Updated 6/18/2011 from story originally written in 2002 for Valdez Gold Rush Days
When it comes to a fish story, everyone has a different tale. And when the story begins more than 50 years ago, there are many colorful and varied details. Old-timers have vivid stories of fishing in the old days, but most said their recollection of dates and names has faded after five decades. The derby dates, rules, and prizes have changed over the years, but one constant during the 50 plus years of the derby is the volunteerism that it takes to organize and implement a fish derby. To re-create the history of the Valdez Silver Salmon Derby, started in 1952, Chamber records were scoured and interviews were conducted with previous organizers and officials as well as local anglers and business people. This is not a complete history, nor can it recognize the countless people who have donated time and worked on the derby over the last five decades.
A flyer that used to hang in the Chamber of Commerce office advertised the 15th Annual Valdez Silver Salmon Derby July 27th through September 4th, 1967 so we know the Valdez derby is 55 years old. The beautifully framed but faded poster boasted a $1,000 first place prize, weekly prizes, special additional prizes and a $50 prize for the first salmon caught.
Derby records are hard to come by prior to the mid-70's, but Bill Wyatt (Currently owner of Bear Paw RV Park and owner of a small hotel in the 50's) recalls the prize for the first derby was $500 and the first winner of the Silver Derby was Loren St. Amond with an 18.8 pound fish. St. Amond, who now lives in Copper Center, remembers the prize was awarded in 500 silver dollars. Wyatt took his turn at running the derby for a few years and remembers that when one of derbies cleared $167 it was a big deal. Wyatt said the prize money back then may not sound like much now, but he recalls a local Valdez man brought in a fish loaded with lead weight in an effort to win the Grand Prize. The man's fish was disqualified.
Different people have been credited with starting the Silver Salmon Derby, but everyone agrees it was started by local business people and later picked up and run under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce. When the Chamber closed its doors in the late 1990's, a small group of volunteers ran the derby using the Gaming Permit of the Valdez Convention & Visitors Bureau. The derby currently is its own non-profit corporation run by seven volunteer committee members. The weigh-in is run by volunteers and the group operates solely on private funds generated from ticket and sponsorship sales.
With so many boats in Port Valdez and anglers on the shores of Allison Point today, it's hard to believe people weren't always fishing for silver salmon. In 2002 Valdezean, Max Wells said, "Nobody paid that much attention to the (silver) fishing back then, but then the derby was organized, people around town threw money into the pot for a prize and off it went".
Gloria Day echoed Wells sentiments, saying people didn't really think about fishing for silvers recreationally. The Day family owned Dayville, the property where the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Terminal now sits. "The first time I ever heard of a Silver being caught on a hook and line was over at Dayville," Day said. My son Bobby and my father from Ohio put a hook and line in and I never saw anyone as thrilled at catching a fish in my life as that little kid". Day won $1,500 with an 18.05 pounder caught in 1981 and recalls that there have always been a lot of winners from the Anchorage and Fairbanks area.
In the early days, anglers were fishing for wild stock Coho salmon in the derby. The traditional return of wild stock Coho's to Corbin Creek was about 9,000 fish annually according to Dave Cobb of the Valdez Fisheries Development Association. He said the first Coho release in 1981 was 1 million smolt and 10 to 15 thousand fish returned to the hatchery the following year. Cobb said the derby has grown exponentially with the silver return over the years and credits Tim Plummer with making the Derbies profitable in the early 80's. "He was undeniably the best at marketing the derby", Cobb said.
The Silver Derby has traditionally been a large fish derby, but at one point the Chamber of Commerce tagged a fish worth $100,000. The fish, insured by Lloyds of London, was never caught but George LeVasseur and Lynn Chrystal both said their hearts skipped a beat when they reeled in a fish with a fish and game tag. Derek Werder caught a 22.14 pound silver in 2008 and that is the largest fish caught in the silver derby to date.
The Silver Derby ran for 30 years before the inception of a Valdez Halibut Derby. The Halibut Derby was started in the mid 80's by Darrell Shreve and Jim Heston. "Valdez' untold secret was the Halibut," Heston said. "At that time we were catching big halibut in Valdez. We have a great halibut fishery here and people didn't know about it. The fishing warranted a derby so Darrell Shreve got everyone excited about it and worked with the Chamber to get it going". Heston recalls Bob Donald was the winner of the first Halibut Derby. In 1991, there were actually two grand prize winners. Skip Johnson and George Levasseur of Valdez both hooked the winning halibut and brought it in. The judges committee awarded them both winners and they split the prize. Kevin Lincoln of North Pole currently holds the distinction of catching the largest halibut in the derby with the 343.6 pound flatfish he reeled up in 2006.
In the late '90's the halibut derby was changed from a large fish derby to a target weight derby. In 2002, the big fish derby returned with a $10,000 prize for the largest fish caught.
The Pink Salmon Derby started in 1991 as a four day derby with a $500 prize each day. Over the years the length of the Pink Derby has grown and in the late 90's the Lee Wulff Fly-fishing Club started a fly-fishing derby for Silvers as well as Pinks. A Kids Derby was run in the early '90s and a Kids Pink Salmon Derby day was held next to Allison Point in 2001. The largest Pink Salmon on record for the Derby is a 9.84 pounder caught by Scott Skillin of Laurenceville, Georgia in 1997. The Pink Salmon Derby was discontinued and the organizers said the reason for cancelling the derby was low ticket sales. Only 90 tickets were sold the last year of the Pink Salmon Derby. In 2008, the Kids Pink Salmon Derby made a comeback with a free one-day tournament open to kids age 5 through 16 and continues to this day with a day of fishing and a free barbeque for families.
As we look back through the years it's remarkable to see how the Fish Derbies have grown. The Fish Derbies now gives away a vehicle as a prize and the community and business support is evident in the sponsor listings. With $80,000 in cash and prizes at stake, it's refreshing that most anglers are fishing for the sport of it. Sure, the prizes make it more exciting but it's one of the few contests where you get to spend a wonderful day on the water win or lose.