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.
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.
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.
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.
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!