Jeff Wilkerson sped his pickup into the TouVelle Tavern parking lot at a hair shy of 3 p.m. Saturday with gravel flying and horn blaring, hoping he wasn't too late to turn a nearly 17-pound spring chinook salmon carcass into $500.
Wilkerson was trying to beat the 3 p.m. deadline for his chinook to become the last — and, hopefully the biggest — entered in the new Rogue River Guides Association derby, which is meant to turn everyday anglers like Wilkerson into champions.
At 2:58 p.m., he hoisted his Rogue River springer onto the scale and learned that his 16-pound, 9-ounce fish won the top prize by less than a single ounce.
"It was pretty crazy, getting there with two minutes to go and winning by not even one ounce," says Wilkerson, 33, of Grants Pass. "But that's a typical derby for you, I guess."
Wilkerson provided all the drama that association organizers had hoped for when they changed their derby format to make it more inclusive of Rogue anglers who benefit from habitat projects funded by association derbies.
"It was kind of exciting," says Gene Gros, association president. "He just did make it. He was a pretty happy camper."
Because ticket entries were sold at tackle shops scattered throughout Jackson and Josephine counties, the association likely won't know for a month how many anglers entered and how much was raised in the derby, during which anglers weighed in just five chinook, Gros says.
"We might break even," Gros says. "If we do, we'll be pretty happy with that. Fishing was terrible."
Losing to Wilkerson's wild entrance was Tom Chandler, whose cleaned-and-gilled spring chinook weighed 16 pounds 81/4 ounces, good for second place and a $300 check.
Third place's $200 check went to Jason Meerten, whose fish weighed an even 16 pounds.
Modeled after other derbies, the association's format allowed any angler who paid $20 and pre-registered by Friday night to fish legally anywhere from boats or banks along the middle and upper Rogue — as long as they made the 3 p.m. weigh-in deadline at the tavern at the intersection of Table Rock and Modoc roads.
Wilkerson, who had never fished in a derby, turned a $32 Rogue Community College book return into a derby ticket and some fishing gear.
He started at dawn near Nugget Falls outside of Gold Hill. After failing to catch a chinook, he headed to the upper Rogue's Hatchery Hole. He hooked one fish, falling off the hatchery dike's rocks and into the Rogue while battling it. But it was not hooked legally in the mouth, so he let it go.
At 2:15 p.m., he hooked his winning chinook and realized he had little time to spare.
"I looked at my watch, then really put the wood to him," Wilkerson says.
He muscled the fish to shore, where it was netted by a friend. A glance at his watch showed 2:32 p.m.
"I ran to my truck, threw it in and sped off," he says.
He stopped at the Takelma boat ramp to gut and gill the springer before that final — and highly illegal — race to the tavern.
Wilkerson is a helicopter mechanic who just started classes at RCC. But he won't be paying back his RCC book fund from his winnings.
"I'm buying fishing gear," he says. "A new reel. But no books. No books."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail email@example.com.