‘We wait for this the entire fishing season’: Kenai opens to dipnetters

three people post for a photo on a beach, one of them in waders is holding a salmon
The McNeals say they look forward to the start of the dipnet season all summer. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

Dipnets are in the water at the beaches in Kenai. The personal use fishery opened Sunday and will run through the end of the month, providing a chance for Alaska residents to catch sockeye and fill their freezers from the mouth of the Kenai River.

It’s still early for the city-run fishery. Popularity usually peaks mid-July.

Diane Granfors, of Anchorage, said it’s the earliest she’s been down to the area in the decade she’s been dipnetting.

“I’m retired now, so I’m able to kind of go when I want,” she said Monday, as she detangled a sockeye from her dipnet. “And the tides were right.”

Around 1 p.m. at Kenai’s North Beach, she said the fish were hitting the net.

“It’s really calm. So that’s really nice, I’m not getting beat by the surf,” she said. “And we’ve just been steadily hitting fish since we got here.”

Diane Granfors detangles a fish from her dipnet at North Kenai Beach. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

Marlene and Kevin McNeal were further down the shore, standing behind a line of seven grandkids, ranging in age from 9 to 14, all with their nets in the water.

“We wait for this the entire fishing season,” Marlene McNeal said. “We decided to move down here because of the fishing.”

The McNeals have a home in Soldotna. Kevin McNeal said their grandkids love to come down to visit from the Valley.

“Everyone in our family has got fish. It’s always exciting for the little ones to catch fish,” he said.

They like to come down on weekdays, he added, when the beach is quieter. He remembered the fishery being a lot less popular when it first started in the 1990s.

“It was kind of an unknown thing,” he said. “Now, it’s been so well-advertised, everybody and their brother comes. But luckily there’s still a lot of good fish left.”

Growth in the Kenai dipnet fishery hasn’t been linear.

Colton Lipka with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said participation in any given year depends, in part, on how the sockeye run is doing. He said the number of dipnetters on the Kenai has decreased in the last few years, but it has increased on the Kasilof River, where there’s another dipnet fishery.

The department tracks how much the dipnet fishery is used, in part, by tallying the total number of days permitted Alaska households fish there. In 2021, households fished a total of 20,782 days, down from 32,818 days a decade earlier.

Still, the numbers have jumped significantly since the Kenai fishery’s inception. One symptom of that increased participation is an increase in trash along the dipnet beaches.

Stream Watch has booths at beaches in Kenai and Kasilof to educate dipnetters about reporting requirements and watershed stewardship.

The volunteer program also runs a weekly event called Trashercize during dipnet season. Volunteers pick up litter and trash at the north Kasilof beach between 5 and 7 p.m. every Tuesday.

Back on North Kenai Beach, Kevin and Marlene McNeal were thinking about what they’ll do with the fish they catch.

“We like to vacuum seal it, we make a lot of strips,” Marlene McNeal said. “I do pickled fish, I like salted fish. We use the caviar.”

They’ll also send some of the fish to Marlene’s mother, who lives in northwestern Alaska. They were fishing for her through the proxy program.

“We of course share with a lot of elders, as well as other family members that can’t make it down here,” Kevin McNeal said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”

A household permit in Upper Cook Inlet allows for a harvest of 25 fish per head of household and 10 additional fish for every additional household member.

Only Alaska residents are allowed to dipnet. Dipnetters must have sport fishing licenses and personal use permits for the Kenai and Kasilof river dipnet fisheries. The personal use fishery at China Poot does not require a permit.

Anglers must report their catch online by Aug. 15 and are required to clip the tail fins of any sockeye they catch. Dipnetters are also not allowed to keep king salmon this year, as is the case most years when king counts are low. That emergency order is triggered by restrictions in the sport fishery, where catching kings is also prohibited.

For more on dipnet regulations and a map of areas open to dipnetting, click here.

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