John Kennedy and his wife, Jeri, were munching on silver salmon bellies at his home in New Palestine, Ind., as he reminisced about winning the 2014 Seward Silver Salmon Derby with a fish that weighed in at 17.67 pounds.
“We love salmon bellies,” he said with a chuckle. “These could be from the winning fish. I’m not saying they are, and I’m not saying they aren’t.”
Kennedy, 78, has spent several summers in Seward since he retired from International Harvester where he enjoyed a 46-year career working in and around the foundry.
He and Jeri first ventured north in their motorhome during the summer of 1999, visiting Denali, Fairbanks and other Interior locales, but when they discovered Seward they decided they’d found their destination of choice. They returned in 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006 and again in 2014, spending the entire summer in Seward as caretakers at one of the area schools.
“Fishing is what brings us back to Seward,” he said. “And we’ve got friends there.”
It was one of those friends, D. J. Harvey, who Kennedy credits with getting him on the charter that put him on the derby-winning fish.
Kennedy said bad weather had created a backlog with the charter fleet and he had been having difficulty getting a reservation when Harvey called to say he’d found a boat.
“DJ called at about 10 p.m., and said ‘we got a charter in the morning,’ that’s the advanced warning we had.”
When Kennedy arrived at the Seward Small boat harbor, D.J. and four others were eager to head out. Because of the last-minute arrangements, none had purchased a derby ticket. When Jeri Kennedy discovered none of the fishermen had tickets, she insisted they all participate in the derby.
“She’s the one who said, ‘don’t go without tickets,’ she even said she’d go get them for us.”
Kennedy reached into his wallet and discovered he had no cash so he borrowed some from D.J.
The weather was not promising when they set out aboard the vessel Got Fish!, captained by Quinn Bradshaw.
“It was a windy, wet day but we’d done that before,” Kennedy said. “When the fish are biting you just go out and fish.”
Despite the weather, Bradshaw found the silvers.
“We anchored right out there by Pony Cove, that’s where everybody was catching them,” Kennedy said. “The entire boat limited out with six fish each.”
The fishing was fast and furious and with three rods working on each side of the boat, it was hard enough to keep the lines from tangling. When he hooked the derby winner, it launched itself out of the water about 30 or 40 feet from the boat, but he had no idea it was a contender for the $10,000 prize.
He does recall that it was Harvey who netted the fish for him.
Back in Seward, Bradshaw told Kennedy, “You need to take that thing over and have it weighed; it just might win this thing.”
Indeed Kennedy’s 16.67-pound silver took the top position, outweighing the nearest competitor by 4 ounces. It is around the average size of Derby-winning fish these days, although a 15.01-pounder nabbed the win back in 1958, during the Derby’s beginning years. It’s also small in comparison to the current derby-record-winning silver, a whopping 22.24-pound behemoth landed by Cooper Landing’s Shirley Basinger in 2002.
Still, it’s a win, and Kennedy sweated out the days until the derby ended.
“That was on a Tuesday, and we watched the board every day to see what was coming in,” he said. “It wasn’t until Sunday that we learned we’d won.”
Though Kennedy had hooked and landed the winning fish with Harvey’s help, he shared the prize money with everyone on the boat, splitting it six ways.
“I had to call my tax lady and ask her how much it’s gonna cost me,” he said. “She said $1,300 so we took that out, and we tipped the captain $100 each.”
Kennedy doesn’t know how the others spent their winnings, but his went toward gas. He said the round-trip pilgrimage to Alaska in his motorhome consumes 1,300 to 1,400 gallons of fuel.
Winning the Seward Silver Salmon Derby was a great way to wrap up the trip because it may be his last full summer in Seward.
Though they love to travel by motorhome, John and Jeri Kennedy won’t be making the long drive to Alaska again. At age 78 and 79, respectively, they are opting to stay close to home this year.
“We even platted a garden this year,” he quipped. And they’re looking forward to the arrival of their first great-great grandchild.
Still Kennedy won’t rule out another trip to Seward, though he and Jeri will likely fly if they return.
“Fishing brought us back and the local church there, we made quite a few friends there, I’d like to return.”