Charlie Skultka, Sr., with his winning king in the 2021 derby. The derby occurs over two weekends, so no lead is safe at the end of the day on Memorial Day. (Facebook photo/Kendra Lee Skultka)

Memorial Day weekend for many means picnics and the beginning of serious summer weather.

In Sitka, however, it’s the beginning of serious sportfishing, with the kickoff of the 67th Annual Sitka Salmon Derby.

This is actually the 66th go-round for the Sitka Salmon Derby, which began in 1956, but like just about everything, was forced to take a break during the 2020 pandemic.

Derby chairman John McCrehin is expecting things to be back to normal this year. 

“I’m doing good,” McCrehin said on Thursday. “The barge is almost ready to go. I hook up the water line, and I think I’ll be ready for business and selling tickets.”

Those tickets are $5 more than last year, to cover some higher costs. That’s about the only change in the event, which otherwise will have the usual boundaries from roughly Salisbury Sound in the north, to Crawfish Inlet in the south. As in the past, weigh stations will be moored in Kalinin Bay and in Goddard Bay. The derby runs the three days of Memorial Day weekend, May 28, 29, and 30, and the two days of the following weekend, June 4 an 5 – for a total of five days of fishing.

The split format of the derby always creates a bit of tension, since the leading fish as of 7 p.m. on Memorial Day could be unseated the following weekend. That’s what happened last year, when Patrick Davis’s 35 pound 8 ounce king was knocked out of the lead by Charlie Skultka Sr.’s 36 pound 8 ounce fish, which went on to claim the $5,000 prize.

McCrehin is happy to see the kings coming in a bit larger again, after a couple of low years in 2018 and 2019.

“So we’re going in the right direction,” said McCrehin. “He (Skultka, Sr.) was 36.8 pounds. The year before was 31.2. So we’re hoping to see some big ones this year. I’ve talked to a couple people that are out there and one guy had 30 pounds. So we know they’re there.”

The biggest fish of the 2021 derby was landed by someone who wasn’t a derby contestant. Gary Downey, a local charter captain, stopped by the derby barge in Crescent Harbor last year just to have a fish weighed – it came in at 48 pounds. It would have been the clear winner in both the daily weight and overall weight categories, and worth $6,000.

But Downey didn’t have a ticket, and you can’t buy one retroactively.  

“I’m sure he’ll buy one this year,” said McCrehin.