DESTINATION ALASKA DERBIES
Let the Journey Begin
by Rick Birch
The summer’s journeys were planned, travel logistics set, friends and family recruited. This would be a season spent fishing a select handful of saltwater derbies in Alaska. A tip of the iceberg, considering the multiple fishing derbies throughout the Great Land, but while I would like to fish them all, the geography of the situation demands fishing just a few to start.
The three derbies set out for this summer included the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby, the Seward Halibut Tournament and the Seward Silver Salmon Derby, each of which pools together a host of businesses and volunteers to create fun opportunities for the whole family. With a wide variety of categories in each derby, ranging from entries for kids, women, active and retired military, sailors, kayakers and more, there are events for everyone.
Of course, judging by the wild popularity of the Alaska salt, fishing for silvers and halibut is exciting on its own. However, the towns of Seward and Homer do a fabulous job of creating excitement around the fisheries to further challenge anglers. From the esprit de corps of a day on the water to the gamesmanship of friendly competition, these derbies are a blast. Plus, the list of possible prizes goes on and on, including jackpot prizes for the biggest fish, released-fish prize drawings, kids’ prizes, cumulative weight categories, tagged fish, daily prizes and much more. Just don’t forget to buy a derby ticket.
Our journey’s first stop was the Seward Halibut Tournament on June 10, where we fished with Alaska Northern Outfitters. We stayed at Seward Windsong Lodge, a beautiful place set in a forested valley on the banks of the Resurrection River. They offer a variety of guest rooms and Jacuzzi suites, fine dining and close proximity to multiple activities. This trip proved to be a fun and memorable experience of hiking and fishing with my daughter, Kaelyn.
Captain Shaun and deckhand Nick were experienced and well-equipped to offer an upbeat and entertaining day on the saltwater. While heading out to sea, Shaun shared many memories about fishing the derby. “So many times I thought we’d won it, only to be shattered in the end,” he said, noting that the competition is difficult but also fun for the fleet’s captains. “There’s definitely a showmanship element to the thing,” he continued. “We get nothing for it, but at the same time, we get bragging rights for who can catch the biggest halibut. There are a group of guys out here that consistently catch big fish, and we would like to think that we are one of them.”
Shaun and his crew typically qualify toward the top in the derby. He loves targeting trophy halibut, and it shows. In the 2015 derby, Shaun thought they had it wrapped up, but then they had about five fish come in over 250 pounds in the last week and a half of the derby. “Typically, you’ll see three or four of those fish a year,” he says, “but to see that many during the derby—it was amazing.”
The author shows off a solid Alaska halibut, which was great for the table even if not a derby-winner.
In 2016, boundary lines were set for the Seward Halibut Tournament for the first time. Ticket sales had begun to drop in previous years, as it was hard for people on day-trips to compete against overnight charters. The new boundaries even the playing field, as Shaun explained. “A lot more people are now excited to participate. Anybody has a chance.”
As we powered towards the fishing grounds, I noted that Alaska Northern Charters currently had clients with two fish on the leader board: big ’but weighing in at 178- and 141 pounds. This made us even more excited to see what our day would hold.
We had traveled 2 hours and 40 minutes south, arriving somewhere between Port Chatham and Elizabeth Island. It was looking rough, so instead we headed toward English Bay. We had targeted a great spot for fishing an outgoing tide and were quickly and consistently picking up halibut in the 20- to 30-pound range. The tide changed and we moved to another spot. Again we were picking up halibut consistently, now in the 30- to 80-pound range. My daughter, Kaelyn, had boated a 40-pound halibut early on, good for some excitement and an experience we will share for a lifetime.
We were fishing on the Sea Quest, a fast, comfortable 46-foot catamaran that generally fishes large groups of 16- to 18 people. It’s definitely a great choice for recruiting several groups of friends, a company retreat or a family reunion. Shaun and his crew are good hosts and enjoy sharing their passion with others. We saw amazing scenery and the fishing was tremendous and exciting. Though Shaun and his crew did not find another tournament leader on this day, we all brought home a load of delicious table-fare.
