Introduction[edit | edit source]
The Chitina personal use salmon fishery is a special fishing opportunity that is available to Alaskan residents. Information about this fishery is available from the ADF&G website . Fishing in the Copper River is more challenging - and potentially more rewarding - than conventional sport fishing with rod and reel. Along with the challenges presented by fishing in the Copper River, participants in this fishery have the opportunity to harvest up to 30 salmon per household. Fishing at Chitina is not a casual experience.
Getting (and Being) There[edit | edit source]
The town of Chitina, Alaska is a small settlement about 55 miles east of the Richardson Highway on the north side of Thompson Pass. The trip from either Anchorage or Fairbanks is over 6 hours each way. Tourist accommodations in Chitina are minimal, and most who intend to dipnet in the Copper River come prepared to be more or less self-sufficient. Motor homes, campers, vans, trucks, and tents are all used by people who plan to spend the night. OBrien Creek has been a central gathering point for dipnetters who fish in the canyon. Camping at OBrien Creek is doable, but has some serious drawbacks. For one thing, it can be crowded because there isn't a lot of room. There are a couple of primitive outhouses, and the rest of the place is completely ad hoc. Grab a spot and make the best of it. You're there to fish, remember? There are lots of places to camp away from OBrien Creek. You can stay upriver a bit by driving across the bridge from Chitina. To the left of the road there is an enormous gravel bar, very exposed to wind. On the opposite side of the road is a pleasant campground with tables and fire pits. That's the place that I've stayed the last few times because (a)it's not at OBrien Creek and (b) it's not windy there, since there are lots of trees for shelter.
What to Bring[edit | edit source]
The gear is simple. You need a net. But not just any net. You need a landing net - the kind that you'd use if you were fishing for salmon with a rod and reel - but here you need one with an 12 foot-long handle. They're a pain to pack in the car. The net hoop comes off the handle, and it can fit in the car, but the handle itself has to ride on the outside. And the hoop will most likely be riding outside because it will be slimier than you are on the long drive home. And unless you want your car to have that dead fish odor for the winter, you'll find a way to tie it to the roof. Hardware stores in Fairbanks and other commercial districts sell dipnets all summer long.
A rope isn't necessary, but it's advisable for those who'd like some insurance against the possibility of getting flushed downriver. The river is swift, silt laden, and cold. If a person ends up in the river current, swimming back to the bank may not be do-able. People have drowned while fishing from the bank because they went in the river. Bring a PFD and wear it, even if you're fishing from shore.
Knives, sharpening stone, a club for killing fish, coolers, ice, raingear, warm clothes, food, and other necessary things for fishing anywhere in Alaska should also find their way into your kit. Footwear is worth some thought. Comfortable shoes for the car, a pair of sturdy boots for fishing from the rocks, and a pair of rubber boots for wading in the creek while cleaning the fish are all recommended.
Standard procedure for most outings is to bring a pair of clean clothes to wear in the car on the way home. You never know what the weather is going to do, and it's nice to be dry. In this case, count on smelling like dead fish and looking like you've been through a battle when you're done fishing. Don't forget to bring a plastic garbage bag to put your slimywear in for the trip home.
The Copper River[edit | edit source]
The Copper River is 300 miles long. Its headwaters are in the Wrangell Mts., and flow south through the Chugach Mts. to the Gulf of Alaska. Copper deposits near the upper river attracted miners but access was difficult because of the river’s powerful current. The Kennecott copper mine near McCarthy was developed because of the of the Copper River and Northwestern Railroad which followed the river along part of its lower valley. The railroad was built in 1910 to create transportation for copper ore from the Kennicott Mines near McCarthy.
Today the Copper is noted for its salmon. Sections of this old railroad right of way are still driveable with a four-wheel drive vehicle. The section of the old railroad right of way south of Chitina is used by people who want to fish in Wood Canyon. Presently this road is blocked by a landslide that has not been cleared. The road is officially closed, but determined fishermen nonetheless use it to get to their preferred fishing spots. Four-wheelers (ATV's) pulling trailers loaded with coolers cruise this road all summer long.
