Wrangell’s king salmon derby is canceled again, leaving locals longing

During the derby, sport fishers weigh their king salmon for a chance to win up to $6,000. (Photo courtesy Wrangell Chamber of Commerce)

King salmon fishing in Alaska is political — but for those who can’t do it this summer, it’s also personal.

For the second year in a row there will be no king salmon derby in Wrangell. While most agree that protecting the run up the nearby Stikine River is critical, the absence of the derby nevertheless has left a king-salmon-sized hole in some hearts.

On a recent Saturday in Wrangell, plenty of folks were at Heritage Harbor, ready to get off the island for a bit.

Andy Hoyt was about to take off on his boat and head to Point Baker for his first boat ride of the season.

A young couple and their friend were right behind Hoyt in a handmade river scow. They told him they were going up the Stikine River to see some wildlife, check out the hot tubs and “catch a buzz.”

“Catch something, huh? Too funny,” Hoyt said. ” I really wish there was a king derby going on right now, especially this weekend.

This is the second year Wrangell has not had its king salmon derby. After 64 years, it was canceled when historically-low returns to Southeast’s major rivers caused the state to impose deep restrictions on all harvest — not just sport fishing. So Wrangell residents are finding other reasons to go for a boat ride or just be outside.

“But now there’s nothing to fish. So people just have to go boating to go boating,” said Shawn Curley, who helps organize the derby. He’s not bothering to put his boat in the water.

Curley grew up fishing creeks down south, wherever he could. He came to Wrangell to attend his sister’s wedding and never left. That was 23 years ago, and Curley has long since acquired the taste for king salmon.

“Right now, Saturday, it’d be the second week of the derby. As flat calm as it is, there’d be so many boats right now, coming and going,” Curley said. “Instead no one’s out fishing at all. Just that blue heron, he’s fishing.”

While Curley may sound like the Grinch, he’s not disgruntled by the folks in Whoville managing to have fun this summer. He’s had an event that he loves stolen from him. And he can’t forget it.

“It’s kind of like Christmas morning coming and going and then there’s no Christmas, there’s no presents, there’s no tree. It just came and went,” Curley said.

Catching a king salmon, which can run anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds in weight, is a thrill. There’s really no substitute — Wrangell found that out the hard way when it tried an alternative coho derby.

“Obviously we saw a large decrease in participation between the two derbies,” said Alicia Holder, director of the Wrangell Chamber of Commerce. The chamber sponsors the event, with help from Curley and other volunteers.

Wrangell as seen from Mount Dewey on July 24, 2014.
Wrangell as seen from Mount Dewey on July 24, 2014. (Creative Commons photo by James Brooks)

Last year’s coho derby was held over four weekends and saw none of that Christmas-morning energy Curley talks about. Ticket sales confirm this: The last king derby brought in $22,000, but the coho derby made just a quarter of that.

Holder doesn’t think the coho derby will ever be as big, but it’s important to keep the event alive. She said it’s for her clients, the local businesses.

“Because we want to see people getting out and spending money in Wrangell,” she said. “We want that revenue for our local businesses. It’s really important and makes a big difference.”

Jeff Angerman agrees. He runs Angerman’s, a local store for fishing gear and attire that he and his wife have owned for 20 years.

“We’re missing our salmon derby, that’s for sure,” Angerman said.

Like most merchants, Angerman has a pulse on the town as a business owner and lifelong resident.

“If you were to start adding up plane tickets and boats and motors and fuel and groceries — and of course in our instance fishing tackles, rods and reels and all the rest — I’m sure the derby probably generates about seven figures just in the 30 days that it’s operating,” Angerman said. “So that’s a big hit for our little town.”

A big hit for businesses, and for the vibe in town. Every day, the top contenders are announced on the radio. Couples and families make plans to get out on the water as much as possible.

Curley said he’d spend 14 hours fishing in a single day, easily.

“That was my only goal in life, was to win the derby. I didn’t want to change the world or raise any kids or cure cancer. I just wanted to win the derby one freakin’ time,” Curley said.

And he’s almost had it. But in an event that lasts a full month, there is no such thing as a secure lead. But without a win, he still hoped to make his mark on the tradition. When he dies, he wants his remains placed at Babbler Point — on opening day of the Wrangell King Salmon Derby.

“And then they’d dump my ashes and shoot guns and howl at the moon, and that’s where I would be. But I don’t know what I’m going to do now. I need to rewrite a new will,” he said.

Curley doesn’t want to give up on his favorite fishing hole as his final resting place, but he said if there’s no opening day of the free-for-all competition, it’s just an ordinary day at Babbler Point.

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