Dipnetting the Copper River: General Overview
The Copper River is a tremendous fishery in several ways. Although the size of the sockeye run is historically about 12% smaller than the the sockeye run on the Kenai, it presents many attributes that make that fishery, in the eyes of many Alaskans, the premium run in the state. To start with, participation in the Copper River dipnet fishery is much smaller than the Kenai dipnet fishery. Although the fishery has certain peak weekends, the fact that it lasts for most of the summer tends to thin participation out a bit. Next, the fact that the fishery is located a long distance from either Anchorage or Fairbanks, and it requires camping out in fairly rustic conditions, makes the Copper preferable to many who would rather spend a few days dipnetting at their leisure than to tackle the frenetic pace on the lower Kenai. And then there's the fish; Copper River reds are known around the world for better flavor and higher oil content than reds caught elsewhere. When it comes to table quality, Copper River reds are second to none.
The most popular fish on the Copper are, by a country mile, red salmon. The historical average over the last years is nearly 834,000 fish. The run often comes on strong, and remains fishable for several weeks. There are two major runs of sockeye salmon, with the first large run hitting the river in late May, along with a run of king salmon, averaging between 20-35 lbs, with some considerably larger fish being caught by dipnetters. The second major sockeye run kicks in during July and is followed by a run of silver salmon that show up in August. That run tapers off around the middle of September.
Current Dipnetting Report
The charter fishing operators at O'Brien Creek provide a free call-in fishing report hotline, which is updated regularly to reflect river conditions and fishing activity. Call this number before you head to Chitina!
Hem's Personal Use Dipnetting Hotline: 1 (907) 823-2200
Alaska Salmon Run Charts
Click the link below to pull up current or historical salmon run charts for all runs that are tracked in Alaska!
A Tale of Two Fisheries
There are two primary fisheries on the Copper River and both are available only to Alaska residents. These fisheries collectively represent the harvest of many thousands of pounds of wild salmon by and for Alaska residents, their families and their friends.
The Subsistence Fishery
The first of the two fisheries is the subsistence fishery, with bag limits running into the hundreds of salmon for the permit holder. State subsistence permit holders must choose between dipnetting or using a fish wheel; a device that is propelled by the river's current, which literally scoops fish into baskets, where they can be easily collected. The subsistence fishery covers a very long section of the river, starting at Slana, and continuing down the main stem of the Copper River to the downstream edge of the Chitina-McCarthy bridge.
The challenges faced by subsistence fishermen include all the dynamics of finding a place to fish amid all the private lands along the Copper River. This is no easy chore, and for many the best route is to simply set up near the bridge at Chitina, where a large flood plain makes it possible for several fish wheels to operate. Equally challenging is the construction, maintenance and physical placement of a fish wheel, weighing hundreds of pounds, into a place on the river where it is likely to catch fish. And finally you have the hard work involved in processing what may end up being hundreds of fish. The law requires fish wheels to be checked at a minimum every ten hours, and it's not unusual to come back after several hours of sleep to find your fish boxes full. Subsistence is hard work, but it sometimes pays big dividends.
The Personal - Use Fishery
The second fishery is the personal-use fishery, with reduced bag limits, reduced opportunity, and less area to fish. This fishery is limited to dipnet-only, and may be done from shore or out of a boat. The fishing area starts at the downstream edge of the Chitina-McCarthy bridge, and continues to a Department of Fish and Game marker located 200 yards above the Haley Creek confluence, in Wood Canyon on the Copper River.
Personal-use fishers are allowed a generous number of fish (more than some families can actually consume in a season), and many Alaskans customarily share their fish with friends and relatives elsewhere, as has been an Alaska tradition for many years. Dipnetters face several unique challenges, some of which are driven by the limited number of places they can dipnet without trespassing on private native lands in the area. And they many of them need places to camp, to prepare meals and to rest, as they are usually on-site for several days at a time. Finally, the care of their catch presents several challenges in order to get it all home in good condition.
Land Use Issues
A very important issue facing Copper River fishermen involves the potential of trespassing on private native lands. Most of the land bordering the Copper River is privately-held, with the largest land holders in the Chitina area being the Chitina Native Corporation, and the Ahtna Native Corporation. Both organizations have private land bordering the river, some of which impedes dipnetters from reaching the river.
It is the responsibility of the dipnetters themselves to ensure that they are not trespassing on private property. If you are camping in a fee-based campsite, some of which are owned by the native corporations, you must pay the appropriate fees and comply with the standards expected of users of these places.
