The Sitka Salmon Derby is underway, and anglers will head out again this Saturday for the second weekend of the competition. KCAW’s Katherine Rose spent some time with Eric and Sarah Jordan to see what it’s like on the other side of the scale. The couple has been running a derby weigh station from their salmon troller for the last 30 years.
Sounds of splashing water as boat ties up at dock
It’s a misty Memorial Day morning at Sitka Sound Seafoods, and Eric Jordan is bringing in a load of King Salmon caught over the first weekend of the Sitka Salmon Derby.
“See a red one, see how it’s kind of salmon, red color. White flesh King salmon taste better because they have an enzyme that converts the carotene to white flesh,” Eric says.
Eric and his wife Sarah Jordan have been weighing fish for the derby for the last 30 years, from their fishing vessel, the “I Gotta”anchored about 25 miles north of Sitka in Kalinin Bay.
“We think back now and we think, gosh our children were 6 and 8 back then. We must have left them with some friends because they couldn’t be like home alone for the whole weekend,” says Sara.
“So we can’t even remember who we left ‘em with but they survived,” Eric adds.
There are other Salmon derbies in Southeast sanctioned by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But Sitka’s is special, he says. Anglers here traditionally haul in the heaviest kings. Three past winners have topped 70 pounds. And there have been many fished brought in weighing over 60 pounds.
“We’ve actually weighed a sixty-seven pounder. It’s not just luck,” says Eric. “Over the years, being in the weigh station, there’s some guys that really know how to get the big ones.”
And for some, the Sitka Salmon Derby is a family tradition.
“Brothers and sisters will be competing, and husbands and wives,” says Eric. “And of course you get to understand that the really smart husbands, their wife is the one who’s got the biggest fish.”
It’s a family affair for them, too. By running the weigh station as a husband and wife team, Eric and Sarah have figured out a process that works smoothly for them…Eric weighs the fish and Sarah writes the tickets. Luckily, she already knows most of the contestants’ names by heart.
“I’m kind of the memory for a lot of the names of the people…Having taught school for many years here, I have a lot of former students that are now derby fishing,” says Sarah. “I can always remember when they’re former students of mine because they say “Hi Mrs. Jordan.”
Over the years, they have seen a lot of big fish. Eric says the secret to catching them depends on who you talk to.
“I’m a commercial fisherman, and I’ve had an opportunity to visit with some of the great commercial fishermen. Everyone of those top level persons has a unique perspective on it. Some of ‘em are just so good at figuring out exactly what they’re biting,” says Eric. “I have a friend here in this harbor that runs exactly the same spoon and the same hoochie all year. Whereas others of us have hundreds of lures. I mean just look at my drawer.”
Sound of Eric opening drawers, lures jingling
“I have virtually thousands of hoochies.”
So there’s more than one way to catch a fish, but when it comes to weighing them the Jordan family method may be near perfection. Still, mistakes can happen.
“We did have a very sad situation one time of handing a King Salmon back to someone because they wanted to take a picture on their boat,” says Sarah. “In the process of handing the fish back and forth it went into the ocean.”
“Well…he laid it on the rail!” Eric adds. “I gave it back to him, his wife asked him something, he turned around and the fish fell overboard!”
Luckily, there haven’t been any casualties this year — except for bragging rights. After three days of fishing, the largest fish so far is just 36 pounds. If it remains in the lead, it will be the smallest winner in the Sitka Salmon Derby’s 61-year history.