Finding a Fishing Spot[edit | edit source]
Finding a place to fish along the Copper River isn't hard. Finding a safe place where you can also catch and keep a bunch of salmon requires some effort, though. The Copper is a big, fast-moving, battleship gray, glacier-fed river that barrels along carrying all manner of stumps and other flotsam. When you get to Chitina, you could simply drive on through town and find a spot near the bridge that crosses the river. The personal use fishery is downstream from the bridge. You could go there, but I can't tell you much about that because I've never done it that way. Without a boat to help you get out to deeper water, you are left with the choice of wading out in the river until it is deep enough to fish, or you can look for a rock to perch on. Wading in that powerful river looks both cold and dangerous to me. Rocks to fish from are abundant in the canyon.
Many people drove into the canyon using the abandoned railroad right of way until there was a landslide that cut most of the route off from cars and trucks. Now there is a barricade and a sign warning that the road is dangerous. People still travel on it, though, using four-wheelers and pulling little trailers. But nobody should think that because you can get back there with a utility vehicle it is easy to get to the fishing spots. Traveling the road is only the first part of the process. Getting to the river is slightly more challenging because you have to climb down the rocky canyon wall on what amounts to a goat trail to get to the river. The road is probably over a hundred feet above the river, and the ground is criss-crossed with snaking footpaths made by legions of dipnetters over the years. And if your knees complain about the steep cliffs you have to climb down, your thighs, back, and heart are going to feel the pain of climbing back up to the road with over a hundred pounds of fish. To minimize the ibuprofin consumption and save a little time (and because I don't have a four-wheeler) I pay for a ride down the canyon in a charter boat. It's an informal process. Show up at about 5:00AM and stand around in line. When the charter operator shows up you wait in line some more until he gives you the nod to step up onto the bow of the boat. He takes your gear and stows it. You sit down with about 5 other people and reach for your wallet. He counts the money in a wad and pockets it. You roar down the canyon looking for the perfect spot. The boat ride doesn't take long. Maybe only about a half hour at the most. If it's the second or third run of the day, you notice people all up and down the river perched on boulders and cliffsides, many of them with ropes tied around their waists. If the fishing is good, it's not uncommon to watch someone pull their net out of the water with a fish in it.
The places to fish in the canyon are usually not very spacious because the rocks are steep. The best spots have some room to move up and down the bank without having to be too careful about slipping into the river. This is important because when you have a fish (or two) in the net you need some room to get it out of the net, kill it, and store it for the day. This "killing spot" gets slimy from the combination of blood, fish slime and water that all end up collecting there. It's a sad thing when one of your fish manages to slide back into the river, and it's a worse thing if your net, your knife, or even you end up sliding into the river. So a little sheltered nook in the rocks is something to look for. More important than that, though, is what the river is doing at that particular spot. The legal fishing zone on the Copper River is where this big boiling stream gets funnelled between canyon walls. The canyon walls fall abruptly down into the river and form a serrated gantlet with outcroppings that interrupt the river's relentless push. Powerful swirling eddies can be found downstream from these outcrops. Such places are ideal for dipnetting because the upriver push from the eddy holds the net bag open, making it more likely that a salmon swimming upstream will find its way into the net and, eventually, your cooler.
Catching Fish[edit | edit source]
Every trip to Chitina is different. It is hard to say what to expect. A good rule of thumb is to expect a certain amount of pain and discomfort. If you catch fish, then it was worth it, and if the fish are there, you'll catch fish. If you don't catch fish, then maybe you learned something.
Timing is important. To predict when, and how many fish will be in the canyon, The State of Alaska monitors the runs with a sonar station at Miles Lake. When the sockeye are running, they take about 10 days to get from the sonar station to the canyon.
