James McKnight holds a coho salmon he caught on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018 at the Golden North Salmon Derby. The fish, weighed at 17.7 pounds, was the largest one caught at the derby. (Courtesy Photo | Derby Committee)

James McKnight holds a coho salmon he caught on Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018 at the Golden North Salmon Derby. The fish, weighed at 17.7 pounds, was the largest one caught at the derby. (Courtesy Photo | Derby Committee)

Salmon Derby winner finds good luck, victory ‘shocking’

After more than 20 years in the derby, James McKnight finally claims victory

When James McKnight pulled a coho salmon out of the water Saturday morning, he knew it was big. He didn’t realize quite how big, though.

The previous morning, McKnight’s son Sammy had pulled up a 15.2-pound salmon as they were out for the Golden North Salmon Derby. McKnight, 51, thought that the salmon he caught Saturday looked roughly the same size as the one his son had caught.

“It didn’t jump out to me as being huge,” McKnight said.

When he got to shore, he found out that the salmon was just that. It was weighed in at 17.7 pounds at the dock. That took the lead in the derby, but again McKnight tempered his enthusiasm. It was only Saturday morning, after all.

Three days later, to McKnight’s surprise, he was officially named the winner of the 72nd annual Golden North Salmon Derby. The closest finisher to him was Nicole Ng, who caught a 17.2-pound fish. Ng was named the Youth Winner of the competition. Last year’s winner, Donald Zenger, won with an 18.8-pound fish.

[Live blog: 2018 Golden North Salmon Derby]

McKnight, an investment compliance officer for the state, said he’s been participating in the derby for more than 20 years, and he’s never come anywhere close to winning.

“It was shocking,” McKnight said, “especially because it happened early Saturday and had to sweat out two full days.”

McKnight didn’t want to reveal the specific spot where he caught the salmon, but said it was south of town. He was in his new 22-foot Raider (which does not yet have a name) with his brother Rob when he reeled in the winning fish, he said.

He only went out for two half-days, the first with his son and the second with his brother. McKnight said that’s a lesson that sometimes all it takes is a little luck, though good fortune is not usually on his side when he’s out on the water.

“I wouldn’t say I was the luckiest fisherman out there,” McKnight said. “This does demonstrate that anyone can win it.”

McKnight said he caught a 17-pound king salmon a few years ago in the derby, but this is definitely the largest coho he’s caught. The past two years, the derby has been focused on cohos due to closures on king salmon fishing.

As is customary with the derby, McKnight didn’t get to spend much time with the fish. He brought it to the dock, weighed it, posed for a picture and gave it to the derby workers. The derby sells every fish, raising money for the Territorial Sportsmen Scholarship Foundation. Since 1953, the foundation has given out 305 scholarships and a total of $1.7 million, according to the derby’s website.

This year, Derby Co-Chair Jerry Burnett said, there were more than 1,100 derby tickets sold and participants turned in 2,676 cohos that weighed a total of 25,081 pounds. Alaska Glacier Seafoods paid $28,064.40 for the fish, Burnett said.

McKnight’s main prize is $10,000 cash, but he’ll also get a belt buckle, a jacket, a trophy and more. McKnight said he won’t do anything too wild with the prize money, especially because Sammy starts at the University of Alaska-Anchorage this week.

“My son’s starting his first year in college,” McKnight said, chuckling. “So it’s going to come in handy for that, I think.”

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

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