Chitina 2006
Tags: dipnet  

Well... 2006 marks my 10th summer and 7th year in Alaska. I've spent many of summer climbing, hiking, rafting and finally rediscovered the joys of fishing. However - until Monday I had never been dipnetting.

Dipnetting refers to the harvesting method where you stick a huge net into the water and scoop out fish. You can dipnet for reds, pinks and silvers. You are only allowed to dipnet one king per year. We went for reds - the harvest limit being 40 reds per household. There were 5 of us - Myself, Scott Hauser, Rachael Steer (Scott's sister-in-law), Zach Steer (Scott's brother in law) and Jack - who works for Zach at Zach's lodge.

So we loaded up - Scott, Rachael and I first driving to Sheep Mountain Lodge (about 2 1/2 hours form Anchorage) where we met Zach and Jack (Zach is the owner). Then we drove the additional 2 hours to Chitina which is on the West side of the Copper River.

In Chitna we dumped the trucks along a dirt road and transferred everything to 4-wheelers. In Alaska any true bush adventure always involves some sort of hairball transportation. In our case it was a 4-wheeler, an oversized trailer and a bunch of heavy coolers full of the essential dipnetting supplies (ice, jackets, snacks and beer).

Zach had no issue with driving the four wheeler over everything. At first I trusted him and casually rode along with him across everything he opted to rocket over. Then I noted that Rachel and Scott opted to walk anytime there was a hairball spot. They were genuinely concerned with Zach's driving so I took the hint and began to walk as well.

The Copper River is for the most part a huge braided glacier river. However about 5 miles south of Chitina it funnels into a canyon. This is where the fish congregate - pushing upriver just along the bank where the back eddies help them upstream. 2 weeks ago the fish count was 50,000 reds / day so we figured the time was ripe!

After driving downriver for about 5 miles we found a spot where we could hike down to the river. Sometimes you have to drop a rope and rappel. Luckily the two places we fished had easy access.

We began fishing around 8pm. Scott, Rachel and I tried one spot while Zach and Jack went further downriver. It was slow at first but we enjoyed a marvelous sunset at 10:30 pm.

At 11 our party only had 6 fish - (2 of which were Kings!) and Zach returned to tell us they had found an excellent spot so we opted to move downriver

Midnight found us at the honey hole! We were scooping out fish as fast as we could drop the net in. The fishing was so good we set up an assembly line: Zach and Scott would scoop, I would carry fish from the nets to Rachel. Rachel would gut and Jack would rinse fish, drop them in a backpack and haul them up the 300' bank to the 4-wheelers where our coolers were.

We continued the assembly line from midnight to 6am - rotating when one person or another grew tired of their task. However for the most part Jack hauled, Rachel cleaned... hard tasks that they excelled at. Rachel must have gutted 80 fish. Jack must have hiked the 300' steep bank 30 times - each time with 10 fish (40+ lbs) in his backpack!

At 6am Zach paused for a catnap. Somehow he managed to wedge himself into a spot where he wouldn't slide into the river. It don't know how he did this because everything I set down in this spot slid into the river.

Rachel continued to gut fish. This past winter Rachel retired from competing. She has been on the US Biathlon team and participated in 2 winter Olympic games. She is now thinking about a career in a fish processing plant.

In the following picture sequence Scott illustrates how to dipnet reds:

Step 1: Drop your net in the water. Scott opts to wear a life vest because he thinks it will save his life if he falls into the water. I don't know where he gets this idea. If you fall into the water you're dead. A life vest just means you'll die in 4 minutes instead of 2.

Step 2: Hold the net and wait until you feel bumps. Try to stay awake (Scott is going on 26 hours awake and 14 hours of fishing at this point).

Step 3:
When you feel a bump drag the dipnet out of the water. After a while dragging the dipnet out of the water becomes a near Herculean task.

Step 4: Pull the fish out to a safe spot; brain it with a rock to stun it; slit it's gills to bleed it, drop it on a stringer.

Step 5: Repeat!

At 9 am we stopped fishing. Well... in all honesty Zach cut Scott and I off. Scott and I lose all track of time when fishing and more than once Scott has called his wife, Becky, from the river complaining that I am the one responsible for keeping him out until well past dark. Zach warned us twice and then casually walked over and ripped the net of of Scott's hands. The trance was broken and Scott and I began to clean up.

We had 140 reds and 5 kings. Rachel continued to gut fish. She is a true professional.

We loaded up the 4 wheelers - well, 4 wheeler. Any true bush adventure also always features at least some sort of equipment malfunction. We had one 4 wheeler break down and we had to tow it back out. On the way out we stopped to admire the view of the Copper River framed by Mt. Sanford and Mt. Wrangel.

We then drove back to Sheep Mountain lodge where Zach's kids swarmed like a pack of hungry dogs around the fish. We had to beat them back with sticks.

We split up at Sheep Mountain; Zach and Jack taking 40 reds and 2 kings. Back in Anchorage we dropped off Rachel with 30 reds and 1 king.

We then returned to Scott's house where Yvonne joined us for the assembly cleaning line. Yvonne would scrub the fish and place it on the table; Scott and I would then fillet the fish, toss it in a cooler. We then rinsed everything multiple times.

At 10pm we cleaned the last of our fish. The Kings! Note Scott's expression. Scott and I are going on 40 hours with only 2 hours of sleep a piece.

And that's it. In the end I brought home a 100 gallon cooler full of fillets; 30 red and 1 whole king.

  •  4-Wheeler Adventure
  •  Copper River
  •  Haley Creek
  •  Copper River Canyon
  •  Hiking Down to Fish
  •  Rachel Dipnetting
  •  Rachel Dipnetting
  •  Our Catch
  •  Scott Waiting for Fish
  •  The honey hole
  •  6am Catnap
  •  Champion Fish Gutter
  •  Jack Hauling Fish
  •  Scott show how to dipnet reds: Step 1
  •  Scott show how to dipnet reds: Step 2
  •  Scott show how to dipnet reds: Step 3
  •  Scott show how to dipnet reds: Step 4
  •  Scott show how to dipnet reds: Step 5
  •  Cleaning up
  •  Champion Fish Gutter
  •  Copper River Canyon
  •  Copper River
  •  Copper River and Wrangel Mountains
  •  Copper River and Wrangel Mountains
  •  Hungry Kids
  •  Our Catch
  •  Hungry Kids
  •  Cleaning Assembly
  •  Cleaning Assembly
  •  Going on 40 hours with only 2 hours of sleep

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