Each year, hundreds of fishermen brave the cold weather and sometimes choppy seas to compete in the Winter King Salmon Tournament in Homer. Pete Wedin has tried his hand at catching the heaviest fish for the last 16 years and he was out on the water again this year with three other anglers in search of that sweet spot.
The Early Dawn is a 34’ gillnetter and her Captain is Abe Porter. Porter, along with Mark Anderson, John Harris and Wedin were on the hunt for the biggest catch of the day. Harris and Anderson snoozed as Porter steered the boat through the water. Wedin couldn’t help but give Porter a hard time about his one engine boat’s slow pace. But with no lights on board to help guide the way, we crept through Kachemak Bay going about 4 knots as they waited for the sunrise.
This year there were 732 fishermen that came from all over including Alaska, Ohio, Arizona and California. There was even one angler from Sweden. Porter said cabin fever sets in and fishermen just need to get out. Wedin said money is the draw. The largest purse was given in 2005, when the angler with the first place fish received a little more than $21,000.
Wedin’s been fishing in the tournament since 1997 and he says when it first started 20 years ago it was a much smaller competition amongst local fishermen. Wedin said he made the top three a few years back and took home $9,000. He caught the fish in the final hour of the tournament that year.
“It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the ring-leader of the group came in. And I was feeling kind of bad about myself because we hadn’t touched a fish. There had been a few fish caught. It wasn’t a real hot year either. So then it was 40 minutes later and we caught a fish. When they got up there, I didn’t know it was a contender. It was a 25 pound, 26 pound fish. I said you might as well take it up there and weigh it,” Wedin said. “They came and tracked me down and said ‘hey we’re in third place’ and I told them that won’t last.”
It really is a tricky business getting king salmon on board during the winter, let alone the biggest one. And with all the history under Wedin’s belt, he said he goes with his standby strategy – you have to use the tide. Wedin said the hour before and after a tide is your best chance at hooking a salmon.
Finally they made it to the spot that will hopefully yield a big fish. Then it’s time to clear the ice from the deck, set up the gear and wait for the salmon to bite. Lines hit the water at 9 a.m. and after a quiet hour it was fish on. It was finally time to call it a day at 4 p.m. There were 162 total fish caught Saturday. Turns out the fish on board the Early Dawn weighed 16.5 pounds. This year’s winning salmon, which was caught by Leszek Kuligowski of Anchorage, weighed 35.1 pounds. But as Wedin kept saying all day, at least they got a fish.