It’s Derby Time
By Joy Doverspike
Alaska is renowned for its world-class fishing and its tight-knit communities, and there’s no better way to check out both than at the state’s many derbies, where the fish are big and plentiful and where the contestants are not just fishing for the chance to win prizes like $50,000 cash or a Ford F-150 pickup, but are also supporting local businesses, donating to community soup kitchens, helping Alaska high-school students attend the colleges of their choice and contributing to the local towns in various other ways. A sense of pride and partnership rings clear both when you hear these derbies’ organizers talking about their “true community events” that are “a pure joy to be a part of,” and as you witness the many unselfish and fun-loving anglers beat the odds, brag to their buddies and actively make Alaska communities better places to live and fish.
Examples run as long as the Kenai and as wide as a record halibut, from the Haines King Salmon Derby, where proceeds support youth organizations in Haines and provide scholarships, to the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby, where the Chamber of Commerce directs each year’s profits into marketing efforts that benefit businesses around town. In Alaska’s largest city, the Anchorage Slam’n Salm’n Derby supports the Downtown Soup Kitchen and brings attention to their mission of serving the homeless and working poor in Alaska.
These, and the other events that are detailed further below, are mainstays of Alaska fishing tradition that help combine the thrill of angling with the joyful work of building better communities within our state and within the greater fishing community.
What: Valdez Fish Derbies
Where: Valdez, AK
When: Valdez Halibut Derby: May 18 – Sep 1, 2013
Valdez Kids Pink Salmon Derby: July 20, 2013
Valdez Silver Salmon Derby: July 20 – Sep 1, 2013
Big Prize Fridays: July 26 & Aug 30
Valdez Women’s Silver Salmon Derby: Aug 10, 2013
Two-fish limit for halibut, park-and-cast silver access, an awards ceremony emceed by nine-year-olds, and the only women’s derby in Alaska. Where can you find all of this and more? Nowhere else but Valdez. And perhaps the best part of all—besides the $15,000 in first-place prize money for the largest fish caught in both the halibut and silver salmon derby and the no-fish-necessary chance to win a 4×4 F-150 from Seekins Ford—is that the Valdez Fish Derbies are entirely volunteer-run and completely family-friendly.
Take, for example, the Kids’ Pink Salmon Derby on July 20 when any one of the 19 million pink salmon in the waters around Valdez might be the one to nab a prize. According to Laurie Prax, owner of the KVAK radio station in Valdez, the kids’ derby was originally conceived as a way to entice out-of-towners to bring the family. But when it became apparent that many local children had never fished before, the derby became a great way to give them their first fishing experience. It’s also completely free, as is the town barbeque afterwards.
Besides the fishing and the prizes and the parties, the Valdez Fish Derbies are doing some important work for their fishing community. Since 2008, they’ve been providing fishing amenities to the public, including fish carts, picnic tables, weigh-in hooks and fish identification signage down at the harbor. Funneling the derby proceeds back into the town helps ensure that this great fishing town of today will only be better in the years to come.
Where: Homer, AK
When: May 15 – Sep 15, 2013
Self-proclaimed “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World,” Homer is the perfect spot to hold what may be the largest and most impressive halibut derby in the state. Monte Davis, Executive Director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center, told me that the COC is doing things a little differently as of last year. Before then, prizes in the amounts of $1,000, $750, $500 and $250 were awarded for the four biggest fish caught each month. But more and more would-be winners were bringing in 80- to 100-pound catches for a chance at the money, and the Chamber began to realize that their waters’ prime breeding stock was taking a big hit. Now, instead of offering monthly cash prizes for big fish, they hold a monthly drawing for the money.
But while they’ve backed off from the “big fish contest” concept, the prizes are still enormous. The GCI tagged fish will pull in $50,000 and the Stanley Ford tagged fish comes with a brand new Ford F-150 pickup truck. There are prizes for catching a lefty, for captaining the winning fisherman’s boat, prizes for kids, veterans and seniors, and even a $5,000 prize you don’t have to fish to win! If you catch one of the estimated 2,000 tagged fish from previous years, bring it in for a quick $100 in Homer Bucks (money that can be spent like cash in local Homer businesses). Even with 14,000 ticket holders, you have pretty good odds of making back your money.
The Chamber is committed to making the derby a beneficial event for the local business community; each year’s profits from ticket sales go directly into marketing efforts that benefit businesses around town and the entire Homer community.
Where: Seward, AK on Resurrection Bay
When: August 10-August 18, 2013
By 6 a.m. on opening day, anglers will be lined up to get their tickets punched and start vying for the winning catch of the Seward Silver Salmon Derby. Seward’s derby has some of the state’s most devoted participants, as well it should—the derby is one of Alaska’s oldest and largest. Erin Lemas, who works for the Seward Chamber of Commerce and who is a third-generation derby participant herself, told me, “Everyone has a derby story.” She offered one from her childhood of a young girl who won the $10,000 prize and dashed her father’s new-boat hopes by announcing she was planning to spend her winnings on a house for her Barbie dolls. A more recent tale is that of Mike Rogers. He fished the derby for more than 30 years before striking it rich last year and becoming the very first person to catch the $50,000 tagged fish. Persistence and luck, you need them both.
