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New king salmon derby lures anglers to Nushagak River

Airman 1st Class Christopher Gross
U.S. Air Force

Record-low Chinook returns mean Juneau, Petersburg and Wrangell all canceled their king salmon derbies this spring. However, Bristol Bay doesn’t have that problem. Here's some good news for sport fishermen near Dillingham.

The Neqa Derby hits the water as the Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation's new signature fundraiser on June 24 and 25 on the Nushagak River.

It won’t be the first time fishermen have prowled this river looking for prize-winning salmon, recalled Chris Carr, owner of the Portage Creek General Store and lodge.

"(The derby) was a small thing. It was in the '90s somewhere I believe if I remember right. It was a while back. We would do the weighing and then I can’t remember if it was a daily winner or whatnot – I think it was – and the guy with the biggest fish I guess would usually get a silver coin," Carr said.

This new derby will be bigger than the ones Dillingham’s Chamber of Commerce put on decades ago, said Angela Peacock, program manager for the Bristol Bay Native Corporation's Educational Foundation. However, they’re still capping participation at 150 fishermen.

"There could be hundreds of people up on that river at a time, and we thought let's be respectful and keep it at a smaller amount," Peacock said. "We know that proper management of the fishery is required, and we want to comply just as any other sport fish or commercial or subsistence users do."

Proceeds from the derby will support higher education and vocational scholarships for BBNC shareholders and fund cultural heritage grants in Bristol Bay communities.

"We definitely wanted to incorporate cultural aspects into this derby because that's just who we are as a native organization," Peacock said. "We're really going to focus on the Nushagak, which is Iilgayaq in Yup’ik. Part of that name is meaning to hide. Back in the day there was some wars that were happening between the Aleutic, people from the Bethel area, people from Nushagak, and that river was a place for people to hide."

That desire to include cultural aspects colors every facet of the derby, from its name – Neqa, which means fish in Yup’ik – to the map they’ll share with fishermen explaining native place names all along the derby boundaries from Black Point to the mouth of the Kokwok River.

Neqa Derby boundary map
Credit Bristol Bay Native Corporation Educational Foundation

It also means they’ll be accepting a rather unusual type of donation from derby participants.

"Everybody can come up and write a check and hand it to the foundation, but we're also soliciting for people's king heads. As native people, it's a delicacy to us. If anglers don't want to keep their king heads or their collars or their bellies we'd love them to donate that so we can donate that to our elders," Peacock said.

If competitors do want to keep their fish heads, Peacock says they’ll be happy to share native recipes for them to try.

The angler who catches the weightiest Chinook will take home $3,000 and a custom King salmon pendant carved from ivory by Naknek artist Everett Thompson. He also carved a whalebone trophy featuring a king salmon leaping out of the water as a prize for the winning fisherman’s lodge.

Second and third place earn $1,500 and $500, respectively.

Two-day derby tickets cost $100. Call 907-278-3602 or email bbncef@bbnc.net to register. For more information, visit the derby’s website here and check out the derby's rules here.

Contact the author at austin@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.