Through cold temps, Bellingham man wins 2020 derby

It was a tough situation for the annual Olympic Peninsula Salmon Derby, but numbers were up for this year’s event.

The weather definitely did not cooperate for the derby, with freezing temperatures and high winds, especially on Saturday, which all but brought fishing to a halt.

But the number of people buying tickets was up this year, to 820.

“It was a very successful derby considering everything going on,” said Gardiner Salmon Derby Association President Kathy Watrous.

The total number of fish caught was way down, however, to 144, largely because of a very slow day in terrible conditions Saturday.

Only 28 fish were caught on Saturday as part of the derby. A total of 86 fish were caught Friday as the derby got off to a very fast start comparable to past years.

A total of 30 fish were caught Sunday, but many of the biggest fish of the derby were hauled in that day.

“The second week in March is now Olympic Peninsula Salmon Derby’s regular time slot, although the weather and marine conditions were challenging, including snow and choppy water,” Watrous said.

“No. 1, we were just happy to have it. No. 2, we did have a good response,” Watrous said.

There were actually snow flurries going on Saturday out at Freshwater Bay west of Port Angeles. Watrous said the water was so choppy, that landing was closed on Saturday.

The winning fish was caught by Brandon Leeper of Everson. He owns Leeper’s Marine in Bellingham. Much like the past few derbies, the winning fish was caught early during the event on Friday morning.

Leeper caught his winning 15.7-pound blackmouth at about 10 a.m. after launching out of Sequim with his uncle Dave Henderson of Sequim.

Leeper said he participated in the derby last year, but didn’t have any good catches.

This year? “Pure luck,” he said.

He said he knew as soon as he landed his catch, he was in good shape.

“When we very first saw how big it was, we thought this could put us in the money,” Leeper said.

Leeper’s big catch held up well all day Friday and through those rough conditions Saturday. However, on Sunday morning, some anglers started bringing in some pretty big fish. Jason Holbrook of La Conner brought in a 13.60-pound fish at 11:40 a.m. Sunday, good for second place. Douglas Holleman of Seabeck brought in a 13.50-pound fish at 10:34 a.m. Sunday, good for third place.

But Leeper’s Friday morning catch held up.

“I was nervous,” Leeper said. He said Holbrook is a good friend of his and the two of them were actually fishing adjacent to each other on Sunday when Holbrook brought his second-place catch in.

“We were in a pretty good spot,” he said,.

Leeper said he will be sharing his $10,000 first-place prize with his crew and will spend some on new fishing gear and dinner for himself and his wife.

Leeper’s winning fish had a microchip installed and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife took part of the head to see what river the fish was from.

The best local angler was Edward Cooper of Sequim, who brought a 12.15 fish into Gardiner on Sunday.

Mackenzie Cammack of Port Angeles had the best catch for a female angler, a 11.45-pounder caught Sunday.

The number of anglers buying tickets jumped from 762 in 2019 to 820 this year, which is also higher than 2017’s 735.

While the number of fish caught was down, the size was bigger this year. The 144 fish had an average weight of 8.23 pounds, the heaviest in several years.

In 2019, 237 fish were caught with an average of 7.95 pounds each. In 2018, 233 fish were caught with the average fish 8.15 pounds. And in 2017, 208 fish were caught with an average with of 8.0 pounds.

The prize ladder totaled $21,550 pounds. The four $500 mystery fish winners were Brian Whitehouse, Olympia; Nick Hoffman, Seattle; Norm Smith, Kent and Joey Pyburn, Granite Falls.

Proceeds from the event go to community support, emergency services and scholarships. A large portion of last year’s proceeds were used to fund a new lighted heliport pad at the Diamond Point Airport and to provide scholarships for two students at the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building in Port Hadlock.

The derby, which began in 1973, is part of the Northwest Marine Trade Association’s Northwest Fishing Derby Series.