A single-day derby ticket is $10, or you can fish the entire nine days for only $50. The Seward Chamber of Commerce directs all profits from the sale of fish into restoration projects (last year they bought 50,000 smolt for use in 2014), scholarships for local students going into fish and wildlife management and, in the words of Ms. Lemas, “any other good cause that comes along pertaining to marine biology .”
Where: Juneau, AK
When: May 1 – May 31, 2013
When Juneau’s Annual Spring King Salmon Derby begins, it’s a sure sign that spring is here and fresh fish are just around the corner. The derby runs the entire month of May and you can fish that whole month for just a $35 ticket from the Tlingít Haida Central Council. The fact that the derby is a month long, with no restrictions on the number of fish you can weigh-in (except for ADF&G limits), makes it easy to participate, especially for local fishermen. “They have the same spots they go to every year to try to catch a winner,” said Leslie Isturis of the Tlingít Haida Central Council. “Like on False Outer Point…it’s combat-fishing over there.” But the competition, and the derby, is all in good fun. There’s prize money for the taking, up to $5,000 in cash and other prizes for first place and plenty to spread among the rest of the top 30 finishers, but the focus is on tradition and family rather than big money. Many anglers donate their fish at weigh-in and those fish are then provided to elders and handicapped individuals of the community.
The derby serves as one of the main fundraisers for the Central Council’s Alumni Scholarship Assistance Program. Proceeds from ticket sales are augmented with those of other ASAP fundraisers and then divided amongst all eligible enrolled Tlingít or Haida tribal applicants who are pursuing post-secondary education.
Where: Wrangell, AK
When: May 11 – June 9, 2013
When a town of slightly over 2,000 inhabitants puts on a derby with over $30,000 in cash and prizes, it’s time to take note. Wrangell’s King Salmon Derby attracts visitors from all over the country and the world to this little Southeast fishing village. The Wrangell Chamber of Commerce, who puts on the derby each year, is committed to making it worth the trip and therefore has compiled an incredible array of awards.
The first-place winner takes home $6,000, second place wins $4,000 and third receives $2,000. There is a special prize for the largest king caught in the first weekend, and another prize for the largest caught over Memorial Day. There are weekly winners, youth winners, and senior winners. In fact, last year there were more prizes available than there were fish caught! I don’t believe you can get better odds than that.
The Derby is self-sustaining, with profits from each year funding the next, but the tourism—and the fun—it generates is the biggest benefit to the community.
What: Haines King Salmon Derby
Where: Haines, AK
When: May 25 – 27 and June 1 – 2, 2013
This year marks the 35th since the Haines King Salmon Derby began (excepting a span of eight years from 1988-1996) and it just keeps getting bigger and better. Last year the derby had a record $18,500 in donations, with a first place prize of $2,000 in cold, hard cash, a $500 gift card to Howsers IGA, a first-place winner jacket and of course, bragging rights. This year, the top 20 finishers will each take home prizes, but you don’t have to finish in the top 20 to win. There are prizes for youth, Dolly Varden prizes for younger children and awards for both First Fish of the Day and Oldest Angler.
Money received from ticket sales and from sales of the weighed-in king salmon supports youth organizations in Haines, including the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, and provides scholarships to two high-school students and one college student from Haines.
What: Slam’n Salm’n Derby
Where: Anchorage, AK
When: June 7 – June 16, 2013
It’s easy to justify entering a derby that literally takes place in the middle of town, but when you add to that the fact tickets are free and any donation goes directly to the Downtown Soup Kitchen, it becomes an exercise in willpower to say ‘no’ to the Slam’n Salm’n Derby at Ship Creek in Anchorage.
During the winter months, the DSK serves up to 500 meals a day to hungry individuals, but in June it’s all about the fishing. This is the ninth year since the Downtown Soup Kitchen took ownership of the Slam’n Salm’n Derby and it has become both their hallmark fundraising campaign and a citywide public-awareness program to bring attention to homelessness and hunger. There is no cost to participate, thanks to a sponsorship from Microcom, although everyone is welcome to donate to the DSK. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of prizes to be won. The biggest fish caught each day of the ten days wins a prize, as do the top 25 for the entire derby, and each day they award prizes for fish that are closest to a pre-assigned ‘mystery weight.’ The only time the city of Anchorage allows a net across Ship Creek is for the tagging of the derby fish: catch one of those and you’ll be a prizewinner too.
When I spoke to Chip Gallagher, the Slam’n Salm’n Derby Chair and Dean Williams, Downtown Soup Kitchen’s Executive Director, they were both eager to talk about the effect this year’s derby will have on the DSK’s next step. This fall, they launch Feed Me Hope, a three-month training program that teaches culinary arts to individuals who need to acquire job skills. They won’t only be providing meals, but also the ability to create them. Reminds me of a saying about teaching a man to fish.
Joy Doverspike is the online editor at Fish Alaska magazine. You can reach her at email@example.com.