Holden Corwin receives a prize for the largest halibut at the 2018 derby fish fry celebration. Photo by Erin McKittrick.
“I stuck my hand down the greenling’s throat and look what I found!” the nine-year-old crowed, waving a slimy sand lance. Her dad sat in the other end of the rowboat, tied off to the navigation buoy in the middle of Seldovia Bay. Another adult-kid pair bobbed beside them.
Every year, on Memorial Day weekend, Seldovians launch their kayaks, rowboats, canoes, and packrafts for the Human-Powered Fishing Derby. The rules are simple. Forty-dollar entrance fee. No motors. No fishing from shore. Any fish from one of the four allowed categories (halibut, black bass, greenling, and salmon) gets your name in the hat for the grand prize.
The grand prize is always a human-powered boat. I paddled my 2017 grand prize—a pink and white single kayak—across the bay to check on the next set of fishermen. It was Hans and Markus’s first year, and while they hadn’t caught anything yet, they proudly showed off the coolers they’d rigged as pontoons on their canoe.
Stories circled the docks. The “nakedladies” had been skunked and ended up sunbathing. Something monstrous got away, leaving behind a broken pole and a mysterious flash of a tail. Jerry Stranick’s 62-pound halibut hadn’t gotten away, and he’d dragged it all the way back to the harbor behind his double kayak, while his partner paddled, certain he’d snagged the “biggest halibut” prize for the year.
Two years earlier, I’d struggled to pull a 32-pound halibut into a packraft crammed full with two kids and a pile of fishing poles. That halibut fed me for days, and it’s exactly what Tim Dillon, the local builder who founded the derby in 2009, wanted me to realize. He had been fishing from his rowboat and kayak for 30 years. “Seldovia had always harbored fishers in human-powered craft,” he said. “I saw many an old rowboat languishing in alder patches and decided to come up with an event that would not only resurrect some of those boats but also re-tune Seldovians to the reality of being able to feed themselves by just rowing or paddling a short distance from the village.” The event has been a success with its infectious power to bring out lifelong experts and total novices alike, swapping boats, gear, and advice.
On the last day of the derby, it poured. My 10-year-old hadn’t yet caught a fish that year, and we did hopeful loops around the pilings of the ferry dock, catching sculpins and seaweed until a friend paddled by and offered a better lure.
Meanwhile in the middle of the bay, Steve Pollack had caught a little more than he intended. “I thought I had the bottom,” he said.
But after 15 minutes trying to get his light salmon trolling gear unstuck, he realized he was still moving. His pole pointed down, two loops in the water, and at the other end was a halibut that nearly dwarfed his rowboat, pulling him in tight circles around the middle of the bay. “I couldn’t row and hold the pole, and if I let go, I’d lose it.”
He had to let the fish tire itself out. But after that, what? Forty-five minutes after hooking the halibut, he called his brother, who rowed out to meet him with a harpoon. Three hours later, we watched the pair of them approaching the harbor—a tiny boat crawling along with a giant sea anchor. That fish weighed 133.8 pounds.
At the final potluck, the last-minute fishermen were slick and wet, shivering as theyloadedtheirplateswith Tim’s fried fish. Everyone comes to the party, fisher- man or not. The local band plays, kids run wild through the puddles, visitors are wel- comed, and summer resi- dents are welcomed back.
All the derby participants get a door prize, which run the gamut from valuable to eclectic. A 4,000-pound freight run on a landing craft. A shopping bag full of tools. A giant bell made from an old compressed gas cylinder.
Even the grand prize is a celebration of community. Anyone who brings in a fish can win, but for every year you’ve brought one in, your name goes into the hat an extra time. Once you win, your name is out of the hat for good—and Tim will call you up to be part of the crew to run the derby next year.
We clapped and laughed, because the Pollacks always seem to win, and because that 133-pound halibut was clearly something to celebrate. We all trooped out to admire his new rowing-frame kayak. The derby was over. Summer had returned.