KASILOF -- Dinner sizzles over the flickering orange flames of a campfire. Clothes dry on a makeshift clothesline hung through the center of camp. The front door is a tent flap, just feet from the restless gray waters of Cook Inlet. The first and last thing seen every day is the snow-capped Mount Redoubt towering on the far side of the salt.
Back in the city, the Conlon family schedule is dictated by work, school and extra-curricular activities, but the next few days will revolve around an ocean harvest the family pursues every year at this time.
The Conlons have come to catch salmon, enough to fill their freezer and last the winter. It’s a goal that brings hundreds of Alaskans -- and by state regulation, only Alaskans -- to the Kasilof River dipnet fishery, which extends from the river mouth to roughly a mile upstream.
Donning chest-high waders and wrestling the current while keeping a tight grip on long-handled dipnets, fishermen stand shoulder to shoulder at times. But Conlon said the Kasilof is the best option of the four dipnet fisheries around Alaska.
“I know more people go to the Kenai and the fish are bigger, but for us this is the better outdoor experience,” he said. “It’s a nice alternative to the ‘I have to get my fish right now and I’ll get mad if you bump my net’ mentality. This is much less frantic and crazy, and better for teaching the kids how to fish.”
Conlon and his wife, along with family friend Katie Harkey, caught 36 salmon in eight hours Tuesday. The adults do the bulk of the fishing, while their four kids do their parts on shore. After five years of dipnetting at the Kasilof, everyone is getting their roles down, according to Harkey.
“The kids watch us, but when we get a fish, they’re on it. One is a bonker, one cuts the tails off, one throws the guts, and one is an apprentice filleter,” she said.
When not fishing or processing fish, Conlon teaches the kids about respecting the resource. Unlike the Kenai dipnet fishery, where camping and parking fees collected by the city are put toward keeping the beaches clean of everything from human-generate garbage to fish carcasses, the Kasilof is state-managed.
Consequently, not as many services are provided and the natural habitat is not as safeguarded.
“We’ll walk the beach and pick up litter," Conlon said. “It’s important for them to learn and important for this fishery to continue in the future.”
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game does not issue permits for the China Poot Creek dipnet fishery across Kachemak Bay from Homer. But information gathered from permits issued for the Fish Creek dipnet fishery near Wasilla, and its cousins on the Kenai and Kasilof, indicate that the number of people taking part is growing exponentially, particularly on the Kasilof.
In 2014, according to Fish and Game, 35,989 personal-use permits were issued, more than any year since the fishery began in 1996.
“And I suspect we’ll see even more issued for this year, especially with the online permitting option we’ve gone to,” said Kristine Dunker, a research fisheries biologist with the Fish and Game office in Anchorage.
inaugural year, 14,575 permits were issued, and Kasilof dipnetters participated on 1,300 “household days" (fishing by one or more household members in a 24-hour period). Fish Creek recorded 3,749 days and the Kenai River had 10,503.
By last year there had been a huge increase in household days fished on the Kasilof, to 10,236. During the same period, Fish Creek’s numbers fell by half while the Kenai, which still draws more people overall, more than tripled, with 36,280 household days recorded.
“People definitely enjoy doing it, but there is a little bit of a misconception with what is going on,” Dunker said. “Not all of the permits get fished. Every year roughly 4,000 to 5,000 people won’t fish their permits, and of the people who do, not all are filling them (with the 25 salmon allocated to the head of household, plus 10 for each additional family member). A lot of people go when they can and get what they can.”
Still, as the fisheries have grown, so too has the harvest.
In 1996, 11,701 salmon were taken in Kasilof, 20,195 in Fish Creek, and 107,627 in the Kenai.
By 2014, the numbers swelled to 94,230 for the Kasilof, 12,170 for Fish Creek, and 404,866 for the Kenai.
Conlon said the Kasilof’s natural beauty and smaller crowd attracts dipnetters, while Brandon Young of Homer cited the shorter drive, lack of fees and extended season. While the Kenai dipnet fishery runs July 10-31, the Kasilof runs June 25-Aug. 7.
“With the season being more spread out, people have been catching fish for weeks, so they’re not as pressed for time like on the Kenai,” he said.
Rather than paying the $25 fee at the Kenai Dock Boat Launch, Young said he can drive down the Kasilof beach with his trailer and launch his small metal skiff from shore for free. The water is less congested too.
“We were one of only six boats out there today,” he said.
Karl Green of Anchorage said the frustration of dipnetting from a boat caused him to stop fishing the Kenai five years ago.
“Hundreds of boats was not uncommon for the middle of July, but for me it wasn’t even the crowds once out there," he said. "It was the two-hour wait to launch my boat and the two-hour wait to get it back out of the water that I got fed up with.”
Like Young, Green said the lack of fees also is a perk. Even more important is the longer openings. While the Kenai dipnet fishery is only open 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. the Kasilof runs 24 hours a day.
“I want to fish whenever I want," he said. "Here I can do that. I’ll fish till 3 a.m. some nights and I’m not out there alone.”
“It’s great here, really. You can catch your fish, you don’t have all the rules or fees of the Kenai, people are laid back, and there’s no police presence unless there needs to be. For me, it’s the American dream -- or the Alaskan dream at the very least.”
Joseph Robertia is a Kasilof freelance writer, who operates the Rogues Gallery kennel with his wife Colleen, an Iditarod veteran, and daughter Lynx.