The chinook salmon are back at Salmon Fest this year and organizer Dan Washington couldn’t be happier.
“It’s a bigger fish and it’s a more exciting fish to catch than the coho,” he said. “It’s more of a draw when the chinook salmon are available to be fished.”
Last year, low returns at the hatcheries meant that the Salmon Fest, held at Clutesi Haven Marina, had a coho-only derby, something which dampened enthusiasm for the usually highly anticipated event.
“Our numbers reflected that: less people came and entered the derby, less people showed up and participated in the festivities on the grounds.
“It was not quite the money maker that it usually is when the chinook salmon are involved.”
While the Salmon Fest is a fun event for the community, it also has another purpose; to raise money for local charities and non-profits.
“There’s no real commercial venues [at Salmon Fest], it’s Kiwanis, Rotary, the Lions Club, sororities are down there selling their ice cream, Rescue Squad sells raffle tickets,” Washington said. “Rotary does their $10,000 draw and that’s one of their main fundraisers for the year so they count on the crowds to buy the tickets. Same with the Kiwanis’ barbecue. It’s a win-win situation.”
Washington is hoping for the festival to raise $10,000 so that when local non-profits need the funding it’s available for them.
The Salmon Fest has seen a decline in numbers since its glory days in the 1980s and recent years have left organizers wondering how to keep the festival going.
“They were pondering commercial [vendors] only becasue they weren’t raising the money and they wanted the festival to continue.”
But Washington is hoping that with the chinook back again this year, the city will come out to the derby and help the festival raise the money it needs.
“Hopefully 43 is going to be a good year for us.”
It certainly looks like it’s shaping up to be a good one, with preparations having begun on Monday night and the event slated to start on Friday night with bang, courtesy of the Quality Foods fireworks as soon as it gets dark.
But the festivities aren’t the main draw.
“You could walk away with $15,000 just for going fishing,” Washington said.
All it’ll cost derby hopefuls is a $40 per rod entrance fee, most of which will go towards the prize money, flagging at the intersection of Highway 4 and Beaver Creek Road (across from Clutesi Haven Marina), security and general set-up of the festival, where new regulations over the years have meant ever increasing costs.
“We used to do [the flagging] with volunteers but the volunteers aren’t quite as tough as the professionals, especially on Sunday during the Bullhead Derby with the kids where they’re very aware of making sure traffic stops so that the little guys can run across the street.”
The Bullhead Derby is an attempt to continue to draw in younger crowds even as the old faithfuls bow out of the derby.
“[The kids] bring in the bullheads, which are an ugly little bottomfeeder fish, and then they win prizes. It’s just something for the little squirts to do.”
Along with local residents, the festival draws people from as far away from England and Scotland.
“It’s interesting at the end to sit down and do the demographics and see where people actually come from.”
Washington also likes to see all of the return visitors that the festival gets.
“That makes us feel proud that we’re worthy of coming back and trying out,” he said. “We get a lot of local repeats and a lot of familiar faces.”
While last year the coho-only derby drew approximately 1,000 entries, this year the organizers are hoping for 2,000 entries, enough to offset the increased prize money.
Unfortunately, even if the derby gets the 2,000 entries they’re hoping for, it won’t be quite like the crowds of yesteryear.
“When I started in the early 1980s we could have up to 4,000 people enter the derby,” said Washington. “I think our record was 4,340.”
Washington is happy to see the derby continue on for new generations but that doesn’t stop him from reminiscing about the good old days.
“Back in those days this all opened early and stayed late. The beer gardens went through probably 100 kegs of beer, whereas now we only go through 40.”
While tighter security might’ve slowed down the beer consumption, smaller prizes have also contributed to the declining entries. Starting at the 20th annual festival, the prizes matched the year up until someone ruined the fun.
“The 24th [derby], they weren’t really sure whether [the winning fish] had been held captive. Back in those days people would catch a fish in Bamfield and charter a plane and come here and go ‘I’ve got a 42-pounder and I’m going to go win $20,000.’ So we pared back on the prizes and made it a daily derby.”
The more entries that the derby gets, the more likely it is that someone will beat the derby record.
“Back in 1982, the winner was 60 lbs 8 oz but our fish here are between 30-40 lbs.”
But while he wouldn’t say no to a record breaker, Washington has his sights set on something a little more appropriate for the occasion.
“It’d be nice to get a 43-pounder for the 43rd annual festival. 43 for 43 would be a good one, I’d be happy with that.”
(In 2009, Cory Jones won the derby with a 43.4-pounder, so it’s possible.)
There’ll also be lots of entertainment to keep the non-fishing crowds happy. The Kiwanis beer gardens will be back in action and the karaoke contestants will perform at 3 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.
“It’s just a good event for the community, it’s the last kick before the kids go back to school… and even if you don’t have any money you can come down here and mingle and look at the dead fish and see what’s going on.”
The Kiwanis are also responsible for the biggest draw; the famous salmon barbecue. This year they hope to serve 4,000 pounds of salmon.
But why is it so special? Well, it’s a secret but Washington is willing to spill the beans just this once.
“It’s barbecued over alder and the alder is still a tree right now so it’s very green when it comes in. The green alder when it smokes, enhances the flavour of the fish.”