First Time Dipnetters HOWTO

Have you lived in Alaska for at least one full year? Do you like eating salmon? Do you crave adventure? Then the Copper River Personal Use Dipnet Fishery, better known as "Chitina Dipnetting", might be for you! Here's what you need to know to get started on this great Alaskan adventure and eating experience!

WHERE to dipnet

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Map of route between Fairbanks and Chitina
Fairbanks to Chitina,
310 miles

The Chitina personal use fishery is centered around the town of Chitina, Alaska. It is a 5 or 6 hour drive from Fairbanks and an hour shorter drive from the Anchorage area. Drive to Glennallen and head south on the Richardson Highway, towards Valdez. After about 30 miles, turn east (left) on the Edgerton Highway towards Kenney Lake, Chitina, and McCarthy. Chitina is about 33 miles down the Edgerton Highway.

Chitina personal use fishermen are restricted to fishing within the boundaries of the Chitina Sub-district, an area downstream of the McCarthy road Copper River bridge and extends to Haley Creek, about 7.6 miles downstream. Upstream of the bridge is the Glennallen Subdistrict, a subsistence use area that is not open to personal use dipnetters. ADF&G has more subsistence fishing information.

Popular areas to fish within the boundaries are in the flats just downstream of the bridge and from the river shoreline between O’Brien Creek and the south terminus at Haley Creek. O’Brien Creek is the trailhead for dipnetter access to Woods Canyon. That trail lies within a 300’ state public right of way (ROW) and extends all the way to Haley Creek. Ground underlying the ROW is owned by the Ahtna regional and Chitina Village Native corporations, but where the downhill edge of the ROW meets the ordinary high water mark of the river, public access is provided. The ADF&G dipnetter brochure, which you can print at the time you purchase your online Chitina personal use dipnet permit, has a map showing areas of the trail where access is not public and a land use permit purchased from Ahtna is needed to legally access the river. Please respect the owners' property rights as you use the right-of-way to access fishing spots! KEEP IT CLEAN!

The Copper River is not the only place for personal use fisherman to take advantage of Alaska’s bounty. The Kenai Peninsula has several personal use fisheries that may be more accessible and/or productive for you. Details at ADF&G’s Cook Inlet Personal Use page.

WHEN can you dipnet

The first season opening period on the Copper River begins between June 7th and 14th. ADF&G sets the times and dates for fishing periods based on run strength and their projections for the salmon run. See our fishing information page or the ADF&G schedule for up to date information on the weekly schedule.

Trip planning

Ensure the fishery is open before coming to Chitina! The personal use fishery is managed by "emergency openings". The openings are typically scheduled at least a week in advance. There could be occasion where an opening is cancelled, even part way through the scheduled times/dates though that is rare/has perhaps never happened. Check the schedules listed above for times and dates.

In recent years, the Copper River king salmon run has been weak, forcing ADF&G to curtail or severely restrict the harvest of the one king allowed in the Chitina personal use bag limit. It is recommended that if you are interested in harvesting a king, plan your trip early in the season. If the king salmon season is shut down, all kings finding their way into your net must be returned, unharmed and with as little stress as possible, to the water. That means, among other things, no selfies with your out-o-season kings! ADF&G will announce when kings are closed and CDA will relay that information on this website.

The first factor to check when planning a trip is the salmon run strength. You won't catch much if the fish aren't in our fishing area! Check online forums or with friends to see if people are catching fish at Chitina. Check the fish counts at Fish and Game's Miles Lake sonar station. Salmon take between two and three weeks to travel from the Miles Lake sonar to the personal use fishing area. If you see a big bolt of fish coming through the counter, two or three weeks later they should be in the Chitina area. The Chitina Dipnetters maintain historical copies of the ADF&G sonar data and has graphics available for comparison between runs over the years.

Your second factor to consider, is the level of water in the Copper River. River level greatly affects river fishability. Not only is high water more difficult to fish in, the fish tend to not travel as much, so the few fish that are caught are not being replaced by new fish coming upstream. The two primary influencing factors on water level are precipitation and heat. Heavy rain anywhere upstream of Chitina will cause river–levels to rise quickly.This is only magnified where the river narrows in Woods Canyon. The CDA Graphs page will help you keep an eye on river level at the Chitina Bridge. The second factor is heat. Hot, sunny days melt snow and glacial ice, causing river levels to rise. Four or five days of hot, sunny weather usually blows out fishing until cooler weather prevails. Finally, very occasionally, a back-country glacial ice dam breaks, releasing vast quantities of water resulting in very quickly rising water levels without warning. This occurs infrequently, but fishing is blown out for a day or two after until the water recedes. 

WHAT to bring

The Copper River is cold, swift, and unforgiving. It's essential to bring a strong sense of personal safety, as there are few second chances if you fall into the river. 

License and permit

A sport fishing license and Chitina Personal Use dipnet permit are required. ADF&G sells them online or they are available at various sporting good vendors around the state. Make sure to print and carry your fishing license and dipnet permit while fishing or transporting your catch. Dipnet permits cost $15 and are issued per household, not individually! Permit holders are allowed an annual bag limit of 25 salmon plus 10 salmon for each additional household member.

