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Silvers surging toward Seward on eve of salmon derby

Matt Tunseth
Matt Tunseth

There’s an embarrassment of riches available to anglers hoping to mine the silvery streaks of salmon surging into waters throughout Southcentral Alaska.

Could be some gold in it for 'em, too.

Coho salmon fishing is picking up at several August hot spots, including Seward, where the 59th Seward Silver Salmon Derby begins Saturday. The annual derby awards tens of thousands in cash and prizes, including $10,000 for the largest silver entered by Aug. 17.

As always, there’s one big thing to remember before wetting a line.

“If you don’t have a derby ticket there is no chance of winning anything,” said Erin Lemas, special events coordinator for the Seward Chamber of Commerce, which runs the derby.

Tickets are $10 per day or $50 for the entire derby. They can be picked up at numerous locations around Seward, which offers a bevy of angling opportunities from its seaside location at the head of Resurrection Bay and is a two-hour drive south of Anchorage.

Anglers hoping to strike it rich in Seward have various ways to win. Lemas said there are cash prizes for the largest fish caught in the derby, as well as daily cash prizes. Several tagged fish are swimming in or near the bay, including one with a $50,000 tag. Lemas said some of her friends always thought the $50,000 tag was a myth until Seward’s Mike Rogers hauled a salmon adorned with one out of the water in 2012.

“I’ll bet that fish tasted good that night,” Lemas said.

Silvers are prized for their feisty nature and willingness to hit a lure, making them an easy target in Resurrection Bay, which supports both wild and hatchery stocks of coho. Their abundance and aggressiveness makes them fun for the whole family, something Lemas said is a big part of the derby’s nearly six-decade run of success.

“It’s a statewide, family event that people do year after year,” she said.

If anyone would know about that, it’s Lemas, whose grandfather, “Go Get 'Em” George Gallaway, was a derby founder.

“I’m third generation Seward,” she said proudly.

Last year’s winner was Taro Rich of Anchorage, whose whopping 21.25-pounder was the third-largest silver ever entered.

“Last year was one of our best years we’ve had in a while,” Lemas said.

Although the derby is known for big fish and big money, Lemas said there are plenty of ways to walk away with a catch of the day -- including daily “mystery fish” prizes for the fish weighing closest to a randomly selected weight, or hooking a tagged salmon.

“Big fish don’t always win the biggest money,” she said.

Derby proceeds help support fisheries restoration and habitat programs. Last year she said the chamber purchased 50,000 coho smolts to bolster the run, and that’s paying off.

Fishing has begun to pick up in the bay, where skipper Lawrence “Larry” Butler put his clients on a wheelbarrow full of silvers Monday.

While hosing down the impressive haul for a handful of impressed tourists at the Seward small boat harbor, Butler said fishing has begun to get hot just in time for the derby.

“It’s perfect timing,” said Butler, who has skippered the boat Harvester for The Fish House Charters the past three seasons.

Butler said his clients hooked their fish “mooching,” a technique similar to jigging in which the boat drifts with the tide while baited hooks dangle below. He said fish are being picked up with regularity in places like Pony Cove and Cheval Island, indicating that silvers are now entering the bay from the Gulf of Alaska.

Anglers in Seward aren’t limited to boat fishing, although reports from shore-based anglers indicate the silvers haven’t yet hit the beaches in big numbers. However, that should change in the coming weeks as fish make their push toward Seward. Anglers hoping to hook salmon from shore have a variety of options in and around Seward. Popular spots include the culverts near the Seward Lagoon, almost anywhere along the rocky beaches, near the Lowell Creek waterfall and at Lowell Point. Typically silver fishing from shore doesn’t pick up until mid-August, although pink salmon can usually be had earlier in the month.

One of the nice things about fishing from shore near Seward is the stunning scenery. Simi Valley, California, residents Sarah and Brook Ochoa recently spent a couple days fishing near Lowell Point and found the out-of-the-way beach to be a paradise.

“It’s beautiful, it looks like fake scenery,” said Sarah Ochoa while casting a pink Pixee spoon into the gray waters of Resurrection Bay despite a light drizzle.

At Ochoa’s feet sat a freshly caught pink salmon, her first salmon.

“And I beached it all by myself,” she said.

The Ochoas were in town to visit family and said the shoreline fishing from Lowell Point was a highlight of their trip. With its rugged, rocky beach offering spectacular views of the mountains surrounding the bay, the spot is idyllic, even on a cloudy day.

“I wish I could live here,” Brook Ochoa said.

