Using dipnets -- which have nets up to 5 feet in diameter at the end -- isn't easy, and the river can get pretty crowded. Robert Carter, a novice dipnetter, holds up the first fish he caught after a day on the Kenai River.
Dipnetters stand waist-deep in the water at high tide on the Kenai River, three hours south of Anchorage.
Fishing purists, be warned. This story is not for you.
Yes, it's about salmon fishing on a scenic river in Alaska. But no one here is hooking a prize fish in the remote wilderness. This kind of fishing is all about crowds and slop buckets and big contraptions called dipnets — and the lengths Alaskans will go to in order to fill their freezers with sockeye salmon.
Novena Registe sits on a cooler on the beach at the mouth of the Kenai River, relaxing in the sun after a long day of fishing. Registe started dipnetting 10 years ago to feed her family; now, she does it for a different reason.
"It's when that fish hit that net and you pull it out, it's a special feeling that no one can describe," Registe says. "It just makes you feel so good — that, you know, 'Yes, I got it!' "
To get that fish, Registe stands in frigid water holding onto a 10-foot pole attached to a fishing net the size and shape of a kiddie pool. It's not easy work, but consider this: In a store, salmon can sell for $20 a pound. Here, each resident is entitled to harvest 25 sockeyes for the price of a $25 fishing license.
Registe has caught seven fish so far.
The crowds on the Kenai, three hours south of Anchorage, are not for everyone. When the fishing is hot, dipnetters are standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the water.
But it's not hard to find people who love the carnivalesque scene, including Monica Workman.
"This is truly the Alaskan experience," she says. "We own a boat and people think we're crazy, because they're like, 'Why don't you just take your boat out?' And we're like, 'No way!' "
Workman is dipnetting with her husband and two kids. They all have a job to do: Her husband catches the fish, her son bonks them on the head, her daughter slices the gills and Workman guts them.
This year, they brought along a friend, Robert Carter, who's in his 70s but dipnetting for the first time. It hasn't been an easy initiation. Carter has patiently held his net in the water for most of the day without catching a single fish. And then, finally — success.
He drags the net onto the beach to inspect his catch, declaring it a monster, then holds his dipnet in one hand and his fish in the other to pose for a celebratory picture.
"Happy fisherman," he says. "That was unbelievable!"
But Carter has no time to talk more about his first dipnet experience. He needs to get back in the water to catch another salmon.