If Juneau looks deserted for the next three days, it's because hundreds of its residents took to the ocean.
Chalk it up to a 59-year-old local tradition.
People such as John Cooper, a Juneau engineering consultant, will spend the next three days fishing the 59th Annual Golden North Salmon Derby, which begins this morning and will end Sunday night.
Cooper has fished the derby, which funds college scholarships for Juneau students, on and off for 30 years. You could say he and the derby have grown up together.
The derby used to be a mad affair, with boats racing out of the harbor at the crack of a shotgun, and then racing back into harbor each night to meet the 6 p.m. deadline for fish tickets, Cooper said Thursday.
Now the Golden North Salmon Derby is a more safety-conscious event, without the boom of a gun or races in and out of harbor. The Coast Guard will be on the watch for boats without proper safety gear.
And most noticeably, derby's organizers have introduced sleek advertising all around Juneau, a vast array of prizes and a fleet of 200 volunteers.
"It's a first-class fund-raiser because everybody gets to have fun and raise a fair amount of money," Cooper said.
The derby, hosted by Juneau's Territorial Sportsmen, has raised more than $1.1 million for college scholarships since 1953.
Last year the Territorial Sportsmen, an outdoor sports organization, awarded four $10,000 college scholarships to Juneau-Douglas High School students, as well as some vocational scholarships.
"It won't get you through college, but it will sure help," said Mal Linthwaite, derby co-chairman and president of Territorial Sportsmen.
The derby's entry fee pays for the event, which has a $110,00 budget roughly, while donations provide funding for the event's many prizes and insurance for 12 tagged fish.
One of the tagged fish released in Juneau waters is worth $100,000 to the lucky fisherman. The last time the coveted $100,000 fish was caught was in 1996.
About 3,000 people participated in the 2004 derby, Linthwaite said. That summer, Southeast Alaska experienced fabulous king salmon runs.
This year's Taku River king run was somewhat elusive to sport fishermen, but sport catch rates for hatchery kings in the Juneau area were decent last week. It took sport fishermen an average of 36 hours to hook a king, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
With a healthy quantity of cohos now showing up around Juneau, "most people aren't going to come in (from the derby) skunked," said Brian Glynn, a Fish and Game sportfish management biologist.
The biggest fish ever caught in the derby was a 59-pound, eight-ounce king salmon.
"The guy who caught it still claims he is the world's best fisherman," Linthwaite said.
For information on prizes, the derby schedule and other derby facts, visit its Web site at www.salmonderby.org.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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