Fishing

Anglers still have a chance to turn their catches into cash at derbies in Valdez and Kenai

Silvers are still biting, and catching one in Kenai or Valdez could line your pocket with some gold.

But if you were hoping to strike it rich later this month by landing a big halibut in Homer, you’re out of luck -- that city’s attempt to reinvent its famous halibut derby has been foiled yet again, this time by moose hunting season.

In Valdez, a summer’s worth of derby fishing ends Sunday, when the town’s halibut and silver salmon derbies wrap up at 8 p.m.

At stake in both derbies: $10,000 for the biggest fish, $3,000 for second place and $1,500 for third place. The halibut currently holding down the top three spots were all landed in July, but this week yielded a coho that sits in second place in the silver derby.

In Kenai, the 5th annual silver salmon derby is set to run Sept. 14-19, with first place worth $5,000.

It’s a derby with a twist -- or actually, a spin. The biggest fish won’t necessarily be the big winner. Instead, “Magic Weight” wheels will be spun each day and again at the end of the derby, and the fish that comes closest to the weight generated by the wheels will take home the daily and overall prizes.

By injecting luck into the equation, the derby hopes to curtail “selective fishing practices that focus exclusively on the biggest fish, leading to catch-and-release injuries which compromise the health of the silver salmon population in the Kenai River,” according to the contest’s website.

Because of its novel approach to picking winners, the derby calls itself “the world’s most responsible fishing derby.” Proceeds will help fund the management and conservation of riverbanks along the Kenai.

[66th annual Seward Silver Salmon Derby is decided in the final hours]

Farther south on the Sterling Highway, the Homer Chamber of Commerce is still waiting to introduce the Homer Halibut Tournament, a two-day replacement for the summer-long Homer Jackpot Halibut Derby. The Jackpot’s 34-year run ended in 2019 amid shrinking entries, prize money and fish.

“There was really a concern (that) if we continued to promote the harvesting all summer long of the biggest fish, it wasn’t the smartest thing for the habitat,” said Brad Anderson, executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce.

The inaugural two-day tournament was scheduled for July 2-3 2020, but it was canceled because of the pandemic.

It was rescheduled for June 4-5 this summer but was postponed until Sept. 24-25 because of confusion over the new format.

“A lot of people didn’t understand it was only a two-day event,” Anderson said.

Then, as the September dates drew nearer, an unexpected conflict emerged.

“Moose season,” Anderson said. Many of the same people who would be interested in a halibut derby have plans to go hunting instead, he said. And so, the halibut derby will wait until next year.

The good news for the Chamber of Commerce is one of its biggest fundraisers -- the annual Winter King Salmon Derby -- was a huge success this year.

Usually held in March, the derby was pushed to April this year to allow more people to become fully vaccinated, and by the time the one-day tournament rolled around, people were eager to participate.

“We had more than 1,500,” Anderson said. “It was our largest tournament ever. We had 500 boats.”

The tournament awarded $283,000 in prize money, he said. The big winner was 10-year-old Andrew Marley of Homer, who caught a 25.62-pound chinook worth more than $80,000, Anderson said.

In Valdez, anglers from North Dakota and Minnesota are in position to earn $10,000 apiece.

Penny Skuza of Riverdale, North Dakota, leads the silver salmon derby with a 14.5-pound fish caught Aug. 16. In second place is Pravat Phumiin of Valdez, who landed a 14.2-pound coho on Tuesday. In third place is Ron Schultz of Grapevine, Texas, who caught a 14.1-pounder on Aug. 18.

The leader of the halibut derby is Steve Peichel of Frazee, Minnesota. He hauled in a 246.8-pound flatfish on July 31. In second place is Maren Russman of Lino Lake, Minnesota (214.8 pounds, caught July 21); in third place is Terrence McCabe of Valdez (202.0, caught July 5).

Sunday is the last day to catch one of the tagged silver salmon in the Valdez derby. Twenty fish were tagged, and according to the derby website, only one has been caught. The three fish tagged for big money -- $5,000, $2,500 and $1,000 -- are still out there somewhere.

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