As water temperatures rise in the Santa Monica Bay, local fishermen are gearing up for another summer of hardcore fishing and this year many of them will be kicking off the season by throwing their first casts in the 33rd Annual Marina del Rey Halibut Derby Saturday and Sunday, April 21st and 22nd.

With over 800 anglers competing (this year) for over $65,000 in cash/prizes, the Marina derby is the largest of its kind on the West Coast, offering the most cash and more prizes than any other regional contest.

Marina del Rey Toyota is providing an opportunity for an angler to drive away with a new Toyota Tundra truck for the largest halibut over 50 pounds, and other top prizes include fishing vacations donated by Van Wormerís Hotel Punta Colorada, The Inn at Mazatl·n, El Cid, Las Flores Resort and Las Rocas Resort & Spa.

But for many entrants of the derby and the local fishermen who scour the Santa Monica Bay on a regular basis, the contest is more than winning a prize or even hooking the largest catch of the day. The Derby is an excuse to be together with friends and family and it is also a means by which to contribute to both the fishing community and the community at large.

A large part of the eventís proceeds will fund fishing hatcheries and weekly outings for at-risk youths. It also calls attention to environmental issues and for some of the older anglers it brings back timeless memories.

Marina del Rey Angler Paul Simon recollects a classic Halibut Derby tale:

ìIn 1998 or 1999, I donít remember exactly which year, we were just getting the weigh-in station for the Halibut Derby with all the tables and chairs and the scales set up at about 2 p.m. on Saturday. The weigh-in would start at 3 p.m. A small boat, maybe about 15 or 16 feet, pulled up at the transient dock. A scuzzy-looking guy jumped onto the dock. He yelled, ëCan someone help me with this fish?í Two or three people ran over to help him hoist a very big ó I repeat ëvery bigí ó halibut onto the dock.

ìThey maneuvered the fish over to the scale and attempted to fasten the hook in the mouth or gill slit, wherever they could get it to hold on to a monster fish. With the hook as close up to the scale as it would go, the tail, in fact the whole lower part of the body, dragged on the dock.

ìThere was just no way to get the weight of such a gargantuan halibut with this scale.

ìSomeone remarked that we could take it over to the bait dock, where they had a scale mounted higher, so we could get a good weight for the Derby. The fisherman who had brought in the fish said, with a tone of wonderment, ëWhat? What Derby? I just wanted to weigh my fish!í

ìWhen it was explained to him that he would have been a contender, and possibly the winner, if he had signed up for the derby, he disgustedly got in his boat, pulled away, and we did not see him again.î

From a more serious perspective, the Marina del Rey Halibut Derby can spark controversy and bring to light the issues of over-fishing and the speculation of diminishing fish counts within the bay. Longtime Marina del Rey Angler Larry Brown weighs in:

ìAs anglers, we are always very concerned about sustainable fisheries and occasionally we hear a criticism of overfishing, either commercially and/or recreational fishing. We have also been concerned about the lower halibut counts more recently and sought out the experts from Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute and DFG [California Department of Fish and Game].

ìIt concludes, the California halibut is in good shape and that population concentrations relate to a number of different variables, including water temp, currents, forage and pollution, and they did not think that there was an issue with overfishing. I believe one of the reasons the counts are low is the relative lack of effort to target halibut by the ësport passenger fleetí.

ìThe numbers of catches from our recent derbies do not show an erosion of halibut, and remember, we will not weigh in and record any fish under 26 inches (the legal minimum is 22 inches) and encourage releasing fish that are not contenders.

ìWe also encourage anglers to donate their live fish, that we carefully place into our now-temporarily-empty white sea bass pens for the scientists and aquaculturists at Sea Lab and/or HSWRI [Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute].î

But, more than anything, the Annual Marina del Rey Halibut Derby is a local tradition thatís lots of fun and helps over 1,200 kids from at-risk environments and special-needs facilities. It also gives back to the researchers who are concerned with keeping the fishing stock alive and well.

The organizers this year are quick to remind would-be contestants that they are looking to make the tourney that much more inclusive by featuring a kayak division, which they feel will make the contest all the more accessible to anyone with a pole and a desire.

ìKayaks represent the fastest-growing sector of the fishing industry and we are rolling out the red carpet this year for our kayak angling friends,î said Marina del Rey Anglers organizer Ken Raymond of the new division. ìKayakers will be eligible for all the regular prizes, but will be guaranteed bragging rights and a place on the winnerís podium because the derby is offering a separate kayak jackpot and beautiful trophies for the top three halibut landed by kayakers.î

Information about the Derby, www.halibutderby.com, or Marina del Rey Halibut Derby co-chairs Ken Raymond, (310) 398-3133; or Stan Zisser, (310) 306-9781 or szisser@comcast .net.

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