The countdown to Saturday's 18th annual Winter King Salmon Tournament is underway and fishermen are on alert. Noses to the wind, they're sniffing out the weather. Eyes on tides, they're second-guessing the impact of strong currents. Recalling past success, they're considering lucky charms and side-bet strategies.
"My boat's still buried in snow," Scott Ross of Anchorage, winner of the 2010 tournament, told the Homer News on Tuesday. That doesn't mean Ross won't try for a repeat of last year's triumph, however. "I usually don't decide until the last minute and haven't missed many of them."
Last year was the 16th time Ross entered the annual Homer Chamber of Commerce-sponsored one-day event. Joining him was his daughter, Sara Nichole, the two of them fishing from a boat named in her honor. Ross' catch of a 38.5-pound king salmon netted him a first-place prize of $18,165.
Charlie Edwards of Homer claimed second prize in 2010, winning $12,110 for his 34.5-pound salmon. Fishing with his friend, Pat McBride aboard the Tide Runner, Edwards said he and McBride kept their spirits high by frequently repeating they were "only one bite away from a good day." Fifteen minutes before the end of the tournament, that bite came.
"We were headed back to the Spit, making the last few drags on the other side of the bay and I hooked up," said Edwards. "It was the only bite we had all day long, but it was a good one."
Edwards isn't discouraged hearing that fish recently caught were a bit smaller than last year's winners.
"You get a few boats out there, 200 boats, and you're covering a lot more country," said Edwards, who also is eying Saturday's tides: a low of -2.4 feet at 8:58 a.m. and a high of 21.6 feet at 3:14 p.m. "It's going to make a lot more current, so I don't know if it will have them (salmon) hiding under a rock. It could be interesting."
Fishing from her boat, the Memory Maker, Brenda Hays of Homer landed a 29.4-pound king salmon in 2010 and a third-place win of $9,515. She attributes her success to Mitsy, a Lhasa Apso Hays calls her "lucky charm."
That second place win paled next to the Memory Maker's success in the tournament's optional side bets in 2010. With 10 categories possible -- categories are for bets of $25, $50, $100, $150, $200, $250, $300, $500, $750 and $1,000 with the biggest fish in each category the winner -- the Memory Maker swept the board, winning all 10 categories for a total $45,805.50. That kind of a record has given the Memory Maker a loyal fan club.
"We usually have quite a following out of the harbor," said Hays.
A change in tournament rules this year limits the number of side bets any one boat can win to five, according to Paula Frisinger, tournament coordinator. The winning boat claims 75 percent of the pot, with the remaining 25 percent going to the chamber. There also is a "skunk" side bet that's for fishermen betting they won't be skunked. Winners are any boat or boats catching fish.
Another rule change for 2011 is that each person on a boat carrying tournament entrants has to pay the individual $100 registration fee.
"You can't just go along for the ride anymore, so that eliminates the possibility of someone cheating," said Frisinger.
As coordinator, Frisinger and her crew of volunteers help ensure every fisherman has a boat to fish from.
"Boats are hard to come by right now," she said. "We had quite a waiting list, but now we're down to just a couple of people."
Two of Frisinger's behind-the-scenes people are Mike Quinn and Ann Koskovich.
"They go to trade shows and get people pumped up about this tournament, get a lot of people from the Lower 48 to donate," said Frisinger. "Their hard work and effort makes this a success."
Tournament headquarters are at the visitor center through 8 p.m. Friday. A representative from the Homer Small Boat Harbor also be available at the center Friday to help boat owners register the one free night of moorage that comes with tournament registration.
"If the boat is going to spend the night in the harbor, the owner has to fill out a moorage agreement with the harbormaster, so the officer will be able to help then or they can come to the harbormaster's office," said Harbormaster Brian Hawkins.
The harbormaster's office also will be open until 8 p.m. Friday and again on Saturday, with harbor officers available to direct boat owners to moorage locations. The standard moorage fee, which depends on boat length, will be charged for additional nights, and Hawkins said the harbor has ample transient space.
Saturday, tournament headquarters shifts to Coal Point Trading Company on the Spit, beginning at 7 a.m. The festivities begin around 6 p.m., with chowder and halibut prepared by Captain Patties available free to tournament entrants and for $5 to non-entrants. As in the past, Tim White will be announce the day's awards.
Fishing reports received by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game indicate fish being caught are weighing in the 20-pound range, said Mike Booze, fishery biologist with the department. Locations where fishing licenses can be purchased locally include Safeway, Ulmer's Drug and Hardware and Redden Marine. Booz reminded anglers to check for regulation changes (see related sidebar).
Free vessel safety checks will be offered by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary's Homer Flotilla at the harbor launch staging area from10 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday. Four auxiliarists will be available throughout those hours, but also are available by appointment (see related sidebar). Successfully passing completing the check ensures the boat carries all the law requires and earns the boat a triangle-shaped, easily seen sticker.
"Law enforcement has the authority to board your vessel, but if you have all the requirements and a sticker, a lot of time they won't," said Mike Riley, auxiliary vessel examiner.
The two most common causes for failing the check are lack of having the boat registration on board and incorrect placement of registration numbers. The two most common reasons for vessels needing to be towed back to the harbor during the winter king tournament are bad fuel and inoperable cooling systems, said Craig Forrest, the flotilla's operations officer. Forrest stressed having extra filters on board and being sure there's no water in the fuel.
During the tournament, the auxiliary will provide an on-the-water safety patrol, using the 36-foot Quannah P. The boat and its crew are easy to spot. The boat carries an identifying banner and the crew wears fluorescent orange gear. The crew also monitors radio channel 16 and the radio channel used by tournament officials.
As of Tuesday, the National Weather Service forecast mostly cloudy skies for the western Kenai Peninsula on Saturday, with temperature ranging from the 20s to highs of 35-45. Three-foot seas were forecast for Kachemak Bay, with winds from the east at 15 knots.
For more information on the Homer Chamber of Commerce Winter King Tournament, visit www.homeralaska.org. For information on regulations, licenses and permits, visit www.adfg.state.ak.us/.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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