The 2016 Winter King Salmon Tournament champion, Eric Holland, only told the crowd during the Saturday evening awards ceremony that he caught the winning fish “in the ocean.”
Following in the tradition of coy and secretive champion anglers, no one will know exactly where Holland pulled in the 26.45-pound king salmon that won him $31,688. In the prize line afterward, he elaborated only slightly more on the details. At the time of the catch, Holland only had some small fish to show for the day and was still trying for something larger. Around 3 p.m., he reeled in his champion out by the bluff, he said.
Holland has placed in the top 20 of the tournament multiple times in previous years, but this year was the first time he fished without his friend of 20 years, Phil Christensen, who recently passed away. Christensen placed first with a fish on Holland’s boat in 2002, and this year Holland repeated his friend’s victory.
“We had a picture of him on the boat,” Holland said. “It’s kind of sad but kind of neat that he was there with us, and we did it.”
Despite the fish’s size, Holland was not confident at the time he had the champion on his rod.
“We knew it was money, but we didn’t think it would be first place at all,” said Holland’s wife, Lynn.
Holland plans to pay off some bills with the winnings, he said.
“Sounds exciting, huh? It’s money we didn’t count on, so it’s kind of a bonus,” Holland said.
The award ceremony was full of cheering and laughter. When Homer resident Kelly Grose came up to the stand to accept his second place award, he raised his fish over his head so enthusiastically that it flew out of his hands and fell down his back. As Grose scrambled to get a hold of the slippery salmon, his son held their second place trophy high over his head.
Grose was equally guarded about the location of his fish, only revealing that he caught it “out in the water” before 11 a.m.
For his first year competing in the tournament, Grose seems to have caught some beginner’s luck. His winnings bring him within a few thousand dollars of his goal to save up for a new house for his family.
“We’re trying to find a house. The place we’re living now is in bad shape; it isn’t worth fixing anymore. We’re trying to find another place and it’s been kind of rough,” Grose said.
“I had him in the boat, it was 10:56 (a.m.) by the time I checked my phone,” Grose said. “I didn’t think it was a big money fish, but I knew it was a good one so I knew I wasn’t going to let it go.”
Holland and Grose were not the only Homer residents to haul in cash at the tournament. Overall, Homer was the most represented city of residence of the top 20 prize winners with eight anglers taking home cash or merchandise. All top four anglers in the competition hail from Homer: Holland, Grose, third-place winner Colt Belmonte and fourth-place winner Iosif Martishev Jr. After the top places, Homer also popped up as numbers eight, 14, 15 and 20. Anchor Point residents Jeff Loop, Evelyn Davis and Kyle Akee took fifth, ninth and 19th, respectively. Other winners came from Kenai, Soldotna, Kasilof, Anchorage and Wasilla.
Belmonte may have caught the third place fish, but the side bets placed on the boat Knuckle-Up made his boat the top winner of cash prizes. The boat swept five side bet categories — $100, $125, $150, $200 and $250 — with a single fish weighing 24.8 pounds, according to the Homer Chamber of Commerce list of side bet winners. The chamber sponsors the tournament.
The Knuckle-Up also had eighth place and largest white winter king winner Mike Benoit aboard. Between Benoit, Belmonte and the side bets, Knuckle-Up’s total winnings equal $52,037.
The winnings will be split between Benoit, Belmonte and Jacinto Montez, who also fished aboard the Knuckle-Up, Belmonte said. In total, each person’s winnings come out to about $17,345. Belmonte’s share will go into a project he already has underway.
“I’m building a house right now, so that money’s spent,” Belmonte said. “We’re downsizing and we have a small 1,000-square-foot house for my wife and I.”
After nine years of fishing in the tournament, Benoit is finally breaking even on costs, he said. His fish, a 19.9-pound white king salmon, was caught “in the water” at about 10 a.m. Benoit is putting his share of the winnings into his business Homer’s Best Charters, which is starting an eco-friendly salmon charter. The money will help ease the pain of starting-up, Benoit said.
“I’m giving up on doing halibut charters and starting my own gig. It’s going to be trolling for salmon on sailboats — quiet, peaceful, it will be a lot of fun,” Benoit said. “I’m going to hopefully have it up and running by the shorebird festival and then obviously full-time thereafter. I hope.”
As for Montez, he plans on using his winnings on a winter getaway with his wife to visit family in Texas and Florida.
“That’s going to be good enough, I think, to have a little vacation sometime in the winter,” Montez said.
Although the tournament day started with sunshine, it ended with snowflakes drifting down on the crowd as the last few awards were announced. The wind that the anglers reported feeling out on the water paid a visit to the shore, cooling down the temperature, but not dampening the excitement of the winners and those supporting them. Overall, the day’s conditions were reported to be similar to last year’s calm waters, allowing anglers to stay out on the water through the afternoon.
Overall, the tournament awarded more than $162,860 in cash prizes and bets, plus merchandise, for more than 400 pounds of prize-worthy fish, according to data provided by the chamber of Commerce.
With 1491 anglers on 448 boats, the tournament topped last year’s participation numbers and broke the records for most boats and anglers. This year’s first place prize also exceeded last year’s amount, awarding $3,549 more to this year’s champion. Despite the number of participants, anglers caught 448 fish: 142 less than in 2015.
This year’s top fish were also smaller than in 2015, where the first place king salmon weighed in at 30.4 pounds and the second place fish was 28.6 pounds. The warmer weather that is partially responsible for bringing more anglers down to Homer is a factor in this change, Belmonte said.
“In year’s past, the fish have been bigger,” Belmonte said. “I think the warmer water’s pushing these fish up and it’s a lot of younger juvenile fish that would normally be somewhere else.”