With strong sockeye showing, Kasilof River opens to dipnetters

Kasilof River dipnetters
Gail Heineman and Grady Taylor, of Anchorage, braved rain and cold during some of the first days of the dipnet fishery at the Kasilof River. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

Covered head-to-toe in sand-splattered rain jackets and waders, Gail Heineman and Grady Taylor of Anchorage braved the unseasonably brisk June weather Tuesday morning to try their luck at their favorite dipnet spot — the mouth of the Kasilof River.

“We’ve been coming here for decades,” Heineman said.

Two days after the fishery opened, tents lined the shore at the river’s mouth, while families stood by four-wheelers and coolers full of fresh-caught sockeye salmon.

But aside from the squawking seagulls, the scene was a relatively quiet one for a dipnet fishery. Heineman says that’s partly what keeps her coming back.

“It’s not as crazy as the Kenai (River) gets, sometimes,” she said. “The conditions aren’t as challenging usually. So it’s just more laid back.”

The Kenai River remains the state’s most popular dipnet spot. But that location has seen a drop in popularity in recent years.

The Kasilof dipnet fishery, meanwhile, is on the rise. This season, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is expanding the boundaries of the dipnet site to give anglers more room during the fishery’s six-week opening, as the Kasilof River continues to see big sockeye runs.

In 2022, Fish and Game counted a record 971,604 sockeye at its sonar site in the river, far exceeding the upper end of the department’s escapement goal of 320,000 fish. (Fisheries biologists say those high numbers are partly due to a lack of harvest from east-side set-netters, who were closed down early last year and again this year.)

The trend of strong runs on the Kasilof seems poised to continue this year. Fish and Game has already clocked more than 73,000 sockeye in the river, which managers say is higher still at this point in the run than the last several strong runs.

And Alaska anglers are following the fish. Last year, personal use fishermen harvested almost 158,734 sockeye from the river, compared with 73,419 a decade before that.

Heineman and Taylor have been coming to the Kasilof since before there was an organized parking lot, and rows of port-a-potties and trash bins.

“You’d come down here and there’d be a dozen people at most,” Taylor said.

Heineman said dipnetters used to make their own nets.

Kasilof River dipnetters
First-time dipnetter Eva Franklin holds up a salmon she caught Tuesday at the mouth of the Kasilof River. (Sabine Poux/KDLL)

“You didn’t used to buy nets at Costco,” she said, gesturing to their own Costco-brand net.

Heineman said she suspects the dipnet fishery will be more popular this year as the personal-use set-net fishery on the Kasilof is closed, due to low king salmon counts on the Kenai River. They said the fishing has been good, so far — this week, the couple fished just two tides and already caught their limit.

Eva Franklin, of Eagle River, was brimming with excitement after catching her third fish Tuesday and untangling it from the net. She spent the night camping at the beach with her family, who said they picked the spot because it’s more family friendly than the Kenai.

“Even though we wait a lot, catching the fish is the fun part,” Franklin said.

It was the young angler’s first time dipnetting. She said she’s already hooked.

“I’m going to fish my whole life,” she said. “It’ll be super fun.”

The Kasilof dipnet season opened Sunday and goes through Aug. 7. Fish and Game extended the boundaries of the site from the markers on Cook Inlet beaches up to the Sterling Highway Bridge on the Kasilof River; boats can dipnet up to river mile 3.

The Kenai dipnet fishery, meanwhile, opens July 10.

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