The intersection of a healthy run of fish with decent weather, the proper water level, and the time required to get the fish is not always an easy call. Communication networks between Chitina and other Alaskan communities are spotty, and conditions can change overnight. Nonetheless, with the exception of one trip to Chitina, I've alway caught enough fish to make it worthwhile. The exception was in the summer of '04 when I got there on a very cold and windy night. The charter operator informed all of his prospective clients that nobody had caught any fish since the previous afternoon, and he advised us to save our money and find something else to do that day. At first I considered waiting a day or so. It was too cold to sit around outside in the wind, so I tried crawling into my sleeping bag and spending the day reading and sleeping in the back of my truck, under the topper. My one-ton truck was rocking in the wind, and I hadn't brought enough food to last for more than another day or so. It was a 90 mile drive back to Glenallen for groceries. Impatience got the best of me and I decided to drive to Glenallen. When I got there it seemed like a good idea to continue heading on down the road back home. So on that trip I didn't even get my net wet. Later that summer I made another trip and got my limit of 30 fish in about 6 hours of fishing.
The summer of '05 I was lucky enough to get to go with my friend, Clarence. We found a camp spot in a campground near the bridge in the woods (and out of the wind), where we spent the night in a tent. Early next morning - like 4:00AM - we broke camp and went to O'Brien Creek to meet the charter operator. There were already a few people ahead of us, but the weather and the bugs were not bad, so waiting for him to make room for us on his second trip wasn't too painful. We got dropped off in a little cove-like place with a lot of trees on a steep slope that came right down to the water. It was hard to move around through the trees with the long-handled nets. We each found a rock to stand on. We had our nets in the water almost 30 minutes before either one of us felt the familiar "bump" of a fish in the net. The time it took to catch the first fish wasn't a good sign, but it was good to see a fish come up in the net and end up on the stringer because we knew there were at least some fish in the river. Sometimes there's a lull in the run. It was slow, though. After 3 hours we'd caught fewer than 20 fish. This may sound greedy, but for people who spend money on truck gas and a charter boat, and who want to catch enough fish to fill a freezer for a whole year, going home with a full ticket is important. We could have taken 40 apiece. But we weren't getting that kind of action.
There are two basic net-handling techniques. Which one you use depends on what the river is like in the spot where you fish, and how strong - or tired - your arms are. If you have an eddy to fish in, you can just stick your net in the water and the upriver flow of the eddy will hold the net bag open. The salmon simply swim into the net and you lift them out of the river. If the eddy is strong, your arms get tired holding the net in one place because the river current moves the net around quite a bit. Without an eddy you have to sweep the net downriver faster than the current so that the net bag stays open. This is hard work. Shoulders and hands do a lot of work. Lifting the empty net out of the river and swinging it above the water back upstream and pulling/pushing it downstream over and over is work. Bringing a fish out of the water is never a chore.
When you get the fish up on the rocks, you have to kill it before you take it out of the net, or it'll flop back down into the river and swim away. Finding a good spot to do this chore is one of the criteria for a good spot to fish. If you didn't get to your fishing spot with a boat, then you probably have to hike back up the cliff to the road, carrying your fish with one hand and holding onto the bushes and trees for support with your other hand. This fishing trip is not for everyone. But it's a great feeling to head home with a cooler full of the best-tasting salmon in the world.
Processing[edit | edit source]
Before you head home you'll want to clean the fish and pack them in coolers. The best place to do that is at the creek. The water is cold, so a pair of rubber boots is a good idea. It's a necessary chore, and probably the most difficult part of the whole effort. Many people fillet their catch. Others just head and gut the fish. Either way you can depend on cold hands and a tired back.
Be sure to throw the guts and carcasses directly into the fast moving water of the Copper. There are lots of bears in the area, and leaving guts on the beach or even in a creek can make for a dangerous encounter with a bear for the next person fishing or camping near that spot.
After changing out of slimy fishing pants, washing the fish slime off your hands, and having a strong cup of coffee you're ready for the 6 hour drive back to town.
Additional Links[edit | edit source]
- How to Dipnet for Salmon at Chitina video seriesVideos produced by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game that can be watched at their website.
- Mile Lake Sonar Count 2-3 weeks from Chitina, depending largely on water level.
- Hem's Charter hotline - 907-823-2200 good info on current fishing report, no guarantees.
- Copper River | Chitina Dipnet Escapement Charts Compare current ADF&G escapement data with previous years, including water level. Cumulative count, Trip Planner, Weather, and Fish & Game phone numbers included.
- View Old Photos of Dipnetting in the Copper River.
- A History of Personal Use and Subsistence Fishing in the Copper River.