By Jenny Neyman
As sockeye salmon return to the Kenai River in July, so, too, do crowds of dip-netters seeking to catch their share. But while the people show up overnight, the fishery doesn’t come together that fast. Prep work begins before the first late-run fish hit the fresh water.
Come the 6 a.m. July 10 opening of the Alaska resident dip-net fishery on the Kenai, the place was humming with hundreds of boats, vehicles and people, seeking their share of the tens of thousands of sockeye salmon that pass through the sandy, silty, windy transition of Cook Inlet and the river each day.
“On our busiest day we’ll see up to 15,000 — that’s in boats and on the north beach and south beach,” said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch. “You think, ‘Gosh, that’s just an incredible number,’ but you think of 600 boats out there during the course of the day, you put four people in a boat, that’s 2,400 people already.”
Kenai has the dubious honor of managing the most popular location of the state’s personal-use dip-net fishery.
“Things have become significantly more routine as it relates to keeping beaches clean, making sure we have enough portable toilets, Dumpsters, parking spaces are well defined, trying to moving people through — those things over the last five to six years we’ve got handle on, being event people. It’s sort of like Wrigley Field and 40,000 of you and your closest friends show up for a few hours. We’ve become event coordinators, and I think our personnel have done a very good job at undertaking those responsibilities, but every year there’s always something new,” Koch said.
Work began far in advance of the Friday opening. On Thursday, the beaches were busy with city workers doing last-minute preparations.
“Restroom cleaning, putting up fence to keep people off the dunes, picking up trash, cleaning up, whatever needs doing,” said Larry Hull, with the Kenai Parks and Rec Department.
Hull’s job will be consumed by the fishery for the next month, as will many of the city workers, including the 25 to 30 additional personnel the city hires on just for July.
“Every year they put the money from the fishery back into the account that we draw on to build new booths and supply trash cans and rake the beach,” Hull said. “That’s my normal job — I’ll be raking the beach overnight to get all the fish heads and carcasses back down below the tide line so the water will take them out. We’re going to do that every night throughout the fishery. And it takes a couple days after the end to finally clean up everything, pick up everything that’s left behind and get back to normal.”
Vendors were setting up at the beaches, too, on Thursday. Tiffany Burke was preparing her Hooked on the Bean espresso trailer at the north beach with the help of her 9-year-old daughter, Trista. This is Burke’s second year at the fishery.
“It was good. It’s a madhouse down here. There is no parking whatsoever. If you leave and someone isn’t standing in your spot you will not come back to your spot,” she said.
To sell food or drink at the beach requires a permit from the city and from the Department of Environmental Conservation. And vendors pay the same daily parking and overnight camping fees as everyone else. Still, for Burke, the “madhouse” can be crazy successful as well as crazy fun.
“They’re happy, they’re very gracious and really nice. Everybody’s been wonderful last year that we had, showing us their catch, sharing with us what they catch and don’t catch,” she said. “(And we sell) lots of espresso to stay awake, that’s for sure — extra shots, lots of sugar. We stay pretty busy.”
The city, meanwhile, is busy implementing a few changes this year. The fee to park a vehicle and launch a boat is going up $10, to $35.
That’s in part a way to recover the $25,000 it cost last year for the city to establish a mile-long no-wake zone along the south bank of the river in the VIP area.
“There was certainly a safety component of it but it was more the environmental protection of that river bank,” Koch said. “During a high tide there were people that were losing 2 to 3 feet of the bank and even the grass in their yard when those boats would blow by when the tides were above 19.5. It was awful.”
There are two fee shacks with two entrance lanes at the north and south beaches this year. And the fee shacks on South Spruce Street at the north beach entrance have been moved up the road to the top of the hill to eliminate traffic slowdowns in the parking lot.
To call them shacks, though, is a little misleading. Yes, they are shack-shaped, but they’re equipped with Wi-Fi and all sorts of technology. There are cameras, so drivers don’t have to jump out to look at their license plate number. All permit information is stored, so a return dip-netter will just have to have a previous fee stub barcode scanned to have their name and address retrieved, and so permit holders can come and go to any access point without having to repay or re-enter their information for the duration of their permit.
“We’re doing things that maximize the electronic effort in getting people moved through as quickly as possible,” Koch said.
There were already some dip-netters at the beach Thursday, setting up camps, preparing their gear and scoping out locations.
Jamie and Crystal Stone, of Anchorage, drove down with five kids ages 2 to 13 for their first experience dip-netting. They just moved to the state last year from Oklahoma.
“Someone at work told me about it,” Jamie Stone said. “They just said, ‘Welcome to combat fishing.’ They said, ‘Give it a shot.’ I said, ‘OK, we’ll take all the kids and give them a net and say, ‘Have at it.’”
The Stones are more hoping to net an experience, rather than an RV full of fish. Jamie admits he isn’t even real sure how to fillet a salmon.
“It’d be nice to catch a lot but the more you catch, the more you have to clean. A couple would be great to have the experience,” he said, as the kids and family pet played along the waterline. “We’ll take it as it comes. There’s water, a beach, a dog, rocks — you can’t go wrong. Even if there’s no fish, it’s going to be fine.”
The Stones might not have much experience, but they do have the element Koch thinks is most important for anyone attending the dip-net fishery in Kenai.
“There’s one key ingredient to provide for people’s safety, provide for their enjoyment, provide for the enjoyment of others around them — it’s patience,” Koch said. “Bring a healthy dose of patience along with you. If, by chance, you’re coming from Anchorage, that patience needed to kick in probably about Carrs Huffman.”
The city has a brochure with a wealth of information about the dip-net fishery available for download on its website.