With thousands of sockeyes passing Bethel each day, dipnets are catching on

a sockeye salmon
Programs staff with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission use a dipnet to harvest sockeye salmon on the Kuskokwim River near Bethel on June 28, 2023. (Courtesy Terese Schomogyi/KRITFC)

Amid severely restricted fishing on the Kuskokwim River, one bright spot has been the abundant sockeye runs. The reds give subsistence users an opportunity to fill spaces on fish racks where chinook and chum salmon might otherwise be. Although gillnets are the name of the game on the Kuskokwim, a rise has been seen in the popularity of one alternative gear type: the dipnet.

On the June 29 edition of “Fish Talk” on KYUK, hosted by Sam Berlin, there was no shortage of excitement about the sudden arrival of thousands of red salmon on the Kuskokwim River and the much-discussed June 30 set net opportunity.

“Good luck to all the fishermen tomorrow, piurci [Yupik for ‘farewell’],” Berlin said.

Nick Smith, a Kuskokwim management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that as many as 30,000 red salmon had been passing the Bethel sonar each day.

“There’s fish jumping all over the place. So if you’re going to be putting out a set net tomorrow, it’s probably gonna have some sockeye in it,” Smith said.

“I see jumpers everywhere. I quit counting, there’s too many,” Avery Hoffman with the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission said.

Hoffman has been exploring the effectiveness of one gear type that can be used 24/7: the dipnet. Berlin wanted to know more.

“Let’s share a little bit about that. I’ve been hearing people dipping,” Berlin said.

“I put it in about maybe 10 feet in the water, about 5 feet deep, and I was catching lots,” Hoffman answered. “Sometimes there was two in my net and I had pulled straight in, threw ‘em out of the net, put it back in, and I got like eight reds in 11 minutes and I couldn’t stop fishing. It was so much fun.”

Dipnets are by no means a traditional fishing gear used along the section of the Kuskokwim River where Bethel lies, but recent years have seen a rise in their popularity as conservation has demanded severe restrictions on gillnet fishing. According to Hoffman, at least 16,000 sockeye have been harvested thus far on the river, with the handful of recent set and drift net opportunities contributing heavily to the count.

Right in the middle of the gillnet closure, Hoffman has been armed with dipnets, scouting eddies along the Kuskokwim to collect data on the time of day, temperature, and weather conditions when sockeye can be caught.

“But the thing about these dipnets, they are huge. This one is about 5 feet in diameter so it’s really, really heavy,” Hoffman said. “Yesterday, that was the first time I’ve tried it from the shoreline. And that does so much better. Less work, you kind of just stand there, you don’t need to waste gas, but you do have to fight some mosquitoes if there’s no wind.”

Hoffman encouraged residents to take advantage of dipnet rentals, now available through Orutsararmiut Native Council, the tribal organization for Bethel.

“I’m just here to keep pushing for dipnetting because yeah, it is unbelievably fun and efficient,” Hoffman said.

“You’re a young man, like you, yeah it should be fun. For a guy like me, that’s a lot of work,” Berlin replied.

“You’d have a blast. I’m telling you, all you have to do is put the net in the water and hold it. It kind of does itself,” Hoffman answered back.

“It’s easier than pulling a lead line,” Smith chimed in.

“Oh yeah,” Berlin said.

While fisheries managers have yet to announce additional gillnet opportunities on the Kuskokwim River following the June 30 set net opener, it appears that dipnets may be catching on.

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