And there is most likely no more democratic fishing spot in America — a place where any Alaska resident, from an oil company executive to a carwash attendant, can fill a freezer with premium salmon for only the cost of gas and gear.
Most of the Kenai’s fish are caught by commercial boats and sold around the world. The rest go to sport fishermen, who catch them with a rod and reel, and, increasingly, a wildly diverse group of mostly urban dip-netters, who crowd the river’s mouth for three weeks in July, hoping to score a winter’s supply of wild salmon that most can’t afford to buy. In the roughly 20 years since the state started regulating dip-net fishing in the region, the number of permits it issues has doubled, to more than 30,000.
Now, when the dip-netters descend, the beach takes on the motley, slightly claustrophobic feel of a music festival. Whole families set up camp in the sand, hauling tents, chairs, dogs, children and nets by four-wheelers from the packed parking lot.
This year, a church group brought in a bouncy house and grilled hot dogs. A cart sold espresso. People on the beach spoke Hmong, Korean, Tagalog, Spanish and Thai. They played Christian rock, reggaeton and Pacific Island R&B.
July’s dip-net army lifts the economy in the town of Kenai, but it also clogs the highway and litters the beach with fish heads and guts that have to be raked to the water at night by special tractors. Hundreds of gulls cry overhead, diving to feast on entrails. On weekends, when crowding is at its worst, there are dust-ups over fishing territory, tangled gear, pilfered bags of ice and stolen coolers. Differences in culture, language and notions of personal space sometimes fuel the conflicts.
“It used to be 200 people; now it’s 5,000” on a given day, said Scott Turney, an Anchorage telecommunications engineer who has been fishing on the beach for more than 30 years. “There never used to be any conflicts, but the newcomers don’t have the same courtesy. As soon as you drag a fish out, one or two people will come take your place.”
Even with the crowds, he said, landing a big haul of fish is worth the hassle: “l still love it. I’ll never stop.”
To fish, most people stand elbow to elbow along the shoreline, wearing waders, chest-high in the cold river. Each holds a long steel pole with a five-foot-wide net basket on the end. When a fish hits the net, the…