Golden Memories

Derby evolution: Old-timers just go with the flow

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2003

When Linda Egan won the Golden North Salmon Derby in 1991, she received $10,000, a champagne bucket and a "man-sized belt buckle."

The prize was not as glamorous as the brand-new cars that were given away as prizes in the early years of the event, but it was worth the 20-some years Egan fished in the derby with her husband, Dennis, and their two children before placing, she said.

Since the derby began in 1947, a number of changes have marked the fishing contest.

In 1978, derby officials scrapped the "starting bombs" set off in Auke Bay to mark the beginning of the event, leaving the start slightly less frenzied but definitely safer, long-time participants said.

"The gun would go and they'd come flying right out of there until they had a couple of crashes. Then they quit doing it," said Oscar Olsen, who has fished in most of the derbies and plans to fish in this year's derby with his wife, Emma, and some of the couple's friends.

"It's much easier now than when they would use the gun out in Auke Bay," said Egan. "I didn't like that - the rock and roll from all of the boats going out at once."

Along with the starting technique, the starting date of the derby has changed, too.

In 1977 the derby was moved to August to avoid possible impacts on the king salmon population, according to the official derby Web site, In 1980 the date was moved to later in August to avoid conflict with the Alaska State Fair in Haines.

"I kind of think they're getting a little too late with it," Olsen said. "They're after the cohos and, gol darnit, the kings are all gone, just about."

Another change in the derby has been the technique used by fishermen.

"They don't fish them like we used to," said Rudy Pusich, who has fished in every derby. He shares the distinction with Juneau resident Dick Garrison.

"Dick and I, we used to go out and strip fish," Pusich said.

Strip fishing involves letting the line sink to the bottom of the water and pulling it up with a jerking motion to give the bait life and attract fish.

"Nowadays everybody trolls," he said.

Trolling takes some getting used to, said Egan. The year she caught her winning fish, she and her family were using a new set of downriggers.

"I told Dennis I was down 30 feet and he said 'that's crazy, nobody uses a downrigger and goes down 30 feet,' " she said. "And then I caught the fish."

Many derby fishermen have some sort of tale to tell about good or bad fishing luck.

Betty Neimi, who has been fishing in the derby since the early 1980s and caught the winning fish in 1995, remembers one couple who was sleeping on their boat in Taku Harbor and didn't come out of the harbor to start fishing until 1 p.m.

"They got three cohos and they were tired and decided they were going in early," she said. When the couple turned in the fish they received plastic eggs with prizes inside. One of the eggs contained a gold ingot.

"I would say that would be really lucky," said Neimi. "Most of us that had been fishing since 4 a.m., we didn't get anything out of the effort."

Bad luck sometimes comes after the fishing ends. In 1964, Marvel Boddy caught the winning fish and drove his new car to the Garrisons' house to celebrate it. When Dick Garrison's wife, Peggy, drove her car down Highland Drive to join the celebration, she ran right into the back of Boddy's new car.

"It wasn't too funny at first," Dick Garrison said. "Then we got to thinking about it and it was pretty sad that this new car was ruined. ... We laugh about it now."

In 1957, Garrison thought he had won the derby with a fish he caught off the north end of Portland Island.

"I was in my glory and I thought, boy oh boy, I'm going to get this car - it was a Lincoln Mercury," Garrison said.

An hour later, Henry Tacholsky caught a 59-pound 3-ounce fish that beat Garrison's fish by only a couple of pounds.

"That's the biggest poundage for first and second prize in the history of the derby," Garrison said.

In the end, Garrison got his Mercury when Tacholsky offered to trade the car for a boat motor, which Garrison had won as second place winner.

"Rudy got a car, and I got a car, and Chuck Porter got a car, and we all said we needed it like a hole in the head," Garrison said.

That's why he lobbied to change the first place winnings to cash when he was co-chair of the derby board of directors.

Next weekend, when he heads out for his 57th derby, Rudy Pusich plans to use the same good-luck plan that helped him win in 1961, he said.

"Just drink the right whiskey," he said.

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