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Tournament Salmon Fishing
6 Tips for Success That Will Help You Enjoy and Hopefully Win at the Salmon Derby Game
By Kevin Klein
The first competitive salmon derby I fished was the 2006 Roche Harbor Salmon Classic. There were 100 boats, over 300 anglers, a lot of testosterone and $10,000 for first prize on the line. I was pretty amped up.
The first day of the two-day tournament saw fair skies and light winds. A 17-plus pounder was leading at the end of the day. Overnight the weather would take a turn for the worse. Much worse. On the second day winds blew up quick out of the south, gusting to 70 miles per hour. A large majority of boats didn’t make it out. That was the smart call. We were a lot less smart in those days. We went. After getting pounded on all day and hiding behind any land mass we could find to stay out of the blow, we finally got a little window to cross the channel to a spot we wanted to fish. That window of relative calm I now know as a “sucker hole”. Those brief windows of opportunities sucker you into complacency before things really go to hell. The wind picked up even more.
Thankfully we had more youthful luck than brains. We kept fishing on a rolling deck when a rod went down hard. After a good fight, I netted the fish and it looked like a possible winner. We fought back to Roche Harbor, headed for the scales, careful not to cause the fish to bleed. An ounce could make all the difference. As we walked up the dock a crowd of shore bound contestants gathered and then followed. The chunky blackmouth was placed on the official digital scale. The number to beat: 17.18 lbs. As the numbers flashed up and down like a $10,000 slot machine, they came to rest on 17.18. We had tied! A cacophony of chaos erupted in the tent. Holy heck what just happened? Well we split the prize money for first and second between teams, the party began, and I was hooked for life.
Since then I’ve fished almost every derby I can make and have made a huge group of friends doing so. I’ve founded and ran derbies and have seen some really good philanthropy and fish enhancement come from them. In our frustrating fish issues in the Northwest, salmon tournaments are one way we can still get out there and say: “We can still do this, and this is fun.” From the Northwest Salmon Derby Series events to many great derbies in B.C., and up to Alaska, these tournaments are a way for anglers to get together and give back, at the same time feeding the competitive edge many of us have. We need to gear up and go hard in these times we live in. We need to get out on the water and work as a team to accomplish something and feel alive.
With that, I’d like to share some knowledge I’ve gained from my time on the salmon derby scene. Here are a half-dozen tips that could get you in the game and up on the stage. Even if you don’t have much success at first, the next big bite could be right over that next reef. And that’s really what keeps us in this game. The next fish could be … the one.
1. Summer vs. Winter Derbies
Ah, the derbies of Summer. The Bellingham, Everett and Edmonds Coho, and numerous BC tournaments. Many others and some club derbies I’m missing. Warm sun and fun. Then the Old Man Winter derbies. Hard fishin’ and hard drinkin’ after at the bar. The sea was angry that day my friends, and she handed us her worst as we banged our balls on Davy Jones locker.
These old tropes hold water most of the time. But it can be beautiful in a winter derby and blow like heck in the summer. You never know. The main differences will be what species you’re targeting and depth in the water column. Tactics and techniques change from hunting resident salmon to migratory salmon.
In the summer, one will find Chinook and coho at shallower depths and out farther from shore than in the winter. That is especially true in the morning when we are all out early trying to get the jump on each other. Try shallower depth first in the 60- to 90-foot range and work down. Depending on what area you’re fishing, kings will hold on the bottom in the summer too. Increase the size of your offering. There’s usually larger bait around in the summer. You might pick up a few tips on what’s been working, but don’t count on it. Remember, it’s a derby so everybody is pretty tight-lipped. But because it is summer, maybe they’ll be in a little better mood and tell you. I’ve fished in a few tournaments in British Columbia and found my Salmon Brothers in Canada will share techniques over a beer, but they keep their cards close to their vest on where they’re fishing.
Winter is a different story. These are big money blackmouth tournaments, spawned by the old Rosario Derby. At the Rosario, the best of the best from all over the Northwest would get together to hit it hard in the bar and on the water. Commercial fisherman, charter captains, local sharpies, they all came to compete. There are certainly smaller, equally enjoyable derbies held in the winter, but it’s the big ones like the Roche, Friday Harbor and Olympic Peninsula that are the draw. Blackmouth fishing at its finest. A 16-pounder or a 26-pounder may win, you never know. In the states they we are keeping hatchery, fin-clipped fish only. Fishing on or near the bottom will be where 90 percent of the fish will be found. On the banks or in the interior, it’s hard fishing on structure. Those who stick it out, concentrate and grind will wind up in the money. Winter tournament fishing may not be as warm or inviting, but it’s tougher and more cerebral. Strategize!
2. Weather: Always a factor
One might think that winter derbies were the only time you have to consider conditions in a tournament. Not so. Take the Vancouver Chinook Classic I fished a few years ago in August. We were with a good local guide, on a boat that was new to him. The weather and fishing had been phenomenal all summer. Just our luck, the bite turned off and the winds picked up approaching 60 mph the day of the event in the Straits of Georgia. More bad luck, we had fuel problems and a dead main motor. We were able to get the main fired finally, after jogging against the 6- to 8-foot wind waves with the kicker. It was a long grind back to port, with a helping shadow from the Canadian Coast Guard. If the dock had been a bit cleaner, I think we would have all dropped and kissed the dock on returning that day.
