Hauling a giant halibut or an ocean-bright salmon out of Alaska's pristine waters is an adventure, in and of itself. But if you're out on the water during Alaska's early-summer fishing derbies, that fish might also come with a cash prize. The derbies pit all anglers who've purchased a ticket—locals and visitors alike—in a race to catch the heaviest fish, and some also offer additional prizes if you catch fish that have been tagged.

You can use this itinerary to catch some of Alaska's best early season derbies in Southeast and Southcentral, or pick one or two of the days as a supplement to your trip. But before you go, take heed: Every year, at least a couple of anglers reel in what would have been a winning fish if only they'd purchased a derby ticket. Don't let that be you! If there's a derby on during your visit, make sure you get a derby ticket before you set foot on the boat.

Day 1

Fly in to the Juneau airport and get settled in your hotel. Tomorrow, you'll spend a full day fishing in a king salmon derby. But for the rest of today, take it easy with a half-day freshwater fly-fishing trip, or visit some of Juneau's other big attractions, including the majestic Mendenhall Glacier, the ambitious new Alaska State Museum and the spectacular Walter Soboleff Building with its displays of world-class Alaska Native artwork. Get a good night's sleep; the fishing boat will leave early tomorrow.

Day 2
Board your fishing charter and spend a full day on the water to maximize your chances of reeling in a big king salmon. Juneau's annual Spring King Salmon Derby runs through the month of May, with prizes of up to $5,000 going to the biggest fish by weight. Take advantage of another early night; you'll want to catch one of the first flights to Anchorage tomorrow.

Day 3
Once you land in Anchorage, rent a car and make the six-hour drive to the small port town of Valdez. Located on the north shore of Prince William Sound, this town is famous for its excellent deep-water halibut fishing just offshore. Leave yourself plenty of time to sightsee and take photos of the last 30 miles of road into Valdez, which pass through beautiful Thompson Pass and then down into waterfall-filled Keystone Canyon. If you still have daylight to work with consider also stopping by the Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site, where you can see more waterfalls gushing from the glacier's crystal-blue ice.

early summer fishing derbies

Day 4
Take to the waters off Valdez on an all-day fishing charter. You could be one of the earliest entries into the Valdez Halibut Derby, which runs all the way from late May to early September. You'll have to wait until the derby ends to find out if you won the $15,000 cash prize for the biggest fish, but in the meantime, there are weekly prizes and an additional $10,000 cash prize for a random ticket number, drawn at the end of the season.

Day 5
Load your car onto one of the Alaska state ferries for the six-hour sailing to Whittier, a small port town on the other side of Prince William Sound. Car berths fill up fast, so book this part of the trip well in advance. You can't fish off the ferry, but it makes a splendid sightseeing cruise; watch for sea otters, sea lions, orcas and humpback whales. Once you dock in Whittier, it's about a two-hour drive to another port town, Seward, where you can spend the night before taking in one last fishing derby.

Day 6
Book yourself for a full-day fishing charter as part of the Seward Halibut Tournament, which runs through the month of June. You can catch tagged fish that are worth up to $1,000; at the end of the month, the person with the heaviest fish overall wins $5,000. You'll also get to do some great sightseeing from your boat. Depending on the captain's route, you may catch glimpses of hanging glaciers, tidewater glaciers and WWII relics clinging to the craggy coastline as you sail in and out of Seward.

Day 7
Enjoy Alaska's coastal beauty during your 2.5-hour drive back to Anchorage via the scenic Seward Highway, where you can turn in your rental car and arrange to ship any frozen fish you've been toting along. If your flight home is only a few hours, you can usually check your frozen fish as baggage—but make sure you pay close attention to the airline's packing requirements.