Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Reds Are Coming!

To describe Kenai as a sleepy little town would only be accurate for part of the time. During the winter, when sub-zero temperatures and blowing snow dominate, it could almost be called comatose. Then there’s July. July is when the red salmon, or sockeye, make their appearance. At that point Kenai could best be described as frenetic.

Reds return to the Kenai River in profusion to spawn. So do those who want to prevent the spawning. I don’t know what everyone has against fish fornication, but tourists from all over the world and half of Anchorage show up to do their part in trying to uphold the morals of the fish. 

The reds are in the river... that's an emergency.
 There is an old saying, “If you want to find the reds, look for the people.” Reds draw people like a magnet. Any point along the river with public access becomes busier than a Hong Kong flea market on half-price day. Anywhere a vehicle can be stacked, and some places they shouldn’t, is taken. People waving every conceivable type of fishing pole stand elbow to elbow along the banks, all in an effort to catch a red. (As you can see by the picture, some don’t even know how to hold the rod and reel.)

This picture was taken at 7 am. It gets more crowded.

Almost more net than car.

While visitors to the area are restricted to catching reds with rod and reel, residents of Alaska can partake in what is called a “personal use” fishery for reds. From July 10 through July 31 is dipnetting season on the Kenai River. Alaskan residents from throughout the state, but predominantly from Anchorage, arrive in droves, driving everything from huge motor homes to compact cars. All of the vehicles sport large nets.

It’s the dipnetting crowd that causes most of the uproar. There’s just so damn many of them! They’re like maggots on a dead moose. Every campground, RV park and parking lot is crammed with vehicles. The local Little League field parking lot serves as overflow parking. Believe it, or not, ice becomes a precious commodity… in Alaska!  

7:30 am at the river. Only 3% are locals on the beach.
 Dipnetting is allowed from the mouth of the river to a bridge approximately five miles upstream. Most of the out-of-towners dipnet from the banks at the mouth, while locals prefer to use boats.

The process has evolved since it was first allowed in 1989 as a response to an over escapement of reds up the river. (The commercial fishing fleet was closed down due to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.) At first, we truly did dipnet. Using the largest landing nets we could find, we’d sweep the net through the water to scoop up the fish. At times the fish were in so thick that it wasn’t uncommon to get two, or even three, fish per sweep. In a few years, however, somebody figured out that method involved a lot of physical effort. Enter today’s version of the dipnet: a five-foot hoop with netting and a long handle. There is no dipping involved anymore, the net is pushed out into the river and the “fisherman” waits until he feels a fish hit the net, then drags it out.

Carrying their "dipnets" to the water.
  The personal use fishery is mandated by the State of Alaska, but they left the City of Kenai holding the bag on how to manage the whole affair. Obviously, such a large influx of people creates problems. Problems that require money to fix: parking, law enforcement, restrooms, garbage collection, and last but not least, all the leftovers from cleaned fish. (Let’s just say one does not go to the beach at the river mouth for a breath of fresh air in late July.) To cover the costs associated with the big event, Kenai has resorted to charging for parking and camping. I’m not quite sure what to make of the combined camping and parking price. You can camp overnight, but will have to move your vehicle at some point?

Thanks for doing the math, but can we go over the combo package, please?
Hurry and get here, August!