The largest pieces of public land in the area are below the "mean high water mark" of the river, and in public right-of-ways associated with the roads in the area.
Mean High-Water Mark
The term "mean high-water mark" normally refers to the average maximum height of the river channel in a given year. As the river subsides throughout the year, lands that were flooded in high water become accessible again. This corridor of land, present on both sides of the river, varies considerably in width, due to the terrain gradient, therefore some areas might offer enough room to set up camp, to park a motor home and so forth, while other areas barely offer enough room to navigate the riverbank. In the case of the Copper River, the mean high-water mark was established and agreed-upon by all interested parties during the 1950's. Therefore, because of changes to the river channel since the boundaries were established, some areas now have vegetation growing on them, and yet they are considered public lands. Other areas that would appear to be below the mean high-water mark are privately held. Because of these changes in the river course over the years since the boundaries were established, some of these designations are currently being challenged, and remain for the courts to decide. For example, lands on both sides of the McCarthy Road to the east of the Chitina-McCarthy bridge are currently in dispute. Until ownership is decided by the courts, the public is allowed to use these areas without being required to pay any fees for trespass. Keep an eye on this situation, as it will be resolved and dipnetters must be aware of who the current managers are.
In many cases, the right-of way extends from the center line of the road, to a distance of 150 feet on both sides of the road. Near the Chitina-McCarthy bridge, the public right-of-way extends 300 feet on either side of the center line of the road. It's important that dipnetters realize where the boundaries of private land are (they are not posted or fenced), and to ensure that they are not trespassing on private land. The best way to ensure compliance is to contact either of the native corporations for clarification. The two most common uses of the public right-of-way concern the dipnetting locations near the bridge, and the road corridor down into Wood Canyon, on the Copper River just past O'Brien Creek.
As personal-use and subsistence fishing increase in popularity, concerns about taking proper care of the land and resources begin to rise. Currently, the cutting of firewood is prohibited on the lands within the personal-use fishing area. If you plan to have a campfire, do so only in designated fire pits, or down along the flood plain of the river, where rising water will erase all signs of your fire. Of course pick out any unburnt trash or food items to avoid an unsightly mess or to avoid attracting wildlife.
Restroom facilities are limited to porta-potties in the O'Brien Creek area, toilets in the campground on the east side of the bridge, to the south of the McCarthy Road, and porta-potties in the lands east of the Chitina-McCarthy bridge, to the north of the McCarthy Road. Do not deposit human waste / toilet paper in the woods. The number of fishermen using these areas is beyond the carrying capacity of the land, and it is important that you dispose of human waste properly. If you are camped some distance from restroom facilities, consider using rocket boxes or other portable toilet systems, and haul your waste out of the field.
Trash seems to accumulate whenever large crowds of people gather, and once someone tosses something out on the ground, it begins to collect more garbage in the area. You brought the trash there with you; haul yours out, along with some extra you might find laying around. While it's frustrating at times to have to pick up after others, in the end the goal is to keep Alaska beautiful. It's the Alaska way.
Proper disposal of fish waste is a growing concern along the Copper River. The personal-use fishing regulations require that fish waste is deposited in the water in a manner that it will be carried off by the current of the Copper River. Some dipnetters opt to clean their fish in clear-water tributaries or even in standing pools of clear water, not knowing that water levels may drop later, drying up those still pools or exposing shallow eddies where fish waste can accumulate. This causes a very unpleasant stench for future dipnetters to deal with, and it attracts nuisance bears. Follow the regulations, and drop your fish waste in the main stem of the Copper, where it will be carried downriver where it can become part of the ecosystem where it belongs.
Safety on the Copper River
The Copper River is a very dangerous waterway; among the top most dangerous road-accessible rivers in the state. This is due to a number of factors. First, the Copper is a glacial river. This means that the water is very cold, and that it carries a heavy load of powdered rock, a result of its tributary glaciers scouring out the bedrock. This powdered rock, sometimes called glacial flour, remains in suspension from the headwaters of the Copper, until it flows to the sea. This silt can penetrate your clothing, weighing you down and causing you to sink faster than you normally would in a non-glacial river. Next, the Copper is very swift and deep in places, particularly in Wood Canyon, just below the Chitina-McCarthy bridge. The canyon walls are very steep in places, and even in the places that are not quite so steep, rockslides are commonplace. The rock in this area is mostly shale, consisting of large flat slabs of rock, with sharp edges. These rocks can be very unstable, and a careless dip netter can easily start a small rockslide just by walking across some areas. Such rockslides can carry you right into the river.
