Any salmon is fun to catch, whether it’s a three-pound humpy or a 13-pound coho. But nothing beats hooking into a king.
Kings, which are also called chinook, are Alaska’s largest salmon. The world-record, which hangs in Petersburg’s Clausen Museum, was caught in a fish trap and weighed 126.5 pounds. It’s impressive—when I was seven or eight years old, my father photographed me standing next to that fish, and it looked like the beast could have easily swallowed an arm. The sport-caught world-record king salmon weighed 97 pounds and was caught in the Kenai River back in 1997.
During spring in southeast Alaska, thousands of anglers would give anything to land a fish of that size. The reason? Anyone who caught that fish would garner first place in any number of king salmon derbies that occur each year in the Panhandle. And they would fetch a prize ranging from $10,000 cash, to a new car or boat, to airline tickets to the Caribbean, Hawaii, or beyond. And, most importantly, in “fish-speak,” the winner would own local bragging rights for a year.
King salmon derbies have been part of Southeast’s DNA for 70-some years. Petersburg’s derby started 38 years ago; Wrangell’s 66 years ago; Ketchikan’s started in 1944; Sitka’s in 1956; Juneau’s Golden North Derby started 74 years ago. There’s good reason for that longevity. Each spring, just as the weather turns from winter gray to those still crisp, but unbelievably beautiful days of May—with the mountains snow clad and the sun finally offering warmth, with fiddleheads sprouting, grouse drumming, and black bears feeding on beaches lined with lime-green sedge…when any of us could easily think, this is where I want to live until the day I die—thousands of anglers climb into their boats and head out on the salt with a single-minded goal: Catch a giant king.
That happens often enough. In 1988 and 1999, Sitka’s derby-winning kings weighed 71 pounds 6 ounces, and 67 pounds 8 ounces; in 1956, Milton Fox, fishing from a small skiff, caught a 79-pound king to win Ketchikan’s derby; 50-to 60-pound fish routinely win these derbies.
The possibility of catching a king like that, and the prize it brings, provides an influx of revenue for these towns. Anglers participating in the contests pay entry fees and load up on tackle, bait, food, and fuel. That provides a nice shot in the arm for local economies just prior to the onset of tourist season.
Unfortunately, many derbies have been canceled in recent years due to several factors, not the least being a downward spiral in king salmon abundance. Some communities scrapped derbies to relieve pressure on the king salmon stock, especially in waters near the Taku and Stikine rivers.
Everyone knows this: Losing wild king salmon in Southeast would be a cultural tragedy and economic poison. The COVID-19 pandemic added additional complications in 2020. And the prospects for 2021 are up in the air—on December 1, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game offered their 2021 Stikine and Taku rivers chinook salmon forecast. Just 9,900 Stikine kings and only 10,300 Taku kings are expected to return in 2021. For comparison, 90,000 kings swam up the Stikine in 2006; 115,000 kings hit the Taku in 1997.
Whether derbies take place this year or not, catching anything near a derby-record-size king probably isn’t going to happen. Biologists have noted a decline in the size of king salmon and say that killer whales are likely to blame. A recent scientific study by the University of Washington says Alaska’s resident orca population is growing and those apex predators prefer king salmon over any other meal.
The report notes, “(Orca’s) diets are dominated by salmon, especially chinook salmon, which have the highest energy content of any salmon, and the whales selectively prey on the largest chinook salmon. Killer whales are estimated to currently consume over 2.5 million adult chinook salmon each year. Because of declines in fisheries’ harvests since the 1980s, these consumption levels by killer whales now exceed the combined annual removals of chinook salmon by commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries.”
It’s not surprising that orcas as well as we humans prefer big kings. The orcas get the protein they need, and we are driven by imagination—whether trolling a cut-plug herring, a brass spoon, or a classic wood plug—that at any moment, a monster might grab our lure. If the ocean produced a 126-pound king salmon in the past, we have to wonder why it couldn’t do the same again. And if it did, why not my line versus anyone else’s?
