Reeling in the Lottery

One salmon among half a million with derby tag worth $100,000 may await fortunate angler

Posted: Sunday, August 06, 2006

While anglers have a great chance to catch fish this weekend in the 60th annual Golden North Salmon Derby, catching the one worth $100,000 is a long shot.

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The biggest king or silver salmon caught by 6 p.m. Sunday's closing bomb will be worth $16,265 in cash and prizes, but somewhere there is a tagged fish worth $100,000 to derby participants.

"Where else can you get the opportunity of winning $100,000?" asked derby Co-chairman Ron Somerville. In that sense, the derby is like the lottery, he said. The cost to enter is $35 for people 13 and older, and $10 for participants 12 and younger.

Territorial Sportsmen, which organizes the derby, recently released a fish with the $100,000 tag, along with 11 other tagged fish each worth $1,000. Each of the tagged fish is numbered, and the number of the $100,000 fish, as well as its physical description, remains a secret to be looked up if a fish with a tag is turned in.

The big fish may not be the weightiest out there, but there are a lot of fish swimming between Point Bridget and Point Styleman.

"How many stars are in the Milky Way?" asked Charlie Swanton in the Fish and Game Sportfish Division. "If we know how many fish were out there, we could do a better job managing fish."

Brian Glynn, an area management biologist, said the talk of this being a good year for fishing isn't derby hype.

"This past weekend was about as good as it gets," he said.

With the coho catch rate running at about three hours per angler, boats going out with two or three people aboard were probably successful.

"If you went fishing last weekend, you likely caught a coho," he said.

Last week on average fishermen caught one king for 70 angling hours.

The runs appear to be strong this year, especially for coho, Glynn said. He estimated there could be 500,000 adult king and coho available this weekend. The downside is a larger number of fish diminishes the odds of catching a specific one, assuming it has remained in bounds, he added.

"It would appear the odds of catching the tagged fish are astronomical," he said.

Besides locating the fish, someone would have to find it in the mood to take the bait and successfully pull it into a boat. Lottery tickets don't present such challenges.

"How sharp is your hook? How attractive is your bait?" he asked. "There's just all sorts of behavioral things."

A special tagged fish worth $10,000 was introduced in 1971, according to the Territorial Sportsmen's history. The tagged fish were dropped in 1980 but reintroduced in 1985 with a $100,000 price going on its head.

While the odds might be long, the big fish was caught once in the 30 years of special tagged prizes. On opening day of the 1996 derby, Maggie Hall caught a small tagged coho. She had to wait for the number to be checked to learn that she had won the big prize.

"No matter what the odds are, it happened," Glynn said.

Beyond the luck, there is work, he said.

"It all boils down to how much time you put into it, and you've got to be thinking about what you're doing," he said.

Not knowing whether the $100,000 fish is a king or a coho makes angling for that one fish even more difficult, he said. King tend to be deeper and coho tend to be closer to the surface.

Derby Co-chairman Mal Linthwaite, who wants to minimize the chance of fraud, wouldn't say what type of salmon the tagged fish are or how big they are. He also wouldn't say where they were released or what the tags look like.

"You'll know it when you see it," he said of the tags.

People have to sign affidavits saying they actually fought and caught their winning fish, bringing it in on their own. If there are questions, there's the possibility of a polygraph test, instituted about three years ago.

"We don't want anybody thinking there's hanky-panky going on," Linthwaite said.

Dick Garrison, the only person to have fished in every Golden North Salmon Derby, said it's about being in the right place an the right time. And lots of luck.

When he caught a 52-pound king in 1957, it was the biggest salmon ever caught in the derby and he seemed on his way to winning the car offered as the top prize.

An hour later and a mile away, Henry Tacholsky caught the derby-record 59.3-pound king, "probably from the same run," Garrison said. He still won the car, he said, because he was lucky Tacholsky wanted the second-prize boat and motor instead.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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