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Bout of adversity doesn't stop angler from catching derby-winning king salmon in Ship Creek

Mike Campbell

When it comes to catching hefty king salmon, Anchorage angler Kirby Shurtz doesn’t let a little adversity stand in his way.

Shurtz’s truck — with fishing gear inside — was stolen last week, he said. But the Bait Shack on Ship Creek loaned the longtime Ship Creek Slam’n Salm’n Derby angler a 10-weight fly rod.  A friend donated a reel, and on Thursday evening, Shurtz was on the creek, casting at one of his usual haunts, near the E Street bridge.

Flipping a single No. 6 hook with beads on a 5-foot leader, Shurtz had a strike a little after 8 p.m., near low tide.  “I knew by the way it shook its tail, it was a big fish,” said the 39-year-old maintenance worker. The fight only lasted about 10 minutes, and the salmon turned out to weigh 41.3 pounds, more than enough to capture the Downtown Soup Kitchen’s Slam’n Salm’n Derby and put Shurtz in a 16-foot cataraft and trailer, something the diehard bank fisherman plans to sell. Randall Yost’s runner-up king was more than 8 pounds lighter, earning him a 50-inch flat screen television. Jimmy Milligrock was third with a 30.9-pound king.

Shurtz has fished the derby for a decade, and this is the first time he’s been among the leaders, though he caught a 48-pounder in 2008 shortly after the derby ended. That was the same year Shurtz won the first Andy Sorensen Award for the help he provided other anglers during the derby. This year’s Sorensen winner, Jesus Contreras, is a deaf angler who regularly brings fellow deaf anglers to the creek and teaches them how to fish. 

Once Shurtz topped the leaderboard this year, he “didn’t sleep very good” but those problems ended Sunday morning when Shurtz slept in long enough that he missed the beginning of the awards ceremony. Once he was there, though, Shurtz sat in his prize cataraft for about an hour, a king on his throne.

Shurtz wasn’t the only successful Ship Creek angler. A year after a difficult derby without a single fish larger than 30 pounds, seven kings cracked that barrier. 

Big fish meant good word of mouth, and derby official Angelique Miller said more than 2,000 derby tickets were passed out over the course of the nine-day event.  Most anglers make a donation when picking up their free ticket, and Miller hoped the Downtown Soup Kitchen would earn more than the $50,000 it collected last year.

“There seemed to be a lot more energy and excitement,” said Miller, who was still totaling the donations on Monday afternoon. “For us, 2,000 tickets is a huge amount.”

Anglers brought in more than 200 fish, Miller said. Among them were three tagged kings, including one landed by Curtis Silook worth $1,000.

“People were motivated by that boat,” Miller said.  “It feels like this year was a bit of a turnaround. There’s been a decline in the weight of the fish and the run itself that’s been going on for a couple of years. Maybe that’s over.” 

Reach Mike Campbell at mcampbell@alaskadispatch.com or 257-4413.