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Derby anglers ponder weekend sans derby: Ketchikan’s longtime king salmon event was canceled in 2018 due to stock concerns

Daily News Staff Writer

Louise Pattison and her family love the Ketchikan King Salmon Derby.

Pattison has fished in the derby for nearly her whole life, as has her husband Bill Pattison. They’ve passed the tradition down to their kids, who are passing it on to theirs.

Louise Pattison’s father, Walt Northrup, took first place in the derby in 1999. Her mother, Rose, won it twice. Her brother Dennis won in 2007. Her husband, Bill, won in 1980. Her daughter Misty won in 2016. Pattison herself won the Little League Derby in 1993.

Pattison believes her family has been successful in the derby because of their love for the sport. She and her husband operate a charter business and, until this year, would often go out fishing before and after their charter trips, just for enjoyment.

“People thought we were crazy, I think,” she laughed. Once their charter clients departed, “we’d turn around and go back out and go fishing for kings.”

Unfortunately for Pattison’s family and many like them, this year’s king salmon derby has been canceled.

For 70 years, Ketchikan families and competitive anglers have taken to the water each year in pursuit of catching the big one. The derby typically takes place over the course of three consecutive weekends, beginning with Memorial Day weekend, and comes with a grand prize of at least $10,000 cash and many other prizes.

This year, the Ketchikan CHARR King Salmon Derby committee canceled the 2018 derby amid a steep decline in Southeast Alaska’s wild king salmon returns. The low returns prompted the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to enact sweeping restrictions on the region’s king salmon fishing as well.

Derbies in Juneau, Petersburg, Wrangell and Haines were canceled, and Ketchikan’s derby committee scheduled a coho derby for late-August and early-September instead.

Misty Pattison, who won the king salmon derby in 2016, hadn’t planned to fish much this year because she has an eight-month-old son. But she said she wasn’t sure what to do on the derbyless long weekend anyway.

“I’m kind of just stumped,” she said. “Without the derby it’s like, ‘What do you do on Memorial Day weekend without fishing?’ Can’t think of a weekend in the past that I haven’t fished it.”

But the Pattisons and other derby fishermen are making the most of the change.

Louise and Bob Pattison said that this year’s heavy king salmon restrictions have had little impact on their charter business because most out-of-town customers are already used to catch-and-release fishing. And while the family typically fishes in the derby throughout Memorial Day weekend, this year they plan to take out charter customers.

“It’s OK,” Louise Pattison said. “They’re trying to get some fish built back up the river, so it's all understandable. It’s just kind of different after all these years.”

Clay Slanaker is a long-time local charter operator who has fished in the derby for about 30 years. He also plans to work this weekend due to the cancellation.

Slanaker said that though the derby is important to many people, he expects derby fans to enjoy the weekend anyway.

“I think a lot of people are still going to get out and enjoy the outdoors,” he said. “A lot of people go camping on their boats and go to the beach and build fires and that kind of stuff.”

Ron Lundamo is a commercial halibut and salmon fisherman who has fished in the derby since 1973. Lundamo no longer competes as seriously as he used to, but he still buys a ticket nearly every year. He said that the derby has been important to him ever since both he and his late father won it in the ‘70s. This weekend he’ll be doing yard work instead of fishing in the derby.

Lundamo expressed frustration with this summer’s closures, including that of the derby. He said that the king issues had been avoidable and that he expects to see an impact on local businesses.

“Well, I was disappointed,” he said. “... I’m more concerned with the lack of foresight with the management.”

Jerry Kiffer, who also now plans to get some work done around the house, shares Lundamo’s concern. Kiffer serves on the derby committee and has operated a weigh station at Mountain Point with other members of the Ketchikan Volunteer Rescue Squad for many years.

“It gets right at the heart of what Ketchikan is,” Kiffer said. “Ketchikan was born a mining and fishing community. And there’s a lot of people out there that, for them, a salmon derby is a big event. And we get to meet them. … It’s a great way to connect with the community.”

He said that there could be an effect on businesses this weekend, but that Ketchikan residents will press on regardless.

“I think in the end of things, quite frankly, it’s not going to matter,” he said. “Because Ketchikan always perseveres. No matter what the situation is, they work through it.”