Steve Mielke thought he hooked a halibut when his line started zinging with the king salmon that appears to be the champion fish of the 61st Annual Golden North Salmon Derby.
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Like many other anglers, Mielke had seen a fairly slow couple of days compared to last year's record-breaking season. But landing that 36.4 pound chinook made his knees shake.
"All of a sudden, it just hit the line and started taking out a bunch of line," Mielke said. "So we sat there and fought it for probably 15, 20 minutes. We see the tail come up, and then we knew it wasn't a halibut. We got it near the boat, and dad looked at it and said, 'Oh, it's a beauty.'"
More than a thousand people participated in the weekend derby to raise money for scholarships and vie for prizes worth tens of thousands of dollars. The top fish was worth $15,000 in cash plus extra winnings. Two anglers caught tagged fish worth $1,000 each, though a $100,000 fish escaped the hooks. Results were still preliminary as of Sunday evening and won't be finalized until Tuesday, according to event spokeswoman Heather Marlow.
Thousands of pounds of fish were harvested, including a hot streak at about noon on Sunday, when fish worth $20,000 in prizes were reported within about half an hour.
"We heard from the fishermen overnight that the bait moved in, so the king salmon started to follow them as the bait moved in to shore," Marlow said.
"There's definitely fewer fish in the water this year," she said. "But we've had people that have really stuck with it and had to hang tough. We really appreciate it. They're turning in some nice fish ... Steve's fish is gorgeous. After it was cleaned, his fish weighed 30.8 pounds."
Two of the luckiest anglers were lifelong Juneau resident Sarah Martin and former Juneau resident Shawn Bethers. They pulled in two tagged fish worth $1,000 each.
Martin, 22, had been fishing with family near Admiralty Island with moderate luck. Then the salmon struck on Sunday while she was in the middle of a trade with her brother, who was on a different boat. They were swapping her mother's homemade cookies for his fishing lures.
"We were stretching out the net of cookies when that fish hit my hook," Martin said. "I have a feeling the luck was in the cookies. I had just finished shoving a piece in my mouth."
She tried not to get her hopes up while reeling in the fish, she said.
"I saw that little orange tag, and I couldn't believe it," Martin said. "We got it over the edge, and I knew it was tagged at that point. I started shaking, actually."
Shawn Bethers had been fishing with his family all day on Saturday when his luck changed.
"I reeled the reel in maybe two times, and it was already at the surface, and it had a nice tag in its back," he said. "It wrapped itself in the downrigger, and then my mom netted it."
He had plans for the winnings: "It's going into the education fund."
Bruce Tangeman experienced the thrill of the lead on Saturday night, though he ended up in an unofficial second place by the end of the derby. He and his friends had been fishing near the southern end of Douglas Island for most of the weekend when he hooked his chinook.
"It made maybe two runs then came up to the boat then jumped in the net," he said. "No fuss, no muss."
A former resident of Juneau, the 40-year-old had flown here from his new home in Anchorage just to participate in the derby. It was his 10th, he said.
"On the boat with three good friends, we had a great time," Tangeman said. "Whether I caught a fish or not, it was a good time."
Contact Ken Lewis at 523-2263 or email@example.com.