Why September’s Kenai’s Silver Salmon Derby is “The World’s Most Responsible Fishing Tournament”

The following appears in the August issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

The community of Kenai takes pride in its unique conservation-first fishing contest, which organizers of the Kenai Silver Salmon Derby tout as “The World’s Most Responsible Fishing Tournament.” (KENAI SILVER SALMON DERBY)


Salmon and halibut fishing derbies make for some of Alaska’s most popular – not to mention profitable – activities throughout the year, particularly in summer.

The community of Kenai, located at the mouth of the iconic Last Frontier river of the same name, also takes pride in its now annual event, the Kenai Silver Salmon Derby. Now in its fifth edition, the 2022 event is set for Sept. 13-18.

“I was incredibly excited last year to see it grow to the point that it did, and I’m going to be really excited to see this derby continue to grow,” says Paul Ostrander, Kenai city manager and one of the founders of the tournament. “There’s not as much notoriety around this Kenai Silver Salmon Derby as (derbies in) Valdez or Seward, or even the Homer Winter King Derby, but this derby is something that I think once people are aware of it and recognize, one, the significant cash that they could (win), but also just the fact that it’s a really unique derby that does things in a different way.”


Sure enough, as Ostrander and a colleague at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce – Brendyn Shiflea – brainstormed half a decade ago to start a fishing contest in the Kenai River, they had something a little different in mind.

It’s not necessarily the heaviest fish that will win the daily and overall prizes at this derby. Spins of two custom-made wheels will determine a “magic weight” and the lucky angler whose coho is closest to that mark, wins. (KENAI SILVER SALMON DERBY)

“As we began working on it we realized that to make it best for the resource and the fish, we’d have to modify it from your normal big-fish derby to one that would have less of an impact on fish,” Ostrander says.

“So we worked with our local (Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff) and we proposed that we use this ‘magic weight’ to determine the winner. And what that does is it encourages folks to not catch and release as many silvers to win.”

ADFG officials and the tournament organizers agreed that the mortality rate for Kenai River coho salmon re- cently arriving from saltwater would be high if anglers participating in a more traditional derby were releasing more smaller fish in the hopes of scoring the biggest salmon.

“So we wanted to make sure that folks weren’t going to be practicing catch and release trying to get that big fish,” Ostrander says.


“Last year was our biggest year ever and we’d like to see it continue to grow into the future,” says Ostrander of the Kenai Silver Salmon Derby. (KENAI SILVER SALMON DERBY)

So how does the magic weight fit into the tournament’s format? The concept started in a garage, where Ostrander and his father built two wheels that would be spun at the end of each fishing day to determine that session’s winner.

Each coho brought in by derby participants – tickets cost $10 a day, $50 for the entire length of the six-day event – must weigh at least 4 pounds, but the daily winner plus overall adult and youth winners won’t be based on the heaviest fish brought to the weigh-in station.

Rather, the first wheel – marked between 4 and 14 – gets a spin, and whatever number it lands on marks the magic weight in pounds. Wheel No. 2, labeled 0 to 9, then gets two spins to determine tenth and hundredth of pounds.

“If you spin a 7, a 0 and an 8, it’s 7.08 pounds. That’s the magic weight. And whoever’s closer – above or below – wins the daily prize,” Ostrander says.

“And then, at the end of the derby following (the last day) over at the chamber, we spin one more time. Every fish that was entered in the derby qualifies for the final spin, regardless if you won a daily prize or not. We spin the magic wheels one more time for the adult winner and the youth winner.”

The daily prizes last year included $100 for daily winners and $5,000 for the final spin for adults, and $50 a day and $1,000 overall for youth anglers.

“So in total, we paid out almost $7,000 in cash prizes,” Ostrander says.

All in the name of conservation and bolstering derby organizers’ tout that they run the “World’s Most Responsible Fishing Tournament.”



The proceeds from the tickets sold in all the tournaments – Ostrander said last year’s event sold an all-time high 194, and has been steadily increasing during most of its short run – plus additional sponsorship donations will eventually be used for a Kenai River restoration project that is being mulled.

“The whole concept behind it is not only conservation of the resource being the fish, but also protecting and conserving the river. We’ve been accumulating the revenues from the derby over the previous five years, and we have the anticipation of trying to conduct a significant project that would benefit the river. And this year we started looking at possible projects,” Ostrander says.

“We haven’t pulled the trigger on any of them yet, but we want to make sure the project is highly visible to the public and makes a meaningful, positive impact to the river. So we’re being selective.”

One possible idea Ostrander and his colleagues have discussed focuses on restoration work on several small Kenai River tributaries located in and around the community. The plan would partner the derby and Kenai Chamber of Commerce with the Kenai Watershed Forum and other agencies.

Ostrander says it’s surprising how important “these small little trickles are, particularly to coho stocks.”

“They’re not for spawning, but for the rearing of the smolts that are just all over in these little streams,” he says. “So protecting those and increasing the quality of the habitat along those streams is all really critically important to preserving coho stocks.”


Sponsorship from local Kenai businesses has been crucial for growing this conservation-first fishing contest in its short history. Ostrander talked about the companies that lended their financial support to the 2021 Kenai Silver Salmon Derby.

“We had Marathon Oil, Tote Maritime, Kenai Coolers, First National Bank of Alaska, IGA Country Foods (grocery store), Buckets (sports bar and grill), the Cannery Lodge (hotel), Little Alaskan (children’s clothing store), East Rip (Kenai marijuana dispensary), and Northrim Bank,” Ostrander says. “Our total sponsorship was over $13,000.”

And it’s that upward trend for this unique derby, which is still in its infancy, that has the Kenai community so enthusiastic about the future.

“It’s something that has seen slow and steady growth, but it’s been something that I certainly have been pushing and the chamber’s been engaged. Last year was our biggest year ever and we’d like to see it continue to grow into the future,” Ostrander says.

“It’s been really encouraging to see, and the number of sponsors over the years I think tells you that people are interested in it. And, of course, with the sponsors’ participation, the prizes increase.” ASJ

Editor’s note: For ticket and event information, go to kenaisilversalmonderby.com.