Alaska Dipnetting Techniques
If you go to any river in Alaska where dipnetting is allowed, you will notice right away that some dipnetters seem to catch a lot more fish than others, and some catch few, if any. There are several reasons for this. First, the characteristics of the river bottom and the current flow have a major impact on success rates. Fish tend to congregate in deeper holes or in back-eddies. This is particularly true of hooligan, and of king salmon. In fact, kings are often found in deeper water that dipnetters cannot usually reach. If your neighbor is out-fishing you six to one, there's a good chance he's found a depression in the riverbed that's holding fish. It doesn't need to be much of a depression, either. Just a couple of inches will break up the current enough to hold fish.
Another contributor to success rates is the color and type of net used, particularly in clearer water. This is discussed in detail in our Dipnetting Gear page. The final reason for success or failure has to do with the technique the dipnetter is using. Let's discuss this in detail here.
The techniques listed on this page are used in various areas, however they may be modified to fit the conditions on the river being fished.
Shore-Based Dipnetting Techniques
Rigging and Getting Set Up
When you first arrive at the dipnetting location, take a few minutes to find a place to set up. You'll need room to put your net together, get your other equipment ready, and to park everything so you can deal with incoming fish quickly and efficiently. Fish are not going to jump out of the river and into your cooler; you've got to get that net in the water and keep it there as long as possible. That means that getting set up quickly, and having a plan to deal with your fish quickly are critical to catching a lot of fish. Go over your gear at home, work off of a checklist to make sure you have everything you need and can get set up with as little hassle as possible.
The most basic dipnetting technique is the "post" method. Simply put, the post method involves standing in the river or on the bank, with your net held at a 90-degree angle to the flow of the river. You stand there until a fish swims into your net. This method is the primary technique used when the current is weak enough to allow it. This method also allows the maximum number of dipnetters to work the river.
When a fish hits the net, the net is flipped over to trap the fish, and the net is dragged to shore. In crowded areas, this means dipnetters standing on either side of the person with the fish will have to move to the side to make room for the hoop of the net to travel along the bottom, sideways. This is one way where anglers can become entangled in someone's net, especially if their wading shoes have hooked eyelets that are not covered by gaiters.
The post method can be used on any river where the current allows the net to be deployed without being pushed along by the flow of water. In tidal areas like the lower Kenai and Kasilof rivers, the post method may only be possible an hour or two before and after slack tide. Either side of that and the current picks up speed, possibly forcing a change in technique.
The sweep method is similar to the post, in that the dipnetter is stationary on the bank or in the river. The difference is that rather than the net remaining in a fixed location, it is swept along the bottom with the current. The net is dropped into the current at about a 45-degree upstream angle to the dipnetter, the current carries the net along and it is pulled from the river at about a 45-degree downstream angle. The net is moved back upstream and the process is repeated.
The sweep method is used in several situations, and in almost all cases it replaces the post method when the current is too strong to allow the dipnetter to hold the net in a stationary position, but where circumstances may prevent using the conga line method.
Sweeping is also a transitional method used in tidal areas such as the Kenai, and the Kasilof rivers, where the speed of the current varies with the phase of the tide. It's a "transitional" method in these situations, because the dipnetter typically spends most of the time in a post position, but then finds the current beginning to push the net downstream. A dip netter will begin sweeping, and may eventually be forced to switch to the conga line method, if sweeping proves to be too much work.
Sweeping is very difficult, hard work with longer dipnet pole setups; the ideal pole length for sweeping for salmon is around 16 feet.
Sweeping is used almost universally for hooligan fishing, and is a primary tactic used in the Copper River canyon.
The "conga line" is a combination of the post and the sweep methods. A dipnetter will place the hoop in the water at a 45-degree upstream angle to the bank, and allow the current to push it so it is perpendicular to the bank. At that point he will walk along the bank or in the river at the same speed the river is pushing the net, until the net stops or downstream travel is no longer practical. This method is referred to as a "conga line", because it usually involves a line of dipnetters, one following the other, in a continuous loop through the river, out of the river, walking upstream along the bank, and back in the river. When you catch a fish, you break out of the line and drag the fish ashore, to your staging area. Some conga lines are only a few yards long, while others are much farther. The key to dipnetting in a conga line is to travel at the same rate as other dipnetters. For this reason, it's a good idea to use a net with a pole length similar to what the other dippers are using.
Drifting is a unique, creative way to pick up those fish just out of reach for shore-based dipnetters. It involves donning a wetsuit or dry suit and a pair of swim fins and a life jacket. You swim out past the shore-based dipnetters and bob along with the current, using a net without much of a handle on it, to scoop fish out of the river. Because the net is carried along in the upper part of the water column, fish that hug the bottom (like king salmon) are rarely caught this way. You end up drifting over the top of them. This method has a small following on the lower Kenai River, however the heavy load of glacial silt, combined with the fast current on the Copper River makes this type of dipnetting dangerous in that area.
The frames used for these nets are often made of PVC pipe, and there is usually a float or two attached, so the operator can pick fish while drifting along. Fish are usually retained on a stringer attached to the belt of the dipnetter, a potentially dangerous practice if seals or salmon sharks are present, as they sometimes are.
