Fishing for freedom: Annual Combat Fishing Derby held in Seward

Seward charter fishing boat captain Skip Massey has an easy answer for why he’s opened the past four seasons with a boatload of nonpaying clients.


“Because it’s an awful lot of fun,” said Massey, a former Marine who was one of dozens of Seward captains who volunteered their boats for the Annual Armed Services Combat Fishing Derby held May 23.

Now in its seventh year, the event was first dreamed up by businessmen Bob Candopoulos of Saltwater Safaris and Keith Manternach of Specialty Truck and Auto, said Mari Jo Imig, Executive Director of the Alaska Armed Services YMCA, which organizes the event.

“It was just a way to thank our troops,” Imig said.

This year’s tournament included almost 250 active duty enlisted personnel from Alaska’s Army, Air Force, Marines and National Guard, Imig said. In addition to the help of the local charter fleet, Imig said dozens of event sponsors and volunteers helped out with the event.

“It takes a lot of people and a lot of volunteers,” she said.

Many of the participating servicemen and women made the 130-mile bus ride from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson at 2 a.m. in order to make the 5 a.m. departure time.

Senior Airman Rob Collins made the early-morning bus trip south to fish aboard Skip Massey’s boat, “Snow Bird.” After spending the day catching a limit of halibut and rockfish, Massey said he didn’t mind the lost sleep.

“It was worth it,” he said.

Collins said he’s used to seeing Alaska from the air, but until Monday never had a chance to see the open ocean.

“It was a great way to experience Alaska,” Collins said. “It definitely showed me a different side to the sea.”

Air Force Staff Sergeant Brian Cotner said he was overwhelmed to see the level of community participation needed to pull off the event.

“The fact they can coordinate all the charters is a pretty big feat,” he said.

Imig said the job of organizing the event — which also included a post-fishing banquet and a grand prize for a randomly-selected halibut — is made easier by Alaska’s positive attitude toward the military.

“Alaska is such a military-friendly place,” she said.

Volunteers Roger and Stephanie Frackman have been volunteering for the tournament since its inception in 2007. Roger Frackman said he and his wife serve as “gofers,” doing whatever is needed in the days leading up to the event.

“We’ve got to support these folks who are in the military,” he said.

He said the fishing tournament is a great way to support the military because it gives active duty personnel a chance to forget about the high stress that often comes with serving in combat.

“It gives ‘em an opportunity to have a good time,” he said.

Imig said tournament participants have either recently deployed overseas or are about to. Soldier Jeffrey Carter, a combat engineer, said he’s getting sent on his first deployment next month. An avid fisherman, Carter said he jumped at the chance to take part in the tournament, which sent boats several miles out into the open water of Prince William Sound.

“I already had my fishing license,” Carter said. “I love to fish.”

Like many who boarded the charter boats, Carter had never before fished for halibut.

“The biggest fish back home are nothing compared to this,” Carter said after pulling up a 20-pound halibut.

Capt. Massey said the annual event is always a highlight of his fishing season. As a former Marine, he said he enjoys the camaraderie that’s unique to members of the armed forces.

“I speak the language, so to speak,” Massey said.

By the afternoon, the Snow Bird’s fish hold was weighed down with a couple hundred pounds of fresh bottomfish as the boat motored into Resurrection Bay. At one rocky outcropping, Massey stopped the boat as wide-eyed servicemen stared at a large colony of sea lions.

After setting foot back on land, the excited fishermen swapped stories of their maritime adventure.

“I want to go again,” said Rob Collins. “You can’t compare it to anything else.”