The Big Weigh-In: Fishing the Valdez Derbies
by Melissa Norris with photos by Joe Praxe
I love my summer visits to Valdez. Besides the sheer, nearly overwhelming beauty of the seaside town, what pulls me in is the outstanding fishing and the tremendous fun of the Valdez Women’s Silver Salmon Derby.
Think Boston and the Fourth of July, Las Vegas and casinos, Alaska and the outdoors – that’s how I feel about Valdez and its derbies. The two are inseparable in my mind. For starters, there is more than one Valdez fish derby – a little something for everyone. The town plays host to an annual halibut fishing derby, an open silver salmon derby and the Kids’ Pink Salmon Derby, as well as the women’s one-day silver derby. Each also features a number of events that are simply a hoot to take part in; not to mention there’s always the chance to win a pile of cash.
The town itself is located on the northeastern side of Prince William Sound, almost completely hemmed in by the magnificent Chugach Mountains. The combination of these sentry-like peaks and maritime weather can mean a steady dose of low-hanging clouds and fog, but I prefer to think of Valdez on a clear, bluebird day, when the scenery on offer is almost without peer. Of course, while visiting and fishing I’ve also experienced cancelled flights and drenched clothes, although in Valdez even those days are inexorably linked to the fondest of memories – such as the 15-pound silver I hauled in during the women’s derby three years back. A little rain and gray is nothing, then, when the reward is another day spent on the water near Valdez.
Many people love to search the floor for Alaska’s flatfish,but some captains and anglers know an extra thing or two about finding the big ones. They make a sport of it during derby season.
The Valdez Halibut Derby runs most of the summer and it’s business as usual from May 19 to September 2, 2012. If you take first place by catching the largest halibut, you could win $15,000 in cash. Second gets $5,000 and third place gets $2,000. There are also weekly prizes for big fish including commemorative apparel and gift certificates. In 2011, over 2,750 halibut derby tickets were purchased throughout the season. This year, the winning fish (and attendant hefty check) went to Fairbanks snowbird Annette Gutierrez, her halibut weighing in at a whopping 335.7 pounds. On July 2, fishing alongside the crew of the Reelentless, Annette was enjoying her first fishing experience ever when she caught this $15,000 monster. Apparently, Captain Henry of the Reelentless had given Annette and her fiancé the trip as a wedding gift. That’s quite a gift (and beats the heck out of a set of towels any day)!
To legally fish in the Valdez Halibut Derby you must purchase a ticket, depart from and return to the Valdez Small Boat Harbor and fish the waters of Prince William Sound or the North Gulf Coast. Official rules for their derbies can be found at valdezfishderbies.com. Daily tickets are $10 and season-long tickets are $50. Whether you hire a charter captain, skipper a rental boat from Fish Central or go on your own with friends, make sure you get your derby ticket because you never know what is going to take your bait.
Silver Salmon Derby
The Valdez Silver Salmon Derby occurs from July 21 to September 2, 2012. First place in this derby is also $15,000 in cash, $5,000 for second and $2,000 for third. There are daily prizes awarded as well, including commemorative apparel and gift certificates. The 2011 large fish prize was awarded to Pennsylvania’s Jack Yakura for a whopping 18.68-pound silver salmon. Over 5,000 tickets were bought for the silver derby this past summer, showing just how important silver salmon are to the port of Valdez.
To enter in the Valdez Silver Derby you must purchase a ticket, depart from and return to the Valdez Small Boat Harbor and fish the saltwater of Prince William Sound or the North Gulf Coast. No freshwater salmon can be entered. Official rules for Valdez derbies can be found at valdezfishderbies.com. Daily tickets for the silver derby are also $10 and season-long tickets cost $50.
Kids’ Pink Salmon Derby
The derbies even provide a fun event just to get your kids involved in fishing. On July 14, 2012, this one-day-only Valdez Kids’ Pink Salmon Derby, like all the other derbies in Valdez, will bring families from all around Alaska and the Lower 48 to the town.
This past Kids’ Derby I got to see my nephew Charlie fish saltwater for his first time, as we sailed aboard the Connie B III with Captain Rick and Connie Ballow. It warmed my heart to witness little Charlie fish with his daddy and his Uncle Wayne for his first time and to thoroughly love it. Afterwards we all went over to the free BBQ where SmokeeJo Barkoskie cooked hot dogs for over 300 people and the kids’ derby awards ceremony was being emceed by some local Valdez youth. Riley McNelly, 15, Josie McNelly, 13, Justin Prax, 10, Marianne Prax, 8, Kelsey Prax, 4, and Kennedy Alexander, 9, made all of the announcements and handed out the prizes to all the kids that had won in the derby. The Kids’ Pink Salmon Derby is free to enter for kids ages 5 to 16 and there are prizes for various age groups. Kids that are 16 years of age or older must have a valid Alaska state fishing license. Check out valdezfishderbies.com for a cute video of Wesley Eastham of Anchorage, who caught the biggest fish in the overall 2011 kid’s derby and who also won the Cub Scout division. Wesley won a longboard skateboard and a five-year subscription to Fish Alaska, plus a sleeping bag and another subscription for being the Scout with the biggest fish.
