Dipnetters on the north shore of the Kasilof River at low tide.
Here's a primer on dipnetting for red salmon from the shore of the Kasilof and Kenai Rivers. Think of it as Dipnetting 101, or Dipnetting for Dummies, but keep in mind that everyone has their own ideas on how to do it best. I like to listen to newbies ask for advice and then get a different opinion from everyone they talk to. This is what works for my family and friends, based on our years of trial and error and experience and stealing ideas from our fellow fishermen. Scroll on down to the bottom for our list of things to bring with you.
First, read all of the regulations so that you can show up on the beach informed and educated and ready to dipnet lawfully and to respect the resource you want to fill your freezer with. Information and regulations on the Kenai River can be found here and info on the Kasilof is here. Take a copy of the regulations with you to the river because questions will likely come up.
Look for any special regulations and restrictions in effect -- for instance, this year you can't keep any king salmon you happen to catch in your net because there's a shortage of them and the state is struggling to recover the population. Dipnetting a king salmon is rare, but I was struck by king salmon lightning this year. I pulled in a whale of a king and when everyone on the crowded beach got a look at it, they erupted into a cacaphony of cheering and yelling. That fish was huge and its silver body glittered in the sun and it was really, really hard to let it go. Half of the shouting on-lookers were law-abiding fisherfolk and they were yelling at me to let it go. The other half were yelling at me to keep it. I was the stuff of legend that day, my friends. People who stopped to chat with us later all mentioned that a gal caught a king salmon that day. And I'd nod and stab myself in the chest with one finger and declare: "That was ME!" And their eyes would bulge and they'd say: "That was YOU?" and "Aw man, that was a good-looking fish." and "I would have kept it."
My parents in the water:
In order to dipnet, you have to be an Alaska resident and you need to get a resident sportfish license. They cost $24 this year for the average person (there are deals for seniors, the disabled, and those with a low income). And you need a dipnetting permit, which is a white postcard. It's free. Ask for the one for dipnetting in the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers. There's a different permit for dipnetting in the Copper and Chitina Rivers. I would advise you to start looking for the permit card early because sometimes it's a challenge to find them. Don't wait till the last minute to get one. A surefire place to get one is at the Department of Fish and Game office on Raspberry Road. Instructions on how to fill out the permit are posted here. I won't go into all the details on filling out the card because they're clearly stated at that link. In a nutshell: clip the corners of each fish's tail fins and be sure to write down what you caught and where before you conceal the fish from plain sight (for instance, putting them in an icechest) or transport the fish. Put your license, permit, and driver's license in a ziploc bag and stick it in a zippered pocket where it won't fall out and keep it with you the whole time you're fishing.
Next, get a dipnet. Costco is a popular place to get them and they cost around $120. Three Bears has them too, and they have some with a long handle and some with shorter handles and smaller nets. It's kind of an expensive undertaking the first time you do it, but hopefully you'll be using that net for years to come. Large zip-ties work great for fastening your net securely to the roof-rack of your vehicle. Remember to bring a bunch more zip-ties for re-fastening the nets after you're done fishing. Here's a handy tip for keeping your net from getting tangled in everything: my friend Wendy came up with the genius idea of wrapping them in a twin-size fitted sheet. The elasticized sheet creates a sort of a net-cozy. We loved it, especially seen as how we transported our nets in the bed of her pickup along with all of our other gear. The net-cozy kept the nets from snagging on everything else in the back of the truck.
Brush up on your salmon filleting skills. There are lots of you tube videos to watch and lots of different ways to fillet a fish. My favorite way is something like this. That way you don't have to head or gut the fish. Some people just gut their salmon on the beach and fillet them later. If you do this, you can also take them to a fish processor who will fillet and process them for you, but we do it all ourselves in order to save money. Practice makes perfect when it comes to filleting fish - it's pretty easy once you fillet a dozen or so of them and get the hang of it. It's best to get as much of the flesh off the fish as you possibly can so that you're not wasteful. I trim off all of the small pieces and keep them in a separate ziploc bag - it adds up to alot of fish by the time you're done. I also kept all of the salmon bellies and I smoked them today -- I'll do up a post on those soon. While we were filleting some of our fish on the beach, a guy came over and asked if he could have the heads to make fishhead soup. We were happy to oblige. If you have a friend with chickens, chickens love to pick the carcasses clean. Skeletons can also be boiled to make fish broth. If you're interested in using up every part of the salmon you catch, do some research beforehand and read up on articles such as this one.
