Scouts whoop it up for the derby on the boat Dock Holiday. Andrew Cremata

Becoming a Sportsman


As a child, whenever I would accompany my grandma or folks to the store I would make a beeline for the magazine rack. My eyes would scan its contents, hopeful that the newest issue of Florida Sportsman Magazine was waiting for me on the shelf. If so, I eagerly spent my hard-earned lawn mowing money on its purchase, and immediately flipped to my favorite author’s column.

That author was Vic Dunaway, one of the founding editors of the magazine and a man who revolutionized the sport of fishing. Dunaway’s articles covered a variety of topics, and he always weaved them into a tale that would spark my imagination. He had an intimate knowledge of how gear and tackle should be applied to any given situation and even invented the uni-knot, which is the primary knot I still use today.

More importantly, he heralded responsibility and conservation of fish resources for recreational fisherman in an era when many were killing fish simply because they could. Dunaway successfully fought large-scale commercial fishing interests in Florida, believing that everyone should be considered an equal when it came to utilizing the resource. His stories were full of wit and insight, and they weaved the fabric of what it truly means to be a sportsman.
The word “sportsman” carries more significance than merely referring to someone who practices a sport. A sportsman is someone who also plays by the rules, maintains a standard of ethics, and treats his quarry with respect. This carries even more weight when fishing – a sport where a life often hangs in the balance. Even when the fight is over, proper handling and care for the fish means more than just respect for its life, it also ensures the quality of the meat, both in flavor and good health.

A true sportsman understands that killing is not the end-goal of fishing. The sport itself dictates that blood will be shed, but killing without reason or cause shows an utter disregard for fellow anglers and the sanctity of life.
Words like “bycatch” are manufactured words built to conceal the reality of wantonly wasting resources – the motivation for which is ignorance, greed, or refusing to acknowledge personal responsibility.

I once fished with a captain in Ketchikan who would slice the gills of any small dogfish sharks unlucky enough to be brought on board. To him, they were a nuisance, and his actions were rehearsed and nonchalant. When he cut them, the fish would immediately writhe and gasp as its blood stained the water red. He then casually tossed the dogfish back into the water, ignoring it as it sank twisting toward the ocean floor, never once taking a break from the conversation on board the boat.


We are fortunate enough to live in one of the few places in America where the opportunity exists to engage in this sport for the purpose of staying fed. Come January, it’s nice to have a supply of salmon or halibut fillets in the freezer. For those of us in Skagway, the winter might be the only time of year we have the chance to share a meal with family and friends.

Still, there is more to sport fishing than simply filling a freezer. During Skagway’s Pat Moore fishing derby, a little girl asked me why I fished with a rod and reel instead of just using a net. I couldn’t really frame an answer into words that would convey the idea in its entirety, so I simply said, “Well that wouldn’t be very much fun, now would it?” The little girl smiled and agreed.

While the ultimate goal of sport fishing is obviously to catch fish, it’s not always easy to attain such a goal. And that’s okay. Becoming an Alaskan sportsman provides a person with the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, engaging it within the framework of the fishing equipment used and the techniques that make it practical.

My education came from my parents and grandparents with a healthy dose of Vic Dunaway’s expert advice. Since moving to Skagway I’ve been lucky to fish with people I consider true sportsmen, and those outings have always been more about the quality of the company than the size of the fish.

At this year’s derby I saw instances of sportsmanship at every turn. The winning fish was worth $2,500 to the lucky angler who landed it, and more importantly, bragging rights for at least the next 12 months. And make no mistake, every single minute on the water mattered right up until the final seconds of the last day, and every fisherman knew it.

With the leading fish just shy of 20 pounds, it would have been easy to take a selfish approach. Instead, what I saw was people making room on their boats for their friends. I saw grandfathers handing the rods to their young grandchildren so they could have a chance at getting that prized king salmon. One charter captain donated the use of his vessel so that the local Girl Scouts could enjoy the thrill of derby fishing. Even the owner of the boat from which the derby winning fish was caught sacrificed personal opportunity to let his friends and family members take control of the rod whenever there was a bite. His niece was this year’s champion.

There are many fine fishermen in Skagway, but more importantly, there is no shortage of sportsmen. Sacrifice is at the heart of every success in sport, and it is a gift you give to someone else and yourself at the same time.

Vic Dunaway died this past May at the age of 82. His books are national best sellers. One of those, titled “Baits, Rigs, and Tackle,” sits on my bookshelf and is likely the only book any aspiring fisherman really needs.

From Florida to Alaska there are a multitude of anglers who are intimately aware of what it means to practice the sport of fishing with dignity and class. They share their passion for angling with the people they love and live by the credo: Take what you can eat, let the rest go, and always show respect for every living thing that lives above or beneath the waves.