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“Please don’t let me get a king, Please don’t let me get a king…”
That was the silent mantra echoing through my head each time I forced the dip net into the deep swirling hole on the Copper River. I knew if a 30-pound king (Chinook salmon) hit my net, chances were good I was on the losing side of the pole. Although my dip net partner and fellow Fish ‘n Gamer, Kelly Mansfield and I were tied off to a gnarled tree jutting from the canyon’s near-vertical wall, I could imagine the twisted roots pulling loose from the crumbling rock. Would today be the day for that tree to begin its journey to the Gulf of Alaska? We were dutifully wearing the bulkiest of life vests that would give us a fighting chance if either a king hit our nets or the tree tumbled down.
Using dip nets to harvest fish in Alaska is reserved for fisheries that are termed “personal use” (some subsistence fisheries in the state also allow dip nets as legal gear). Personal use fisheries are not sport fisheries; they are a means for Alaska residents (sorry no non-residents allowed) to potentially harvest a good number of fish to help feed their families. When an Alaskan says, “I’m going to Chitina,” every Alaskan within earshot knows that this person is not going to the village of Chitina to sightsee or visit friends. They are going to the Chitina Subdistrict on the Copper River to participate in the personal use dip net fishery and attempt to harvest 15 or 30 salmon (15 for a household of one, 30 for a household of two or more).
I look forward each year to Chitina. Dipnetting sockeye (red) salmon from the river has totally ruined me for rod and reel salmon fishing. These fish are so new to freshwater they still carry sea lice. I like the feel of the jiggling net when a salmon hits and I appreciate the ability to take 30 fish for my household. I have the opportunity to fill my freezer with fresh-frozen and smoked salmon that will remind my husband and I during the cold, dark, winter months why we live in Alaska and are not soaking in the sun in some warmer climate.
I wouldn’t say it is fun to go dip netting, but it is adventurous and makes you feel strong and connected. There is something about being balanced precariously on a rock using the meager muscles I have while trying to hold the dip net against the raging, rushing, murky waters of the Copper River. Kelly, who is young, lithe and strong after a summer of clearing trees and house-building, proved more fit. Lack of upper body strength is what makes me open my wallet and take the drop-off charter boat service down into the canyon, where the Copper River is squeezed into a narrower space, as are the fish. Dipping is usually more successful in the canyon. Folks with large biceps and toned back and shoulder muscles can save a little money by wading out into the Copper River upstream of the canyon and “sweep.” This muscle busting maneuver requires dipping the net into the water upstream and pulling or sweeping the net a bit faster than the current to keep the bag of the net open so any salmon in line with the sweep will be caught up in the net. I tried this method only once… I couldn’t even pick the net up out of the water after the sweep.
Chitina excursions are usually wrought with difficulties and strange occurrences. Tires will actually wait to go flat until a Chitina trip. In the haste of getting ready, dipnets have been known to hide in the corner of the garage, allowing dipnetters to drive so far down the road it is more economical to buy a new one in Delta Junction than go back to Fairbanks. Sometimes you can spend two days dipping and return home with only a handful of fish, or worse, none. My husband, Joe, who is usually a relatively sane man, was once temporarily driven mad by a horde of biting mosquitoes. He went into a rage and hacked the mesh of our trusty dip net in an effort to untangle a snarled red salmon. I wasn’t there to witness the event, but after that, friends who may in certain situations get unreasonably angry were forever referred to as “going Chitina” or having “a Chitina moment.”
My most memorable experience at Chitina happened last season when things should have been smooth sailing. The tree I was tied to held fast allowing me to dip another day. I did not lose my footing on the steep bank and fall into the river and get sucked into one of the many pockets of swirling water, whirlpools that have so much power the centers are pulled three feet below the actual water level. None of the huge boulders uphill from our dipping spot came loose and struck me dead. No, my most memorable Chitina moment came when I decided that I worked too hard for my fish to trust the filleting to an inadequate filleter, i.e….me. So I walked over to the handy fillet shack, conveniently located at O’Brien Creek, to inquire about engaging the services of a professional for a nominal fee. As I approached the shack and got the attention of the young man of about 13 years, who was sitting therein, I began to ask, “How do I....” Keeeerak! I got biffed across the cheekbone and forehead with the handle of a rake, of all things. It stopped me in mid-sentence, and I saw sparks; real Wiley Coyote-type sparks, stars, and flashing dots. I think I actually heard a bird tweeting. The kid instantly began to apologize profusely, but I stopped him in mid-sentence and said, “Son. That is no way to lean a rake.” I knew then, that I was becoming an old lady….I actually said “son.” Then I proceeded to give him the lesson my dad gave to me so long ago. “Face the points away from you, toward whatever it is you’re leaning the rake against.”
Last year’s dipnetting experience went pretty well. Kelly and I were dipping during a supplemental period (when you are permitted to take an additional 10 sockeye salmon due to a large surplus of salmon inriver during a specific week). Though the river was running quite high (an indication that dipping may not be good), we were still excited to think that we could each come home with forty fish. After being out on the rock for six hours we almost had thirty apiece. My legs were beginning to get wobbly from scrambling over rocks and stooping to hold the dipnet in place. My arm muscles were straining to hold the net down in the hole that had been so productive. I was beginning to focus far too intently on the groove in the rock where I jammed the pole of my net. Different colors of paint decorated the well worn groove, evidence that hundreds of dip netters before me also braced their poles upon that same rock.
Kelly peered around the giant boulder that separated our two dipping spots. “How bad do you want those supplementals?” she asked. Though jumping for joy inside, I casually replied, “I could probably do without them, if you could.” “Good.” She said. “I’m kind of tired.” “Hmmm,” I thought, “Maybe I’m not so old after all.
For more information on dip netting in the Copper River, visit the following web site:
Nancy Sisinyak is an information officer with the Division of Sport fish and is based in Fairbanks.
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