As the Saturday start of the 62nd Seward Silver Salmon Derby approaches, schools of coho with obesity issues are finning their way back to Resurrection Bay, where thousands of Derby anglers will spend nine days trying to intercept them.
OK, the sleek silver bullets aren't really fatties. But there's no doubt virtually all of them have packed on the weight. Quickly.
About a year ago, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stocked 270,000 small silvers in the bay — and Cook Inlet Aquaculture, which receives some funding from the Seward Chamber of Commerce, pumped another 100,000 into Bear Lake, which flows into Resurrection Bay.
At the time, the fish averaged about 5 inches and weighed 0.7 ounces, according to Fish and Game biologist Jay Baumer. After a year of chowing down at sea, they're back — and a few thousand percent heavier, weighing up to 20 pounds and sometimes even more. Makes your McDonald's habit look pretty tame.
Instead of Big Macs, silvers thrive on a diet of aquatic insects, fish and squid at sea.
Stocked fish make up a significant percentage of the fish caught before, during and after the derby.
A decade-old study by Fish and Game biologist Dan Bosch found that a third of the coho caught in Resurrection Bay were hatchery fish — and that the farther into Resurrection Bay anglers fished, the likelier they were to encounter silvers born in hatcheries.
Since early July, fishing has been good inside and particularly outside the bay.
"It's been going strong for a few weeks," said Cindy Clock, executive director of the Seward Chamber of Commerce.
Shore-based anglers have had a tougher time so far, according to Baumer, though they've landed a few pinks and chums.
If the strong early silver run continues, the derby should rebound from a dismal 2016, when fishing was slow, fish were small and interest waned.
"Last year's was the very worst I've experienced in my 12 years here," Clock said. "Nobody really knows why."
Poor reviews spread quickly. Typically, Clock said, 6,500-7,000 derby tickets are sold. Fewer than 4,000 of the $10 tickets were sold last year.
"But there's really not much connection between last year and this year," noted Baumer, given that silvers only spend one year at sea. "This year, I've been hearing really good things about silvers in both Resurrection Bay and Prince William Sound."
The derby dates back to 1956 when William Kupfer of Anchorage pulled a 15.08-pounder out of Thumb Cove the inaugural tournament. Since then, the number of anglers and prizes has soared.
This year's biggest silver will earn $10,000 plus the fish's weight in coffee. Second place is worth $5,000, with $2,500 for third.
But the real money is in tagged fish, something Michael Rogers cashed in on at the 2012 derby when the then-64-year-old Seward resident landed a modest 7.8-pound coho wearing a $50,000 tag.
"I've been fishing this derby since it started pretty much, since I was a little kid," he said at the time. "I've won quite a few prizes, but this is the first major one."
You'd have to win five derbies to equal that kind of cash, something even members of the family known as the Soldotna Mafia cannot claim. Brothers Jerry Bixby and Bill Bixby are both two-time derby champions, the only people to win more than once. Jerry's wife, Loretta Bixby, is also a former champion.
Just two years ago, Jerry saved the derby from embarrassment when he hauled in his 16.19-pound winner within hours of the closing bell. No fish weighing less than 15 pounds has ever prevailed in Seward — the derby record is a 22-pounder — but Kelly Landry of Kenai was poised to win with a 14.92-pounder before Jerry put his fish on the scales.
In fishing, being both good and lucky is best.
Seward Silver Salmon Derby
Time: 6 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 12 to noon Sunday, Aug. 20
Tickets: $10 a day, available at the derby booth, The Fish House, J-Dock and other locations.
Prizes: Heaviest 30 fish win prizes, with an assortment of other awards.
Where: Anglers may fish both inside and outside Resurrection Bay, but must depart from the bay.
For more derby details, go to seward.com.