KENAI — At first, Tom Weber thought he had gotten lucky and caught a king salmon in his dipnet.
Out fishing from a boat on the final day of the Kenai River personal use dipnet fishery July 31, the fisherman felt a big weight strike his net. He latched on and started pulling the net up and noticed it was heavy — really heavy.
“I looked down in there, and there was a seal in the net,” Weber said. “He must’ve been chasing a fish or something and swam straight in.”
Quickly, he jostled the net to try to get the seal loose without sinking the boat or losing the net. The seal didn’t seem to be tangled, just caught. After some net maneuvering, the seal backed out and went on its merry way, Weber said.
His twin brother Terry Weber saw it too. The two brothers, who live in Dewey, Arizona in the winter, said they come up to fish every summer and have never seen a seal caught in a dipnet before.
“It just seemed like it didn’t look where it was going,” Terry Weber said. “The net didn’t even break, and the seal got itself loose.”
Harbor seals frequent the Kenai River. Anglers near Cunningham Park off Beaver Loop Road regularly see the dark heads of the animals making their way upriver, chasing anadromous fish as they migrate upriver to spawn. Seals will sometimes snag fish straight off anglers’ hooks. Wildlife watchers and fishermen will see them periscoping above the surface of the river sometimes.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website describes them as “inquisitive but elusive, often surfacing close behind boats” when they are in the water and not feeling threatened. The Cook Inlet/Shelikof Strait area — which stretches from the end of the Knik Arm along the Alaska Peninsula to Umiak Island in the Aleutian chain — has one of the largest harbor seal populations in Alaska, with an estimate 27,386 population when the last survey was conducted in 2011, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
They’re opportunistic feeders and typically only chase salmon when they’re headed up the river and are much easier targets than when they are at sea. They can get big — more than 100 pounds by adulthood, according to the Marine Mammal Center, a marine mammal veterinary and research hospital in California. To that end, Tom Weber said he was shocked the net didn’t break.
“It didn’t seem hurt or anything, and we thought for sure there’d be a hole in the bottom of the netting, but the net was fine,” he said.
He credited the net’s fortitude to the welding job at Kenai Welding on Bridge Access Road. Don Lazov, the owner of Kenai Welding, said he’s been making dipnets for about 25 years and they tend to hold up well, even under high stress. He said Weber told him the story about the seal and was surprised that they didn’t break or lose the net.
“I enjoy making them — they’re fun,” he said.
The Webers’ friend Mal Gibbs saw the seal in the net once Tom Weber pulled it up out of the water as well. After the commotion and the initial uncertainty, he said everything went so quickly that he couldn’t quite believe that he saw it. The seal made it out of the net and disappeared, and none of them saw it again.
“He got (the seal) in there, got it out and flipped it right back in, and caught a fish, like it was no big deal or anything,” Gibbs said. “It was one of those things you’re like, ‘Wow, I saw that!’”
• Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Kenai Peninsual Clarion. Reach her at email@example.com.