GOLD BEACH — John Anderson took an old fishing tool, added a new twist and promptly ushered spring to the Rogue River on Tuesday — while perhaps starting a new fad along the way.
Anderson's modified plastic diver played a key role in this year's first confirmed catch of a Rogue spring chinook, the opening salvo to a season that always brings promise to anglers locked in a love-hate relationship with the Rogue's most prized denizen.
The diver's unique up-and-down action in the current helped whip and wiggle a spinning anchovy bait enough to get the springer to chomp it early Tuesday on the lower Rogue.
Rodney Brim of Smith River, Calif., took the honors of fighting and boating the first springer of 2010, etching his name in the lower Rogue lexicon of those who initiate the spring chinook season.
"It sure was exciting to pop the first one," Brim says.
But it's Anderson who believes his new way to fish an old diver could become the method du jour for anglers in the springer-happy confines of Gold Beach at the Rogue's mouth.
"I believe it will out-perform every other method I use while fishing for springers," Anderson says. "I truly believe that."
It certainly did Tuesday, marking the second straight year in which the first confirmed springer was caught March 2, says Jim Carey, owner of the Rogue Outdoor Store and keeper of the unofficial list.
But anglers have reason to believe that's the only thing this year's run and last year's run will share in common.
After three straight years of mid-season closures on catching and keeping wild spring chinook, this year's run is expected to be strong enough to side-step such restrictions.
Last year's run over Gold Ray Dam near Gold Hill numbered 13,563 fish, the highest in four years but still far below the long-term average of about 39,000 fish, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics.
The wild portion of the run, which all spawn upstream of Gold Ray Dam 126 miles from the ocean, was 5,234 fish, ODFW statistics show.
But deep within the bowels of those run statistics lie reasons to be optimistic.
In 2008, a high return of 2-year-old chinook indicated a good survival rate on those salmon bred from 2006's wild run. That year's brood turns 4 years old this year, and 4-year-old chinook make up the bulk of the wild run. Enough, in fact, that Dan VanDyke, the ODFW's Rogue District fish biologist, says he expects no extra catch-and-release requirements on wild spring chinook, other than current rules banning the killing of wild fish early in the run.
Add in an anticipated increase in the returns of fin-clipped chinook headed for Cole Rivers Hatchery, and VanDyke expects the frustrations of fishers over the past three years to be eased at least some.
"We expect more spring chinook in the river, but as to the level of that increase? I don't know," says VanDyke, whose agency does not calculate a pre-season run estimate for the Rogue.
"It certainly is my hope that we'll have more happy anglers this year," VanDyke says.
Anderson had hoped he'd run into the first chinook of the year last week. Lower Rogue winter steelhead anglers began suspecting that the big shadows chugging upstream were the first spring chinook of the year.
While steelhead fishing Friday, he anchored his powerboat along a steelhead riffle and let out his plugs. But one rod was reserved for his new springer-slayer.
Most spring chinook fishing in the lower Rogue is with spinning anchovies held in place off the gravel bottom by a heavy lead weight. Some anglers occasionally use a diver that uses the force of the current to pull the anchovy down and hold it in place near the bottom.
Instead, Anderson deployed a Brad's diver, the old Mud Dog diver popular in Washington and on Oregon's north coast but rarely used here.
That diver bounces erratically in the current, causing the anchovy to look crippled.
"It makes the anchovy come alive," Anderson says. "It moves that anchovy all over, rattling it in their faces."
But Anderson went one step further. He's painted his divers various colors and, taking advantage of a law allowing anglers to use up to three hooks, he's added a large treble hook to the diver.
Off the treble, he runs a 4-foot leader down to the spinning anchovy laced with the traditional two hooks.
There's method to this weirdness.
Often, chinook anglers report the sensation of "line bumps" — a movement of their line under water as if a chinook had bumped into it. Some have gone to far as to suspect the bumps are actually chinook biting the brightly colored diver.
Any chinook that takes a bite on Anderson's diver will find a little surprise.
On Friday, Anderson's pulsating and rattling anchovy got into the face of some fish, which bit the bait but escaped.
Anderson did the same Tuesday, and this time the fish stuck.
After fighting it through a few brisk runs, Brim muscled the fish to the boat and Anderson mugged it with the net.
Spring chinook always are tough to catch, and not every catch is rewarded with filets.
All wild chinook caught downstream of Hog Creek before June 1 must be released unharmed, so Anderson clipped the line and set the springer free.
"Not good," Brim says. "I love eating spring salmon. They are, by far, the best fish to eat."
Anderson believes his new method to catching springers will catch on in the lower Rogue.
"I believe we caught that fish because of the action of the bait," says Anderson, who operates Memory Makers Fishing Guide Service out of Gold Beach. "I'm going to run them a lot."