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It's derby time
Anglers cast for $150,000 in prizes

By Jon Little
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: August 11, 2002)

Seward -- Dawn cast a pink glow through the dark overcast shortly after 5:30 a.m Saturday, but brightly lit coffee shops were already doing a brisk trade, tourists strolled the boat harbor, and Tony Smart, in sweat shirt and baggy shorts, was launching his 24-foot fishing boat the Trixie B.

"All summer long I have just waited to come down here. This is it. This is the big event of the year," the Dillingham-based masonry contractor said, beaming like a 5-year-old on Christmas morning.

Smart and hundreds of other rabid anglers were up early, busily checking their tackle and hauling coolers full of supplies, ready for the 6 a.m. kickoff of the Seward Silver Salmon Derby. The start was signaled by the booming report of cracker shots -- or "seal bombs," as some Seward residents call them -- fired from police shotguns out on the breakwater.

The nine-day derby is Southcentral Alaska's last big fishing bash of summer, both for salmon anglers and Seward's tourism-fueled economy. The derby pays out $150,000 in cash prizes.

The derby is the Seward Chamber of Commerce's biggest fund-raiser, but the 47-year-old event is also a cherished tradition, one that draws the same hard-core fishermen again and again. Some only see each other here once a year.

Harold Sonnaband, 74, of Wasilla ran into Mark Bartholomew, 62, of Seward at the derby's ticket stand. Both had fished in the first derby, in 1956. The biggest fish caught that year was good for a new Chevy station wagon, the two said.

A steady flow of participants in polar fleece, neoprene and ball caps, some from as far away as Israel and Germany, stopped by the derby's dock-side headquarters for tickets all day Saturday.

By lunchtime, many anglers were chased back to harbor by rain, wind and relatively slow fishing. The leader board was changing by the minute as anglers jogged up the boardwalk carrying fish weighing 14, 15 and 16 pounds. One of the biggest fish, a 17.5-pounder, was caught near Lowell Point by Nadine Schliebe of Anchorage at 9 a.m. Saturday.

"Yessss!" she exclaimed as she turned in her ticket and was told she was in the running for the $10,000 first prize. "It was a fighter. It was a big fighter," she said.

Anglers who buy derby tickets -- $10 a day and $35 for the whole derby -- are eligible for the prizes.

The dock was relatively dry as the derby began Saturday, but outside the confines of Seward's harbor, a string of boats vanished into heavy clouds and sheets of rain. Smart, his wife, Mary, and a friend were headed into the grayness for 12 hours.

"Our goal is to beat the Bixby brothers," Smart declared.

Perhaps the most successful fishing family in derby history, the Bixbys have been nicknamed the "Soldotna mafia" for their deadly efficiency. Bill Bixby, a North Slope worker, is the only two-time derby winner. His brother Jerry and wife, Loretta, also have won.

The Bixbys weren't on the leader board Saturday afternoon, but they have a reputation for taking their time and being choosy about the fish they keep.

By 6:25 a.m., the derby had awarded its first of many prizes: $100 for the first silver caught. It was a shiny 10.75 pounder caught by Keith Ambacher of Seward just outside the small boat harbor.

There are dozens of prizes -- so many that the derby has a designated statistician to keep track as fish come in. There's a prize for the biggest silver caught from a sailboat, the largest bagged by a Seward resident, even one for the silver weighing closest to 13 pounds. Different sponsors come up with specific awards, said Helen Marrs, the chamber's executive director.

First prize for the biggest fish is $10,000, and any fish in the top 50 gets at least $100. There are daily awards for the largest fish caught by a man, woman and child.

Last year's biggest fish, an 18.7 pounder, was caught by Scott West of Anchorage. Winning fish can weigh more than 20 pounds.

A big deal this year is the chance to win $100,000 if an angler happens to hook a silver tagged with a piece of wire. It is a little like winning the lottery. Chances of catching the fish are slim. The chamber has promised $10,000 for tagged fish in past years but never had to pay out, Marrs said.

"It was my idea to do something spectacular this year because I wanted a way to kick off the 2003 celebration," Marrs said. The city of Seward marks its centennial next year.

Seward is best known for its huge Fourth of July party, which combines the rugged Mount Marathon footrace, a parade and street fair. Marrs said the silver derby is just as big, "but it's spread over nine days."

For shops that sell tackle, clothing, espresso, art and candy, the derby is also a last chance to cash in on summer. "After the silver salmon derby is over, well, it's over," Marrs said. "That's the last big hurrah for our town in the summertime. After that, it's kind of roll up the sidewalks and put your awnings away."

Last year, anglers turned in 3,186 fish to the weigh-in station, totaling more than 28,000 pounds of silver salmon, organizers say. Most of the meat is sold to a processing plant, and the proceeds pay Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association for restocking hatchery-raised silvers in Resurrection Bay.

This city of 3,000 swells noticeably for the week. Seward's Chamber of Commerce hopes to sell 10,000 derby tickets before it's over.

"What you notice is you can't get a parking spot. What you notice is your favorite restaurant doesn't have an open table," said Matt Hall, a Seward veterinarian volunteering at the chamber's fish weigh-in station. "But without it, lordy, what would we do? Fishin' is the mission. You can have fun and compete a little bit."
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