Take a buddy! Here I am pulling in a fish on the Kenai River with my friend Nikole right behind me:
Dipnetting is hard and it's even harder if you're doing it solo. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it's awfully nice to have a buddy when you, for instance, net a fish and it's tangled in the net in such a way that it will take you ten minutes to puzzle out how to extricate it from the net. While you're busy doing that, it's awfully nice to have someone by your side holding onto your net and their own net because nothing sucks quite like dropping a net to the bottom of the river.
Decide whether you want to go to the Kenai or the Kasilof, or give both a try. The fish are bigger on the Kenai but it tends to be a little more crowded there. There are fees to park and camp on the beach of the Kenai. This year a daily parking pass cost $20. However, parking and camping is free at the Kasilof and, as a result, a crazy gypsy village of trailers and tents forms near Kasilof beach and it makes for really interesting people-watching. I've found that everyone is very friendly and helpful at both beaches. We tend to spend most of our time at the Kasilof. Even though the fish are smaller, things tend to be a little more laidback there and because we try to do our fishing on the cheap, the free parking appeals to us. Also, both rivers have two different shores. I've always stuck with north shore of the Kasilof and the south shore of the Kenai.
We don't camp on the beach though. We like to stay at the Diamond M Ranch because it's located close to both beaches and they have showers and fish-cleaning tables - very nice to come back to after a day of standing in the cold water! They have rooms and cabins to rent and an RV lot, but we like to camp in their cow pasture, which is $50 a night. The ranch is an interesting place to wander around. The family that runs it has homesteaded the land for three generations. Lots to see and there's a trail that goes down to the Kenai River. In past years, we would drive down for just the day and head back to Anchorage after a long day of fishing but that's really exhausting. This time we decided to stay for four days and it was a much more pleasant experience.
Sometimes there are llamas roaming the cow pasture. Here's Riley checking one out:
The next thing to keep in mind: to access most of the beaches, you'll need a four-wheel drive vehicle capable of driving on soft and deep beach sand. I suppose you could park on the road and walk to the beach, but I wouldn't recommend it. It's a long walk and you'll be carrying lots of heavy stuff. If you don't have a four-wheel drive vehicle you can try parking in the lot on the north shore of the Kenai -- I think it's just a short walk from the lot to the beach but I've never checked it out.
Next, decide when you want to go dipnetting. Check the fish count data posted at the Department of Fish and Game website to see when the fish hit their peak. Then once you choose a day to fish, consult a tide schedule for the Kenai area to see when high tide and low tide will happen. Lots of people say that it's best to fish the outgoing tide at the Kenai River, and the incoming tide at the Kasilof. I've found that to be mostly true, although alot depends on how many fish happen to be surging into the river on the day you're there. And on certain days, commercial fishermen are allowed to fish and their nets catch alot of the fish that would otherwise end up in dipnets. It's kind of a bummer to dipnet on a day that the commercial set-netters are out.
The most important rule: BE COURTEOUS while you're dipnetting, both to other dipnetters on the beach and particularly to people you meet out and about in the towns of Kenai and Soldotna. You and all the other dipnetters are raiding and invading their quiet little towns for a month or so and that wears on them. Seriously: they kind of hate you, hence my title, Tips of Dips. That's what they call us. Dips. So remember: smile, apologize, step out of the way, and be extra-specially courteous to everyone you meet.
Other than that: get out there and get your net in the water! There's really no skill or talent involved, the way there is with fishing with a rod and reel. Just put your net out there and see what happens. There will always be a lucky person in any group of dipnetters. They'll pull in one fish after another and make everyone around them want to tear their hair out. They're not doing anything different. Plain and simple, they just have the lucky net.
Lastly, remember this: no one likes a crybaby. Prepare to get wet and cold and tired. Fortunately, I've always had really good luck with the weather on the days I've gone dipnetting. Although there have been a couple of times we've pulled up to the Kenai River, taken one look at the angry waves crashing over the one or two men brave enought to brave the water, and we've said: NOPE! And we drove away. Last week it was warm and sunny the four days I dipnetted and I'm still sporting a sunglasses-tan on my face, in spite of all the sunscreen I applied. Luckily, there are two rivers to check out and they're pretty close to each other. If the Kenai beach is getting blasted with waves, go check out the Kasilof, although that would mean you just paid the $20 parking fee for nothing.
