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.”
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 email@example.com.