FAIRBANKS - Dip-netters at Chitina scooped more salmon out of the Copper River last summer than they have since 2001.
Though the numbers are still preliminary, the state Department of Fish and Game is calculating last year's total reported harvest for personal-use dip-netters at Chitina at 131,823 salmon, the majority of which - 126,804 - were reds.
It was the highest personal-use catch at Chitina in the past six years and the fifth-highest on record since 1984. Dip-netters averaged 16 fish per permit, the second-highest average catch recorded in the last 24 years.
The high harvest corresponded with one of the largest Copper River red salmon runs on record. Last year's Copper River sockeye run totaled an estimated 2.9 million, the second-largest run on record. Commercial fishermen caught almost 1.9 million fish, the third-highest commercial catch ever for the Copper River.
"It was a pretty good year," confirmed area management biologist Mark Somerville at the Department of Fish and Game in Glennallen.
Last summer's personal-use catch topped the 2006 harvest - the sixth-highest on record - by 2,700 fish even though almost 200 fewer permits were issued. Dip-netters averaged 15 fish per permit in 2006 compared to 16 per permit in 2007.
"A one fish per permit holder increase is actually a pretty significant change," Somerville said.
The high harvest at Chitina didn't surprise charter operator Mark Hem, who ferries dip-netters to and from fishing spots by boat.
"I think overall it was a real good season," Hem said by phone from his home in Chitina. "We didn't have a lot of river fluctuation slowing things down. I think it was a lot more consistent fishing-wise."
Hem also attributes the higher harvest to the fact that more dip-netters used charters last summer because of access issues that have surrounded the dip net fishery at Chitina for several years. Dip-netters using charters typically catch more fish than those who fend for themselves, he said.
"In my mind it shows a correlation that charter customers are more effective harvesting fish than any other way," he said.
The subsistence catch above the McCarthy Road bridge was also up considerably over past years, Somerville said.
Subsistence fishermen using fish wheels and dip nets reported a harvest of 71,734 salmon, the highest catch since 2001 and fourth highest since 1984. Subsistence fishermen caught 67,975 reds and 3,434 kings, an increase of about 700 kings over 2006. It was the highest king catch in the subsistence fishery since 2002.
Somerville suspects the reason for the increase in the subsistence harvest was more people getting subsistence permits to dip net above the bridge rather than getting personal-use permits to dip net below the bridge.
The department issued about 200 more subsistence permits this year and most of them were for dip netting instead of fish wheels, evidenced by the fact the average catch per permit dropped slightly to 61 fish per permit. The state issued a total of 1,174 subsistence permits.
More dip-netters with boats choose to dip above rather than below the bridge because the bag limit for both reds and kings is higher than in the personal-use fishery, Somerville said.
"People figure, 'I've got a boat; I might as well go above the bridge where I can catch five kings,"' he said.