A sign for displaying prize fish at Reliance Harbor in Wrangell.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Wrangell’s 68th King Salmon Derby kicks off on June 16. It’s a smaller, shorter event than years past. 

Listen to the audio version of this story here.

This year’s king salmon derby in Wrangell will be a shorter run than last year, with fishing open over two weekends: this Friday through Sunday (June 16-18) and June 23-25.

Amber Armstrong-Hillberry is the volunteer board treasurer for the Wrangell Chamber of Commerce, which puts on the derby. 

“The [derby] committee decided to not go for two full weeks, based on salmon [run predictions] and some of the other communities who – other communities are just not having [derbies],” she says. “Others are reducing the amount of days that they’ve had.”

Armstrong-Hillberry says a lot of Wrangellites work during the week, so the Chamber wanted to still hold the event and keep fishing open on the weekends. Specifically this coming weekend – Father’s Day.

“We have had businesses reach out to the Chamber requesting that we still do it, just a short amount of time because they’re – this is their moneymaker too, for our local community,” Armstrong-Hillberry says. 

“Shop local!” she adds, “Always gotta give a pitch for shopping local.”

Wrangell’s Chamber of Commerce is in desperate financial straits, and that’s reflected in the prizes for this year’s king salmon derby. Top prize is just a quarter of what it was last year: $800 for the first-place fish. Second place will win $400, and third prize will win $200. There are also two, $250 hidden weight prizes and other unspecified cash prizes.

Wrangell’s prizes pale in comparison to larger derbies like Sitka’s, which awarded a $10,000 prize to its nine-year-old winner earlier this month. 

The prizes aren’t the only change – there won’t be a derby booklet with local information and sponsor ads this year, either. Armstrong-Hillberry says that’s because the Chamber is trying to make as much money as possible available for the people angling for a prize. 

“We felt like the money should be given to prizes, and not producing a derby booklet this year,” she explains. 

In addition to cutting time and prizes, the Chamber is also cutting back on weigh stations. It won’t facilitate a weigh station at City Dock like it did last year. Armstrong-Hillberry says that’s because the Chamber doesn’t have enough staff and volunteers to man both stations. 

The Chamber will maintain the derby’s traditional weigh station at Reliance Harbor from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on derby days – phone numbers will be posted at the top of the ramp for derby participants to call the derby attendant. 

Between 2017 and 2021, Wrangell didn’t hold a king salmon derby because of poor returns. In 2021, the Chamber of Commerce brought back the derby by changing its timing

Wrangell’s derby is what the Alaska Department of Fish & Game calls an “unsanctioned derby,” meaning that fish are caught under the current sport-fishing regulations, and can’t be sold. Derby participants must have a valid Alaska Sport Fishing license and king salmon stamp. 

The waters around Wrangell and the mouth of the Stikine River – known as Section 8 – are closed to king salmon retention, so derby participants have to travel further to snag a potential winning salmon.

Before Southeast’s king salmon stocks started to collapse, Wrangell’s derbies used to be timed earlier in the king run – in mid-May. And the island used to boast the “longest king salmon derby in Southeast,” running for a full month. Now, it follows the restricted fishing season established by ADF&G.

Ketchikan, which used to also run an unsanctioned king salmon derby, isn’t casting for kings this year. In 2021, Ketchikan derby organizers canceled the event over continued concerns about wild king salmon stocks. This year, it’s not clear whether Ketchikan will run any sort of salmon derby

Armstrong-Hillberry says the Chamber of Commerce will hold an awards ceremony for the King Salmon Derby some time next month. The delay is to keep focus on the community’s Fourth of July celebrations and the ongoing fundraising efforts of this year’s Wrangell Fourth of July King candidate

Tickets for Wrangell’s King Salmon Derby are $25 each and available at local stores – Sentry, Alaska Waters, Ace Hardware, and Angerman’s – as well as the Chamber of Commerce office located inside the Stikine Inn. Find more information at wrangellfishderby.com.  

6/15: This article has been updated with the correct time for derby attendant availability: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on derby days.

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