Seward has a way of sending visitors home happy. Year after year, decade after decade, the town that hosts one of Alaska's most famous fishing derbies celebrates winners who come from someplace else.
Not this year. The pretty city on the edge of Resurrection Bay is cheering for one local who became a big winner Saturday and another who could hit it big Sunday when the Seward Silver Salmon Derby wraps up its 57th year.
Michael Rogers, a 64-year-old who was born and raised in Seward, caught a $50,000 tagged fish Saturday afternoon.
And Earl Cagle, a 69-year-old who has lived in Seward for 32 years, sits nervously atop the leaderboard. If his 16.14-pound silver survives the final day of derby fishing, Cagle will become the first Seward resident to win the derby in decades.
"We've been talking about that," Cagle said Saturday in a phone interview. "It's been 1980 since anybody from Seward has won it, I think. Back in days when our girls were in school we used to fish it every year, daylight to evening. It'd be nice to see someone from the old days win it.
"But I know there's bigger fish swimming around."
Maybe. But there certainly aren't any more valuable than the 7.8-pound silver Rogers reeled in early Saturday afternoon. It was one of a handful of salmon tagged by officials before the derby began last Saturday and the only one worth a sweet $50,000.
"I've been fishing this derby since it started pretty much, since I was a little kid. I've won quite a few prizes, but this is the first major one," Rogers said by phone shortly after cleaning and filleting his prize catch.
"I could use the money. I'm on Social Security and veterans disability, so it'll come in handy. It's great that a Sewardite got it."
For the most part, the big ones have eluded Sewardites.
"It's very rare that we get a local Seward angler on the board," said Erin Lemas of the Seward Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the derby. She couldn't say exactly how long it's been since a Seward resident won the derby because a list of past winners wasn't available Saturday.
In the last 15 years alone, anglers from North Carolina and Arizona have won the derby, as have lots of people from Anchorage. Victories have gone to fishermen from elsewhere on the Kenai Peninsula -- Kasilof, Soldotna, Kenai -- but it's as if Seward has been destined to play the role of gracious host.
Then again, based on the names of their boats, both Rogers and Cagle were destined to become hometown heroes.
Rogers, who said he hasn't decided how to spend his $50,000, was fishing aboard the Fat Cat. "I picture a fat cat sitting there, holding a carcass of a fish, the bones sticking out and everything," he said, never expecting to be a fat cat himself.
Cagle, who is poised to net the $10,000 first-place prize, went in search of silvers on a cloudy Friday morning aboard the Silver Lining. "We got the boat on our silver wedding anniversary," he said. "My wife always says there's a silver lining behind every cloud. And we fish for silvers a lot too."
Things weren't going great early on Saturday for Rogers, a Navy veteran who did two tours in Vietnam between 1966-68. He was fishing with his son Shawn and a friend from California, and he was losing more fish than he was catching.
"I was getting kind of upset," he said. "I was using a double hook setup, and I tie my own hooks, so after I lost that third fish I cut my bottom hook off and tied on a relatively small treble hook. I got four fish right in a row, and I didn't lose any."
The smallest of the bunch turned out to be the one with a tag attached to it. When they got to derby headquarters, Rogers was told the fish could be worth anywhere from $100 to $50,000.
"I had to sit in the derby office for a while and fill out paperwork, and finally they handed me an envelope. All the women in there sat around me with and had pictures taken with me and then they said, OK, you can open it now.
"And there was another envelope inside that one. So then I opened that one up and it says $50,000. It was quite a shock."
It was the second time in derby history that a $50,000 tagged fish was caught. Vicky Williams of Nikiski caught the first one in 2003.
Cagle, a retired Alaska Vocational Technical Center teacher, was fishing with a friend Friday when he caught the derby leader while fishing the Head of the Bay.
His 16.14-pound coho is small by derby standards -- you have to go back to 1999 to find the last 16-pound winner -- so Cagle isn't claiming victory quite yet. The derby doesn't end until noon Sunday.
"Everyone is asking, are you nervous, are you nervous? Sure, I'm nervous," he said. "Whatever happens happens. I'm not going to get knocked all the way off the board."
Unlike Rogers, Cagle has some definite ideas of where some of his prize money will go.
"I told my wife if we get it, I'm going to get me a new pair of rain pants and knee boots," Cagle said. "I've been wearing the ones I've got for 20 years."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News