Gear

You'll need to bring the normal Alaskan adventure gear: warm clothes, boots, rain gear, and a place to stay (camper, tent, motor home, or rough it). Local lodging may be available in and around Chitina, but be sure to reserve in advance if that is your plan. Groceries and restaurants are not always available in Chitina, so either bring food and cooking equipment or know that an establishment will be open. 

The fishing portion of the adventure requires, at absolute minimum,

  • Chitina PU dipnet permit

  • Alaska Sport Fish License

  • dipnet

  • fish stringers

  • cleaning/filleting knives

  • coolers

  • ice

You'll almost certainly want a number of other items to make your fishing trip much safer/ easier/less frustrating, including

  • life jackets

  • strong tie-off ropes and harnesses in case you fall in the water

  • fish bonker

  • smaller line utility

  • backpack or buckets to carry fish to vehicle

  • Folding table or other surface for cleaning/filleting fish.

If you intend to fish from challenging sections of the shoreline, safety ropes and harnesses to tie yourself to shore are highly recommended. Some fishing areas are inaccessible without climbing ropes. Do not bring kids or dogs that might jump in the water!

The town of Chitina

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Chitina Emporium
The Chitina Emporium

Chitina is a small town. Businesses come and go every year. Sometimes gasoline, groceries, ice and other supplies are available; sometimes not! We try to keep a list of active businesses on our website but cannot promise the list will always be up to date. Kenny Lake, 26 miles back towards the Richardson Highway, pretty reliably has all services.

 

HOW to dipnet

The basics are easy: use a long-handled dip net to scoop fish from the river. Your first trip is likely be safer, more productive and enjoyable if you go with someone who has made the trip before.

SHORE FISHING

There are several strategies to fish from shore. The flats near the bridge take entirely different techniques than the swift, deep water in the canyon.

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Dipnetting on the flats
Dipnetting on the flats

Most people who fish the flats select a dipnet with a large hoop and 15’ to 20+’ handle. Wearing waders, you walk into the water, slide the dipnet out into the water, and walk downstream as the net is pushed downstream. When you feel a fish in the net, rotate the handle to collapse the net so the fish can’t turn around and swim out. Pull the net from the water and retrieve your fish! A helper who can take care of the fish will let you get back to fishing that much sooner. Because you can walk down the beach with your net, you can fish a large section of the bank.

Fishing in Woods Canyon, which typically has fast water, is done in two main styles - sweeping with the downstream current or holding your net in an eddy.

Fishing in the canyon requires you to have good, solid footing. If you're precariously perched, as is often the case, you should have a harness and strong rope tied to the bank in case you fall in the water. You should have fishing buddies with you to help get back to the bank if you do fall in. Every single year people fall in while dipnetting the Copper River and don't come out alive (Hey! You wanted adventure, right?). It is safe as long as you don't overestimate your own abilities and underestimate the river's indifference.

To "sweep" in the canyon, find a fishy looking spot with the water flowing downstream. The water is likely to be flowing fairly quick. Hoist your net out, upstream, and let it drop into the water. The current will push it downstream. Hopefully, before the net swings to the end of its arc, you'll feel a bump indicating a fish is in the net. Pull the net towards you and out of the water. Don't try lifting it straight out of the water, a relatively slow procedure, else the fish is likely to turn around and swim out. Sweeping is pretty energy intensive as you must repeatedly drop the net upstream, spend a few seconds hoping a fish swims in, pulling the net out of the water, swinging the net back upstream and repeating the process over and over.

"Eddy" fishing is usually much easier than sweeping. Again, find a "fishy" looking spot where the river water is eddying back upstream. This water pattern typically moves more slowly than the mainstream current. If the water is slow enough, you may be able to hold your dipnet in one place, particularly if you can find a rock on the bottom to rest the hoop of your net against. Another technique is to tie light line to the neck of the hoop where it attaches to the pole, tie the other end of the line to a rock or tree upstream of eddy current (just the right length!), stick the net in the water and let the line help hold things in place. You can make small adjustments to the length of your line by rolling up or releasing line around the neck of the net.

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He caught a salmon in his dipnet

However you fish, when you feel a fish hit the net, pull it straight back to close the net beg and then out of the water. Lifting the net straight up is slow and could allow the fish to turn and swim out. Once the fish is ashore, most people like to give it a head bonk to stun it. You can use an expensive fish bonking club, a stick cut to length, or a beach rock. You don't want to hit and bruise the body of the fish but give it a hit on top of the head behind the eyes. Now is the time to cut the tips off the tail - required by law to identify personal use fish from commercial caught fish. Kitchen or trauma shears will safely and easily do this job; a knife somewhat less so. Take a good inch or two off the top and bottom, not just little nicks. You probably don't want to take too much off, though, as it makes picking the fish up by the tail difficult. Put the fish on a stringer and then reach inside the gill plates with a knife, scissors or your finger to cut/break some gills.This will bleed out the fish making for better eating filets. If you do this at the stringer it prevents you from bloodying up your fishing site. Many people put 5 or fewer fish on a short stringer, then attach that to a longer line, like a dog tie out chain, that is affixed to the shore on both ends and then space the short stringers to where they do not tangle in the current.