In Search of a Giant
That was our mentality when my father, Fred, and I joined Ken and Beth Hagerman in Petersburg one May, to fish the derby and see what we could catch.
When we ran out of Wrangell Narrows and into Fredrick Sound, past Sandy Beach and on to one of the Hagerman’s favorite spots, I was confident that a king would grab my herring.
That didn’t exactly happen. In fact, the biggest thing I reeled in was an Irish lord, that dreaded and semi-poisonous sculpin that wreaks havoc on fresh bait.
I wasn’t alone. Neither Ken and Beth nor my father had touched a fish, and we’d seen few salmon hauled into neighboring boats. The fleet agreed—fishing during the four-day derby would be fair at best. But, as the tide changed, we saw bait being concentrated near a rocky point. We watched birds diving and spotted a few swirls on the surface—salmon certainly feeding on herring. We made a pass and Ken’s rod tip dipped. He set the hook, kept the line tight and about 10 minutes later, he led a nice 20-pound king into the net. Skunk off.
We made another couple passes, hoping to pick up a fish before the tide changed. Sure enough, my dad felt a couple taps, waited for the line to tighten, then set the hook. A little while later, he steered a dime-bright 20-some-pounder into the net.
That was good fishing. But not like the best day of king salmon fishing my dad ever had. As we continued to troll, hoping for another bite, he told us about the time when he and the late Norma Tenjford fished Thomas Bay.
“Some of the water in Thomas Bay comes right off the Patterson Glacier, so you end up with fresh water on top of salt water and the kings feed just under the surface, which means you only have to put out about 20 feet of line,” Fred told us. “The herring were really in that day and the salmon were pushing them right up against a cliff, and as soon as we set our lines it was like boom, boom, we each had a fish on.
“Sometimes the kings would rush those herring right next to the boat,” Fred said, “and one time, a big king—like a 30-pounder—leaped out of the water and threw itself onto the rocks and got stuck in a little cleavage on the cliff. It was thrashing around, struggling to get out. I grabbed the net and Norma got the boat right over there. But just when I was going to put the net under that fish it flipped into the water.
“When we got back to Petersburg, we pulled up to Reeser’s place on Scow Bay and laid the fish out on the beach—Norma had caught a 17-pounder, a 20-pounder, and a fish in the upper 20-pound range. I’d caught a 20-pounder and two in the upper 30s. We looked at the fish, looked at each other, and said, ‘That’s a pretty good catch for one day.’”
That is a good day because you can lose a big king in any number of ways, and it isn’t a pleasant feeling when one comes off the line. When Norma and Fred caught all those kings, they’d also watched an old-timer fight a fish for an hour. They saw it jump once or twice, clear out of the water. It was huge.
“Norma knew that man and she said, ‘He’s going nuts. Oh, he’s going nuts.’ Then all of a sudden, he quit fishing,” Fred remembered. “Norma said, ‘I have to go see him.’ We motored over to his scow and the man said, ‘Norma, I’m so mad. I’m so mad. That fish was well over 60 pounds and I lost it at the boat.’ As we pushed away from the scow, Norma said, ‘That could ruin any guy’s day.’”
When we reeled in our lines for the day, Beth and I still hadn’t touched a fish. I said to my dad, “If our last name is Thomas, and you’ve done so well in Thomas Bay, why weren’t we fishing there today? Don’t you believe in karma?”
Beth cocked her head, frowned, and offered an expression that said, Well, Fred?
When we got back to the dock and checked in our fish, two giant kings rested on ice in a clear plastic display case. The largest fish weighed 59.8 pounds. Eventual derby winner Duane Olson hooked it, fought it, and caught it earlier that day at—you guessed it—Thomas Bay.
Author’s note: Lifetime Petersburg residents Ken and Beth Hagerman passed away within a year of each other in 2019. All of the area’s king salmon, halibut, and cohos can breathe a little easier these days.