Copper River Dipnetting Adventure
by Cecil Sanders of Last Frontier Magazine
With muscle aches finally receding, a freezer full of sockeye salmon, and cabinets brimming with canned smoked salmon, our 2017 Copper River dipnetting adventure has come to a successful end. Let this short snippet give you some insight if you are interested in experiencing a Copper River dipnetting trip, but are unsure of where to begin. The Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game regulations and ‘how-to’ videos are also a good and necessary resource of information on how to get started. The second link below is the Chitina Dipnet Hotline. This link is our most crucial planning reference. Planning for a successful trip is not, “Let’s go in 5 weeks to the Copper.” It is more often, “The water is down a bit, we need to leave tomorrow night.” So the hotline is really a newsticker that should be followed very closely.
RESOURCES: Alaska Department of Fish and Game - http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=personalUsebyAreaInteriorChitina.main Chitina Dipnet Hotline - https://www.chitinadipnetters.com/hotline
A few days in advance, after checking the hotline, we planned to leave Thursday, August 3rd, at 9 am. On our drive to Chitina from Wasilla we checked the hotline one last time and saw that the conditions weren’t exceptional, but still good enough to produce the results we hoped for. Note: There are multiple ways to access good fishing spots on the river, but we use Hem Charters as they will drop you off at proven fishing spots. Their cost is $110 per person. The money is worth it. They use river boats with experienced guides that give you confidence with the swirling silty waters. I wouldn’t recommend taking your own boat without a lot of experience on the river, especially down in the canyon. High water brings a myriad of obstacles with much debris and strong currents.
When driving down to O’Brien Creek in Chitina, you’ll come to a large parking area. On the far left hand side of the parking area is the spot to line up for the charter. Two lines separate the day charters and overnight charters. We always take the overnight charter. It’s a first come, first serve type of line. You will, very literally, miss the boat if you aren’t in line and ready to go. With dip nets, sleeping bags, hip waders, bear spray and the rest of our gear loaded on the boat, we were motored down past the canyon to a beach on the lower limit of the Copper River. Along the way we saw many folks tied off to rocks, perilously hanging from spots that with one small mistake, they’d be in the river and possibly never seen again. The Copper River is unforgiving, and very dangerous. For that reason, we choose to dipnet from a beach, camp overnight and, as a result, put in a lot of work for our fish. On the rocks the method is to place your dipnet into the murky water at an eddy (a circular movement of water, counter to a main current, causing a small whirlpool). The salmon often congregate in these holes to take a break, or to make their journey up river just a little bit easier.
[caption id="attachment_10679" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Fishing eddys off the bank along the Copper River[/caption] At the beach we had to use a different method called sweeping. With our long and heavy dipnet we plunge it into the water upstream, sweep downstream with the current so the net stays open, and hope a sockeye heading upstream finds its way into our opened sweeping nets. If you don’t feel that satisfying jolt of a fish in the net, then you have to pull it in, lift the net up and repeat. If the sockeye run is a bit slow, you will repeat the sweeping motion hundreds of times over the course of a late night and early morning. Copper River dipnetting changes from year to year, and even day to day. With the water level rising and lowering, conditions change. Eddys lose and gain strength and sweeping can be a challenge that requires you to alter how far out your net is in the water. As we swept the beach, multiple small boats full of dipnetters drifted and swept a channel 15 yards off shore. Hem Charters previously told us it was likely they would be there, and because of that, fishing from the shore would be slow. They drifted down, and motored up river time and again. It caused the fish to swim past and not rest in the area we were sweeping.
[caption id="attachment_10680" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] "Sweeping" - Copper River Dipnetting[/caption] After the boats left, fishing picked up some. As the evening light dwindled, we put up our tents and rested our tired cold bodies for 3-4 hours. It was just enough rest to continue on for the long day ahead. At 5 AM, we were back up and continued sweeping. Oatmeal, energy bars and the hope for a few more fish motivated us to continue the taxing motion. Note: When sweeping, use the frame of your net to look for a dropoff or shelf below the surface. Some fish swim in shallow water, but more often they’ll be in a deeper hole. The majority of the fish we caught was in water about 6 feet deep. However, be careful when walking into deeper water, because sometime the dropoffs can be very sharp and close to shore. By 10 am our charter returned to pick us up and motored the three of us, fish and gear back up river to O’Brien Creek and dropped us off where we would begin filleting at their cleaning station. After filleting our sixty-one sockeye, placing them in plastic bags on ice in coolers, we loaded up and started the long journey home. This section of the trips tends to be the hardest. Driving five hours with bleary eyes and aching muscles makes the misfortune of falling asleep behind the wheel a dangerous possibility.
