A Fish Story

The Salmon Derby


Sport fishing in Alaska in the early ’60s was great. Taking part in the two-day annual Seward Silver Salmon Derby was even greater. And it produced some true fish stories which would eclipse even the most serpentine and convoluted version of the one that got away that I’ve ever heard.

I had a summer job on Elmendorf AFB at the sports equipment rental facility run by the Office of Moral, Welfare, and Recreation. Enlisted men and officers alike could rent camping trailers, boats with outboard motors, and other stuff. Most of the time, I was busy either at the rental desk or cleaning/repairing equipment. The TSgt in charge, however, had a separate personal project to work on when rental activity was slow and everything in the shop was in good order and up to snuff.

He had gotten his hands on an ancient 18 foot wooden dory that no sane man would try to restore. It was intact and structurally sound, but would have started taking water immediately it was launched. The lure of the Salmon Derby was so strong and the craft so perfectly suited to the challenge that he had made up his mind to make it seaworthy by encasing the outer hull in fiberglass. Doing so would make the thing water tight and usable despite nearly doubling her weight. And anyone, including me, who pitched in would have a place on board at Derby time.

Now, the Silver Salmon Derby was a serious affair. So serious, in fact, that participants intent on winning the single cash prize for the heaviest fish brought with them the fisherman’s equivalent of heavy equipment. They would be hauling in salmon that rarely exceeded twenty pounds with deep sea rigs capable of hauling in several hundred pounds of Marlin. I, on the other hand, took all that I had – a spinning rod and reel with six pound test line.

The Derby took place on a weekend. When an antique signal cannon went off at 6 AM, contestants could shove off. When it went off at 6 PM, they had to stop and come back to shore. What was at stake was the balance of the Derby’s entry fees less minor administrative costs, which amounted to about $3,000.00 that year. And unless a fish you caught weighed twelve pounds or less, it was no catch and release party like you’d find at a Bass tournament where the catch is and remains alive for the weigh-in. The salmon brought in at the end of the day had first to be weighed and then gutted to ensure thet it was free of such foreign objects as several ounces of lead shot.

What transpired that weekend was almost beyond belief.

There must have been fifty or sixty boats out in the Seward Inlet near to the port trolling for Silver Salmon, which were fairly plentiful. The boats tended to be close to each other while keeping a respectful distance. Fully vested contestants would hardly tolerate lines getting line tangled with that of someone on their own boat, much less those on another, and Silver Salmon are in the habit of repeatedly running straight away from you then leaping out of the water and heading straight back in an effort to get some slack so they can throw the hook. Still, you could generally be close enough to see what nearby fishermen were up to.

And that’s where my favorite, eyewitness fish story starts.

There were three men in a nearby boat and two of them had each hooked themselves a salmon at the same and were reeling them in. The one at the larboard gunwale had his catch close enough to get a fishnet under it and the guy to starboard was reeling in the slack of the fish that had already jumped once and was headed back his way. To the amazement of all, the incoming fish leapt out of the water, over the boat, and into the net just as the third guy was about scoop up the other fish. While the group was dealing with the surprise of the one that had landed in the net, the one they were trying to net in the first place threw the hook.

Not ten minutes later, the guy who had lost his catch hooked another which, true to form, headed straight out, jumped straight up, and headed straight back toward the boat. But, for reasons only God knows, that poor fish was running so shallow it slammed into the boat and knocked itself out.

True story, folks.

And, yes, I caught a good one. It took me forty-five minutes to land it and it weighed in at thirteen pounds three ounces. Just three ounces too light to win…