The king salmon are running a little larger on average in this year’s Sitka Salmon Derby, but the fishermen are running smaller.
Four of the top 10 leaders in the 2019 event are not even teenagers yet. Two of them haven’t hit double-digits.
12-year old Emitt Johnson is in first place after the first weekend of fishing. He landed a king weighing 31.2 pounds fishing close to shore in Kalinin Bay, about 25 miles north of Sitka.
Johnson landed the leading fish within eyeshot of Eric Jordan who, with his wife Sarah, run the derby’s weigh station aboard their troller “I Gotta.”
I talked to Emitt, he was really excited. They thought they hooked onto the kelp. They were trolling right near the edge of the kelp. The rod bent over and back and released, and they thought they’d hooked onto the kelp. And so they’re reaching over to pull it off the kelp and the king salmon took off, right up on the surface, and then it jumped, and Emitt of course is fighting it and bringing it in. And we’re watching it on the boat, Sarah and I, and I told her “Hey look there’s a fish being caught over there,” and we’d seen some other caught there so it was real exciting.
Jordan, a long-time commercial troller in Sitka, believes that Johnson’s leading fish was produced in a Southeast hatchery, as were many of the fish he weighed over the weekend.
As for other leaders: Sarah Lamb is in a close second place, with a king weighing 30.7 pounds. Seven-year old Coulter Bird’s third-place chinook weighed in at 30.2 pounds.
The other young contenders in the derby are eleven-year old Riley Bernhardt, in fifth place with a 27.4-pound fish, and seven-year old Jack Haley with a 25.9 pound king that has put him in ninth place.
Lamb, Bernhardt, and Haley are also on the leaderboard for total poundage: Lamb is in first place with 3 kings at 76.4 pounds; Bernhardt second at 62.7 pounds; and Haley in fourth with 58.8 pounds.
So far in three days of fishing, 105 competitors have already turned in more fish than last year — 152 total. Fine weather is likely responsible for the uptick in participation: Three days of light winds and sunshine in 2019, versus rain and squalls last year that kept many boats either on inside drags, or in the harbor.
The fish are also a bit larger on average than last year, with the three leaders topping 30 pounds, and the fourth-place fish just a half-pound from that mark. Last year, only one fish was over 30 pounds after the first weekend. The eventual winner, landed by Vicki Baggen, weighed just over 33 pounds.
Note: See our reporting on last year’s derby for ADF&G’s perspective on the size and age composition of the chinook stock.
The Sitka Salmon Derby runs for two more days — next Saturday and Sunday. Top prize this year is $4,000 for the largest fish, and $500 for the highest total pounds of salmon entered.