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Sport anglers prepare for Sitka derby

Sitka Salmon Derby Barge Chairman John McCrehin shows photos of the barge being built in 2004. The derby is in its 58th year, and McCrehin has run the main weigh-in barge for the last seven or eight years. He's been with the derby for about 15. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

Sitka Salmon Derby Barge Chairman John McCrehin shows photos of the barge being built in 2004. The derby is in its 58th year, and McCrehin has run the main weigh-in barge for the last seven or eight years. He’s been with the derby for about 15. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

The 58th annual Sitka Salmon Derby starts on Saturday morning. Hundreds of sport fishermen head onto the water during the two-weekend event, in hopes of landing the big one.

The Sitka Salmon Derby has been around since 1956. That year, Connie See caught a 73 pound, 6 ounce salmon to win first prize. In the 57 derbies since then, no one has ever caught one bigger.

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If they do, this year, the first word will come from this barge, tied up in Crescent Harbor. This is headquarters for all-things derby over the next two weekends, and on this platform, John McCrehin is the man in charge.

McCrehin has been working the derby for about 15 years, seven or eight of those as barge chairman. Right now, the barge is empty, and my feet stick a little as McCrehin shows me around the freshly painted deck. Once the derby begins, this even coat of green won’t last long.

“There will be fish scales on it by Saturday afternoon. Blood,” he said. “You name it.”

The rules of the derby are detailed, but basically, you buy a ticket, have it validated before you go out fishing, and then bring back your catch to be weighed. Besides the barge, weighing can happen aboard the fishing vessel “I Gotta,” which will be in Kalinin Bay, and the “Partisan,” near Goddard.

McCrehin estimates about 300 people compete each year. Last year’s winning fish was just over 41 pounds. The year before that, a little more than 45 pounds. The year before that, 50 and change.

“I’ve had different reports, from no fish out there, to some fish coming in,” he said. “Of course, you always hear the rumors, you know? ‘Oh, there’s a 50 pounder caught.’ So, you never know.”

McCrehin says after the new barge was built in 2004, hosting the derby became a lot easier.

“A lot more room,” he said. “If it’s snotty out we’ve got room inside now for anybody who’s down here volunteering. It’s going to be nice this weekend, like it is today, so we’re going to be out here working on our tans.”

The derby benefits the Sitka Sportsman’s Association, which sells the fish to Absolute Fresh Seafoods. The group gives $7,000 to the derby’s winner, with a variety of cash prizes each day. Other prizes include round-trip airfare for two, donated by Alaska Airlines, and a variety of cash and items. The “partial list,” as it’s titled in the brochure, stretches for three-and-a-half pages.

McCrehin says it gets competitive.

“People get into it,” he said. “The first few years, I thought, ‘It’s a fish. What difference does it make?’ but they’ve got their system down, they like it. We don’t mess with their system, They don’t mess with ours. We have one group of people, they have rubber bands around the tail of their fish with their names of it, so they know: ‘I caught that fish, my son caught that fish.’ You don’t dare mess them up.”

Brochures and more information are available during business hours on the barge in Crescent Harbor, or at Murray Pacific or Orion Sporting Goods. The derby runs two weekends, ending at 7 p.m. on June 2.

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