New Nushagak king salmon derby promotes native culture

Derby master Russell Nelson weighs a 14-pound king salmon caught by Rylie Lyon of Naknek on June 25 at the inaugural Neqa Derby at the Choggiung Nushagak River camp. (Austin Fast / KDLG)

As the clock ticked down with just 13 minutes to go at this weekend’s inaugural Neqa Derby, Krag Johnsen of Anchorage hoisted his king salmon up to be weighed at the Choggiung camp on the Nushagak River.

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His 19-pound Chinook wasn’t enough to best a 31.8-pounder that retiree David Baldwin of Las Vegas brought in two hours earlier near the Portage Creek sonar, earning the $3,000 first prize and a custom ivory pendant carved by Naknek artist Everett Thompson.

“We’ve certainly caught bigger fish than that, but not this trip,” Baldwin said. “Big fish live charmed lives, and we’d just assume they go up(stream) and pass some of those genetics on, so that’s OK.”

Some of Baldwin’s buddies have been coming north to fish the Nushagak for 20 years, but Baldwin first joined them seven years ago. They said he spits on his bait for good luck, but Baldwin said there’s really no secret to landing the big ones.

“The truth is the more you think you know, the less you know. And so you just got to fish,” Baldwin said.

Ninety-nine sport fishermen were doing just that on Sunday and Monday, looking for Chinook up and down the Nushagak  in the new signature fundraiser for the Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation.

Carol Wren uses a traditional ulu to slice the head off Rylie Lyon’s 14-pound king salmon at the Neqa Derby on June 25. (Austin Fast / KDLG)

Alongside the $100 entry fee and thousands of dollars raised through sponsorships, derby master Russell Nelson explained the fishermen also gave a more unusual sort of donation.

“We’re trying to bring back as many (fish) heads as we can to the elders as a part of the deal, teaching (derby participants) about the culture of the local people,” Nelson said.

Over on the chopping table at the Choggiung camp, BBNC’s Shareholder Development Manager Carol Wren made quick work slicing up the unwanted fish heads with a traditional ulu — or women’s knife.

“As you’re going down the gills, to reduce waste, you follow all the way down the ridge line and then it’s off, and you’ve kept all the meat,” Wren explained. “You’ve got all the nasty innards out, and so you’ve got little waste.”

Zach Anderson, 32, has been coming from Las Vegas to fish the Nushagak for two decades. He held up the prizewinning salmon’s cleaned head and said he never knew you could eat so much of a fish until this derby.

“We picked up some recipe cards, and we’ve already started with the cheek meet,” Anderson said. “I’ve never had any of the meat from the head. It’s like the thigh meat of a chicken for the salmon. It’s really tender, really juicy and nice. We started cooking up their bellies. We smoked some of their bodies, too. Usually we just chuck those in the river.”

As another way to share their culture, Angela Peacock, program manager at the Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation, presented a map of Native place names showing points all along the derby boundaries from Black Point to the mouth of the Kokwok River.

Zach Anderson, 32, shows off the winning king salmon’s cleaned head, which will be donated to elders from the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. (Austin Fast / KDLG)

“Where there are berries or salmon, there are place names for that area that people have used for generations. They weren’t written on paper, but they were preserved in our elders’ history and passed down through families for generations,” Peacock said.

With less than a minute left in the inaugural Neqa Derby, Rylie Lyon of Naknek ran up to the scale with the final fish. It wasn’t enough, though, at 14 pounds.

Brian Cornell with Alaska Kingfishers took second place with his 30.2-pound fish. Third place went to Mike Phipps from Mission Lodge with a 24.7-pound Chinook.

A special “843 Prize” for biggest fish caught by a local went to Maggie Carr. Derbymaster Nelson also handed out goodies for the first fish (Bill Barrickman), last fish (Lyon), smallest fish (Kelly Droop) and largest fish caught by a woman (Wenke Freiss).

The Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation plans to bring the derby back in 2019 so it can help shareholders reach their higher education goals and promote their cultural heritage with grants throughout the region.