The Use of Floats
In situations where there's a risk of entangling the net in debris on the riverbed, floats may be used to suspend the bottom of the net just off the bottom. Floats may be traditional foam floats used in the commercial fishing industry, or more commonly, a water bottle or milk jug with the cap securely tightened to prevent water from entering. The float is secured to the top of the hoop frame with a short length of cord, with the length of cord dependent on how deep you want the net to ride in the water. Floats also help keep the hoop perpendicular to the bottom, which becomes a greater challenge in heavy current or with long-handled nets.
Fish the Net All the Way Out!
Some dipnetters fixate on wading out as far as possible, believing that they increase their chances of catching fish. They're missing a lot of fish that swim along the shoreline in shallow water. As you enter the water, push the hoop of your net along the bottom all the way out to your spot; you'd be surprised how many fish you will catch on your way out.
When a Fish Hits
In most cases your dipnet will use commercial gillnet material, which is designed to allow a fish's head to push through the webbing far enough for it's gills to become hung up. But many fish that hit the net do not become entangled in it. Sometimes they dart off in another direction as soon as they become aware of the net, and sometimes they are only barely tangled in it and can shake free. For this reason, most dipnetters learn to flip their net as soon as they feel a fish in it. The trick is in knowing whether to flip the net upstream or downstream, because if you flip the wrong direction, you could end up releasing the fish. Base your decision on which way the fish are moving in the river. In most cases, fish will be moving upstream, so flipping the top of the net downstream should trap a fish inside. But in some cases, fish are actually moving down river. Fish usually orient themselves with their noses into the current, so in a back-eddy, or flow reversal, portions of the hole are actually running upriver. In those cases, flip the top of your net upriver to trap a fish. In tidal areas, fish may be oriented downstream as the tide comes in, or they could be pointed just about any direction, with the onset of slack tide. In those cases, you'll have to experiment and observe other dipnetters to determine which way to flip your net.
Once you've flipped your net, make every effort to drag the hoop across the bottom. Sometimes fish are only lightly hung up in the net, and can escape if you lift the hoop. Once you get the fish up on the bank, grab it quickly or it could still escape.
Stun your fish with a blow to the top of the head. If the fish is flopping around a lot, it may be difficult to hit the fish squarely in the head. In those cases, grab the fish securely around the caudal peduncle (the narrow place just before the tail). If you squeeze tightly here, the fish will be immobilized. Give the fish a quick blow in the head to stun it, then bleed it by ripping or cutting a couple of gill arches on each side.
Dipnetting out of a boat is completely different than shore-based dipnetting, and generally the boat dipnetters fare much better than shore-based folks. During the peak of a run, it's possible for a boat to completely limit out on salmon in an hour. A boat offers very limited space, so organization is key. A typical boat setup involves two nets, run by one person each, a boat driver, and sometimes a fourth person to deal with the fish (picking them out of the net, killing / bleeding them, and putting them on ice).
Short-handled dipnets are usually used, with handles in the 6' range. The forward portion of the handle is secured to the bow cleat on the boat, with a cord length that allows the dipnetter to hold the net perpendicular to the surface of the river. The net may have either a Tee or a D-shape to it, as the purpose of the handle is to provide enough leverage to keep the net fully deployed in the current.
When a boat-based dipnetter hits a fish, his first response is to twist the handle of the net, to enclose the fish in the net bag. He then lifts the net into the boat by pulling straight back on the handle. Avoid leveraging the net out of the boat by bracing the handle on the gunnels. The reasons for this are to avoid bending the handle, and to get as much of the handle as possible out of the way so there is enough room to lay the hoop down in the boat. This allows you to pick the fish out of the net inside the boat itself.
The boat operator will typically make a run with the outboard in idle, so he can pull in or out from the bank as required. Once a run is completed, the nets will be pulled aboard and the operator will run back upstream and do the run again, or move on to another spot.
Instructional Videos on Dipnetting Techniques
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has produced a series of videos on how to dipnet the Copper River. While tailored for the Copper, which is a unique fishery, the techniques and suggestions can be used in other contexts. Check them out!
ADF&G Videos on Dipnetting the Copper River
The Effects of Sound
Depending on the turbidity of the water, sound can travel underwater at the rate of about six football-fields in a second (4.5 times faster than sound travels through air). That means that loose hardware on your dipnet pole, or a wobbly pole section can be heard clear across the span of the McCarthy Bridge on the Copper River, or all the way across the mouth of the Kenai River in less than a second.
Fish don't respond to metallic clicks and clangs very well, so it's a sure bet that they can hear your dipnet banging and clanging across the bottom long before they find your net. The good news is that the water is turbid (so they can't see where they're going) and the combined noise of other dipnetters probably has fish darting all over the place. That said, it's to your advantage to quiet your net as much as possible. How can you do that?
- Tape your hardware. This prevents loose nuts from spinning off, it reduces the clicking sounds made by loose nuts and bolts, and it eliminates a snagging hazard, where your net or your neighbor's net can become tangled in your hardware.
