COEUR d'ALENE - Mary Finley knew. Not right away, but she knew. This was no ordinary chinook salmon on the end of her fishing line Friday.
"At first, I thought I snagged something on the bottom," she said. "But I kept pulling. Pretty soon, it would come a little bit, then it would peel out line and then it would come in. Then, I knew it was a fish. I thought it was a great fish."
Try 26.26 pounds and 35 1/4-inches long - easily enough to put her in first place of the 28th Big One Chinook Derby put on by the Lake Coeur d'Alene Angler's Association that runs through Sunday.
Mary Finley reeled in her catch after a 20-minute fight in the waters of Lake Coeur d'Alene just south of Mica Bay.
The 72-year-old didn't tire, she said, because she stays in shape.
"I work out at 360 Fitness. I'm ready for that big fish," she said, smiling.
The Coeur d'Alene woman is in line to claim the $5,000 first-place prize in the derby that attracted about 350 anglers. But there's two days left in the popular event, said Roger Blackstone, derby master and LCAA chairman, and the big fish seem to be back.
You have to return to 1995 to find another derby chinook to match the 26-pounder hooked by Finley, who along with husband Bucky is a charter member of the association formed in the early 1990s and has competed in every Big One derby.
Blackstone said there were years the winning fish weighed in the 30s, then 20s and then the teens. Now, the trend of smaller, lighter chinook taking first is reversing. Last year's winner was a 24.60 pounder caught by Frank Whitney Sr., and second place, hooked by Blackstone, weighed in at 24.46 pounds.
"It's really made a turnaround," he said.
He gave Mary Finley credit for a job well done.
"It would have been a chore for anybody to get a fish like that to the boat, let alone in the boat," he said.
Bucky and Mary Finley were trolling in their 28-foot boat, "MaryBuck," around 9 a.m, enjoying the sunshine and calm waters when her reel started squealing.
Bucky, who won the Big One Derby in 2000 with a 17.72 pounder and once pulled a 31-pound chinook from Lake Coeur d'Alene, said it ran out 250 to 300 feet of line.
"We knew it was a big fish," he said.
While Bucky angled the boat toward the fish to prevent the line from running out, Mary turned her attention to that fish.
Since she's reeled in an 80-pound halibut in Alaska, Mary was certain she could handle this monster chinook.
"He was heavy, but he was not jerking and fighting like some of the smaller ones do," she said. "It was a good battle."
Bucky and Mary weighed the fish in at Carlin Bay, and later took it to Fins and Feathers for display.
They plan to return to the lake today, and Sunday, in search of yet bigger fish. They did reveal Mary used a fly and flasher to catch the prize chinook - but not much else about their derby strategy.
"I'm not sharing secrets until after it's over," Mary said.
Big One Chinook Derby update:
n The 28th Big One Chinook Derby put on by the Lake Coeur d'Alene Angler's Association runs Thursday through Sunday.
The leader is Mary Finley, with a 26.26-pound, 35 1/4 long chinook she hooked Friday. She is followed by: Mike Duffey, 20.14-pound, 32-inch chinook caught Thursday; Dawn Nolan, 14.4-pound. 31-inch chinook; and David Tysdal, 13.04-pound, 32 3/4-inch chinook.
The awards ceremony is 7 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 12, at the Best Western Coeur d'Alene Inn. First place earns $5,000, second $3,000 and third, $1,000. There are daily prizes of $500 for first, $300, second and $100 third. There are also hundreds of dollars worth of rubber ducks floating in the lake. Anglers who net one should bring it to the awards ceremony to collect a cash prize.