SITKA - This time, the one that got away was every bit as big as they said it was.
In a stunning turn on a whopper of a fish tale, one of the biggest king salmon ever caught in Southeast waters has gone missing - apparently taken from a fish plant Tuesday night, just hours after it was brought to the dock by the commercial trollers who caught it.
Sitka police said the only clue to the whereabouts of the giant fish was the report by a night watchman who said he saw two men in hooded sweatshirts late Tuesday night near the freezer area where the fish was being kept.
But he said the men did not appear to be carrying anything that might have been the fish.
The male red king salmon, which had been dressed when it was brought in, weighed 82 pounds on the dock, said Greg Johnstone, quality assurance supervisor at Seafood Producers Co-Op. Experts said it probably weighed 92 pounds before it was dressed out.
"This is the biggest fish that I've ever heard of being caught on commercial gear," said Pattie Skannes, assistant troll management biologist for the state Department of Fish and Game in Sitka.
Hauled in on commercial trolling gear by the crew of the power troller Valiant Hunter near Shelikof Bay on Monday, the fish was delivered to the co-op Tuesday afternoon.
After being weighed and photographed, the fish was placed in one of the co-op's freezers, where it was to stay until it could be mounted, said Plant Manager Craig Shoemaker.
But at 12:25 a.m. Wednesday, police got a call from William Teas, a co-op night worker, reporting that the fish was missing.
Shoemaker said freezers are not locked, and the plant is open at night because the co-op runs 24 hours a day. About a dozen people are on staff at night.
"There's no restriction on that area," he said. "People are coming and going on a fairly regular basis this time of year."
Joey Carpenter, the deckhand on the Valiant Hunter who helped bring in the giant king, said he was shocked to learn it was missing.
"Who would think someone could go into the co-op and walk off with an 82-pound fish? You don't just stick that under your coat," he said.
The going price to fishermen for big kings is $1.25 a pound, but as a mounted trophy the value would be much greater, police said. Police estimated the value of the loss at $150.
Valiant Hunter skipper Paul Olson said that if he thought the big fish would end up as a private treasure rather than a trophy on public display, he would have let it go back into the ocean.
"There are so few (big fish) around, I'd rather have him swimming," he said. "I didn't think there were any of those left. They're just gone."
The official record for a king salmon caught on sport gear is 97 pounds, 4 ounces, for a fish landed on the Kenai River in 1985. The top 10 biggest sport-caught fish on record for Alaska are from the Kenai area.