Meet the World’s Greatest Fisherman

The World’s Greatest Fisherman has more important things to do than answer the phone. Even at 81, Dr. Gary Hedges still defends his title, so it’s no surprise that when you call him at home, all you get is a recording.

“You’ve reached the home of the World’s Greatest Fisherman,” his recorded voice says after a few rings to his Juneau home. “We can’t come to the phone right now but if you leave a message, we’ll call you back when the fish stop biting.”

[Share your big fish story and win a gift certificate]

Hedges, a retired local surgeon, still holds the record for the biggest derby king ever entered in the 70-year history of the Golden North Salmon Derby: a 59-pound, 8-ounce fish caught in 1971. He says he’s gotten “a lot of mileage” in bragging rights out of the fish, which he caught on the second day of the derby fishing North Pass between Shelter and Lincoln Islands.

“I knew it was a big fish,” Hedges said in a recent interview with the Empire. “I probably only had one other fish that big that year hand trolling. I saw it three or four times before we could get it in the boat and I could tell it was big.”

Hedges caught the fish while anchored outside a kelp bed on the Shelter Island side of the pass. It fought him for 45 minutes. Derby rules required fishermen to turn their entries in by 6 p.m., but luckily Hedges landed the whopper early in the day.

“The fish was pooped and I was pooped when we finally got him in the boat,” he said. “But I couldn’t keep my adrenaline down. I was high on adrenaline going into Tee Harbor. We ended up at Amalga in the fog but we had a lot of time to get back to the dock because it was still early in the day.”

Hedges was fishing with old friends Sue and Jim McKeown.

“I always kid him (Hedges) that I prayed it in because that’s all I could do was sit in the bow of the boat and pray,” Sue McKeown said. “It was huge, they always look bigger in the water, but then when we got it in the boat it was pretty amazing.”

On their way back to the dock the group ran into McKeown’s father, Hugh Wade, the first lieutenant governor during Alaska statehood. McKeown remembers thinking her father must have thought the boating party was inebriated.

“We were stopping to say hi to all our friends along the way to show off the fish. We were hooting and hollering,” said 79-year-old McKeown, who has fished every derby except two. “When we saw my dad, we looped around to say hi to him. He must have thought we were drinking because of the way we were acting but number one, it was too early in the day and number two, it wasn’t the first thing on your mind during the derby.”

The group had the rest of the derby to wait and see if Hedges’ catch would hold up as the winner; they were pretty certain it was going to.

“In a way it was a much bigger thing back in the day,” Hedges said of the derby’s early days. “There are probably just as many people fishing in today’s derby but back then there were only 6,000 people living here and 1,000 to 1,500 would fish the derby.”

Hedges remembers 75-pound kings being a seasonal occurrence on the Taku River. He says you don’t see fish like that anymore.

“I don’t know why they don’t seem to catch them anymore. Maybe from global warming, but whatever the reason they just aren’t being caught,” he said.

Hedges still fishes both May’s Spring King Derby and the Golden North. He likes to row out in Tee Harbor for a few hours and see what he can get. As the World’s Greatest Fisherman, it remains Hedges’ role to pass out sage advice to Juneau’s young anglers. He keeps it simple.

“The main thing is to be lucky and keep the hook in the water,” Hedges said. “It’s always better to be lucky than good.”

• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com.

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of June 15

Here’s what to expect this week.

A view of Angoon from a floatplane on Friday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
Thayer Creek Hydro project fulfills ‘dream of the elders’

Angoon hydropower groundbreaking comes after four decades of effort, seeks to stabilize future costs

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Sunday, June 16, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort Hotel And Convention Center on Feb. 24 in National Harbor, Maryland. Attendees descended upon the hotel outside of Washington, D.C., to participate in the four-day annual conference and hear from conservative speakers from around the world who range from journalists, U.S. lawmakers, international leaders and businessmen. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
Trump endorses Dahlstrom for Alaska’s U.S. House seat, criticizes Peltola and Begich

Endorsement could shake up the race, because local Republicans have tended to favor Begich so far.

Customers gather in the seating area of an expanded food court area on Franklin Street on Friday. Reconstruction work that began last fall was recently completed for the facility scheduled to be open between May and September. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Franklin Street facelift: Sites of former Elks Lodge, Glory Hall debut new eateries, housing

Expanded food court opens at former lodge site; donut shop and low-cost apartments replace shelter.

Runners take off from the starting line of the 35th annual Only Fools Run at Midnight at 11:59 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019. The event included a costume contest and 1-mile and 5-kilometer run/walk/wheelchair. The event is being revived this year at 9 p.m. Friday. (Nolin Ainsworth / Juneau Empire file photo)
‘Only Fools Run’ costume-themed fundraising race returns for summer solstice after multiyear absence

5K and 1-mile events will start downtown at 9 p.m. Friday, rather than old tradition of midnight.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Saturday, June 15, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Friday, June 14, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a 420-foot icebreaker homeported in Seattle, breaks ice in support of scientific research in the Arctic Ocean during a 2006 cruise. The Healy is now on its way to Alaska and scheduled to complete three missions this year, including a sailing through the Northwest Passage to Greenland. (Petty Officer Second Class Prentice Danner/U.S. Coast Guard)
Coast Guard icebreaker Healy headed to Alaska for three Arctic research missions

Activities will include cruise through the Northwest Passage to Greenland.

Most Read