A fish hangs off of Nate Kaczmerak’s disco shirt. Andrew Cremata

Fish This!

Derby Madness

By Andrew Cremata

When the rod dips hard and the line starts to scream you know there’s something big on the other end of the line. When there’s big derby money at stake and the sound of the drag pierces the dead air, everything in the universe stops for that brief moment.
It is a moment of indecision – a place where reality is concealed behind some veneer of disbelief. “Could this be the ONE?” you ask.
One thing is certain, you have to bring the fish into the boat, and this is no easy task. There is a lot that can go wrong. No matter what the gear being used there is always the potential for mishaps. Two hundred yards of monofilament line can always have a weak spot somewhere along its length. Maybe the knots were not tied with finesse. Your reel could choose this moment to lose all of its precision calibration.
Then there are the things beyond your control. There are sharp edges and floating debris under the water upon which the fish can snag. As the fight lingers there is always the potential of the hook working its way out of the fish’s mouth. And any strong fish can suddenly leap or lunge in such a way as to escape its apparent fate. If all goes right you still have to manage to net the fish.
It’s on that first run when all these thoughts race through the mind. It is in that place between uncertainty and action where the choice is made to engage. But no one fight with any large fish is like the last. There will always be some new element of surprise thrown into the battle – something to test your wits, or at the very least, your sanity.
I was with Captain Greg Jones of Dockside Charters on the last day of the Skagway fishing derby. It was a trip of friends upon choppy seas where all shared the same hope of catching that one elusive fish that would top the leader board and bring bragging rights to one particularly lucky angler.
We were doing something right. A top ten fish was already weighed, and we had been back in the water no longer than 3 minutes when another king came over the rail, albeit a little too small to keep.
We were also using the secret lure.
While I cannot specify the nature of this particular lure, nor its color, shape, or chemical composition I can say that the secret lure had never actually caught a fish. Still, the need to use it was inescapable, as it is the type of lure often referred to by those in the fishing community as one that “catches fisherman, not fish.”
We have dragged that ridiculous thing behind the boat for some years without a bite, and still maintained that one day it would do its job and lure some inconceivably large fish into devouring it with reckless abandon.
And so it was on the last day of the derby that we set out the rods and sipped on our beers waiting for the next bite. There were a few jokes among the group, a few glances at the rod tips to see if a strike was imminent. All was quiet except for the wind whistling upon the rod tips slightly curled toward the water.
Then there was chaos.
I heard the sound before I could tell which reel was creating the high pitched whine of gears in motion. If you’ve spent any time fishing, you know that sound. It is the sound of the big one, that potential derby winner. It is the sound of excitement laced with dread.
When I saw the rod dipped double I shouted that it was the rod with the secret lure. Captain Greg was as incredulous as I was. Half the line on the spool was already gone. When the hook was set the fish kept taking line until suddenly, it went slack.
The prospect of losing such a fish is not an easy thing to stomach, and maniacal reeling revealed the fish had simply turned back toward the boat at full speed. Soon the bend in the rod was back and the fight was really on.
Some fish fight better than others. This is especially true with salmon. There are times you are sure you have a 20-pounder only to reveal an especially energetic king half that size. Then there are true lunkers that barely fight all the way up to the boat. While this might mean it’s best not to get your hopes up until you’ve seen the fish, there is no way to control your enthusiasm when the fish keeps running – and pulling – and fighting.
This king salmon was a fighter, and she ran again. Ground was eventually gained as line started to refill the spool. Everyone took a step forward as the fish was nearing the point when all aboard would get a look. Yet instead of surfacing the fish decided to run again, this time directly under the boat. This is not a good place for any fish to be, especially if you’re the angler.
Somehow the line got tangled around a piece of metal hardware affixed to the transom of the boat. There was a moment of stalemate, where the fish seemed to remain motionless – hidden somewhere under the surface. One more determined run is all it would take to snap the line.
I was not the one fighting the fish, so I did what anyone with any respect for one of his fellow anglers would do in such a predicament. I jumped off the boat.
For the women in the boat watching from behind this was unbridled madness. Usually the idea behind fishing from a boat revolves around the idea of staying in the boat. Maybe there should have been more thought process behind the decision, but there was only one way to get the fish into the boat, and that required someone actually getting out of the boat.
From their perspective they could not see that there was a slight ledge to step onto and it was from this point I leaned down and set the line free. Moments later I was back in the boat when the fish surfaced and was netted with shouts of joy and high-fives from all aboard.
It was a nice king – close to 20 pounds. It was not the derby winner we had all hoped for, in fact, it didn’t even place in the top ten. It was, however, a fighter. It was the one that DIDN’T get away.
Prize or no prize there is no equal to a day on the water with friends, experiencing a little competitive fishing first hand, and finally getting a hit on that stupid secret lure.