Women’s Silver Salmon Derby
The Silver Salmon Sisterhood is a one-day derby meant just for women and is the only one of its kind in Alaska. Lots of guys come to town for the women’s event to help their ladies fish and to participate in the regular silver derby themselves. What started with over 370 entrants in 2005 has grown to 789 women entered into the one-day derby for 2011.
There is an opening event Friday evening at the Valdez Civic and Convention Center, followed by fishing Saturday before an awards ceremony that evening. I’ve fished in the women’s derby each of its seven years. The silver fishing is so fun in Valdez and I am grateful to all the friends in Valdez who took me out over the years to enjoy the women’s derby with them. Among my favorite times have been with the Saxes, Praxs (and Todd) and with Otto Kulm. As for the events, I’ve never seen women chanting for socks before.
There are tons of prizes given away at these events, such as the Fox River socks thrown to the crowd. (My favorite part is when Yvette lets me help throw the socks). There are hilarious games and great humor brought from announcers Laurie Prax and Margaret Henry. Each year has been different but the similarities include Alaskan and visiting women having a great time, big fish being caught and someone going home a lucky winner. This year that winner was 93-year-old Lenore Groundwater from Arizona. Lenore was in Alaska to visit family, and she has gotten here every which way for over 30 years. Her son was the captain of their boat. She was very excited to win yet mentioned it wasn’t good for her high blood pressure. Lenore was asked if she wanted to share her age, to which she replied, “I’m 39 backward.” Watch a video of Lenore accepting her title at the Valdez Fish Derbies website.
If you get a big fish during the women’s derby, remember that buying your women’s derby ticket for the day also gets you entry into the overall silver salmon derby. As it turned out Lenore won second in the overall derby, too. How do you like that for 93?
Mark your calendar and book your hotel room or RV space early, because during this weekend the town is a boomin’ like the pipeline’s being built all over again. For 2012, the women’s derby is the 11th of August with the opening event the night of August 10. When you get to town, just go to The Prospector for your derby tickets and to buy any gear you need at a 20% off Women’s Derby special, using the dog tag you receive as an entrant. When you buy your 2012 derby ticket for $50, it enters you to win prizes, get into the events for free and you also get a free gift generously provided by Carhartt. Two years ago it was a pair of Carhartt jeans and this summer it was a Carhartt zip-front hoodie.
When it’s all said and done it’s important to recognize the people who spend their energy to make these things happen, as well as the generous sponsors of the events. Without them we wouldn’t have this fun time in Valdez, nor the chance to win all this cash and prizes.
First of all, there’s the derby committee, administrators of the four derbies: Debbie Yamakami, owner of Arts Design; Laurie Prax, owner of KVAK radio; Joe Prax, who owns Prospector Outfitters in both Valdez and Fairbanks; Laura Saxe, owner of Eagle’s Rest RV Park; Dave Wiley, who has Orion Charters; Will Stark, manager at First National Bank; and finally, Bonnie Woods, weigh-in coordinator.
There are many additional volunteers like Ron Woods, Charlene McKay, Thale Steenhoven, Dorothy Moore, the Elks Club Men, Sarah VonBargen, Carey Wade, Judy Londo and more without whom the derbies would not exist, though obviously giving exact credit is hard. As Laurie Prax told me, “Deb Yamakami does the most for these derbies.” However, at the same time Deb has been quoted as saying, “If we didn’t have weigh-in volunteers and so many people helping with the events and activities, we couldn’t run the derbies.” Then again, I’ve seen the entire Prax family involved in running these events. So everyone is thanking the next guy, but it takes the work of all these people to make these fun times and prizes available to the public. And it is for the public – most of the income generated from the derbies goes back out as cash prizes and advertising to bring more people to Valdez. Some additionally goes to derby expenses and what is left has been used to make improvements like buying fish totes for the harbor. Finally, it takes the sponsors to give the prizes that everyone is here to win. Some of the sponsors include Crowley, Sportsman’s Warehouse, Copper Valley Telecom, Eagle’s Rest RV Park & Cabins, ERA Aviation, Fish Central, Fish Alaska magazine, KCHU, KVAK, Mike’s Palace, Prospector Outfitters-Valdez, South Central Hardware, Stan Stephens Cruises and Valdez Subway Store.
We encourage you to come enjoy these derbies, and we’d also like to thank those who put the events on. Not only does it bring the joy of fishing to people, it creates a better economy for the businesses in Valdez. Valdez is said to have some of the largest halibut and silvers brought in each year from their charter fleet. This could be the most memorable fishing experience of your life.
This fishing town knows how to throw a derby, and not without coincidence it seems, they know how to throw a party. At the end of the season there’s the Spawn ‘Til Dawn party at the Civic Center (held next year on September 2, 2012), where every daily derby ticket purchased gives the purchaser a chance to win a new-model Ford Ranger 4×4 truck. If you buy a season-long ticket you’ll get five chances to win. All the tickets go in a barrel while the drawing is held live. The winner need not be present to win. You gain free entry to the party if you have a derby ticket.
Please visit the Valdez Fish Derbies website for official rules and information, valdezfishderbies.com. To volunteer or become a sponsor of the derbies in Valdez, contact their office at 907-835-5680.
Melissa Norris is Publisher of Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines.