GOLD BEACH — For the first time in three years, anglers fishing for fall chinook salmon in southwest Oregon's coastal streams can follow the rules printed in the regulations booklet without risking a $299 ticket.
Emergency restrictions that in past years have clamped down on the region's fall chinook fishing opportunities — all enacted after the year's angling synopses were printed — are nothing but bad memories for anglers heading into this year's fall chinook season.
Gone are the severe cutbacks on how many wild chinook anglers can keep on rivers like the Elk, Sixes and Chetco. Also gone are the river-by-river caps on where anglers can keep these biggest of Oregon's wild salmon.
And those fliers stapled to boat-ramp signs warning anglers that the emergency changes are different than the ones in the Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations synopsis will become no-shows, as well.
Except for a handful of changes to deadlines and season-opening dates, the good book of regulations is up to date, allowing anglers to catch and keep up to two chinook a day, whether they're fin-clipped or not.
"We're basically back to what it says in the synopsis," says Todd Confer, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Gold Beach District fish biologist. "It's nice to be back to normal."
The first taste of normal came this week in the lower Rogue River bay, where anglers started catching the first fall chinook entering the estuary on in-coming tides.
In "normal" years, anglers anxiously await mid-July, when the first schools of this all-wild run turn the Rogue bay into one of Oregon's best summer hot spots.
Since 2007, however, that's not happened.
During the past three years, emergency rules protecting wild spring chinook — which had already migrated up the Rogue — did not lapse until Aug. 1. That meant those trolling the bay for 40-pound fall chinook had to release all the salmon they caught.
"Given you couldn't keep wild fish, there wasn't a whole lot of interest during the past few years," Confer says.
About 20 boats trolled the estuary Sunday, capturing 10 chinook for anglers' coolers.
And that's only the beginning.
"It looks small compared to when we have more than 200 boats out there later in the season," says Justin Storns, from the Rogue Outdoor Store along the bay in Gold Beach. "Finally, though, for the first time it is like it's written in the regulations. Normal is good."
There has been little classified as either normal or good about coastal Oregon's chinook runs during the past five years, when a downturn in ocean-rearing conditions triggered downturns in wild chinook numbers coast-wide.
In turn, biologists reduced fishing opportunities to spare chinook from the angling gauntlet as they headed to upriver spawning beds.
That meant one-chinook daily limits — and season limits as low as two — on rivers like the Chetco in 2008 and again in 2009. Anglers also lost the top four miles of open chinook-fishing waters on the Sixes to give pre-spawning chinook a break.
The Winchuck River at the Oregon-California border was closed altogether the past two years. Chetco anglers were limited to the lower mile of the Chetco River estuary until November so bank anglers couldn't over-fish wild chinook stuck in upper tidewater holes until fall rains swelled the Chetco enough for salmon to migrate out of those holes.
The Rogue saw by far the fewest restrictions, with anglers allowed to kill up to two wild chinook a day after Aug. 1, and no more than 10 a season, as compared to the regular annual limit of up to 20 salmon or steelhead logged on catch tags.
A rebound in ocean conditions, and the fruits of these past restrictions, have caused an uptick in the numbers of chinook headed back to Southern Oregon rivers this year.
State biologists have forecast a run of 24,480 chinook to pass Huntley Park on the Rogue, where crews net and count passing chinook to help gauge run size.
That estimate represents just a hair under the 25,997 average since 1990.
Things are rosier on the Chetco, where this year's forecast of 4,669 wild fish is almost double the long-term average.
That allows the seasons on the Rogue, Chetco, Elk and other streams to begin with the normal daily and season limits for the first time since 2006.
"With the change in ocean conditions, you could see this coming," Confer says.
But the government hasn't given back all it has taken away.
The most significant emergency rule that remains on the books is by popular demand on the Chetco, where anglers will be banned from chinook fishing in upper tidewater holes until Nov. 6.
That rule was enacted to prevent bank anglers from over-catching and over-stressing chinook that normally get kegged up in holes like Morris, Tide Rock and Social Security in October.
Anglers will remain in tidewater during October, but the open zone has been doubled to the lower 2.2 miles, from the mouth upstream to the Bonneville Power Association lines just downstream of the Morris Hole.
Likewise, the Winchuck River will remain closed altogether until the mainstem Chetco opener. Also, the upper Sixes chinook deadline will remain at Edson Creek to protect some of the all-wild Sixes run.
Regardless, normal has come back to the Rogue for the first time in three years.
"Hopefully, it all pans out," Confer says. "We'll know when the fish come back."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.