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Juneau resident Don Vanderheyden has changed the oil, checked the belts and is gearing up his 34-foot boat, The Roter Koter, for the month-long 8th Annual Spring King Salmon Derby.
"I like getting out there in the spring because the king fishing is a lot better in the spring, for me at least," he said. "I find the fishing a whole lot better and a lot more fun."
Sponsored by the Central Council Tlingit & Haida Alumni Scholarship Assistance Program, the derby runs from May 1 to May 31 and costs $30 for an entry ticket. All proceeds from the derby go toward supplemental scholarships for Native students.
"It's for a good cause to help individuals persue a higher education," said Archie Cavanaugh, Vocational Training and Resource Center director and derby founder. "It's good for people to get an education in life. It just gives you more opportunities for economic advancements and gives you a better quality of life."
After having to turn away hundreds of students looking for financial aid, Cavanaugh decided nine years ago to fill in for a defunct Little League salmon derby to help get the students the assistance they needed.
"I just couldn't sleep at night knowing that I had to turn away 200 people looking for scholarships," he said. "I thought it would be a great idea to initiate a derby for the Central Council as a scholarship fund-raiser for the 200 students I had to turn away."
Cavanaugh said he went in the hole about $1,200 the first year of the derby, made a little bit of money the second, and ever since has been generating an average of about $24,000 a year.
The prizes have also become more lucrative over the years to entice more contestants. The first-place winner this year will take home $9,451.16 in cash and prizes, which includes $7,000 cash, a rod-and-reel package, two round-trip airline tickets, and more.
Last year's winner, Tom Lee, said the bounty for his 42.3-pound chinook "went fast," mainly toward bills. He said he plans to get out on the water more than last year to get another chance at the title and the cash.
"It's all luck, just being in the right spot at the right time," said Lee. "I'm a pretty lucky person, so maybe I'll get lucky again."
More contestants might get lucky this year as the Alaska Department of
Fish and Game is expecting a slightly higher return of chinooks to the Taku River this season. Brian Glynn, an area management biologist for Juneau, said they are forecasting around 60,000 kings returning to the Taku, up from the about 55,000 a year.
"We're expecting a higher escapement return, and that should translate to slightly better catch rates than last year," said Glynn. "It should do that, but we really can't say what fishing will be like until the fishing is over."
Glynn said there is also the possibility of the kings being bigger.
"There are indications that the 2004 return may contain good numbers of large, 5- and 6-year-old fish in the 15- to 40-pound range, as well as smaller 4-year-olds, which are typically less than 28 inches and must be released," he said.
Cavanaugh said contestants will be able to keep tabs on the leaders and their fish easier this year by accessing the derby's Web site at www.springkingderby.org.
"We are going to be very astute about updating our winner's list daily, because it does change consistently," he said.
When it comes down to it, it's all about fishing and family, Cavanaugh said.
"For a month-long derby it gives families a great opportunity to bond," he said. "I think it's a wonderful opportunity for families to get out and enjoy the weather."
Cavanaugh said the old saying rings true when it comes to fishing the spring king salmon derby.
"I always like to say that if you give a person a fish they eat for a day and if you teach someone to fish than you feed them for a lifetime," he said.
Vanderheyden said the community should get out on the water this May and fish.
"They ought to get out and fish, because that's the only way they'll ever win," he said. "They'll never win if they don't get out there and drag a herring around."