Anchorage’s annual Slam’n Salm’n Derby is in full swing this week. Since last Friday, fishermen at Ship Creek have been competing to see who can hook the biggest king salmon.
Down by the Ulu factory in Anchorage, men and women slip on rubber boots, unpack their fishing tackle and begin to fill the marshy banks of Ship Creek. Everybody is trying to land a big one.
Tucked between downtown and the industrial Port of Anchorage, Ship Creek is the world’s only urban king salmon fishery. It’s a place where pencil pushers can catch a 20-pound salmon on their lunch break and be back in time for their afternoon meeting.
Proceeds from the derby will go to the Downtown Hope Center, an organization that offers food, shelter and other services to underserved members of the community. Volunteer Mike Hidalgo said he helps out at the derby every year because he values the work that the center does.
“It’s been very successful in the sense that some of the folks that were homeless are now employed,” Hidalgo said. “They’re learning skills – baking and cooking – right there at the new facility we have.”
Across the creek from the Ulu factory is a red shack where fishermen can buy bait and tackle and rent equipment. Outside, some muddy rubber boots are being hosed down on a plastic table. Inside, Dustin Slinker watches the creek from the window as a fisherman struggles to reel in a salmon.
Before Slinker opened The Bait Shack in 2011, the building had been boarded up. Running a bait and tackle shop had been a dream of his ever since he was a kid, so when he saw the space he took the opportunity to make it happen. He said Ship Creek has become a very popular destination in recent years.
“You know the way it’s been fishing in the last 3 years, 4 years could be right up there with one of the best king salmon fisheries in Southcentral Alaska is also helping draw a lot of anglers with a lot of restrictions elsewhere — sizes of fish, kings that you can’t keep out of certain drainages – you know is really what’s driving this,” Slinker said. “And the quality of the fish that we’re getting back, we’re getting bigger fish each year.”
Down by the creek, Jared Fletcher and Bobbie D have been fishing for hours. Fletcher has taken the day off and Bobbie D is taking some time to recover from an injury. So far, they haven’t caught anything. They say the most important thing to remember when fishing ship creek is to make sure to have a good line that won’t snap.
“So if you go through all this fishing and you’re here for three hours and you get a fish on and you got bad line, you’re really wasting your time,” Bobbie D said.
Fletcher said they had seen someone make that mistake moments before.
“The guy right there, the one with the camo on, same thing happened to him a few minutes ago,” Fletcher said. “He was like, ‘Fish on!’ Psh, fish gone.”
Henry Mitchell, a fisheries consultant, has had similar luck during the derby. He lost a fish when somebody casted over him, cutting his line. He said it can be tough to share a small stretch of creek with so many people.
“There’s a certain etiquette,” Mitchell said. “You do run into situations where certain people don’t know how to cast very well and cross your lines. It gets frustrating sometimes when your own bait gets tangled up with other peoples. But, you know, that’s all part of living in an urban environment with a downtown urban fishery.”
At times the fishing can be more solitary. Up on a footbridge above the creek, a man with a long gray beard and a worn blue Alaska cap fishes on his own from his electric wheelchair. 97-year-old Louis Palmer lives in the Anchorage Pioneer Home, an assisted living facility for seniors. He’s been fishing this creek for 45 years.
“I raised my family up here on fish and moose,” Palmer said. “You kind of get used to having it around. And good kings and good silvers, if you take care of them and wrap them and freeze them properly, you can have them year round.”
These days Palmer helps put food on the table for the other residents at his nursing home. He said that if he catches a salmon, he’ll bring it home and the staff will help cook it up for the others.
As the tide rolls out, the water level gets lower and most fisherman start to pack up. A few stragglers wade out into the creek, flicking their rods in a last ditch effort to hook a big one.
The derby ends at noon on Sunday. Currently the weight to beat is 32.75 pounds. First prize will receive 200 troy ounces of silver.