Kenai dipnetting begins July 10
If they haven’t started already, locals will soon be strapping long-handled nets to the top of pickup trucks and the backs of motorhomes and heading south en masse.
The Kenai River personal use dipnet fishery — by far the state’s largest and most popular — opens July 10, a date many Alaskans keep in their heads like Christmas.
The annual haul from the Kenai is measured in the hundreds of thousands. Last year saw subsistence fishermen take 259,057 sockeye, the lowest figure since 2008. Although that was considered a poor year, it’s far more than the 58,273 caught in the nearby Kasilof River fishery (which opened June 25 and runs through August 7).
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is predicting another below average sockeye run in Cook Inlet, though that doesn’t always mean poor dipnetting. The fish arrive in large pulses, according to ADFG biologist Jason Pawluk, who said being in the right place at the right time is key to dipnetting success.
“It’s all about the way the fish enter the river,” he said.
Last year, 1.3 million sockeye — the upper end of the goal — escaped up the Kenai, according to Fish and Game. But because the fish arrived in relatively low daily numbers, dipnetting success wasn’t as good as in past years.
“There was never really any great days of dipnetting because the fish just bled in all year long,” he said.
Personal use fishermen hoping to maximize their catch rates have a number of resources available to them, the first being the ADFG website. Fish and Game posts daily sonar counts for the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers, as well as run timing charts. According to the department, half of all Kasilof fish are taken between July 10 and 21, while the peak of the Kenai run is usually between July 16 and 25. Both a resident sportfishing license and free personal use dipnet permit are needed to participate in the fisheries, and both can be found on the department’s website. Licenses and permits can also be picked up at local retail stores.
Dipnetting on the Kenai River can seem complicated to newcomers, but this year might be a bit easier thanks to an innovation by the City of Kenai. The city — which manages the fishery access points — has created a smartphone app called “Dipnet Kenai,” which includes numerous bits of helpful information, including tide tables, fish counts and information on fees at city facilities. Fees vary depending on whether you plan to park or camp, so check the city’s website or download the app before heading to the river.
Pawluk said there are a couple regulation changes fishermen need to be aware of. Over the winter, the Alaska Board of Fisheries implemented a couple changes on the Kenai, the most notable being the complete closure of the north shore of the river from the lighthouse on the Kenai beach upstream to the Warren Ames Bridge. In recent years, Pawluk said people have been accessing the north shore via Bridge Access Road, which has resulted in shoreline destruction and dangerous conditions on the busy two-lane road.
“That got to be a concern for public safety,” Pawluk said.
The south shoreline of the river is still open from the bridge downstream to a point near Kenai Landing, as well as on the South Beach where the river empties into Cook Inlet. The always-popular North Beach is also open as usual, and likely will be covered in humans, coolers, tents and seagulls beginning Monday.
Another regulation change is personal use users can now harvest up to 10 king salmon less than 20 inches in length as part of their season limit. These small kings would still count toward the overall limit of salmon (25 per head of household plus 10 for each additional household member), and Pawluk cautioned folks to make sure they know what a 20-inch fish looks like before they start hauling kings aboard.
“It’s pretty small,” he said.
Anyone caught with more than one king salmon longer than 20 inches will be cited. Kings of any size cannot be kept in the Kasilof River fishery.
Pawluk said other important things to keep in mind are regulations on how fish must be handled after they’re caught. He said people need to be sure to clip the lobes of the tail fins and mark permits before leaving the fishing grounds — something authorities are pretty strict about.
“Mark your fish,” he said simply.
Breaking the rules could result in fines, having fish confiscated and the loss of future fishing privileges. Each year, citations are written after people leave the beach or unload boats packed fish with unclipped fins or permits that haven’t been filled out.
Ignorance is no excuse, he said.
“Have multiple pens,” Pawluk recommended.
The Kenai River personal use fishery runs through July 31. All that’s needed to fish are a license, permit, and long-handled net. However, fees apply at most locations, and it’s a good idea to stock up on other useful items before heading out, including chest waders, coolers, ice, clippers, a pen and a good fillet knife.
For complete rules and regulations, visit adfg.alaska.gov. The City of Kenai also provides dipnetting information — including fees, schedules, parking information and other tips — on its website, as well as on the new app.