How many of you thought “dipnetting” had something to do with chewing tobacco? As with so many Alaskan things, you probably wouldn’t know the term unless you live or visit here frequently.
Dipnetting is a type of fishing. Available to Alaska residents only, you use a large diameter net to dip into a river and hopefully scoop up salmon! You can do this from a boat, but more commonly, people wade into a river or do it from the banks of a river.
Last week, Justin & I went dipnetting on the Chitina for our first time!!
I’ve heard about dipnetting for years from my Uncle Fred, who’s lived in Fairbanks for 45 years, and has been dipnetting since the 1980s. If you are family member who received smoked salmon from Uncle Fred over the years, here’s the story of how he gets it! I am certain it will make you appreciate it more. He was eager to go out with us, as he is getting up there in age and knows his Chitina days are probably over.
Dipnetting is highly regulated by the Department of Fish and Game, with the main purpose to balance the salmon population and the demands of the various user groups (commercial, sport, subsistence). So they open the rivers for a certain amount of hours, and sometimes they close them due to higher water levels and lower fish counts. It’s a dizzying amount of information to digest, and I was just happy to have Uncle Fred, who knew all the things.
We booked our hired charter boat to drop us along the Chitina riverbank for 4:45am on Thursday, June 17. Because of our tight work schedule, we drove 7 hours to the river on Wednesday, arriving just after midnight, catching a few Zzzzs in the truck and got on the boat a few hours later.
On the long drive down, Uncle Fred told us countless stories about Chitina. How one time he drove all the way down to Chitina, and they closed the river to dipnetting right when he arrived. How he spent 12 hours fishing once and only got 2 salmon. How he lost his net in the river once. How if you fall in the river, there is no rescuing, you just die. How his friend was so tired one time that on the drive back, he flipped his car.
Nothing like psyching us up, Uncle Fred!
Truth be told, it’s a lot harder than it sounds!!! Sure you just simply dipping your net in the river and scooping up the salmon. But the net and pole can be 15 feet long and is heavy on its own. Especially against the current. For us, we were up on a small cliff (maybe 8 feet) and dipping this massive net into the RAGING river. (We were tied in, for extra safety). As a bonus, those rocks do not make for comfortable sitting for hours on end.
The short version of the trip is, we spent 10+ hours on the river and got 15 fish. It was mainly Uncle Fred who got the fish, as Justin mimicked exactly what he did, but for whatever reason, the fish weren’t swimming into Justin’s net.
The first time I dipped my net in, I screamed for Uncle Fred and Justin to help me and instantly felt so scared I was going to get swept away! The tension of the pole against the current was just too much for me to hold steady. I did find other areas that were calmer and easier, but the fish didn’t really come that way, as the eddies and boils in the river are the sweet spots.
Instead, my role became the fish cutter and stringer. You have to cut the tail off (so you can’t sell the fish), then string together 5 to store in the river until you are done. Is watching a fish fall off the rocks back into the river a rite of passage? Good, because I did that once.
After getting off the river, your work is not done. We convinced Uncle Fred to pay them to filet our fish, a piece of the process that even though he’s skilled for it, they are quicker and less exhausted!
We are so grateful Uncle Fred let us take some home, and the next day, my friend Sarah helped teach me the next step in fish processing: clean, cut and vacuum seal!
Nothing like stocking the freezer with one of the planet’s most delicious, nutritious whole foods! Did I mention salmon is not my favorite food? But, I live in Alaska, so I have to love it. We taste-tested the catches before vacuum-sealing all the filets. Lemme tell you, river to table is nothing short of delicious.