Tom Baker is no stranger to Anchorage's Ship Creek and its annual Slam'n Salm'n Derby. A 51 year old pipefitter, Baker says he fishes the creek often. But this year, Baker had a brush with fishing immortality.
Just 30 minutes after the official end of the derby, Sunday afternoon, Baker landed a 44-pound, 8-ounce king salmon just over 50 inches long. Had he hooked up a bit earlier, Baker would have been the 2013 derby champion, and the winner of a new boat, motor and trailer.
Baker says he carried the fish to the derby shack near the Ulu Factory knowing it wouldn't count. "I just wanted to bring it down so the tourists and kids could see it," he said.
His generous attitude helped Baker win the coveted Andy Sorensen Sportsmanship Award, given annually to the Ship Creek derby angler who exemplifies the spirit of the award's namesake. Before his death, Sorensen was legendary for both his Ship Creek king salmon catches and his helpful demeanor to people fishing nearby. "I was just floored they gave me the Sportsmanship Award," Baker said when contacted on the way back from yet another Ship Creek salmon excursion Monday afternoon.
It began like any other Father's Day for Baker. "I was fishing near the railroad trestle, when my line started paying out," Baker said. On the other end of his 80-pound test was a fat fish – especially for Ship Creek, where 20-pounders are considered sizable.
"I pulled back, and it felt like a log. It didn't have a lot of fight in it," Baker said.
After a quick 15-minute tussle, it was over. "I didn't even have to use a net to land it, the fish was clearly tired and I just pulled it onto the bank," Baker recalled.
Baker says he took the fish to the weigh station so people could photograph it. "It's really neat to see the tourists and kids make such a fuss over a salmon, and many couldn't believe it had come from a creek right in the middle of town," he said.
When derby officials saw Baker's fish, they re-raised their scale, so he could put it on display. It remained there the better part of an hour as people marveled at the catch and snapped pictures.
Some took home even more than memories. Baker says he shared some of his fish with tourists eager to try a piece of raw king salmon. "It was a little blushed, but it tasted great," Baker said. The rest of the fish will be eaten by his family.
The sportsmanship award included a trophy and $300, but Baker says the fish was the real prize.
"I go to Ship Creek each year to get kings and silvers to feed my family – the derby is just a fun afterthought," Baker said.
JioJi Lino's 29-pound fish, the smallest victor in derby history, hung on to win, earning the Anchorage angler a 24-foot John boat with a 25-horsepower motor and a trailer. Baker said Lino is a fishing buddy, so there's no hard feelings.
"I was so happy (JioJi) George won. He is a great guy and deserves it," Baker said. And Baker figures he may ask JioJi for a ride in the new boat later this year.
Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com