If you're dipnetting the canyon, it's generally recommended that you avoid wearing waders. Instead, where knee-high rubber boots. If you do fall in, kick off your boots if necessary, so you can attempt to swim to shore. Some fishermen opt to secure a rope to the bank, and the other end around themselves. In this way they can either self-rescue, or they can be pulled in by fellow dipnetters, should they fall in the river. Ensure that your rope is short enough to prevent you from falling into the river in the first place, and all you may get is a few bumps and bruises on the rocks.
Note that many ropes are secured to rocks in popular dipnetting areas, and it is common for dipnetters to use and re-use these ropes to secure themselves to the rocks. ALWAYS test these anchor points, as ropes become frayed or unsafe to use. It's usually best to bring your own ropes and secure them properly before use. Some dipnetters use a rescue harness to secure themselves to the rope. This can make it easier for helpers to pull you out of the water.
For many Alaskans the Copper River subsistence and personal-use fisheries provide an opportunity for an annual pilgrimage to a wild place where self-reliance and the old Alaskan "can-do" attitude still prevail, in a place where you can gather with friends and family, to socialize while harvesting the bounty the river provides, as a hedge against the coming winter. It's a time of adventure, of showing respect for the land, and of working together in community with other Alaskans who share a common purpose.
Brown / grizzly bears and black bears are found throughout the area, but their presence on the river during the early part of the season (May-June) is spotty. Activity increases dramatically later in the season, and tends to peak in August and September. Be mindful of bears in the area, and take the normal precautions by not eating in your tent, keeping food items locked away in your vehicle or in bear-proof containers. Fish placed in the newer heavy-duty coolers can be secured by padlocking the lids shut. This prevents bears from opening the coolers and getting at your fish.
How to Dipnet the Copper River
We have outlined several tactics for dipnetting on our Dipnetting Techniques page, but it should be noted that some methods differ from one river to another. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has provided some excellent video materials showing the different methods used on the Copper River, along with information on what you need and how to rig up. Be sure to check these videos out for more details:
ADF&G Videos on Dipnetting the Copper River
Celebrate Diversity! Pick up Someone's Trash!
Very few Alaskans were born here, and most of those came from parents or grandparents who moved here from somewhere else. At the same time, we live among people who can trace their ancestry back to a time when Alaska was a very primitive place, devoid of the modern trappings of development. So Alaska is an amazing melting pot of diverse cultures, with vastly diverse perspectives on nature, the environment, and on how we conduct ourselves in the field. Most of the cultures represented in Alaska today have their roots in a strong love for the outdoors, and an intensely personal environmental ethic. Traditional Samoan culture has a very high regard for the environment and man's place in it. Filipino culture embraces a concept they call "pakikisama", or "harmony", in which getting along with others is respected. They also incorporate the principle of "hiya", or "shame". It's a sense of social decency that drives them to comply with public norms of behavior. Japanese culture embraces the notion of living with nature, as opposed to the Western concept of taming nature. Alaska native culture embraces a love for the land and the creatures that live on it, recognizing man's role as a participant in nature. Western culture, though having gone through times when care for the environment took a back seat to industrial progress, has come full-circle to now setting high standards of environmental protection and accountability. Gone are the days when tossing beer cans into the weeds at the old fishing hole, or flipping cigarette butts into the river were accepted practices. Now, we pick up after ourselves and those around us.
As interest in Alaska grows, we are seeing an increase in the numbers of people on our rivers and lakes. Some of these people come from places where strong environmental ethics were not in place, and they are bringing that here. We are seeing an increase in trash left behind by people who should know better. A bag full of trash, left lying where a trash can used to be, will attract other people to leave their trash in that place as well. Let's break that cycle, by hauling out our own trash.
Regardless of your cultural or social background, we are all Alaskans, and we share a strong environmental perspective. We don't want our home to become like some of the places we came from. The Alaskan environmental ethic drives us to not only haul out our own trash, but to bring along a couple of extra bags to pick up after other people as well. We teach our children to do the same, because this is our cultural norm. Many of the dipnetting sites in Alaska have no trash facilities, and garbage left behind by some becomes a burden others must clean up. Let's take the initiative to show our love for this amazing place by cleaning up after ourselves, and by leaving no trace of our campsites.
Need More Information About Alaska Dipnetting?
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Check out the following links to the various dipnetting locations in Alaska.