fish aren’t worth jeopardizing your well-being,” he said.
When to fish
The final piece to the puzzle of dipnetting success is knowing when to be out trying, and Marsh said this boils down to one word: current.
“You don’t want to be out there on the slack tide, whether high or low. You really need an established current,” he said.
Marsh explained that this is hard for some people to understand because on slack tides fish will still be active, often even jumping out of the water. But without a current to get the salmon moving and water flowing through the dipnet to open it properly, fishing can be futile.
“You’d be better off eating a sandwich or drinking a soda than fishing the slack tide,” he said.
Instead, Marsh said the best time to wet a net is three to four hours into a flooding or falling tide.
“The current helps the fish get reoriented to the shoreline and, in my experience, this is generally a good time to fish.”
Marsh said that dipnetters shouldn’t worry too much about whether the commercial fisherman have their nets in the water.
“There are many misconceptions about commercial fishing crews affecting the dipnet fishery, but I’ve been out enough to know that when the fish are running hard, it doesn’t matter if they have their gear in or not. You’ll still catch fish,” he said.
A valid resident sportfishing license and personal-use permit is required to dipnet. The total harvest limit is 25 salmon and 10 flounder for the permit holder, and 10 salmon for each additional household member. All fish harvested should immediately have both tips of their tail fins clipped, and should be recorded, in ink, on the permit.
Dipnetting on the Kenai River doesn’t open until July 10, but the Kasilof River opens Sunday and remains open 24 hours a day until Aug. 7. Fish may be taken from the bank or by boat, but no retention of king salmon is allowed from the Kasilof dipnet fishery. On the Kenai, dipnetters may keep one king.
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