Vickie Perry didn't know she had caught a big fish until she saw the flasher on her gear surface, and then the fight began. She ended up with sore arms and the early lead in the 57th Golden North Salmon Derby.
The 35.2-pound king salmon fought her for 30 minutes Friday afternoon until her husband, John Perry, was able to net it somewhere near South Shelter Island. They turned it in at the Auke Bay weigh station within an hour.
"That one was definitely worth the gas that we burned and had to refuel," Vickie Perry said.
As of 8 p.m. Saturday, Perry was still in first place according to derby officials. First place is worth $15,000 in cash plus other prizes. Her fish was big enough to win in eight of the last 10 derbies.
An anticipated 2,500 anglers will compete over the three-day event, which ends at 6 tonight, for more than $90,000 in cash and prizes. The contest, sponsored by the Territorial Sportsmen, raises money for scholarships by selling the fish to Taku Smokeries.
"The derby's going real good," co-chairman Malcolm Menzies said late Saturday afternoon. "It's some of the heaviest fish there have been in the last few years, and more fish."
Perry said her downrigger pole and those of John, and family friend William Bloodworth of Missouri had been quiet for a few hours when hers bounced up and down a couple of times. As she reeled the line in, it was so straight they thought she had caught only some kelp.
"The fish wasn't running," Perry said by cell phone Saturday. "All of a sudden, it got to the surface. We realized we had something of substance."
Perry attributed her catch to her husband "because he's the one who got it in the net, because it didn't want to get in."
Anglers enjoyed good weather Friday - sunny and breezy. At the weigh stations, they said fishing was good and the cohos seemed large.
The top 100 fish caught Friday weighed 1,999 pounds, more than the 1,739 pounds caught on the derby's first day last year. It was the larger percentage of kings in the mix this year that made the difference.
Taku Smokeries reported receiving 14,280 pounds of fish on Friday, of which about 3,000 pounds were kings, said Nick Yurko, a derby official. That's the most weight for a first day in roughly the past eight years.
Fishing was "very good," derby official Kami Frenette said early Friday afternoon at the Auke Bay weigh station.
"Some nice fish. Big kings out at the packer. They're getting 20-pound silvers out at the packer," she said, referring to the weigh station on a boat near Shelter Island.
Just then Steve Bradford on a Bayliner brought in a 22.9-pound king, which gave him 21st place at the end of the day. "Great weather and good fishing," he said before pushing off. Where'd he catch it, an official asked out of curiosity. "I can't tell you those things," he said with a smile and was gone.
At 6:15 p.m. Friday a line of boats waited their turn at the Auke Bay weigh station. Becky Fulkerson turned in a 17.7-pound king.
Fishing was "wonderful," she said. "Pretty good size. We fish every year. We fish both the spring and the annual (derbies). We've placed in both in the last two years."
Several fish cleaners were kept busy Friday at Auke Bay as fish filled 10 totes. The fish will be sold to Taku Smokeries. Fish cleaner Dawn McInturff wolfed down a piece of fried chicken during a short break.
She grew up in Juneau and now lives in Ketchikan, but returned for the derby work.
"Start at 8 (a.m.), sometimes we won't get out of here until 9 (p.m.)," she said. "It all depends on how much fish come in. This year is a good year, a very good start, man."
Saturday morning at the Douglas Harbor weigh station, in the pattering rain, it was slow business.
"Bring us some big fish?" a derby official asked folks on the Antares.
"Bigger than yesterday," Suzanne Johnston said.
In fact, Johnston brought in a 24.1-pound king, putting her in the top 20 at the time. And her 9-year-old daughter Kasandra presented a 13.2-pound coho. She hoped she'd win a prize for the biggest salmon weighed in by a child 12 or younger.
The Terri Baby pulled in a while later with two small cohos, but that didn't diminish the pleasure for Joseph Moser and his friend, Shelley Williamson, who is from the Yukon Territory.
"We're having a blast. This is our first year," Williamson said.
Why start now?
"The prizes," Moser, a commercial fisherman, said with a laugh.
"That got us started. I love to sport fish. And why not?" he said, pointing to Williamson. "I have a good partner. We lost one, we got two."
Williamson said she was in Juneau last weekend and decided to return for the derby.
"For the derby only?" Moser asked.
"And the local color," she assured him.
As of noon Saturday , the top 10 anglers, all of whom had caught kings, were: 1) Vickie Perry, 35.2 pounds; 2) Shaun Lewis, 30.8 pounds; 3) George Davis, 30.5 pounds; 4) Teri Lewis, 30.3 pounds; 5) Carol J. Collins, 29.1 pounds; 6) Richard Berning, 28.9 pounds; 7) Scott Granse, 28.3 pounds; 8) Tracy Moore, 28.0 pounds; 9) Tim Dimond, 27.8 pounds; 10) Randy Beason, 27.3 pounds.
The derby's results, updated late each day, are displayed at www.salmonderby.org.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.