KENAI, Alaska – Sean Boulay had a grin plastered across his face a couple of hours after donning his waders, wheeling his blue and white cooler onto the sand and sticking a large net into the water.
The unsuspecting sockeye salmon soon were swimming into his net one after another, and Boulay eventually had a string of fish in the cold water of the world-renowned Kenai River.
His catch was the result of a uniquely Alaskan activity called dipnetting. For a few precious weeks in midsummer, residents obtain free permits to dip homemade nets into the water and catch fish that will fill their freezers and pantries for months to come.
Each head of household is entitled to 25 fish, with each additional member allowed 10 each. That adds up to hundreds of dollars worth of some of the best wild salmon on the planet.
"I got two fish in 10 minutes right off the bat," said Boulay, an Anchorage hospital employee. "I bet I'm going to walk away with 30 fish."
Dipnetting permit numbers have more than doubled since 1996 when the current regulations were adopted. Last year, nearly 30,000 dipnetting permits were issued and 339,993 sockeye salmon were pulled from the Kenai.
The season occurs during peak salmon migration on the Kenai River. Sonar devices that count the fish in the river indicated a total of 741,721 fish passed by in July, demonstrating how it is so easy for residents to scoop up so many fish by throwing a net in the water.
The popularity of dipnetting reflects Alaskans' unending appetite for all things salmon.
There's salmon tacos, salmon souffle and salmon salad sandwiches. There's salmon loaf, salmon chowder and salmon jerky. There's smoked salmon cheeseballs, smoked salmon strips and salmon pasta salad.
Dipnetting is an economic necessity for Susan Stockdale, 55, of Nikiski, who is unemployed. In these tough economic times, she said, dipnetting is an economic lifesaver for many of her single female friends.
"The moose meat from the winter season and the fish from dipnetting, that's what gets us through the winter," Stockdale said. "I know of many single mothers that rely on these fish and road kill. If there is nothing else, you always have your salmon."
Stockdale cut short a break and ran to get her homemade dipnetting pole in the river. Within a minute or two she had a large salmon in her net. She retrieved the 10-pounder, hit it on the head with a hammer, rinsed it off and placed it in her cooler.
Stockdale pulled her green and white cooler, now packed with a half-dozen salmon, up to the beach where she collapsed into a camp chair as she worried about money. It costs $15 for each 12 hours to park at the Kenai beach. Parking and camping for two days can cost $120, she said.
Still, she figures she will be back: "It gets us through."
Thomas Runyon of Anchorage said he dipnets so that his wife can enjoy fish head stew, a dish she ate growing up in the Eskimo village of Emmonak in western Alaska. Laura Runyon stores fish heads in a 5-gallon bucket with brine and salt in the basement for a month and serves them with seal oil and bread.
The trick to successful dipnetting?
"There is really no skill involved," said Kevin Feller, a 50-year-old diesel mechanic who was dipnetting for a few days before returning to his job in the North Slope oil fields. "Stand there with your net and they swim right in."
Boulay had used rod and reel to fish for salmon before, but never a dipnet.
He took right to it, using a net with a 5-foot diameter to haul in fish along with about 200 other dipnetters along a 2-mile stretch of beach. In true Alaskan fashion, the 29-year-old Boulay boasted he'd never once bought salmon from the grocery store — too expensive.
As he gutted and filleted his sockeye salmon, and tossed the carcasses, Boulay reflected on his newfound passion.
"I figure I was born here for a reason," he said.