The start of the 2010 Salmon Derby, Friday morning, as boats depart Petersburg harbors.
Duane Olson, (center), sets a Salmon Derby record in 2009 by hauling in a fish weighing 59.8 pounds.
Bjorn Stolpe and Shannon Caulum proudly display their catch on the final day of the 2011 salmon derby.
The 2000 Petersburg King Salmon Derby was the year of the woman. Pictured left to right: 3rd place, 33.6 lbs; 2nd place, 36.85 lbs; 1st place, 43.4 lbs. and the $5,000 tagged fish, 30.55 lbs.
Story last updated at 5/22/2013 - 2:05 pm
It proved impossible to touch base with the key players of the annual Petersburg salmon derby. That's because just about everyone is an avid derby enthusiast.
The 32nd annual derby commences at 7 a.m. on Friday, May 24 and runs through 5 p.m. on Memorial Day, Monday, May 27.
"I live for the derby and I live for moose hunting," Bill Olson said.
Olson moved to Petersburg in 1962 when he was a freshman in high school. His parents left after he graduated but he remained. This will be his 32nd derby.
"Everybody that has a boat that floats is out in the derby," he said.
Participation in the event requires a ticket. You can buy a one-day ticket, a four-day ticket or a family ticket. At 7 a.m. the gun goes off.
"You buy your ticket ahead of time, but it needs to be signed off," said Troy Thynes, another Petersburg resident. "People start lining up early."
Tickets must be validated at one of several locations, and then it's "go time." Ron Loesh, the derby committee chair, estimated that around 600-700 buy tickets each year, but many more participate, jumping on a vessel headed out to fish, or supporting the derby financially.
"They run to their boats and take off," Olson said. "Some go north and some go south. It reminds me of the herring (season) or Bristol Bay; there's wakes and exhaust."
There are quite a bit of incentives. The person with the heaviest fish receives $7,500 - $3,500 is given to the second heaviest fish and the person in third can either take home $2,500 or choose from a host of other prizes. Businesses and individuals donate cash prizes and items ranging from binoculars, Kitchen Aid mixers or an annual boat launch permit. And then there's the coveted and elusive tagged fish.
Prior to the derby, two salmon are caught, tagged and released. One of the fish has a tag worth $5,000, the other $10,000.
In addition, there are prizes for the first fish landed and submitted by a man, by a woman, prizes for the lightest fish, prizes specifically for children or seniors, for the biggest fish caught on a particular day. There's also "hidden weight" prizes. Individuals or businesses can donate cash prizes for specific weights. This gives an incentive for anyone to get out onto the water. While the winning fish is typically more than 40 pounds, there may be a prize for a 17.3 pound fish.
But it's not just about the money.
"It's a real community event," said Desi Burrell, a fourth generation Petersburg resident. "I think the school tries to work graduation around it so the kids can fish."
With the exception of a five year gap when Burrell was living out of town, she's fished every derby. Most notably, she was part of the Year of the Woman, when the first, second and third place salmon, in addition to the capture of the $5,000 tagged fish were all caught by female participants. Burrell placed third that year, with a 36.6 pound fish.
Dick Aho, who won the 2004 derby with a 52.1 pound salmon, said his daughter was on his derby trip with him on her first birthday, along with his wife. His daughter is in Panama now, with the Peace Corps, but told him recently that the derby was one memory of home she holds with her.
"I know other kids, when they go away to college or get a job, that's one of their memories," Aho said. "In Petersburg the derby is one of the events that is really accepted by the whole town. I think it's that family-based concept. The whole group goes out. They have a similar objective. It's not just an afternoon. Four days of fishing, starting early in the morning and finishing late at night, that's a meaty undertaking."
One of Olson's children, Duane, who now lives in Bellingham, returns every year just to participate.
"(He) always flies in on Thursday," Olson said. "I have the boat ready, and that's it."
The Olsons don't mess around. Duane Olson currently holds the record, with a 59.8 pound king salmon caught in 2010. The fish is displayed at the local airport.
"Once I get out there, I fish," Bill Olson said. "We just love it. We go out and stay on our boat. We take off at seven in the morning. We fish Friday until dark, start at 3 a.m. on Saturday, fish until 10 p.m. or dark, same for Sunday, get up at 3 a.m. on Monday, and fish until 2 or 3 (in the afternoon). It's like a big ol' hell of a trip; we get no sleep."
Aho's on board with that plan of action as well.
"We always say if we're going to fish in the derby, then we're going to fish in the derby," Aho said. "The switch is on or off. If we're going to do it, we're going to do it right. The people that put in their time are the ones that usually catch the fish."
Burrell said her family puts in time preparing for the big adventure.
"We fry chicken, make potato salad, different dips," She said. "We bring lots of snack stuff, snacks that (aren't) always around our house, but when we fish we get to have them."
Loesh said that over time fish lose body fluids once out of the water, causing their weight to decrease. So it's somewhat of a gamble whether to return to town to have it weighed, or to stay in the water and keep fishing.
"Each fish is weighed at the station on certified scales," Loesh said. "Then about every couple of hours the officials will print out a ladder or list which shows participants where the stand in the lineup."
He added that the committee's goal is to make the derby fun and fair. Unlike other derbies, the Petersburg one allows participants to reclaim their fish after it's weighed.
"The goal is to keep it a level playing field for all participants," Loesh said. "So that someone in a 14-foot skiff has just as much chance as someone in a 50-foot yacht."
What that "chance" is depends on the players.
"For me, it's just fun getting out there and keeping action going and having the kids catch fish," Thynes said. "The biggest fish we've caught has been 32 pounds - not a derby winner by any means, but just getting out there, the whole weekend, the whole experience."
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.