- Pad the bottom of your hoop. Install a length of garden hose to the bottom portion of your hoop. This will help prevent abrasion to your net, while quieting its impact on the riverbed.
- Keep still. If you're using the post method, try to remain as still as possible. Better for the guy upstream or downstream of you to make noise; he might drive a fish into your net!
- If you're using the sweep or the conga line method, consider installing a float at the top of the hoop, just enough to keep the net just off the bottom. Granted, the others in the conga line may not do that, and they may push the fish farther out in the channel, but it certainly gets you into stealth mode, with a greater chance of picking up fish.
How Not to Be "That Guy"
Most of the time, dipnetters are having a good time and get along well with each other. But when fish are scarce, tempers can flare, especially when a dipnetter loses a fish because of some act of ineptitude by another dipnetter. Here are a few tips on how to be a good neighbor and to avoid causing trouble for other dipnetters.
When in Rome...
While Alaskans are known for independent thinking and going against the flow, dipnetters quickly learn to perform in unison, for maximum effectiveness. If you notice that the dipnetters at your location are running a conga line, join in! As was mentioned, sometimes you have to change techniques as water flow changes. Be tuned in and don't lock yourself in to the method you've been using for a few hours. If a post has been working for you, but the current speed has picked up, switch to a sweep or a conga line if necessary. If you're still able to hold bottom with the post method, but other dippers are starting to sweep or use a conga line, it's time to change methods. Few things are a greater irritation to other dipnetters than one person standing in the river while the entire conga line has to work around him. Whatever you do, match your method to what the other dipnetters are doing.
Stay off the Prime Real Estate
Place your gear and fish well away from the water. When you catch a fish, take it and your net well away from where others are dipnetting. This is especially important in conga line setups, where dipnetters are walking upstream and downstream along the beach. Coolers, packs, and other gear form a tripping hazard and can cause nets to become tangled in your equipment. This also applies when you are cleaning your fish; get out of the way!
Don't Steal Someone's Spot
During peak dipnetting times, it can get really crowded on the beach. When someone catches a fish, they move out of the water and it's fairly common for someone else to pop right in the vacated spot. Though you are legally entitled to fish where you want to fish, it's rude to take someone's spot while they are temporarily dealing with a fish. Find another spot. If it appears that the other dipnetter is done using that place, ask them to confirm, and go for it!
Don't Snag Other People's Gear
Sooner or later, you're going to get tangled in someone else's net. The precautions you take in advance can keep such things to a minimum. Tape all your hardware down, and wear gaiters over your boots. Covering anything on your net or boots that could snag someone else's net is a common courtesy that allows you and your neighbor to continue fishing without the delays involved in untangling yourselves from each other's gear.
Don't Block the Other Person's Net
If dipnetters are spaced widely apart, they can all catch fish even if their nets are the same distance from shore. This is because fish move toward or away from the bank somewhat randomly as they move upriver. But in close quarters, where dipnetters are only ten or fifteen feet apart from each other (or less), it's another story. In that situation, a net placed directly downstream of yours may completely block your net, so you will not catch anything.
Properly Dispose of Fish Waste
Many people clean their fish at the river. If that's you, set your cleaning station up well away from the area where people are actively dipnetting. Dispose of fish waste by chunking it up and tossing it into the main flow of the river, downstream from where people are dipnetting. If you toss it short, the people downstream will end up catching your fish carcasses in your net.
Avoid feeding fish waste to the birds. In popular dipnetting areas, seagulls can congregate by the hundreds, feeding on carcasses and other fish waste left behind. Seagulls deposit waste into the water, which in some cases can contribute to a dramatic rise in fecal coliform bacterial counts. Most people at least rinse their fish in river water to clean the outside of sand and debris; nobody wants to rinse their fish in polluted water.
Keep off the Grass!
Many areas of interest to dipnetters are sensitive wildlife habitat areas. This is particularly true of tidal estuary areas and river mouths like the Kenai, Kasilof and Fish Creek. Temporary fences and signs have been set up to protect beach grasses and sedges from foot traffic, off-road vehicle use and ATV activity. Respect these fences and signs, and make a solid effort to protect the habitat!
Alaska dipnetting takes place in very cold rivers of glacial origin. The very cold temperatures of these rivers, combined with the heavy load of glacial silt they carry, make them extremely dangerous rivers. ALWAYS wear a Personal Floatation Device (PFD).
Be ready to adjust your technique to fit the situation, and remember that, especially in tidewater areas, it may be necessary to change methods as the tide ebbs and flows. Always be alert to other dipnetters around you; be courteous and seek ways to avoid compromising their experience, by staging your gear away from the dipnetting area, cleaning your fish well away from active dipnetters, disposing of your fish waste in the main river channel (or packing it out), and by using techniques that do not compromise other dipnetters.
Need More Information About Alaska Dipnetting?
We've got you covered! Check out the Dipnetting Menu on the left side of this page, or click one of the links below for more information.
Check out the following links to the various dipnetting locations in Alaska.