Although silvers were hard to come by early this week, a trip to Lowell Point is well worth checking out. To reach the tiny community, drive (or hike) past the Lowell Creek waterfall near the Seward SeaLife Center and follow the narrow gravel road that leads out of town.

The tiny hamlet has only about 100 year-round residents, but it’s a mecca for anglers and sea kayakers exploring the bay. It’s also the jumping-off point for the hike to Caines Head, a popular fishing and camping destination. However, hikers hoping to make the 4.5-mile journey should consult tide tables because portions of the trail can only be hiked at low tide.

Here’s a look at how Southcentral Alaska fishing looks this weekend:

Anchorage

Silver fishing at Ship Creek has been excellent recently, with full stringers spotted up and down the urban stream located near downtown.

Anchorage area management biologist Dan Bosch said hatchery-run fish are entering the stream with each tide.

“Ship Creek is going really good right now,” he said.

Silvers are also present in Campbell Creek, although Bosch said fishing there has slowed a bit, which he said could be due to an increase in fishing pressure.

“Campbell was really good last week, I think they’re kinda getting spooked a little bit,” he said.

Bosch recommended fishing early in the morning or in the evening to avoid crowds and bright sunshine, which can make salmon more wary.

Silver fishing has reportedly only been fair at Bird Creek, Bosch said, but he expects that fishery to pick up soon. Bosch said Bird Creek is stocked with the same hatchery fish producing big returns at Ship and Campbell creeks, so it stands to reason that returns should be strong to that stream as well.

There’s also lots of pink salmon to be had at Bird Creek, as well as around Turnagain Arm in Hope.

Kenai River

Although an abundance of fish might seem like a great thing for anglers, a glut of pink salmon is making fishing the lower Kenai River for anything besides “humpies” nearly impossible.

“They’ve moved in in force from Skilak Lake down to the mouth,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game assistant area management biologist Jason Pawluk.

Although easy to catch, pinks aren’t prized because their soft flesh has a tendency to deteriorate quickly in fresh water.

Pawluk said anglers targeting sockeye salmon have had success flipping flies at places like Moose Range Meadows or near Funny River, but they’ve had to sort through pesky pinks to find reds

Silver fishing on the Kenai has been slow, Pawluk noted, although he’s not sure if that’s because there aren’t many silvers yet or because anglers are overwhelmed with pinks.

Trout fishing is good on the upper river, he said, and sockeye fishing has been productive in the early morning and evening near the confluence of the Russian and Kenai Rivers. Water levels are low, meaning fish haven’t been moving up shallow tributaries until late in the day.

Pawluk noted that the personal-use dipnet fishing on the Kasilof River ends Thursday, while the fishery at the mouth of the Kenai River closed last week. Anyone who got a personal-use permit this year has until Aug. 15 to return it or risk a $200 fine and loss of future fishing privileges. Permits must be turned in whether you fished or not.

Homer

Halibut fishing remains good out of Homer, said Diane Matchett with the Homer Chamber of Commerce. Matchett said entries into the Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby continue to come in, although Oregon’s Ned Friedman continues to lead with a 277.8-pound behemoth caught July 14 with skipper Greg Northover. The annual derby, which offers $10,000 for the largest fish caught as well as many other prizes for tagged fish and released fish, runs until Sept. 15. Tickets are $10, and more information is available at homeralaska.org.

Mat-Su

The Little Susitna opened for bait fishing Wednesday, which should allow anglers greater success with silvers. According to Fish and Game, more than 3,000 silvers have been counted crossing the weir at Mile 32.5 since Aug. 1 — although low water there may also be hampering fish movement. Through Aug. 5, about 6,000 silvers had been counted toward a minimum escapement goal of 10,100.

The same day, the silver bag limit was boosted from two to three fish in the weekend-only fisheries of Fish Creek, Cottonwood Creek, and Wasilla Creek  while a third day -- Monday -- was added to the weekend-only fishery.

“Coho salmon runs to certain small streams within Knik Arm to date are strong,” said Fish and Game area management biologist Sam Ivey in a press release. Fishing has been picking up recently on the Litle Su too, especially the lower river.

“That’s encouraging,” he said. “In many years silvers haven’t reached that far north yet,” he said. 

Pink salmon are also available in abundance at many streams throughout the area. 

For anglers hoping to hop in the car to find a fishing hole, the Eklutna Tailrace on the Old Glenn Highway near the Butte is always a good bet this time of year. Silvers can be caught casting spinners and spoons or using bait at the laid-back fishing hole.

Note that the Fish Creek personal use fishery closed July 31. Permits must be turned in by Aug. 15, whether you fished or not.

Matt Tunseth is an Anchorage freelance writer and avid angler. Reach him at mutto@hotmail.com