KENAI -- Dipnetting is a numbers game.
When fish storm the beaches by the tens of thousands, hundreds of people will wade into the Kenai River and scoop them out hand over fist – sometimes two or three at a time.
That wasn't the case on Friday, as the dozens of dippers who showed up for opening day of the river's personal use fishery had to be content to enjoy the sunshine as salmon slowly trickled in.
"It's been real slow," said Deb Rix of Chugiak, who drove three hours south to fish the opener with a friend.
They were supposed to go to Chitina, she explained, but decided to hit the Kenai's north beach after guide boats stopped running on the Copper River due to high water.
"This is close," she said.
Rix had caught just one sockeye salmon by noon, which probably put her close to the average on Friday. Not many jumpers, a couple of seals, lots of seagulls. Several people caught flounder, with maybe half electing to keep them (each permit holder is allowed 10 of them) and the other half skipping the flatfish back into the wide, muddy river mouth.
Upon catching what looked to be about a 4- or 5-pound sockeye, Rix quickly rapped the fish on the back of the head, then slit its gills, bleeding the fish out in the water. Next, she took the fish to a nearby cooler, where she clipped the lobes of its tail fins and packed it in ice.
"When I gut it I'll pack the cavity with ice too," she said.
Rix said she follows the same process with every fish she catches.
"They taste better that way," she explained.
Others didn't follow Rix's example, with most simply stacking their fish like cordwood in waiting coolers. One man butchered a small flounder, seagulls stacking up in line for what looked like was going to be a bountiful carcass.
The overall vibe on the beach was decidedly mellow, with most people seemingly resigned to the fact that pickings are usually slim on opening day. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Biologist Jason Pawluk said the name of the game in dipnetting is abundance.
"It depends on one thing and one thing only: How the fish enter the river," he said.
On Thursday, Fish and Game counted 22,716 sockeye entering the river, the best day of the year so far. Pawluk said the run typically builds toward a peak that typically comes around the middle of July. When the peak hits, it's not uncommon for upwards of 50,000 fish -- sometimes more than 100,000 -- to flood into the river. When that happens, everyone catches salmon.
"It's during those types of days of abundance your catch rates in the dipnet fishery and with a rod and reel are just phenomenal," he said.
Alaska residents are the only people allowed to directly participate in the fishery. Permits are free to each "head of household" who are allowed 25 sockeye (and 10 flounder) for themselves as well as 10 more sockeye for each additional household member.
This year's run is forecast to be strong, but the trick is being on the Kenai at the right time. Last year that proved difficult. Despite an escapement of 1.5 million fish, the run arrived in a steady stream rather than in big schools.
"It was just constantly 20,000 fish," Pawluk said.
That meant dippers had to work harder than usual for their catch.
"You had to put in some time," he said. Deb Rix said that's how dipping is done.
"You can't catch 'em if your net's not in the water," she said, wading slowly back into the surf with her net in tow. "Neoprene waders help, too."
Salmon Frenzy for missionaries
Soldotna's Tammy Fann was one of the more successful fishers on Friday. After dipping a long-handled aluminum hoop strung with nylon netting for about 45 minutes she'd already netted three sockeye. Fann said she wanted to check out the beach on Friday because things are likely to get much more crowded once the fish hit in larger numbers.
"I figured I'd get down here before everybody else," she said.
Making the waiting game easier again this year is a large group of volunteers from Alaska Missions, a Christian missionary group that set up several large tents at the north beach, south beach and city dock. They also set up a kids' bouncy castle, a big hit among the nondipping set. Dana Belmore, who moved to Anchorage in 2013 to work with the mission group, explained Alaska Missions also gives out free hot dogs and lemonade, paints childrens' faces, reads Bible stories and operates a warming tent and first-aid station.
"We call it Salmon Frenzy," she said.
Belmore said the group, which includes 131 volunteers this week alone, does the same thing at the Kasilof River personal use fishery. Coordinating the effort is a massive undertaking.
"There's a lot of logistics," she said.
Volunteer Janice Zook of Litchfield, Illinois, came to Alaska with her husband and three kids to help staff Salmon Frenzy. After reading Bible stories, Zook paused for an interview during which she declared her first trip to Alaska "absolutely gorgeous."
"We're used to flat land and corn fields," she said.
Behind her stretched a panorama that included the river, its broad estuarine flats and the Kenai Mountains beyond.
"This has been an amazing experience for our family," she said.
Zook said dipnetters were appreciative of the missionaries' work, especially the free babysitting services. "The people have been absolutely lovely to us," she said.
She said she was "fascinated" by the unique dipnet fishery, which last year netted a reported 379,823 sockeye. "We don't have anything like this back home," she said.
Contact reporter Matt Tunseth at firstname.lastname@example.org