We might as well hang a "Gone fishing" sign over the "Welcome to Juneau" during the Golden North Salmon Derby this weekend.
As usual, it will seem as if everyone who owns a boat has it on the water, trailing lines. Most years about 3,350 adults fish the derby and many bring their kids, said derby co-chairman M'Iva Rickey. Those not onboard will be on the docks, among the 150 volunteers who weigh, tally and keeping the 55-year-old event going.
"It's a celebration of what makes Juneau special. There's a lot of camaraderie, a lot of great talk on the radios. Everybody that's tied up on the dock swaps tales," Rickey said. "It's just a great time as a family or buddies to take three days and celebrate the bounty of our area."
The Golden North Salmon Derby is one of the few weekends charter fisherman Mike Bethers won't take a client fishing, though he has many who'd like to go.
"That's family fishing," said Bethers, who's missed only one derby since 1968. "It's great fun."
Fish shouldn't be hard to find this year. Bethers caught a 17-pound coho last week and some kings in the mid-20s.
"It's stacking up really normal from what I've seen to this point," said Bethers, who's been out fishing most days this season as a guide.
The derby has been won with fish from 27.5 to 59.8 pounds. Over the last 10 years the average winner has been 32.3 pounds, and Bethers expects something similar this year.
"The prize fish are going to probably be pretty typical," said Bethers.
Sometimes the smallest fish are the biggest winners though. In 1996 Maggie Hall brought in a 7.9-pound salmon that turned out to be worth $100,000 because it had the winning tag. Last weekend Rickey released the 10 tagged fish, each at a different spot within the fishing boundaries. All the tagged fish are legal size. One is worth $100,000 and the other nine are worth $1,000.
"Everybody has a really good opportunity," Rickey said.
The tides are a little tricky this year, coming and going at odd times. The water's up in the middle of the night and mid-day, then low in the morning and evening when fishermen want to launch or come in for the evening.
"It's inconvenient hours and there's not much you can do about that except accept the vagaries of nature," said harbormaster Joe Graham. "The old attributes of patience and understanding are essential."
Since the tides won't wait, it's the fishermen who will be biding their time on the water this weekend. Graham expects many fishermen will launch Thursday and moor overnight to avoid launching in the wee hours of the morning. Derby tickets can be validated starting at 7:30 a.m.
Graham also predicts more boaters will launch from Auke Bay and downtown, where they can moor the boat overnight and avoid fighting the tides each day.
"That's what I would do," he said.
The launch ramps are typically "pretty crazy" during the derby Graham said. Echo Cove, Amalga Harbor and North Douglas could be particularly busy this year, he said.
In the future, Graham plans to dredge the Douglas Harbor launch ramp to minus 6 feet and the Amalga Harbor launch to minus 10 feet, which will make it easier for boaters to launch at odd tides.
To make it safer for more boats to spend the night on the water, the Salmon Derby officials extended the boundaries this year. The boundaries go south from Point Bridget and Point Whidbey to Pt. Couverdon and Pt. Lizard Head on the west side of Admiralty Island and Pt. Styleman and Twin Point on the east side of Admiralty Island. The fishing area includes St. James Bay, Funter Bay, Youngs Bay, Taku Harbor. Gastineau Channel is also fair game for derby fishing this year, Rickey said.
"There's a lot more places for people to harbor overnight that are not exposed to the elements," Rickey said. "Whatever size boat you have, there's a place for you to have a safe harbor and spreading the boats out makes it so much better for safety purposes."
Staying out overnight is fine, but derby officials encourage fishermen to unload fish frequently so the salmon are good quality. Taku Smokeries buys the fish and the money pays for college scholarships for Juneau-Douglas High School graduates.
Normally the best way to preserve salmon quality is to gut and clean the fish immediately, then keep it cold.
"If you leave the guts in your fish too long they will belly burn," Bethers said, referring to a darkening of the fish that occurs as stomach acids eat through the flesh.
The derby salmon are left whole, so keeping them cold becomes even more important. Fishermen just out for the day can get away with insulated boxes of cold water, Bethers said. Those staying out overnight should bring plenty of ice for the fish.
Even a cold fish will belly burn if kept too long, Bethers said. Worse yet for derby fishermen, fish can lose several ounces of blood and goo waiting in the cooler.
Bethers knows first hand how a fish can shrink, though it only lost him pride, not a prize. During one derby he caught a salmon while fishing with his wife. They stayed out several hours more until she caught a slightly smaller fish. At the weigh in Bethers' fish was lighter than his wife's.
Bether's generally turns in fish twice a day. If it's a big salmon, one with a shot at the winnings, "the best thing you can do is race that sucker in to a scale," he said.
Kristan Hutchison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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