AK: The end of Wrangell’s king salmon derby leaves locals longing

During the derby, sports fishermen weight their king salmon one to the docks in town for a chance to win up to $6000. (Photo courtesy of the Wrangell Chamber of Commerce)

King salmon fishing in Alaska is political — but for those who can’t do it this summer, it’s also personal.

For the second year in a row there will be no king salmon derby in Wrangell. For 30 days, everyone tried to catch the biggest king salmon for the shot at a $6000 cash prize, and the glory. While most agree that protecting the run up the nearby Stikine River is critical, the absence of the derby nevertheless has left a king-salmon sized hole in some hearts.

On Saturday plenty of folks in Wrangell are at Heritage Harbor, ready to get off the island for a bit.

Andy Hoyt is about to take off on his boat and head to Point Baker. It’s the first boat ride of the season for him.

A young couple and their friend are right behind Hoyt in a handmade river scow. They’re going up the Stikine River to see some wildlife, check out the hot tubs and catch a buzz.

“Catch something huh? Too funny,” Hoyt said. ” I really wish there was a king derby going on right now, especially this weekend.

This is the second year Wrangell has not had its king salmon derby. After 64 years, it was cancelled when record-low returns to Southeast’s major rivers caused the state to impose deep restrictions on all harvest — not just sport fishing. So Wrangell residents are finding other reasons to go for a boat ride or just be outside.

“But now there’s nothing to fish. So people just have to go boating to go boating,” Shawn Curley said. He’s not bothering to put his boat in the water.

Curley helps organize the derby. He grew up fishing creeks down south, wherever he could. He came to Wrangell to attend his sister’s wedding and never left. That was 23 years ago, and Curley has long since acquired the taste for king salmon.

“Right now, Saturday, it’d be the second week of the derby. As flat calm as it is, there’d be so many boats right now, coming and going,” Curley said. “Instead no one’s out fishing at all, just that blue heron, he’s fishing.”

While Curley may sound like the grinch, he’s not disgruntled by the folks in Whoville managing to have fun this summer. He’s had an event that he loves stolen from him. And he can’t forget it.

“It’s kind of like Christmas morning coming and going and then there’s no Christmas, there’s no presents, there’s no tree. It just came and went,” Curley said.

Catching a king salmon, which can run anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds, is a thrill. There’s really no substitute. Wrangell found out the hard way when it tried an alternative: A coho derby.

“Obviously we saw a large decrease in participation between the two derbies,” said Alicia Holder, director of the Wrangell Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the event, with help from Curley and other volunteers.

Last year’s coho derby was held over four weekends, and saw none of that Christmas-morning energy Curley talks about. Ticket sales confirm this. The last king derby brought in $22,000. The coho derby made a quarter of that.

Holder doesn’t think the coho derby will ever be as big, but it’s important to keep the event alive. She says it’s for her clients, the local businesses.

“Because we want to see people getting out and spending money in Wrangell,” she says. “We want that revenue for our local businesses. It’s really important and makes a big difference.”

Jeff Angerman agrees.

“We’re missing our salmon derby that’s for sure,” Angerman said.

He runs Angerman’s, a local store for fishing gear and attire that he and his wife have owned for 20 years.

Like most merchants, Angerman has a pulse on the town as a business owner and lifelong resident.

“If you were to start adding up plane tickets and boats and motors and fuel and groceries, and of course in our instance fishing tackles, rods and reels and all the rest. I’m sure the derby probably generates about seven figures just in the 30 days that it’s operating,” Angerman said. “So that’s a big hit for our little town.”

A big hit for businesses, and for the vibe in town. Everyday the top contenders are announced on the radio. Couples and families make plans to get out on the water as much as possible. Curley says he’d spend 14 hours fishing in a single day, easily.

“That was my only goal in life was to win the derby. I didn’t want to change the world or raise any kids or cure cancer. I just wanted to win the derby one freakin’ time,” Curley said.

And he’s almost had it. But in an event that lasts a full month, there is no such thing as a secure lead. But without a win, he still hoped to make his mark on the tradition. When he dies he wants his remains placed at Babbler Point — on opening day of the Wrangell King Salmon Derby.

“And then they’d dump my ashes and shoot guns and howl at the moon, and that’s where I would be. But I don’t know what I’m going to do now, I need to re-write a new will,” he said.

Curley doesn’t want to give up on his favorite fishing hole as his final resting place, but he says if there’s no opening day of the free for all competition, it’s just an ordinary day at Babbler Point.