TRAIL — Watching the faces of the fishing faithful who funnel through Pat's Hand-Tied Flies, you'd think it's Christmas on the Rogue River.
Happy dudes pose for snapshots with their first spring chinook salmon of the season in mid-May, weeks earlier than last year. Others brag about their first springer ever.
And perhaps even more unusual are those plunking down cash for more weights, hooks and corkies in this hub of upper Rogue bank fishing while not hoping to catch one of Oregon's tastiest fish.
The way the action's been lately, they're actually expecting to tag a springer.
"People are so happy to see the fishing the way it is," shop owner Susan Billows says. "To come up here, fish for a couple of hours and come home with a salmon is great."
After granting Rogue anglers a decade of mostly disappointments, the salmon gods are smiling on the Rogue this spring with a strong and early return of spring chinook that is bending rods and setting firsts with welcomed regularity.
This year's run marks the first time since 1995 when the Rogue's spring chinook run is expected to eclipse 50,000 fish at Gold Ray Dam near Gold Hill.
It's the first time a springer was caught in the first week of March just below Gold Ray — a full week before the first chinook crossed the dam into the upper Rogue, which also came far earlier than normal.
It's the first time in Cole Rivers Hatchery history that a spring chinook entered the hatchery in March — so early that the hatchery's computer system wouldn't log it as a springer.
It's the first time since 2002 that more than 1,000 springers have entered the hatchery by May 15. Next week likely will be the earliest time on record that excess hatchery springers will be recycled into the Rogue at TouVelle State Park.
This year's run is forecast to be the strongest showing of wild spring chinook since 2003, the first year all returning Rogue hatchery fish were fin-clipped.
And perhaps the brightest first in this plethora of piscatorial pleasures is this: Saturday will mark the first time since 2005 that anglers will be able to keep a wild spring chinook downstream from Gold Ray Dam near Gold Hill.
"This is the year to fish the Rogue for spring chinook salmon," says Dan VanDyke, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District fish biologist.
Four years ago, no one would have guessed it.
The salmon in the Rogue now are faring far better than their parents.
The 2006 and '07 runs — the adults whose progeny make up the lion's share of this year's run — were the worst back-to-back returns at Gold Ray Dam since the fish-counting station opened in 1942.
Yet this small group of wild adult springers were able to produce a load of babies that survived and made it to the ocean. It's less likely that they were uber-chinook. It's more likely because of operational changes at Lost Creek Dam.
Under ODFW requests, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers then began a more dainty approach to raising and lowering spring and summer releases from Lost Creek Reservoir.
The likely result is that fewer wild spring chinook fry got stranded in side-channels and puddles from abrupt spikes and drops in flow, says Tom Satterthwaite, an ODFW biologist studying the Rogue for more than 30 years.
"Certainly these new fish-friendly ramping rates increased survival," Satterthwaite says.
That means more wild spring chinook smolts likely joined their hatchery cousins in migrating to the seas. And when those smolts got there, they found the most friendly ocean conditions since the early 2000s.
The near-shore waters not only contained plenty of food for these salmon, it also had plenty of food for fish higher up in the food chain that didn't need to prey on smolts to survive.
"It's possible that half the run may be wild fish this year," Satterthwaite says. "You have to go back to the early '90s to see that."
Savvy anglers could track that almost instantly. First, counts of mini-jacks — 1-year-old salmon that return to the Rogue — spiked.
The next year, jack counts soared. Last year, the show of 3-year-old springers was disproportionately high.
And now, a run of more than 50,000 springers is expected from two year-classes that contained fewer than 12,000 hatchery and wild spring chinook.
"The quick reloading of chinook runs on the Rogue is not unprecedented," Satterthwaite says. "The returns can quickly shoot up when the ocean conditions flip-flop from really low to really high."
These extra fish found good spring water flows that made for the best lower Rogue spring chinook fishing in years.
It's also the first spring chinook run in 88 years that did not have to traverse Savage Rapids Dam. The dam has always delayed chinook migration, but now those chinook fin past the dam's remnants like it's just another riffle.
"Whether that makes a difference with one fish is hard to say," Satterthwaite says. "But in a macro sense, yes, the run timing will be earlier this year than previous years."
Which brings us back to Pat's Hand-Tied Flies, where Billows says anglers are feasting on the chinook they're catching with regularity.
"In the 13 years we've been here, it's the best this early that we've seen," Billows says.
But don't burn all your vacation time yet.
While this year's run is full of firsts, next year's run likely will be loaded with a lot of nexts.
The next run of chinook are the fall chinook, and their survival rates should match those of their spring-returning cousins. And next year's runs should be similar, if not better, because they have experienced the same fish-friendly conditions as this year's springers.
"Ocean-survival rates are trends, not yearly (phenomena)," Satterthwaite says. "The smart folks get it while the getting's good."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.