Kuskokwim Residents Learning to Dipnet

by Charles Enoch on June 20, 2014

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Salmon dipnets in Patrick Jones’s boat. Photo by Charles Enoch.

This year marks many firsts on the Kuskokwim River as fish managers attempt to protect a dwindling chinook, or king, salmon run. The first ever dipnet opening is one of the new changes. So far only a few fishers are using dipnets and they say it hasn’t been productive, at least not yet.

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Bethel resident Ron Kaiser has plenty of exciting fishing stories during his decades as a Kuskokwim fisherman, but his attempts to dipnet this summer might not make the list.

“Oh, it was uneventful. We didn’t,(laughs) we didn’t catch anything, we didn’t… you know. We got nothing,” says Kaiser.

Kaiser says he and his family fished in the main channel between Bethel, and Napaskiak, about five miles downriver from Bethel. His niece, Zoe Anelon describes her first time dipnetting on the Kuskokwim.

“We went out for a couple of hours and it was pretty boring because we didn’t get any fish,” says Anelon.

For years the Kuskokwim has been open to large nets, dozens of feet deep and about 300 feet long. But this year, the only drifting that’s regularly open is with a five-foot diameter dipent. The idea is that kings can be safely returned to the water when they’re  caught in a dipnet. But in practice, so far, they’re most effective at letting kings and all other species swim by unaffected.

Kaiser and Anelon’s experience was repeated in different variations by every fisherman KYUK contacted, like Bethel Regional Highschool Teacher Hugh Dyment. Dyment says he tried dipnetting but caught nothing. He says this will be a time of learning for anyone wanting to get into dipnetting in the Kuskokwim River.

“There’s going to be this period where we’re figuring it out and really learning how to get on top of the fish, and how to rig these dipnets on our boat so we can take em in. There’s no master to learn from, (laughs) you know? We’re all taking baby steps,” says Dyment.

Though many traditionally take a humorous look at what some call being “skunked,” these fishermen are all the more serious about learning. Dyment has been getting advice from veteran dipnetters on the Yukon and from online videos. Dipnetting takes great physical exertion. Kaiser says learning how to catch is one thing, and learning to not exhaust himself is another.

“Actually we tied a rope off to the middle of the dipnet so it would just kind of be held there. And then you still had to hang onto the handle and kind of push it down to the depth you wanted, and that’s how we did it, we just towed along at the lowest speed we could,” says Kaiser.

Neither Kaiser nor Dyment have seen anyone netting a salmon with a dipnet in the Bethel area. They have heard rumors of unknown fishermen who’ve had better luck but KYUK could not track down or confirm any Kuskokwim fish have been caught this way.

But both fishers tried several days ago and hope that their luck will improve when chums and reds are more abundant.

No one knows whether dipnetting will take hold in this area, especially with the recently announced drift net openings in the lower River. But Kaiser and Dyment both plan trying again.

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