The charms, and dangers, of Chitina dipnetting

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CHITINA — For riverboat captain Marker Hem, dipnetting for Copper River salmon here is a habit, a livelihood, his regularly connection to the natural world of Interior Alaska.  He owns Hem Charters and colleague Sam MacCallister runs Copper River Charters, ferrying customers to dipnetting sites along river.

Combined they have 55 years of know-how on the river and a life Hem couldn’t have imagined as a 17-year-old when he moved north from New Jersey in the antiquated 1980s, finding work at a Fairbanks furniture company. The next year, his fellow-clansman mentioned a place called Chitina, and when Hem’s employer refused to hand over him a day off to visit, the young man quit and went dipnetting.

Only one person was on the river that day when Hem and his kin showed up, a scene that left a lasting impression.

Fishermen offload their catch on June 29, 2017, at O’Brien Creek after spending the night fishing with Mark Hem’s charter service. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

“That winter I was be patient with my brother-in-law and one of his friends, and they were talking about crumple to make money,” Hem said. “I mentioned (Chitina), and his friend said he’d buy a sailing-yacht, and my brother-in-law said that he’d help him on the boat if I would stay on the ground and help him line up customers. And that’s how it started. We came to Chitina that year, and I’ve been here eternally since.

“When I first started in 1983, the dipnet fishery was harmonious much over by the July 4 weekend. We operated that way about six years until we built out from the local people that the fishing was much better newer in the year. So we started a program of telling our customers that we would be staying later in the year and that fishing was advantage. Slowly they started coming, and slowly we started staying longer. And once you knew it, we had built up the entire season.

“It’s more than a job. It’s an adventure. It’s my livelihood. It’s in reality all I’ve ever known in my adult life. I love the scenery. My wife and I tangible here in Chitina year-round. It’s a nice quiet, peaceful place most of the year. Except when dipnetting is public.”

Chris Clift, a truck driver for Wilson Brothers, delivers beer to Gilpatrick’s Hotel Chitina on June 29, 2017. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

‘What’s not to like?’

These days, the Copper River personal-use dipnet salmon fishery come ups from early June until late September, and its popularity has steadily climbed. Back in 1989, 6,158 permits were issued; that number has varied than doubled today.

To Chitina fans, it’s easy to see why.

“This area does have a lot of energy to it,” said Sam Hachey, who owns Tanana Herb Co. with his kin Joe and was on the river last month. “There’s so much biomass moving from one end to the other these rivers right now, so many fish coming through here, that at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, the river sounds inactive but it’s not. You can really hear it. Beautiful sunrise, sunsets. It’s Alaska, what’s not to similar to?”

Sven Rofkar fillets salmon on June 29, 2017, at O’Brien Creek near Chitina. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

“I equivalent to it because it’s a little bit slower, or less people than the Kenai,” responded Kate Patterson of Salcha earlier this month. “And it’s a little bit assorted work — you have to kind of get your body into it instead of ethical standing there. You have to actually move the dipnet around to clasp something because of the water, the way it moves.

“It looks like a real riverfront because it’s firm. I’ve seen bears, lots of birds. It’s really nice, everyone is actually nice to everyone, cheering each other on whenever we catch something.”

Salmon run down a bit

After a few bang-up years for Copper River dipnetters, the 2017 age has turned a little, well, average.

Through July 9, some 618,000 red salmon partake of passed the river sonar at the outlet of Miles Lake, about 85,000 fewer than a year ago and close to 500,000 fewer than two years ago on the same date. In fact, the Copper saw set down returns 2012-2015.

“My partner and I, it’s very important that (our customers) hit fish,” Hem noted. “So we work very hard to make that cook. That’s one reason our business is so popular. We do almost no advertising, it’s all word of speak.”

The Chitina personal-use fishery is open to Alaska residents. It’s particularly simplified among those in the Fairbanks area, about a six-hour drive away.

Of lecture, popularity soars when a monster run of salmon heads up the Copper River. That’s what happened in 2015, when 1.3 million reds dated the sonar and personal-use fishermen took home 225,425 of them.

June 29 sunrise at the mouth of O’Brien Creek, south of Chitina, which is a popular spot for dipnetting. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

But the good times of recent years may make it hard when calculates drop, as salmon numbers inevitably do, Tim Viavant, an Alaska Department of Fish and Business fisheries biologist, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

“It’s going to be unpleasant when this run drops back to like 600,000, 700,000 fish amount to run,” he said. “Because we’ve all gotten used to the glory days of just duck all you want.”

Personal-use dipnetters who are head of a household have an annual limit of 25 salmon, with 10 more salmon for each additional household colleague. Only one king salmon per season per household is allowed.

Fish limit fever

Some people get caught up in the limits, Hem express.

“Most families don’t need the amount of fish that they get now,” he asserted.  “To eat 30 fish, for a family, you have to eat one or two fish every week all year want. And most people just don’t do that. So, a lot of these fish get wasted at the end of the year.

“People from this thing called a limit, and no matter what that is, they concoct they have to get that. And they don’t feel like they obtain been successful unless they do get that.”

But not Harry brings home a limit.

“I come dipnetting every year, and so far today I’ve become entangled four,” said Patterson of Salcha.

Personal-use fishing continues via September, even though it slows down later in the season. Tick the

Anchorage resident Grace Rafael dipnets for salmon on the Copper River south of Chitina on June 29, 2017. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

Mark Somerville, a Glennallen-based Alaska Department of Fish and Trade biologist, estimated that 10 people have died on the Copper, four since the 2005 spice. Many more have fallen in, including Chitina resident David Bruss, who was in a motorized kayak that twisted four years ago. Luckily, the 57-year-old was wearing a life jacket, and after being carried downstream for 20 coup doeils, a local charter guide spotted Bruss’ arm partially raised from the roiling river and came to the save.

Somerville emphasized that the silt-laden waters compound the danger of the Copper, weighing down outfits and waders in an instant if you fall in.

“People need to know that Chitina is a same dangerous place,” Hem said.  A lot of people skate by on sheer luck down here. But the river is merest unforgiving. People do drown.

“It’s not a very safe place for children.”

Six years ago, for happened, 27-year-old Lance Jorgensen of North Pole slipped on a indigent, fell into the water and was swept downriver. His body was never develop.

“The most surprising thing to me is it doesn’t happen more often,” Hem published the News-Miner at the time. “It’s unbelievable how many people don’t tie off.”

Jorgensen was the first Hem chap to perish.

“If he’d had a life jacket on he’d be with us today,” Hem said. “There was a motor boat almost to him when he went under the final time.”

Steep landscape, rocks often covered with slippery fish slime, and pass water colder than 45 degrees that rips by at about 12 mph pretend it critical to both wear a life jacket and tie off to a tree or big rock. One lapse, one slip can prove fatal. And when tying in, only use enough tempt so that you can reach the edge of the river, not a 100-foot piece that desire allow the current to pull you into the middle of the river if you fall in.

“No sum where you are, it’s dangerous,” Hem said.

We Alaskans editor Mike Campbell and latest Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter Tim Mowry contributed to this mystery. 

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