Puget Sound salmon derbies came on the scene in the early 1930s and, of course, continue today. But the culmination of the really big-time events came in 1981, ’82 and ’83 with the “Million Dollar” derbies sponsored during Seattle Seafair by Schucks Auto Supply and covered by national television.
In 1981 and ’82, a single tagged coho, worth a cool million if caught on derby day, was released somewhere in Puget Sound prior to the event. The first coho was caught two weeks after the derby, near Tacoma, and the fisherman was awarded a $10,000 consolation prize. The second tagged fish, 1982, evaded derby-day anglers as well, but was caught later, off Whidbey Island. That fisherman made a serious mistake, however. He kept the yellow-plastic-tagged coho’s body, but cut off and discarded the head — which contained a coded wire insert put there to insure the plastic tag wasn’t a phony.
That guy got zip for his million-dollar fish.
The final big event, 1983, featured five tagged coho released, two of which were boated on derby day, and TV cameras rolling as two very happy fishermen were awarded $25,000 per year for 20 years.
There are a lot more great derby stories out there.
All this and a lot more solid gold salmon fishing stuff can be found in the new book “A History of Puget Sound Salmon Sportfishing,” by Whidbey Island resident Russ Christianson. I don’t tout many books, but I can recommend this one highly enough. Self-published, the text is not particularly polished, but the photos are great (you’ve gotta see that limit of huge kings on the back cover) and the research impeccable.
The 1934 Ben Paris derby, for instance, where the top five fish were all caught on bass plugs — Heddon and other makes.
Or one of the earliest events, the 1931 Ben Paris/Seattle Star derby, which was won by a chinook of 37 pounds, 12 ounces, caught off Mission Bar in the Everett area on an F.S.T. Spoon. The week prior to that one, a 67-pounder was taken in the Snohomish River which would have won the derby and which would have probably held up as a state freshwater chinook record. And yes, there was a Seattle Star daily newspaper, which ceased publication in 1947.
Later, the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer sponsored their own derbies. The Times series (1940 to 1955) was won in 1940 by a king of 39 pounds, 2 ounces.
During the golden years of the Puget Sound salmon derby era, roughly 1936 through ’46, the Elliot Bay events featured automobiles as the top five prizes and the awards ceremonies were covered by NBC national radio. Catch a 40-pound chinook and win a new Chrysler; catch a 35-pounder and settle for a Ford pickup. Yeah, man!
The largest derbies at the time, judged by the number of participants, were sponsored by the Everett Yacht Club from 1937 to ’46, hyped as “The World’s Largest Fishing Derby,” and called the Everett Tyee Roundup. Legal fishing area was the Mission Bar/Hat Island area, and the largest winner was a 42-pound, 9-ouncer caught in 1938.
But possibly the numero uno winning chinook over the years was the 42-pound, 6-ounce fish caught during the Everett Eagles Derby in 1952. That angler won $2,000.
The book is $32.50 plus $3.50 shipping from the author. E-mail for payment and shipping options to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write Russell Christianson, P.O. Box 791, Freeland WA 98249.A sprinkling of fascinating factoids from Christianson’s book:
REELS: Ocean City ( in Philadelphia) made a special reel named the “Seattle” for use by fishermen on Elliot Bay. It held 250 yards of 27-pound test linen line, had a 2 to 1 gear ratio, and cost $12 in the late 1940s.
RODS: The price of early (1970s) graphite rods was out of reach for most fishermen at $250. This led some sporting goods stores, such as REI in Seattle, to offer graphite rod rentals.
OUTBOARD MOTORS: Ever seen one of those ugly green Elgin outboards, sold by Sears, Roebuck and Company? Or a Champion, Chris Craft, Scott-Atwater, Firestone, Hiawatha, Neptune, Sea King (Montgomery Ward) or Wizard (Western Auto) ? All reasonably common salmon fishing outboard motors on Puget Sound over the last 75 years.
FISHING SCENT: Smelly Jelly and all the rest a modern innovation? There’s reference to an 1857 diary from Washington Territory describing Indian fishermen rubbing hooks with the root of wild celery to attract salmon.
LURES: Spoons were the earliest sportfishing lures, adopted from commercial fishermen in the very early 1900s, and arguably the best over the years has been the Canadian Wonder, originally from Canada but produced in Tacoma for many years by the Les Davis Tackle Company.
Wood plugs came into use in the 1930s and the most recognizable name, Lucky Louie, was patented in 1941 by William Minser of Seattle. Bait wasn’t widely used until the 1940s, and lead jigs until the 1970s.
BOATHOUSES: There were at least 102 boathouses and/or fishing resorts on Puget Sound in 1938, with rental boats going for $1 per day and cabins $1 to $2 per night. About the only ones left are Point No Point Resort in Hansville, run by the State of Washington; Seacrest Boat House, run by the City of Seattle, and Point Defiance Boat House, run by the City of Tacoma. McConnell’s Boat House in Mukilteo held out until 1999, and the wooden portion of the old Haines Wharf at Meadowdale finally collapsed last year.