I hope you find this post helpful. If you have things to add to this post, or if you see anything I'm doing wrong, please let me know in the comments section. Thanks!
Here's our list of things to bring along with more advice on why each thing comes in handy:
Chest waders - two pairs if you have them, in case you forget to hang them to dry at night or in case one pair fills with water (tip: don't fill them with water) (it super-sucks).
Lots of layers of quick-dry clothing. Do yourself a favor and put on long underwear and thick socks even if it's a warm, sunny day. After an hour in the water, you'll start to get cold and who wants to quit fishing just because you're cold?
Toe warmer packets. Trust me.
A hooded raincoat - two if you have them. How to get dressed: put on all your layered clothing and socks, then your waders, then your raincoat on top of your waders. This will keep water from sloshing into your waders if you get hit by a wave or if you get a little too excited about dipnetting and wade in too deep.
Hats and gloves - a stocking cap is good for when you get really cold. Otherwise, wear a wide-brimmed hat to shield your face and eyes from the sun.
Knives in sheaves - it's very important to keep the knives stored safely in a sheaf because nothing will ruin your day of fishing like reaching into a box of supplies and cutting off a finger. Which brings me to:
Bandaids, neosporin, first aid kit, etc.
A knife sharpener. There's lots of different kinds but I'm fond of this one I got at Sportsman's Warehouse a few years ago:
It's quick and easy to use. I sharpen my rinsed-off knife after each fish I fillet, giving the knife 5 or 6 swipes on the coarse edge and 5 or 6 more swipes on the fine edge.
Old rags and towels for wiping your hands
A couple of tubs for rinsing and storing fillets.
A big jug of water with a spigot you can turn on and off for rinsing fish and washing your hands. These are so nice - it's almost like having running water.
Dipnet, of course.
Fitted twin-sized sheets for wrapping around the nets.
A fish bonker. Some people bonk their fish. Others reach a finger into the fish's gills and rip out their red gills to bleed them out. I'm a bonker, myself.
A fish stringer to wear around your waist along with your bonker. The stringer is very important for when you're fishing an outgoing tide. It's so much easier to string fish as you catch them and keep on fishing rather than slogging through the mud back to the beach every time.
A big bucket. If you're fishing the high tide you can put your fish in the bucket. Get one with a lid because the fish will attract hungry seagulls.
A plastic sled for sliding fish along the sand and mud.
Some fishing line for repairing nets. They get holes in them quite often (those salmon teeth are sharp) so be prepared to do some repair work. Read up on how to repair a net beforehand.
Shears or scissors for clipping tail fins.
A piece of burlap or an astroturf mat. Lay the fish on one of these when you fillet it to keep it from sliding around in all its slime.
Big scrubrush to clean your fish mat and tubs.
A metal ironing board without the cover. There are lots of different tables you can bring along to fillet fish on but an old ironing board is the best because it's really tall and you don't have to stoop over it. Watch for one at a thrift store to get it cheap.
Firewood and a small grill. It's nice to have a small fire to warm up. And if you bring a grill, you can grill up some fresh salmon right there on the beach.
Handiwipes and hand sanitizer
Sunscreen and lip balm with sunscreen
Headlamps in case you fish after sunset. It's hard to untangle fish from nets if you can't see anything. Also good for when you're up late filleting fish by headlights.
Toilet paper - those porta-potties are busy and gross.
Gallon-sized ziploc bags to fill with fillets.
Bigger ziploc bags (I think they're five gallon bags and you can get them at Target) to put the gallon bags of fillets in.
Lots of ice and ice chests
Zip-ties if you're using them to fasten your nets to your roof rack.
It's also a good idea to bring along some extra fishing nets in case yours needs to be replaced. And some extra clips that attach the two pieces of the net. Those do sometimes get loose and lost.
Your drivers license, fishing license, and dipnet permit in a waterproof bag.
Extra sets of car keys. Keys have a way of getting lost in the sand and the chaos of all the stuff you bring along with you. It's a good idea to give one of your sets to your fishing buddy so that all of your spare sets aren't inside your truck when you lock yourself out. Not that I'm speaking from experience or anything...