Derby days start

Derby days start

No kings taken, but cohos are streaming in

Starting today and lasting through Sunday, Juneau sport fishermen will ply the backside of Admiralty, Douglas, Shelter islands and elsewhere in search of a money fish.

The 72nd annual Golden North Salmon Derby starts today at 7:30 a.m. Whoever can land the biggest whopper will take home a cash prize of $10,000 and prizes worth an additional $1,700.

Unlike years past, this year, a silver will win gold. As part of a conservation measure, Derby officials won’t accept king salmon during the 72nd annual Golden North Salmon Derby.

Without chinook, or king salmon, shaking up the leaderboards, a coho, or silver salmon, will take the top spot this year, as it did last year.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game effectively made the decision. Though ADF&G doesn’t run the derby, it issues Territorial Sportsmen Inc., the organization which runs it, a permit to sell fish entered for a prize. (That money goes toward a scholarship program and Derby prizes.)

King salmon fishing is open, but numbers are dangerously low in Southeast Alaska and in many parts of the state. As part of a conservation measure, Fish and Game didn’t permit Territorial Sportsmen to sell king salmon this year.

“I think with the amount of effort that we see during the derby weekend I think it does go a long way for future returns if we’re not going out there and targeting king salmon during the derby,” ADF&G sport fish management biologist Dan Teske said by phone Thursday.

The switch to a coho-only derby didn’t hurt fish sales last year, Golden North co-chair Jerry Burnett said.

“Last year was one of our better years in terms of fish and that was cohos only,” Burnett said.

Derby winners are measured by weight, and kings are much bigger than coho, so the Golden North has traditionally been thought of as a king salmon derby. Past king salmon winners weighed into the 50 pound range.

Last year, an 18.8-pound fish won the to prize for longtime Douglas fisherman Don Zenger.

Burnett said this year’s Derby winner could top 20 pounds. Coho started streaming into the derby grounds last week. Fishermen have told Burnett that this year’s returning class looks bigger than average.

“I’ve heard of them being bigger than average this year. I think this year it’s going to be well over 20 pounds,” Burnett said.

Coho make great quarry for sport fishermen who like action, Teske said. They’re acrobatic, energetic fighters and aggressive feeders, he said. Coho tend to be shallower than king salmon, but they do spread out in the water column. They can be found anywhere from the surface to more than 100 feet deep, so it’s a good strategy to vary gear depth, Teske said.

Hoochies or a cut-plug herring and flashers work well.

“They can be a lot of fun. For folks that like to have a lot of action when they’re fishing, I think targeting coho in August is your best bet,” Teske said.

About 50,000-100,000 return each year to the Taku River system south of Juneau, Teske said. Hatchery production from Douglas Island Pink and Chum, as well as smaller wild coho returns to Montana Creek, Peterson Creek and Cowee Creek bolster those numbers.

The fish could be anywhere, but there are a few hot spots where fishermen can find large schools. Two years ago, that was the backside of Douglas Island, Burnett said. Last year, it was the area around Point Lizard Head on Admiralty Island.

The Empire will be on the water Friday to find out, updating a live blog with the latest Golden North news.

“We don’t know where the big school is going to be this year,” Burnett said.

• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.

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