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Roanoker Wins Alaskan Fishing Tournament:

Would be angler Rusty Pugh landed more than a job promotion recently.
Would be angler Rusty Pugh landed more than a job promotion recently.

When Roanoke local Rusty Pugh landed a promotion from his company this summer, he didn’t know that salmon fishing would be part of his new job description.

Pugh, who graduated from William Byrd and Virginia Western, recently became a national account manager for his company which designs and manufactures construction equipment. He tells his story this way:

“A couple of days into the new position I get a call from one of our senior management guys who informs me that I have to participate in a fishing tournament the company sponsors in Alaska every year.”

Pugh says that it sent him into a kind of panic.

“I’m a golfer not a fisherman. I didn’t want to go up there and look like a greenhorn in front of all our clients who are really into fishing and hunting.” So Pugh called up a local friend who is an outdoorsman and asked for a crash course in fishing technique and etiquette.

What Pugh got was both good advice and an invite to go fishing with a few friends at Carvins Cove the week before he was scheduled to make the ten hour flight to Anchorage.

“The best advice I got was to bring more clothing than I thought I would need. My friend who has been there before told me Alaska is damp and cold even in the summer, and that if I got wet I would be really miserable. Boy was he right. Some of the guys on the trip were not prepared for the rain and cold and they really suffered.”

While the warm calm waters of Carvins Cove are nothing like the cold rushing waters of Alaska’s Kenai River, his friends were able to coach him on some of the basics and give him just enough information so he wouldn’t feel completely lost when it came time to head out onto the water.

“When I got to the lodge I quickly discovered that just about every one of the 130 entrants in the tournament was pretty serious about fishing. Our company sponsors this event to build relationships with some of our most important clients. I was so glad I didn’t show up looking like a dandy who had just ordered his fishing outfit from the L L Bean catalog.”

The night before the tournament groups of unshaven men in camouflage were sitting around campfires telling stories of elk and bear they had shot in last year’s hunting season. Pugh said, “I just sat silently nodding my head, realizing that this was probably not the best time to ask them what their handicap was.”

The next day the fishermen were separated into groups and sent out onto the river with their guides. Pugh’s guide was Mindy Payne, whose father had taught her the trade growing up on the banks of the Kenai, and is one of only four licensed female guides on the river.

Each of the anglers on the boat would take turns trying to reel in one of the silver salmon that they were targeting. The creel limit is just two fish, and Pugh’s first fish was one of the smallest caught on the boat that day. Pugh describes what happened next:

“On my second go round I was holding the rod and the line started to move, I didn’t think anything of it but Mindy started yelling at me to start reeling as fast as I could. She barked out orders to her first mate and I just kept reeling, suddenly the rod started bending over and I realized that this fish wasn’t anything like the first one.”

What ensued was about a twenty minute battle with a feisty silver salmon that did its best to shake free from the greenhorn on the other end of the line. Eventually, Pugh maneuvered the fish up to the back of the boat where Mindy was able to slide the net under it.

With their limit of fish they headed back to the lodge where the weigh- in was just about over. When Pugh carried his fish up to the tournament official he knew it was a nice fish, but had no idea that it was the winning fish.

The official took hold of the microphone and announced to the crowd, “Folks it looks like we have a new leader.” Pugh’s fish weighed in at 14.24 pounds, nearly two pounds heavier than it’s nearest rival. A little later, when the last of the fish had been weighed, Pugh’s fish was still at the top of the leader board.

His prizes included a couple of camo baseball caps, a range finder (that he says he will use on the links not in the woods), and a choice of having the fish mounted or sent home frozen to eat.

Pugh decided to have it sent home and grill it on his patio that overlooks the Roanoke River.

He describes what happened around the campfire that night after he had won the tournament: “The night before I was just a guy sitting in the shadows trying not to look or sound like a beginner, but now I was the guy everyone wanted to talk to, it was as if I had been initiated into some secret society for outdoorsmen. In fact, one of our clients from the Pacific northwest who had a reputation for being aloof, came up and shook my hand. We started chatting and it turned out that it was his fish that I had beaten out for first place.”

Pugh told him he lived in Virginia and they had a long chat. Eventually, Pugh even got up the courage to ask him if he golfed.

The client told him he enjoyed golf, but that living so far north made the season very short. The next thing that Pugh knew was that he was setting dates for him to come east and play golf this winter down in Myrtle Beach.

Then Pugh asked him, “So what’s your handicap?”

– Jeff Ell

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