Brewster Salmon Derby Adventures By Hannah Pennebaker

In all my years of fishing, I have heard many legends and stories about fishing at the infamous Brewster Pool. Articles on the Internet caution readers about hostile fishermen and hundreds of inexperienced boaters creating chaos. My own experience couldn’t have been further from these stories. This year, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to film and participate in the derby on behalf of Northwest Fishing. From the moment I got to Brewster, I was blown away by the friendly locals and energetic atmosphere of the derby. Other fishermen were giving each other high fives and complementing one another on their catches. This was far from the stories of combat fishing and fishermen yelling at one another that I had heard. Although there were hundreds of other boats out there, everyone was very patient and gave one another plenty of space. Guides and recreational fishermen alike were joking with one another and having a great time doing the sport we all love. I saw hundreds of beautiful fish caught and weighed in over the 3 days of the derby, and even got to reel in some of my own. Here’s the story of my experience at this year’s Brewster Salmon Derby.

On day 1, Mike Mauk, the president of the Brewster Chamber of Commerce, greeted me with a warm handshake and a big smile. Mike organized this year’s derby, bringing together dozens of sponsors and coordinating prizes and staffing for the event. He gladly took some time from his busy schedule to chat, and I interviewed him about the history of the derby and the town of Brewster. He told me that the proceeds from ticket sales go towards helping the community of Brewster and enabling them to run the derby year after year. The Brewster Salmon Derby is the largest derby on the Columbia River, and up to $20,000 in cash and prizes are given out every year. Next, I interviewed the derby weigh master, Ernie Mauk. Ernie brought incredible energy to the weigh station, high fiving each kid that brought a fish to him. He showed me how he weighs each fish, taking the girth and length measurements and calling them out to be recorded and put on the board. He said that even though he weighs hundreds of fish every year, he still admires the beauty of each and every fish he weighs. WDFW also had a presence at the weigh station, scanning the fish for tags. When they found a tagged fish, they cut the nose of the fish off to remove the tag (after making sure the fisherman had gotten all the pictures they wanted). They let me know that the information they get from the tag helps WDFW determine the health and abundance of salmon populations. Not only does the derby help the small community of Brewster, it also aids WDFW’s research and provides valuable insights into this amazing fishery.

While getting to see the ins and outs of the weigh station was certainly a fascinating experience, fishing is truly my passion, and my experience participating in the derby was absolutely unforgettable. Brianna Bruce of Livin’ Life Adventures was our guide during our 3-day adventure. My friend Michael Francisco, my fiancé Chris Decker, and Northwest Fishing regulars Andrew and Joe Czapla were on board. Brianna (Bree) kept us entertained with dozens of fishing stories from her 11 years of guiding. She told us all about the fishery and what makes it so productive and popular. Every year, thousands of sockeye and chinook salmon stage in Lake Pateros, also known as the Brewster Pool, between the dam and the mouth of the Okanogan River. The mouth of the Okanogan River heats up and creates a thermal barrier, and the fish wait in the pool for it to cool down so they can enter and reach their spawning grounds. This year, Bree said there were over 100,000 sockeye in the pool! Good numbers of chinook are caught every year, some reaching over 30 pounds. Some fishermen got their limits of sockeye and headed back to town for breakfast before the heat of the day began. Others stayed out until 6PM, braving the heat for a chance at a derby winning chinook. There was a 4 fish limit for sockeye, and a 2 fish limit for chinook. The bite seemed best in the early hours of the morning, but there were fish caught all day. Bree’s dog, Waylon, was our bite alarm throughout the weekend. Every other fisherman in the pool knew when we hooked onto a fish! Bree alternated between steering around other boats, netting fish, baiting hooks, and swapping fishing stories, making it all look easy. Her natural talent, great humor, and mastery of the fishery made for an unforgettable experience. On day 2, one of our cameramen had a big, feisty sockeye on the end of his line. As he brought it up to the boat, he lifted the fish out of the water and the hooks popped out. Our hearts sank, but Bree effortlessly scooped the fish into the net and saved the day! 

We started off fishing for chinook the first day, armed with spinners and chrome flashers. Bree is an expert in this fishery, and told us that sockeye often hit chinook gear, and vice versa. The second day, we fished sockeye gear, and were rewarded with many nice fish. For her sockeye gear, Bree ran homemade pink spinners and smaller flashers. On the third day of the derby, we fished a combination of sockeye and chinook gear. She ran 2 spinners, 2 sockeye setups, and 2 tuna stuffed Brad’s Super Baits. It was tough to find the right speed to get the different gear to fish right, but like a true pro, Bree made it work. We trolled slowly, between .8 and 1.2 MPH, and kept an eye on the depth. To avoid tangling our 6 lines, Bree used a variety of different cannonball weights, which also allowed us to fish throughout the water column.

No matter how tired and hot we were after fishing all day, we always looked forward to lunch at one of Brewster’s amazing, locally owned restaurants. Mike Mauk and the Brewster Chamber of Commerce treated us to lunch and dinner each day. The sizzling, fragrant fajitas at Campreros were absolutely delicious! Later in the afternoons, we usually got some time to explore the area each day. I was surprised by just how much the town of Brewster has to offer. There are numerous family-owned stores that offer cool refreshments and homemade snacks. If you’re fishing the Brewster Pool, it’s definitely worth it to take the time to sample some of the local cuisine and explore the town. 

On day 3 of our adventure, we got to see the winners of the derby take home their prizes and win their bragging rights. The winning fish, the “king of the pool”, was a tank of a chinook weighing in at 29 pounds and 10 ounces that got the winning angler a nice check for $2,000. The top 10 winners got a beautiful wooden plaque to commemorate their win. One of the most memorable parts of the weekend was when a young girl weighed in a 26-pound chinook. She ended up winning the youth category of the derby! Besides the competition for the top 25 biggest chinook, there were also side pots and a raffle to take part in. There were many raffle prizes, such as free fishing trips for 4 people, a bow, and a downrigger. The grand prize for the raffle was a 9.9 HP Mercury outboard motor. Weigh master Ernie announced the winners, and photographer Cori Kogan snapped photos of them holding their prize next to Mike Mauk.  

All 3 days of my experience at the Brewster Salmon Derby culminated into an unforgettable adventure. From Mike Mauk’s warm welcome to Bree’s terrific netting skills and incredible sense of humor, I’ll always tell stories about the derby with a smile. I know I’ll be back next year for another shot at winning the derby! 

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