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Aiming for visibility and fairness, state troopers patrol derby

Posted: August 11, 2013 - 9:44pm  |  Updated: August 12, 2013 - 12:06am
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A group of boaters hold up their 2013 sport fish license as Alaska Wildlife Troopers patrol the 67th annual Golden North Salmon Derby on Saturday afternoon.  Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
A group of boaters hold up their 2013 sport fish license as Alaska Wildlife Troopers patrol the 67th annual Golden North Salmon Derby on Saturday afternoon.

Cruising up to an open skiff with one fisherman on board, the first question Alaska Wildlife Trooper Rick Merritt asks is, “How’s fishin’?”

The answers from boaters fishing the derby near Shelter Island early Saturday afternoon were unvaried: “What fish?”, “Pretty slow,” “Nothin’ worth taking,” and “I heard they’re biting on the other side.”

Troopers patrolling the waters during the 67th Golden North Salmon Derby weren’t expecting to ticket many people for fishing violations. Most people competing in the derby pride themselves in following the rules, and, of course, if they don’t, they risk disqualification.

“For the derby, most people have everything they need,” Merritt said. “It’s actually pretty rare for folks to not have what they need.”

Without prompting, many of the boats contacted by Merritt and Public Safety Technician Clark Mondick offered up their boats for inspection, or at least asked them if they wanted to count the number of life jackets on board or their catches of the day.

Of the 40 boats contacted along the back side of Douglas on Friday, just three people were issued citations by wildlife troopers. Two were for not having a sport fish license available for viewing and one for fishing more than one line.

“That’s kind of important to keep the derby fair,” Merritt said of the latter offense, “because if somebody’s fishing two rods then their chances are a little greater at catching more fish so they may have a better opportunity of winning the derby.”

Only one person was cited on Saturday — a grandmother who had her 2012 and 2013 licenses accidentally swapped out. (The ticket is a correctable citation, which means if she has seven days to show troopers her correct license and then the ticket will be dismissed.)

Despite the low ratio of the number of violations to the number of boats contacted, troopers still like to patrol the derby. The main reason is to maintain visibility of law enforcement presence on the water, Merritt said.

“Law enforcement-wise, that’s huge,” he said. “Just being visible.”

Troopers routinely patrol waters surrounding Juneau on a daily basis during the summertime, but the derby is one of the most “high-user” times of the year.

Derby officials estimated 1,250 people participated in the competition this year. Law enforcement presence is assumed, Merritt said.

On Saturday, Mondick took the wheel and navigated their skiff up to the fishing vessels — staying a good 10 feet away to avoid interfering with their lines — as Merritt asked them to hold up their 2013 green fishing licenses.

Though the job is confrontational, most people oblige without appearing put off.

“Good luck, guys,” one boater said as Mondick drove off.

Fishing without a license carries a $210 ticket for both residents and nonresidents. (The extra $10 is for court fees.)

Troopers also check to make sure there is a life jacket available for each person on board. To reward kids for wearing theirs, Merritt hands out free ice cream cone coupons from McDonald’s.

“See? We can be popular sometimes,” Mondick joked after they passed some out to three kids on a cabin cruiser.

Merritt additionally checked the catches for size restrictions and harvest limits. Retaining king salmon less than 28 inches is a offense that carries, again, a $210 ticket. There’s no size restriction for cohos, but there’s a limit of six per day.

Fishing was so slow Saturday between 1 and 3:30 p.m., no one had any kings to show Merritt, or anywhere close to the coho limit.

“No coho or king on board?” Merritt inquired of one fisherman.

“Not yet!” he responded optimistically.

Mondick drove the skiff up to the North Pass, where groups of boaters were having much better luck in the late afternoon. After contacting some people there, Merritt paused and said, “The only thing that would be better than this is if we were actually fishing.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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