A view of the Seward Silver Salmon Derby leaderboard.
Our next adventure took us about 168 miles to the southwest, where we joined up with North Country Charters to experience the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby on June 14.
Assessing our group of four anglers, Captain Jordan Cox seemed excited for an opportunity to target one of his favorite spots that had previously yielded big halibut. Here, one of his clients had caught a 190-pound flatfish just three days before the start of the derby. If caught just three days later, that fish would have been the current derby leader.
The forecasted winds were supposed to build to 25 knots that day, and we needed to navigate through two potentially rough areas to get to our desired fishing location. Partway into the journey Jordan determined that while the first section was passable, changing tides and the wind direction would create rougher seas than desired for the return trip. Though I wanted to target big fish, I truly respected his decisions.
We proceeded to fish other spots sheltered by the weather. I gained an appreciation for a captain who is tuned-in to his clients and ready to move on to options B,C, D, E or F if needed. Jordan’s objective was to keep it fun, no matter what.
Top: It's not just halibut on offer during the derby, as lingcod and rockfish make for a well-rounded day on the salt. Bottom: Checking in at North Country Charters on the Homer docks before heading out to take on the Jackpot Halibut Derby.
While fishing, Captain Jordan let us know that his least favorite memory is clients catching big fish but not having a derby ticket in hand. “It never fails,” he explained. “If five anglers on the boat have derby tickets and the sixth doesn’t, that guy will catch the biggest fish or the fish with the tag.” This actually happened to a North Country Charter client several years ago. The guy caught the biggest prize in the tagged fish category and did not have a ticket (the prize could have been a new $50,000 truck or a large cash prize).
Jordan also explained that the derby certainly helps draw people to Homer, specifically to fish. “It’s that added incentive,” he said, and for good reason. “I have probably seen half-a-dozen tagged fish caught in the last couple years. You want to see people get excited about a smaller fish, and they have recently been tagging only the ‘unders,’ fish currently regulated as one of two charter-caught fish that must be under 28 inches. Today, with a derby ticket in hand, that small fish could be worth a new vehicle from Stanley Ford or up to $10,000. It’s like winning the lottery.”
Top Left: It's not always frenetic action, but the lure remains the possibility of each moment bringing the next derby winner to your bait. Top Right: While the angler takes the prize, the captain and crew are heavily involved in the derby experience. Bottom Left: This 250-plus-pound halibut brought a fat check as well–over $15,000–to the lucky angler. ©Homer Chamber of Commerce. Bottom Right: The beauty of fishing from popular ports such as Homer and Seward is that an elegant dinner awaits just minutes from the docks. ©Seward Chamber of Commerce.
During our day on the water, we fished several different locations, moving multiple times while looking for fishable areas that might be holding big fish. The depth and lead weights made for easy fishing and the bite was steady, as we were soaking chum bags and laying down a scent trail to draw halibut into the area. We all caught our limits of fish, with several in the 20- to 40-pound range, but there were no monster fish on this day.
Rick and Jocelyn Birch pose in front of a haul of silvers taken with Aurora Charters during the 2016 derby.
Two weeks later, we journeyed to Seward again for one more opportunity to fish the Seward Halibut Tournament, this time joining with Captain Donnie and Alaskan Fishing Adventures to fish an area near Montague Island. As we boated our limits of quality halibut, not to mention limits of four rockfish each, Captain Donnie shared his enthusiasm for fishing during a different time of year: The Seward Silver Salmon Derby.
“The silver derby is really great,” he offered. “The entire area picks up for that, with tons of people around, and the action is always hot and heavy. Six rods down, six fish on, anglers overcoming tangles, hot coho running and jumping—it’s awesome!”
As luck would have it, the Seward Silver Salmon Derby was our next destination.
My wife, Jocelyn, and I had booked to fish August 13 with Aurora Charters, and opening day of the 61st Seward Silver Salmon Derby started with a bang. Our skipper was John Hughes, who had gotten his start on the water at the tender age of three when his dad, Carl, began taking him along fishing. “Silver fishing has always held a special place in my heart,” Captain John stated, adding that he has lots of good memories fishing with his whole family during the silver derby. Today, fishing the derby still holds a lot of value to John, and he enjoys being a part of other’s memories.
With the current, relaxed boundaries in place for the derby, we headed for Montague Island, navigating 3- to 4-foot swells that rose to 6- to 7 feet by the time we neared our targeted area. John soon redirected us to a coastal shoreline drift, but before we set our lines he mentioned that thus far it had been a strange year for salmon. “I am not going to sugarcoat this,” he explained. “Silvers have been really hard to find so far this year. It has been difficult fishing and much harder to catch limits recently.”
We fished with a small hootchie and cut-plug herring, drifting and mooching for salmon through different columns of water ranging from about 140 feet-deep to near the surface. On our first drift—bam—chaos! We had five fish on at once. The silvers were circling the boat, and we were working under and around other anglers, all the while trying to avoid tangling our lines in the prop. John skillfully danced from client to client, calling out instructions and netting fish.
Wow, what a start! John had found a coho honey-hole!
Drift after drift, we picked up another fish or two and slowly but surely continued towards our limits. By the time we were done, we had seen whales, mountain goats, sea lions, puffins and sea otters, and we had multiple fish from our group to enter into the derby.
Less than a week later I was back for one more shot at the Seward Silver Salmon Derby. My longtime friend Jon and I chose to say at the Harbor 360 Hotel and fish with Alaskan Fishing Adventures. The hotel offered a perfect location for those visiting downtown Seward, as our room sat right over the harbor dock with a stunning view of the fishing fleet and cascading mountains that encompass Seward.
Jon and I met skipper Joe Hallam onboard the Jedi by 7 a.m. and got an early taste of Captain Joe’s derby outlook. “I like it because as a fisherman, you always want to challenge yourself. It also adds to your anticipation and expectations for the day,” he continued, “because instead of just catching fish, there is a possibility of a prize at the end of the day. It makes everything that little bit more exciting.”
Fishing a derby with one eye on the prize-money doesn't mean the halibut don't taste just as good once they hit the table.
We set out to mooch for salmon, using a 6-ounce banana weight and double-hook rigs with plug-cut herring. Captain Joe has logged 30 years as a captain in the sport-fishing industry, in locations all over the world, but his knowledge and enthusiasm for the magnificence of Seward, Alaska, clearly showed. “For me the most memorable days are always when we have several fish on at once and it’s kind of hectic. The lines are crossing each other and it is kind of like all craziness is breaking loose on the deck. It is just a lot of fun; the people onboard have a lot of fun.”
Beyond the silver derby, Joe explained that his favorite trips are combos. “We do a lot of different trips, and I like going out and catching as many species as I can. We are good at it and coming back with a haul of halibut, rockfish, salmon and lingcod is definitely my favorite.”
Every fish is a potential winner in these southcentral Alaska derbies, with the presence of several tagged fish meaning a raft of additional prizes are waiting for lucky anglers.
On this day we fished out toward Cape Resurrection, trying several spots that showed promise on the fish-finder. We had no problem hooking silvers, but they were all of the small variety. We finally stopped at a favorite hotspot for rockfish and after 20 minutes spent jigging with a hoochie and some cut bait, we each limited out with four rockfish.
Fishing in Alaska is most often about catching, and after my derby experiences, I am drawn to do it again and again with any of the above skippers. Mark your calendars for this year’s derbies and I’m sure you’ll agree. Bringing home a big prize might just be your icing on the cake.
Rick Birch lives on the Kenai Peninsula with his family and is a Regional Sales Manager for Fish Alaska magazine.