Woodstock in the Arctic

Vehicles are parked everywhere that is legal and within trudging distance to the Promised Land, which in this case is the mouth of the Kenai River. Every year it seems the spectacle of hopeful fishers descending on Kenai’s finest beach front property—dipnets and coolers in tow—becomes larger. Sockeye salmon are the prize and they rarely disappoint.

Taking a moment on an early July morning from the high bluffs overlooking the river mouth, the 6 a.m. start time had the beach alive with activity. A lone dipnetter was in the current, up to his neck, as an outgoing commercial drift boat created a wake that seemed destined to submerge this fellow. But he expertly negotiated the big swell and shortly came up with a clearly unhappy salmon struggling for freedom. Children scurried here and there tending to morning stuff while their parents donned chest waders and braced for the coming day.

What doesn’t seem so long ago, but I guess the 80s are 30 years behind us, we fished these same beaches with weighted snagging hooks. Great snagging it was for a couple of years. There were few enough people you could ply the snagging trade without driving a 6/0 treble hook through someone’s skull. Like it is now, there was bit of a frantic and festive atmosphere and we all had a great time fighting those fresh from the sea, tail-hooked sockeyes. But word got out and before too many years passed it was clear the sheer numbers of people that began to participate spelled disaster in the name of fishhook-induced injuries. Thus dipnetting replaced snagging and the rest is history, I suppose.

Having worked on setnet sites and drift boats and having enjoyed it very much, you would think dipnetting would have been a natural thing for me to do. But I just could never wrap myself around “dipping” for personal use. Guess I figured a fellow should be able to catch them on a rod and reel. Turns out, I am not very good at the new snagging, or “flossing,” as the more appropriate term is used, and so I tend to fill the freezer with silvers instead of sockeye. Just can’t wrap myself around fly fishing for a fish that doesn’t strike. Unless one goes when they are bright red with green heads, as then they seem to be very angry with everything and thus are willing to strike all sorts of weird lures, flies, whatever you have. But they probably should be left alone at that point anyway.

I remember this area as a kid, driving through town everyday and seeing the same thing over and over, and then one day, the carnival just appears. I never much card for carnivals and that’s what the opening of dipnetting always reminds me of. It seems over the years I harbored some ill will towards the dipnetters. They interrupted the flow of things in my world; they crowded the beach, the streets, the stores, every vehicle on the road seems to have a dipnet draped around it somewhere.

This year looking over the bluff, watching the folks working hard to get their winter fish supply, for reasons I cannot explain, I thought, what a terrific opportunity for Alaska residents to be outdoors, camp, catch a mess of fish, teach their kids about the ways of using the natural resources we have available and suddenly all the animosity seemed to vanish. For a few weeks of minor inconvenience, and a hell of a lot of money for our local economy, I say have at it…but no, I won’t be packing a dipnet to the beach, still can’t quite come to those terms.