One of the perks of being an Alaska resident is that we can partake in several "personal use" fisheries that allow dip-netting for salmon. With harvest limits of up to 40 fish, they make it possible to have salmon as a staple of our diets, which we could never do by sport angling because of the 3-fish possession limit and the 10-hour round trip drive required to reach a decent salmon stream from Fairbanks. The crown jewel of Alaska's dipnetting sites is the sockeye salmon fishery at in the Copper River at Chitina. The salmon passing through here are very possibly the best-tasting fish in the world. Fed on plankton in the clean waters of Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska, they stockpile unusually large amounts of tasty, healthy fatty acids in their firm, red flesh. The longer a salmon has to travel to reach its spawning grounds, the more fat it stores, so the tastiest salmon are those caught near the beginning of a journey up a very long river like the Copper or the Yukon.
Although "sporting" is the wrong word for dip-netting, it's much more challenging than most would expect. When I first heard about it, I pictured relaxed Alaskans standing on the bank of a clear, mid-sized river, nets laying on the ground as they watch and wait for salmon to appear. I had not imagined the thundering slurry of powdered mountain that is the Copper River at Chitina, a river the size of the Missouri squeezing through a bedrock canyon 100 meters wide. Most of the water is glacial melt, no clearer than chocolate milk, so densely is it loaded with the dust of the Alaska Range and the Wrangell Mountains. There's no outward sign of the thousands--sometimes tens of thousands--of salmon that pass through every day of the summer, inches below the opaque surface. The dip-netter perches on a narrow shelf of jagged rocks, holding a large net in the river continuously, fighting the force of the silt-laden current from the other end of a 15-foot metal pole. The telltale bump of a salmon in the net may come every few minutes, or hours apart, and I have spent about 12 hours on the net each year to obtain my limit. It's hard work to fill the freezer with this world-class delicacy.
Catch & release purists need not cringe at the sight of these photos: the Copper River sockeye salmon fishery is a sustainably managed, hatchery-supplemented fishery with limits and closures adjusted several times throughout the season by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. The run each year contains more than enough salmon to replenish the population, especially with the hatchery's help, and the excess is split among commercial fishermen in Prince William Sound, native subsistence users who can each catch hundreds of salmon in their fish wheels, dip-netters in the "personal use" fishery, and a comparatively tiny harvest by sport anglers in clearer tributaries, mostly the Gulkana and Klutina rivers. Many of the fish we dipnet in the main stem Copper are destined for off-road tributaries that rarely see an angler, especially not a salmon angler. When someone fishes that far out into this part of the wilderness, they're in pursuit of grayling, dollies, or rainbows, not salmon.