Fishing partners Grant Hagerman (l.) and Mike Vaughn with Vaughn's 55.5-pound king.

Fishing partners Grant Hagerman (l.) and Mike Vaughn with Vaughn’s 55.5-pound king.

It’s shaping up to be a big fish year in the Sitka Salmon Derby.

After the first three days of fishing, the leading king weighed in at over 55 pounds.

Mike Vaughn says this is a lot bigger than last year’s winning fish — and he should know. He caught them both.

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The first possible back-to-back winner in the 58-year history of the Sitka Salmon Derby did exactly what we all do when we catch a big fish: he returned to the very same spot as soon as possible.

What happened next was just as predictable.

“We abandoned it, because there just wasn’t anything there.”

Vaughn and his fishing partner fished all three days of the derby’s opening weekend. With a one-fish bag limit in effect, Vaughn says he was selective, releasing two smaller kings on Monday before hooking the 55-pound monster.

There’s an unmistakable feel to very large fish when they hit sport gear.

“He came to the surface, and then stayed under a long time. You just couldn’t move him, until he tired out.”

Vaughn caught the big king in the early afternoon, and kept fishing through the tide change to give his partner a crack at good fish. Then, he knew it was time to run for town. With $7,000 on the line, you don’t want to cut it too fine time-wise. It turns out time was the last of his worries.

“I couldn’t find my wallet to find my derby entry ticket. It was buried in the boat. So that was exciting for a little bit.”

Vaughn’s king weighed in at exactly 55.5 pounds, over nine pounds heavier than the second-place fish, and 14 pounds heavier than last year’s winning salmon, which he also caught.

Vaughn is a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game — but he works in groundfish: lingcod, blackcod, and rockfish. He says he has no more insight into salmon than the rest of us.

He got a good tip from a buddy about where the bite was on Monday, and the rest was just fishing.

“Being in the right place at the right time. We do put in a lot of hours and fish hard. But yeah… just lucky!”

The Sitka Salmon Derby has never had a back-to-back repeat champion. Vicki Baggen won the 2009 derby with a 56-pound fish. She also won in 2000 with a 48 pounder.

Three out of the last five years a fish in the 40-pound range has won the derby. Vaughn is a little more confident in his 55-pounder than in his 41-pounder last year. He says, “We’ll cross our fingers.”

Fishing will continue for two more days next weekend. The second-place fish so far was landed by Justin Nevers, at 46.1-pounds. John Roberts is in third with a 45.8-pound fish.

The top prize is $7,000. The total value of all other prizes for hidden weights, total pounds of salmon entered, and door prizes is around $9,000. This year so far 133 participants have turned in a total of 222 king salmon, with an average weight of twenty pounds.