If you know beforehand what the weather is forecasted for, you can make a better game plan around it. Can you find a good spot in the lee? What is the tide doing? Big tides against wind create big, confused seas. It’s usually a good move to try to return to port with the wind and sea direction, and not have to buck it coming home. Make sure you have the right gear if it’s raining heavily, or just very cold. A comfortable crew is a productive crew. You’ll need to keep your stamina up, especially in multi-day derbies. Keeping morale up and keeping fishing fun and positive is a huge key to consistent success.
3. Stay in competitive shape: Have fun, but not too much
Derbies are always a social event. They are a great way to connect with old friends and make some new ones. Salmon tournaments almost all give back to charities or fish enhancement projects. Usually they are a win-win. But it’s pretty easy to get carried away (sometimes via dock cart) and have too much of a good time. I’ve seen it countless times. Being hung over out on the boat is no fun. Being impaired out there is downright dangerous. There are lots of guys burning around in high horsepower rigs. We all need to have our wits about us and look out for each other. These days I try to attend the preliminary check in event and dinner and then make an escape to the sleeping arrangements early. Over sleeping and getting down to the boat after everyone else has left puts you and your crew at a disadvantage. You get less time with a hook in the water. More time with a hook in the water gives you more chances to win. Partying in a place like Roche Harbor or Friday Harbor is fun. Winning is even more fun and it’s all about the fun.
4. Game plan. Execute and adjust
Talk about the tournament with your team well in advance of the event. If they have any knowledge, listen. Put together a Plan A and Plan B. Be willing to adjust. You may just hear something on the docks or in the bar the night before that will change your mind about where you’re going the next morning. Don’t necessarily follow reports, but listen and be ready to make adjustments. Places that hold big fish always have the potential to hold a derby winner. Fish swim. Just because they were there the week before, doesn’t mean they’ll be there during the event. Or will they? You may also be in a limited area tournament like the Vancouver Chinook Classic, with small check boat zones. At the very least you’ll be fishing in a certain marine area(s). All these factors contribute to your game plan. Keep thinking and re thinking. It’ll pay off.
Another big question: when you’re in a good spot, but not catching much, or encountering small fish, do you stay or do we go? This is where some very interesting strategy comes in. Should you wait for the tide to load up this location, or move to another spot? Either way it’s a gamble. If there’s bait around it’s smart to stay. This is where years on the water and learning an area produces winners. Pete Nelsen of Shaw Island, Wash., is a case study. His record of 30-plus derby wins in the Northwest is amazing. How does someone keep coming up on the leader board year after year like Pete, especially in mark selective Chinook derbies? He’s in the right place at the right time.
5. Keep your head in the game. Have a short memory of failure, and a long one of success
Talk about pressure. I fished the now defunct big money Sooke, B.C. derby the last year of the contest in 2010. Top prize was $100,000. Second place was $50,000 and third place yielded $25,000. The entry fee per boat was steep. Winning would be life changing. A good friend of mine had a fish break a knot and swim away. It would have almost assuredly won that tournament. He was responsible for the knot and it was heart-breaking. In situations like that you’ve got to have a pretty strong constitution and a good team to get over that one. You’re going to have failures. Get over them quickly. Learn something and move on. Get your head back in the game and concentrate. You may get another chance at winning. Be ready for that chance.
Have a long memory when it comes to successes — yours and others. If you know where a winning fish was caught, write it down. Compile information for the next derby. What was the tide doing? If you had a good tournament, make mental and written notes of what happened that day. Rinse and repeat. Keep doing the things that winners do. Fish effectively as much of the day as possible and watch your odds increase.
6. Fish hard until the final bell. It’s all about time management.
Concentrate and fish as hard as you can, even though you may be tired or bored toward the end of the event. Lots of last minute heroics have put trophies and cash in the hands of unsuspecting anglers. There is just something about the final minutes of a tournament that produce winners. It happens. However, don’t fish too long. Do not put yourself and your team in the position of running for the scales with a potential winner and missing the weigh in. That’s worse than not catching the fish at all. I’ve seen it. The captain has to set a time to call “lines up” and head for port. I usually make this an hour before the weigh station closes. This allows time to pull up gear, make ready to run, land at the dock and make it to the scales. And, if you do hook a big fish, you’ll need time to land it, and wouldn’t that be sweet.
Those are my half-dozen tips and some tactics that could help you win a derby. You will garner lasting riches and temporary fame if you wind up on that stage. Or is that temporary riches and lasting fame? Well, depends on you doesn’t it. There’s a lot of luck that goes in to winning one of these tournaments. But no matter your luck, your experience should be a lot of fun. And that really depends on you, too. Be competitive, but let yourself have a blast and get to know some of the great people that run and participate in these events. Friends for life can be made in the process of competing for good causes. We can still do something good, test our skill set and test our limits. We may be more civilized now, but we still need to ride out and slay some dragons. Just to know we can.