We drove to Chitna to witness Alaska residents taking red salmon with long-handled dip nets. The Copper River’s water near Chitna is filled with glacial silt. Thousands upon thousands of returning red salmon run the river to their natal clear-water stream entering the silty Copper. The State allows residents to subsistence-fish using dip nets.
Experienced dip-net fishermen develop a technique to capture and preserve their catch. Most purchase a dip net with a 10-or 12-foot handle. They attach an additional 10-foot extension to the existing handle using hose clamps and duct tape. To this, they add, again with hose clamps and duct tape, a crutch. The crutch gives the user a handle to manipulate the net in deep, swift river water. Most subsistence fishermen wear neoprene chest waders.
Fishing is accomplished by holding on to the crutch handle and throwing the net end of the apparatus upstream and out into the current. By twisting the crutch handle, the user can keep the net vertical as it drifts downriver with the water flow. However, the fish cannot be seen due to the murky water, and the action is strictly guessing. When the vertically held net drifts as far downriver as possible, its user turns the crutch handle. Turning the handle closes the horizontal net and traps any netted fish.
We witnessed a family of four generations filling their freezer for the winter—literally. They brought a chest-type freezer mounted on a utility trailer and energized by a portable generator. Four family members took turns with two nets. As each fisherman got tired and cold, he would rotate with one of the others. When a red salmon was taken in the net, one of several skilled women or teenagers would quickly and skillfully dispatch the fish, fillet it, and wrap it for the freezer. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and their 20-cubic-foot freezer was nearly full. The young man I visited told me they came yearly, and one day’s fishing supplied their extended family with all the fish they required for one year.
Watching this family work as a team harvesting one of Alaska’s bounties was an interesting experience. Although taking an unseen salmon from muddy water with a net didn’t excite the angler or the spectator like a tail-walking red on a rod, it was fun to observe. I trust their fishing stories over Sunday dinner are not too different from those who subsist with rod and reel.