FAIRBANKS — Dip netting season in the Copper River at Chitina doesn’t open until next weekend but charter operator Mark Hem, who has been hauling dip-netters up and down the river for 30 some years, is already cautioning salmon-crazed dip-netters not to get too excited.
Dip-netters shouldn’t let the lure of the season’s first, shiny, bright Copper River red salmon erase the memory of what’s happened the last two years, Hem said.
“I think a lot of people been burned the last couple of years,” he said by cell phone from Chitina on Wednesday. “They rushed down on opening weekend because everybody predicted it would be really good and there wasn’t a fish to be bought. People need to keep that in mind.”
But Hem’s words of caution are likely to fall on deaf ears given the fact that on Wednesday the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced so many fish are heading for Chitina dip-netters will be allowed to keep an extra 10 fish on the first two days of the fishery, next Saturday and Sunday.
Throw in the fact those may be the only two days that dip-netters will be allowed to keep the one king salmon they are allotted before ADFG prohibits retaining any kings because of concerns for a low run, and you have the makings of dip netting stampede.
“I expect it to be extremely packed,” Hem said. “My advice to people is if they can hold off and come down the following week it would be better for them.
“I’ve never seen an opening weekend that has been good for more than five or six hours,” he said. “That’s been my experience over the years.”
But the thought of fresh Copper River salmon on the barbecue may be too much for dip-netters to ignore, especially given the early nature of the run and the number of fish that have passed a sonar counter at Miles Lake, which is located 70 miles downstream of Chitina.
More than 200,000 — 213,955 to be exact — had already been counted through Wednesday, most of which have passed the sonar counter in the last week. It normally takes fish 10 to 14 days to reach Chitina from Miles Lake, but the water in the Copper River is extremely low and fish may be moving faster than normal, fisheries biologist Mark Somerville, who oversees management of the Chitina personal-use dip net fishery for ADFG in Glennallen, said. There have been reports of salmon being caught in subsistence fish wheels as far north of Chitina as Gakona, he said.
“They’re catching sockeyes in fish wheels all way up to Copper Center and Gakona,” Somerville said. “They’re beautiful, bright fish so they’re moving up the river pretty quickly.”
Unlike Hem, Somerville is optimistic that dip-netters will find fish in the river for opening weekend.
“There’s plenty of fish in the river and conditions seem to be conducive to dip netting, he said. “The river is really low right now, which should be good for fishing.”
As added incentive, the first two days of the dip net fishery have been declared a “supplemental” period by ADFG because the sonar count at Miles Lake for the week of May 19-25 exceeded the projected weekly count by almost 80,000 fish. The preseason projection for that week was 58,475 fish and the actual count was 137,786. Anytime the weekly count exceeds the projected count by 50,000 or more a supplemental period is declared two weeks later to coincide with their arrival in Chitina.
As of Thursday, it didn’t appear the week of June 9-15 would be declared a supplemental period but that decision won’t be made until early next week, Somerville said.
Hem said he and partner Sam McCallister, of Copper River Charters, will begin ferrying dip-netters to fishing holes on Friday morning so they can be on the river for the midnight opening. Fishing spots will be limited because of low water so dip-netters looking for an edge should bring hip boots or longer-handled poles (at least 12 feet), Hem said.
Dip-netters who want to go out late on Saturday afternoon and get picked up Monday morning can do so if they’re willing to camp on the rocks for two nights, Hem said.
While dip-netters will be allowed to keep one king salmon on June 7-8, there’s a good chance ADFG will prohibit the keeping of kings starting on June 9, because of concerns for a low run based on the commercial harvest thus far, Somerville said. The commercial harvest numbers for kings are some of the lowest on record and test fish wheels in Baird Canyon and the village of Eyak have not turned up many kings, he said.
Dip-netters and sport fishermen may get some “unpleasant” news next week in the form of emergency orders prohibiting the retention of king salmon in the dip net fishery and restrictions on sport fisheries like the Gulkana River, Somerville said.
“I’ll give it a week and we’ll see what happens,” he said.
THE SCOOP ON CHITINA
Hours: The Chitina Subdistrict of the Copper River personal use dip net fishery opens at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, June 7 through 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, June 8. It will re-open at 12:01 a.m. Monday, June 9 and remain open continuously through 11:59 p.m. June 16.
Extra fish: The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has declared the first two days of the dip net fishery a “supplemental period” and dip-netters will be allowed to keep an additional 10 fish during that period once they have filled their normal bag limit of 15 (individual) or 30 (household).
King salmon situation: Dip-netters will be allowed to keep one king salmon as part of their bag limit on June 7-8 but what will happen after that is up in the air. ADFG will make an announcement next week about any king salmon restrictions.
Miles Lake sonar: Through Wednesday, 213,955 salmon had been counted by a sonar at Miles Lake, 70 miles downstream of Chitina, since the first fish passed the sonar on May 12. That’s almost 100,000 more than was projected. For the week of May 19-25, there were 137,786 salmon counted past the sonar. To check out the latest sonar numbers go to: www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=commercialbyareacopperriver.salmon_escapement
Charters: Hem Charters and Copper River Charters will once again be teaming up to ferry dip-netters to fishing holes based out of O’Brien Creek. Cost is $110 with an extra $20 fee if you fish a supplemental period. No reservations; first-come, first-served. Open Monday through Saturday from 4:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. and closed on Sundays.
Hotline: To get the latest scoop on dip netting at Chitina, call Hem and Copper River charters hotline at (907) 823-2200 or go to www.chitinadipnetters.com/ and click on the “Hotline” link.