Along the shore at the mouth of the Kenai River, fishers stand chest deep in the water trying to catch sockeye salmon in their nets. Seagulls flock to the beaches strewn with roe and fish heads, fighting over the waste in a salty smorgasbord. Those who do get a hit in the net, drag it onshore to bop the fish on the head, and perhaps fillet it right there and harvest the meat.
For the latter part of July, a nylon and canvas shantytown pops up on the beach, its citizens sitting on coolers, waiting at fish tables and wading into the surf.
It's dipnet season on the Kenai. And the fish are coming in.
On Monday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's sonar counted 82,819 fish. As of Tuesday, 466,817 fish swam upstream past the sonar located some 19 miles from the river mouth.
"It's a great scene," said Penny Cordes, of Anchorage, Wednesday afternoon, surveying the tidelands.
Wednesday's break in the cloudy weather offered personal-use fishers another reason to get down on the beach -- a little bit of sunshine.
"Today has been really slow but the weather has been gorgeous," Cordes said.
She said her husband caught five salmon Tuesday and two as of Wednesday afternoon.
"If we get 15 we'll be happy," she said.
That seems to be the attitude of most Alaskans down at the beach who have the opportunity to participate in the fishery. The personal-use dipnet fishery is only open to Alaskan residents.
Some, like Susan Edge of Palmer, just want to get meat for dinners.
"This is the best protein in the world," Edge said, holding up her freshly netted sockeye by the gills. "I'm a lifelong Alaskan and I eat salmon a couple times a week and I hate to pay for it."
She said the early morning tide Wednesday brought her a good wave of salmon but by the afternoon she was working for them.
Others were having little to no luck Wednesday but did not seem to mind.
Mark Hill of Anchorage was relaxing on a camping chair with his wife, Cindy, unfazed by the lack of fish in his cooler.
"Last year we did a lot better but it's a roll of the dice," he said.
Charles Pilch of Anchorage was cleaning his net so it didn't drag in the current.
"People on both sides of me caught fish," he said, shaking his head.
And all he caught was a flounder.
"It's all the same. You can't miss them when the fish are here," said Lonnie Andersen of Nikiski.
He caught about a third of his limit on Sunday when he went down to the beach after most of the out-of-town dipnetters went home.
"We try to get what we can," he said.
Rick Koch, Kenai city manager, said the dipnet fishery is a break-even situation at best, bringing money into the city for the cost of tourists overrunning the neighborhoods.
For the dipnet fishery last year, "the total revenue was $250,000 and at the end of the day we spent $230,000," Koch said.
"It's a lot of money but it flows in and flows out," he said.
Koch said the fees to camp and park near the beach are to cover the costs of the beach usage.
"They pay for themselves so citizens of Kenai aren't paying for their outhouses," he said.
Over the weekend, dipnetters were having a wet and wild time on the beach catching salmon in the double-digits, trying to stay warm, chomping on hot dogs from the Baptist churches and hobnobbing with fellow fishermen.
"The worse the weather the more fun it is," said Doug Ohms of Anchorage on Saturday while he mended his net under cloudy skies.
He said it can be challenging to find a good spot to dip amongst the weekend crowds.
"There's a lot of people and a lot of nets," he said.
But that doesn't seem to bother him so much when he sees people he knows and gets to know others.
"It's a nice place to meet other Alaskans," he said.
"I don't mind the crowds here like I would regular fishing," said Laurel O'Brien of Anchorage, while clipping the tail lobes of her sockeye. "It's easier to be close to people with a dipnet."
Most Alaskans want to be left alone, away from the throngs of people. That's why they might have stayed in the biggest state with the lowest population density or came up here in the first place.
"I couldn't go do that Russian River combat fishing kind of thing," said Erik Veker of Anchorage cleaning his sixth fish of the day Saturday. "It's nice to come out every year and get fish for the winter."
And that's one of the best reasons for anglers to squat on the beach with their fish buckets and XtraTuf boots in sometimes less-than-ideal weather conditions.
"I love these reds," said Tony Ray of North Pole. "They're just so dang delicious."
Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at email@example.com.
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