CHARTER FISHING

There are several charter businesses working in Chitina that can either drop you off on shore or take you out to fish from their boat. Costs vary and reservations are recommended, possibly even required. The Chitina Dipnetters Association does not provide charter services nor do we represent or recommend any of the charter companies! This list of charter services is for your information only.

  • Hem and Copper River Charters is located at O’Brien Creek. Mark, Sam, and their crews provide drop-off/pick-up service in Woods Canyon. They can take you out for the day and periodically check your progress. They show you proven techniques for fishing for your particular drop-off site. They can also drop you off for an overnight trip and pick you up the next morning. Use of their cleaning tables is included in the charter cost. There is usually a staff person on hand to help clean your catch for an extra cost. Reservations are recommended, see their website. (https://www.hemandcopperrivercharters.com/)

  • AK eXpeditions main office is located in Chitina near the DOT rest area and outhouses. Mark and his crews take you out to fish from their boats, departing from the bridge just a mile or so away. Reservations are recommended. Filleting, vacuum sealing, flash freezing and flake ice sales are offered. (https://ak-x.com/)

  • Copper River Wild LLC provides in-boat fishing, leaving from O'Brien Creek. They have a fish cleaning service and tables for the do-it-yourself types.

Boat fishing

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Dipnetting from a boat
Fishing from a boat

While dipnetting from a boat can be very rewarding, we strongly discourage first time dipnetters and those without extensive experience navigating swift-moving Alaskan rivers from putting their own boats in the Copper River. If you're experienced running Alaskan rivers with the size and diversity of the Copper River and have a large enough boat to manage it, talk to other people who have dipnetted from their boats and understand the challenges. The Copper River swallows boats every year.

 

YOUR CATCH

After you've finished catching fish, you need to get them from your fishing site back to your vehicle. If you took a charter, the charter company will help you manage your fish back to the road. If you're on your own, you might have some work cut out for you!

Five or fewer fish is a reasonable number for most people to carry back to their wheels. Some people clean or even fillet their fish before carrying them to their wheels, especially if it's a long or difficult carry. A backpack lined with trash sack can ease the carrying process.

Cleaning

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A stringer of stringers
A stringer of stringers

It is essential to properly clean, cool, and process your catch in a timely manner! If you don't clean/fillet at your fishing site, a popular cleaning area is O'Brien Creek. Bring a table or table-like surface to work on. A piece of plywood works well if you don't mind squatting down or propping it up on rocks/a tailgate. Commercial cleaning/fillet facilities and services may be available at O'Brien Creek depending how busy the charter company is. Your cleaning area MUST dump fish waste into the mainstream Copper River. Be bear aware - never clean fish on the trails, roads, lakes or other areas where waste cannot be carried away! If you clean fish at your fishing site, make sure to toss all waste into the river and wash the area down when finished. A five gallon bucket is a must here. Cleaning and filleting salmon are beyond this already long tutorial, but numerous videos and tutorials are available online.

Ice

Heat is the enemy of fresh fish! Be sure to sufficiently ice your fish ASAP, particularly if driving more than an hour or two. Ice is usually available in Glennallen, but they have been known to run out at the height of the fishing season. Ice is inexpensive enough and it is worth bringing a supply with you from Fairbanks or Anchorage instead of risking no local availability. Unless you have flake ice, put your fish in coolers and pour ice over the top. If bagged ice cubes are frozen together, break them up to better cover the fish.

Processing

Many people freeze their fish, but smoking and canning are other options. Most commonly, people use a FoodSaver or other vacuum packing machine to seal fillets in air-tight pouches before freezing. Chamber type vacuum machines may not have the capacity to seal a full-length fillet - but don't despair - simply cut the fillet in half, fold the two halves flesh-side together, bag and seal. Always clean the mouth of the bag or pouch before sealing to ensure a good seal.

Be sure to spread your fresh fish around the freezer. A big, thick mass of fish could take several days or longer to freeze. Spread your fish out in the freezer so they freeze more quickly. Afterwards, rearrange the fish for storage.

Canning & Smoking

Canning is a time-honored way to preserve your catch. Canning fish is more time consuming than freezing, but you don't need a freezer, or even power, to keep your fish edible for up to two years. Canning in jars or cans is not difficult, but does require some special equipment. It is also essential to follow USDA and State guidelines to safely preserve your food. See the links below for more information.

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Smoked salmon
Smoked Salmon

The fish smoking techniques most people use are more for flavor and texture than for long-term preservation of the catch. Smoked fish can be frozen or canned for long-term preservation.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service has a number of publications to help you with canning and smoking your catch. CDA president Chuck Derrick has a smoked canned salmon recipe that's pretty tasty.

 

Other Resources

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has an excellent four part video series on the basics of dipnetting.

Daily ADF&G Miles Lake sonar count