[caption id="attachment_10681" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Charter boat running up the river after our annual Copper River dipnetting adventure[/caption] Copper River dipnetting is simply an arduous adventure. It’s for some people but I wouldn’t recommend it for others. The Copper is a dangerous river and has proved to be fatal many times over. Recently, I heard a story about a dog that fell into the current. A nearby dipnetter attempted to net the dog. That caused the man to be drug into the current, and he drowned. The dog hopped back up on the bank safely down river a bit. There is little to no room for error and it’s best to be with an experienced person who has fished there before if possible.
If you've caught some salmon of your own, try this easy grilled salmon recipe!
Thanks for the compliment!
The river was high, and fishing was slow. We were happy with our 61. Between the three of us, we averaged 1 salmon per person, per hour. That’s slowest fishing I’ve done there on the Copper. 27 in 5.5 hours isn’t bad at all.
Next year we are going to aim for June. I noticed a huge increase of worms in the belly meat. Heard that in the June run, worms aren’t much of an issue.
Lisa, the new permit fee is for installing pit toilets, which were badly needed, and to improve the river trail. You can read up more on that via the Chitina Dipnetters’ website. They were instrumental in getting this done as a VERY MUCH needed service since the big landslide a few years ago. Check it out. That is what those funds are earmarked for; not for enforcement.
Call it omitted if you want, but the article wasn’t intended to address all regulations as much as it was intended to talk about an experience/introduction to dipnetting. Really not sure what implications you are making against The Alaska Life, but we would never promote the illegal harvesting of OUR states natural resources.
Silt bottoms off of a beach have been really stable, until you get near a shelf, at which point you can easily reverse course. But that’s why I do as you mentioned, and use the net as a guide so as not to get too close.
I didn’t see the ADN article, but thank you!
We do our best to share personal experiences about Alaska, as opposed to writing about things we only read about.
It was omitted in the article. I doubt many folks would bother to go to AKFG’s site; their stuff DOES have good info. However, I’m also seeing an increasing amount of out-of-staters who have blatant disregard to the regs and info being posted out in social media, to include The AKLife.
Personally, I don’t trust the silt bottoms at ALL on that river; have yet to be on anything solid and got right off of it, even with sounding ahead. Article is better than that nonsense article written on ADN about a month ago.
Yep! That was us. The shirtless guys were nice and also somewhat apologetic, recognizing that they were making it difficult for us. Last count I heard from them, they were at 135 drifting. Must have been proxy fishing, along with a household of kids each. We caught 2 fish the 3 hours they were there, and 59 after they left.
How’d you guys do on the other side?
27 between 7pm and 11pm, then 5 between 5 and 6:30. Not bad not great. We were hoping for 40 total between the 2 of us/2 permits.
Great article by the way.
Cecil, sounds like we were right across from you on the rocks, we wondered if the shirtless crew impacted the guys on the beach.
It is not Hem’s job to check permits. They are a water taxi, not a charter out of Seward taking you Halibutt fishing. That being said, they make sure to remind everyone to have tags filled out by the time you hit O’Brein Creek. F&G does have a presence there. You just never know when they are going to show up.
You are correct, they are basically just a water taxi. We’ve seen F&G around a time or two, always at the cleaning stations.
Margie, if you refer to the second paragraph you will see it says “The Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game regulations and ‘how-to’ videos are also a good and necessary resource of information on how to get started.” So, it was not omitted.
I have stood on the silt bottom of the river countless times, and it is much safer than being on the rocks. It has never washed out from underneath me nor remotely felt unsafe.
Hopefully you enjoyed the article?
Yes, sweeping is very tough! Hem Charters checked made sure our permits were filled out. Troopers may need to keep a closer eye on relatives helping process fish there and the Kenai. Last I heard the Troopers were spread thin.
Sweeping for the fish is very energy sapping so you have to decide how fit you are before you choose that over finding the eddys. We also use the charter Service and notice that no one ever checks for licenses or dipnet permits. And I have heard people openly talk about out of state relatives joining them when dipnetting. Since chitina permits now cost money , there needs to be F & G oversight up there.
What is TOTALLY omitted here is this is a RESIDENT-ONLY fishery. No tourists/visitors. And yes, we do know there are liars out there who shamelessly abuse this personal use fishery. It is also illegal to sell your catch.
I’m not seeing any life jackets here either. WEAR ONE. If you want your body to be recovered if you’re careless. Some boulders have smaller shale rocks beneath them, and can fall away. Use your net to sound out in front of you if you are wading in. If it’s got a silt bottom, stay out of it, or the river will wash it out from under you. Tie off when you are on rotten bank or precarious spots.