KENAI RIVER – Sockeye salmon swarmed the mouth of Alaska’s most popular stream on Wednesday.
Invisible beneath the surface of the muddy glacial water, they returned in such numbers a 10-year-old with a landing net could scoop them up and drag them ashore, and one did.
Wading into the 60-degree water in shorts and a t-shirt, he guided his net with its comparatively short 6-foot handle through the murky water and pulled out salmon after salmon.
Asked if he was cold, his answer was simple: “No, I’m not in the water that much.”
There was some truth to the statement. He was catching fish so fast and furious he was on the beach dispatching them and untangling them from the old-fashioned nylon net more than he was in the river.
All around him, adults with seemingly better equipment – dipnets with bigger hoops fitted with near-invisible monofilament nets attached to the ends of 10- to 30-foot poles – caught salmon one after another, too, but the kid seemed to be out fishing them all.
Then again, everyone was catching fish, even those with heavier, pricier Costco dipnets who were largely forced by the weight of their equipment to stand rigid in the current of the river waiting for a fish to stumble into the net and snag itself.
The kid was among the walkers who waded downstream waist-deep in the current to snare fish. There was a conga line of a couple dozen of them in the early afternoon that shrunk as the day wore on.
By 3 p.m., with many people out of the water and busy cleaning fish, there might have been only a dozen walkers and a lot of them by then appeared to be catching sockeye regularly two at a time.
An Alaska Department of Fish and Game salmon-counting sonar 19 miles upstream on the river would later record 53,362 salmon arriving on the day, though it captured only the vanguard of the return. It takes the bulk of fish 24 up to 72 hours to hit the sonar, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game studies.
Still, an observer didn’t need sophisticated technology to tell that the mouth of the river chock-a-block full of sockeye on this day. The evidence was in the swirls of fish just offshore, the silver shapes torpedoing out of the current only to rocket back into the water and, of course, in the salmon being dragged ashore by the dozen flopping in dipnets.
Not even a blind man could have missed it given the thrashing sounds of salmon in the nets on the rocky beach, the shouts of joy and banter of successful fishermen and, of course, the constant whap, whap, whap of fish billies striking the heads of salmon killed and tossed into growing piles of fish carcasses.
It was a big and pleasant change from 2018 when a faltering Kenai sockeye run left commercial fishermen on the beach and caused the state to close personal-use dipnet and sport fisheries for a time as well to ensure spawning needs were met.
Dipnetting is an indigenous, North American fishing technique that traces back hundreds, possibly thousands of years. It predates the arrival of the first Europeans on the continent and likely goes back much farther in time, but traditional dipnets with their wooden handles and hoops with baskets woven of roots or sinew are not the sort of objects that last long in the archeological record.
Dipnets were, however, observed and recorded in use as early as the 1600s in the Great Lakes region of North America. Archaeologist Charles Cleland describes a “unique and glamorous dip net fishery at the St. Marys River rapids at Sault Ste. Marie, (Mich.). Dablon, writing in 1669, describes the activity of these Ojibwa fishermen:
“‘It is at the foot of these rapids, and even amid these boiling waters that extensive fishing is carried on, from spring until winter, of a kind of fish found usually only in Lake Superior and Lake Huron. It is called in the native language Atticameg, and in ours ‘whitefish,’ because in truth it is very white; and it is most excellent, so that it furnishes food, almost by itself, to the greater part of all these peoples.
“Dexterity and strength are needed for this kind of fishing; for one must stand upright in a bark canoe, and there, among the whirlpools, with muscles tense, thrust deep into the water a rod, at the end of which is fastened a net made in the form of a pocket, into which the fish are made to enter.”
Similar fishing techniques would later be highlighted among the indigenous residents of the Pacific Northwest and finally of Alaska. The Dena’ina Athabascans sometimes dipnetted in Cook Inlet itself. They fished “from platforms of poles called ‘tanik’edi’ that were constructed over the inlet’s mud flats,” writes anthropologist James Fall with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Most Alaska dipnet fishing now takes places primarily in two rivers – the Kenai, about 60 miles south of Anchorage, and the Copper River near the Canadian border about 160 miles east of the state’s largest city. By regulation and permit, both fisheries are limited to Alaskan-residents only.
The style of the fishing gear hasn’t changed much since prehistoric days. The dipnet still consists of a long handle attached to a hoop with a net, but wood, root or sinew were long ago replaced by aluminum, nylon or monofilament.
Still, the fishery in some ways remains primitive.
For every Kenai dipnetter who came fully equipped on Wednesday with a billy for dispatching fish, there was another who grabbed the handiest rock on the beach with which to subdue his or her catch.
And though most dipnetters were outfitted in chest waders or drysuits to stay warm in the cold waters, there were others – like the kid at the start of this report – wading in without such protection – any discomfort apparently overpowered by the burning desire to catch fish.
And catch fish they did.
It was a good day to be on the beach, arguably better than the weekend when waves of salmon also stormed the river (76,650 passed the sonar on Sunday) only to be met by a mob of people.
On a busy weekend, the beaches on the north and south banks of the Kenai can overflow with people. But on Wednesday the sea gulls hanging around hoping to dine on salmon offal after dipnetters cleaned their far outnumbered the people.