Kenai angler reels in top prize at Homer salmon derby

Kevin Klott
Jim Lavrakas

A few weekends every winter, Ray Tepp will motivate himself to hook up his dad's boat, haul it south down the Sterling Highway and unload it into the Homer Harbor with one goal in mind: catching dinner.

"To come home with a fish for my family to eat has always been good enough for me," Tepp said by phone.

On Saturday, Tepp brought home more than just dinner. The 30-year-old Kenai fisherman and subcontractor caught the winning fish at the one-day Homer Winter King Salmon Tournament and pocketed a $19,026 check.

"Just catching a fish out there is a blessing," he said. "The cash is icing on the cake."

But landing the 30.6-pound winter king was hardly a cakewalk.

Tepp left the Homer Harbor at 7 a.m. with two of his buddies aboard the 20-foot Inlet Plunder, a retired setnet skiff he rigged up for sport fishing. Tepp plotted a course north out of Homer and headed toward Anchor Point along the high bluffs that dominate the eastern landscape.

The crew was in no hurry to catch a fish. The forecast called for a bluebird day, so they motored all the way to the tournament's northern boundary. After losing a fish that had stolen their bait, Tepp noticed the swells were getting bigger. One of his buddies was seasick, so he pulled up the lines, cranked up the downriggers, and spun the Inlet Plunder back toward Homer.

Once they reached a popular trolling spot near Bluff Point, a few miles north of the Homer Spit, Tepp positioned the boat within the conga line that seemed to have formed along the eastern coast of the Kenai Peninsula.

"Everyone kind of gets in the line there," he said.

About an hour of trolling there without a bite was enough for Tepp, who decided to change spots again and try their luck along the southern coast of Kachemak Bay. But just as he reached for one of his rods to reel in the line, he heard a loud "pop," which indicated the line had come off the downrigger's clip and a fish had taken the bait.

The rod tip shot straight down toward the water, so Tepp quickly grabbed it from the rod holder. All of a sudden, fishing line screamed out of the reel.

"Fish on!" Tepp yelled.

He cranked hard and fast. But the more Tepp seemed to reel in, the more the fish pulled out. He knew right away that a monstrous winter king salmon was likely hooked to the other end of the line.

"What do you want me to do?" one of his buddies yelled.

"Get on the wheel. Keep us away from the other boats," Tepp yelled back.

Tepp instructed his other friend to start reeling up the other line. "I could tell it was gonna be a pretty good fight," Tepp said. "I wouldn't have been able to land that fish without them."

The king salmon nearly spooled Tepp's reel. He said it took out more than half of his line. When he finally got the fish to stop stripping it, the battle turned into an all-out game of tug-of-war. He tightened the drag as much as he could go without losing it and reeled until the fish was within 20 yards of the boat.

The salmon tried to flee him one last time before Tepp finally got it to surface about 20 feet from the stern.

"I could finally see how big he was," he said. "I knew he was a top-three fish when I first saw him. He was a hog."

Once they netted the king and hauled it onto the deck to end the 25-minute battle, the men let out a victory cheer. "I'd be really surprised if every boat within a half mile didn't hear us," Tepp said.

Some anglers would have headed straight to the weighing station on Homer Spit, but not Tepp. It was early afternoon with perfect weather, so he steered while one of his friends kept on fishing (his other friend was too seasick).

"We were almost in disbelief at what a beautiful fish we caught," Tepp said.

More than 900 anglers from 270 boats participated in the annual tournament, which is one of the biggest fundraisers of the year for the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center. Anglers on Saturday combined to catch 202 winter kings -- the second-most recorded in tournament history.

Tepp's winning fish outweighed the fish Eagle River's Eric Kjelland caught by nearly five pounds. Kjelland pocketed $12,684 for his 25.9-pound fish, followed by Jon Bartelds of Kenai who won $7,248 for his 25.7-pound king.

• Wylie Donich, who placed 13th overall for catching a 19.9 pounder, won the youth award and $250. He was fishing on his dad's boat, the Optimist.

• Mark Bevins caught the largest white king, a 17.6 pounder that netted the Kenai angler $250.

• Even though a kayak category was introduced this year, none of the three kayakers who entered caught a fish, so no prize was given.

• Roughly 40 percent of anglers entered were from Anchorage, and 40 percent were from Homer. The other 20 percent traveled from outside the state or other Alaska towns.


Daily News correspondent