A Guide to Dipnetting Sockeye on the Kenai River
by Jeremy Pennington
Each year salmon navigate back to the rivers that they were born in to swim upstream and spawn. The Kenai River is famous for large runs of sockeye (red) salmon. They swim up in such large numbers that Alaskan residents can legally harvest them via dip net with a personal use fishery permit.
There are certain regulations and areas that residents are allowed to dip net so review the regulations before heading out (Alaska Fish & Game Website). Remember to grab your permit before heading out so you’ll be able to record your daily catch.
Dip nets come in all shapes and sizes, but all nets can’t exceed 5 feet at their widest point. The net or bag on any hoop must be at least one half the length of the widest part of the hoop. So a net that has a 5-foot hoop must have a bag of at least 2-1/2 ft deep. No portion of the webbing can have a stretched measurement that exceeds 4.5 inches. Once the fish is caught you must mark the fish by cutting the tips of the tail fin off—it is very important to do so immediately. This regulation is meant to prevent any commercial use of fish caught with a personal use fishery permit, because ADF&G states, “It is unlawful to buy, sell, trade or barter personal use fish or their parts.” The head of household is allowed 25 salmon each year and 10 additional salmon per additional household member under their dip-netting permit.
According to the ADF&G site: “New for 2017 — Only one (1) king salmon 20 inches or greater in length, and no more than 10 king salmon under 20 inches in length may be retained per household from the Kenai River dip net fishery.”
Mikes Welding and Fabrication in Kenai makes a superior net. They come in multiple hoop sizes and lengths and whether you are a bank or boat dip netter, he has the net to suite your needs. His special design allows for less drag in the water making it less strenuous on your arms.
There are two ways to dip net, walking the bank or trolling in a boat. Many people put their chest waders on and walk the banks up to their armpits in the water dragging their nets. Other people choose to troll the banks in a boat hanging a net in the water. Whether walking or boating you slowly move downstream as the fish are swimming upstream. There’s no mistaking when a fish hits your net as the net starts dancing all over the place, especially when multiple fish hit at the same time.
A Record Year
Several years ago, my wife Kara and I were allowed 35 salmon under our dip-netting permit. I was with 3 other families and we had a total limit of 145 fish. I loaded up the truck Friday morning before work with high anticipation. When the workday ended, I hit a crowded highway to Kenai along with many others hoping to catch their limit.
The other families I was joining were already at the campsite and had the zodiac in the water. I quickly set up my tent and we hit the water for a quick few runs before sunset. We came back with 3 salmon after a few passes along the bank. Salmon were there, but not in the large runs we were hoping for.
We woke up Saturday morning as the sun was rising and the Kenai River was boiling with salmon. We ate a quick breakfast and motored out to the fishing spot. Fish were being caught all around us as we dropped our nets in. It didn’t take long before our nets were filled with salmon on each attempt. We filled the bottom of the zodiac with sockeye and decided to go in for a break.
We cleaned the fish, ate some lunch, and headed back out. The instant we dropped our nets in the Kenai River they would fill with salmon, sometimes up to 4 or 5. It was by far the most fish I had ever seen congregated in one place. Salmon were jumping everywhere. We did three separate trips, filling the zodiac full of salmon each time. Our third trip was at the peak of the run and we caught the last few salmon needed to fill our permits.
That day happened to be the all-time record setting day for the number of salmon running upstream. In order to ensure a healthy population of salmon for the future, ADF&G count the fish swimming upstream using sonar. 230,643 salmon swam upstream that day.
By knowing how many salmon are coming into the rivers, ADF&G will change the regulations on how many fish may be caught and when to close the season entirely. In less than a day we caught our limit of 145 salmon. Not many people were expecting this many fish so fast. In Kenai ice was hard to come by as there were hundreds of other fisherman having the same luck we were and buying it as fast as it could be produced. In order to ensure our fresh catch would not spoil, we drove through the night back to Palmer to get our fish in the freezer. Filling the freezer in one day with months of tasty meals was an experience I’ll never forget.
Check out this recipe for “Alaskan Smoked Salmon Dip.”