Sarah Lamb’s 30.7 lb king was a contender in the 2019 derby, but it couldn’t top Emmit Johnson’s 31.2 lb fish. Both the 2019 and 2018 events were “one-fish” derbies, when the resident sport bag limit was just one king salmon a day. With that raised to three fish per day in 2021, derby chair John McCrehin says ‘We’ll be busy.” (SSA image)

The Sitka Salmon Derby returns this Memorial Day weekend, after a year’s layoff due to the pandemic.

Organizers say the 66-year old event is getting a shot in the arm from the recently-announced sport bag limit — three king salmon a day for Alaska residents.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey has this advice on how to win the $6,000 grand prize.

Note: The Sitka Salmon Derby runs five days in all: This Memorial Day weekend, Saturday through Monday (May 29-30, 2021), and the following weekend, Saturday and Sunday (June 5-6, 2021). You can pick up a copy of the rules brochure at Orion Sporting Goods or LFS Marine Supply. More information online at the Sitka Salmon Derby Facebook page.

This is not my advice. This is Eric Jordan’s advice. He and his wife Sarah run the weigh station at the northern end of the derby off their troller I Gotta.

Jordan is a commercial salmon fisherman, and knows a thing or two about hooking chinook.

Eric and Sarah Jordan have weighed derby fish since the 1980’s. Eric counsels patience to anyone hoping to win this event: “The guys that do the best really know both their gear, where to put it, and are really patient.” (KCAW photo/Katherine Rose)

Step 1, to win the Sitka Salmon Derby you best be…

“…Keeping the rods in the water, especially over tide changes and the last of the flood,” Jordan said.

This rules out a lot of people (such as the one writing these words) who, if they don’t get a strike within about 15 minutes, begin to doubt the very existence of king salmon, and pick up their gear prematurely.

Now, Step 2 on the way to winning the Sitka Salmon Derby:

“Have a favorite lure that you use, and really get to know how to use it well,” Jordan says. “Whether you’re choking a herring behind a flasher, or rolling a herring behind a lead, or a hot spoon, or a plug, or a combination of flasher and hoochie,” said Jordan.

The last step is probably the most difficult of all: It’s patience. In 35 years working the weigh-in station in Kalinin Bay, the biggest fish Jordan ever weighed was a 66-and-a-half pound monster entered in the 2002 derby by Sharon Gillispie.

11 years earlier, Sharon’s husband Marv turned in a 71-pounder.

“They always fished the same spot every year,” said Jordan, “and ground away, and often they caught fish when there weren’t very many around.”

The Sitka Salmon Derby is a benefit run by the Sitka Sportsman’s Association. After a year off, the grand prize for the biggest fish is now $6,000 — a couple of thousand more than the 2019 event.

Sportsman’s Association President and derby chairman John McCrehin says he’s expecting to be busy this year, because the Department of Fish & Game this spring raised the bag limit for kings to three per day for residents. During the two previous derbies, the bag limit was only one fish. That remains the case for non-resident fishermen, who can keep only one king per day, with a limit of four annually.

McCrehin says there aren’t any special covid precautions for the event, other than what people are already doing. “I hope the fish aren’t socially distant,” he quipped.

But the derby has never been aimed at attracting out-of-town anglers per say — Sitka sees plenty of those the rest of the summer. The money that doesn’t go to prizes goes to support Association activities, including a pair of $2,000 scholarships this year, one each awarded to a Mt. Edgecumbe High senior and a Sitka High senior.

Eric Jordan says the Sitka Salmon Derby actually may not have much at all to do with catching the biggest fish.

“What I often say is the fishing — particularly the derby when spring is happening, and you get out there with your family (we have a lot of families come by) — the fishing is often great; the catching isn’t always great,” he said.

Jordan’s final advice is to take a bird book with you on the water, look for bears and wildlife browsing on the beach, and if you catch a bunch of fish under the new bag limit, consider eating some. All that, in his mind, makes the Sitka Salmon Derby a “win-win-win.”