Rogue River springer fever is coming soon

Sitting in his jetboat anchored on the lower Rogue River, Paul LeFebvre fixates on what it is going to be like the minute he hooks into his next fat and feisty spring chinook salmon — to the point that he becomes more than just another obsessed springer fisherman.

LeFebvre becomes the epitome of his name.

"I get a fever for these springers," says LeFebvre, 58, of Brookings. "They taste so doggone good, but I have such a blast trying to catch them.

"When you hook one, you find yourself a mile downstream battling these beasts," he says. "And all the time you're wondering, 'Is it wild? Is it a hatchery fish so I can keep it?' "

LeFebvre is destined to be feverish once again as he and other springer hunters target what looks like a strong spring chinook run making its way toward the Rogue Valley.

Despite high and often turbid water conditions, springers are biting early and often on the lower Rogue, including numbers of fin-clipped hatchery fish not seen since 2005.

That's just one of many milestones for spring chinook on the Rogue this year.

2011 marks the first time in more than a century that springers will swim 157 miles unimpeded by man-made structures on the Rogue.

It marks the first spring chinook season in which anglers and fish biologists won't be glued to the daily counts of salmon streaming through the counting station at Gold Ray Dam, which was jettisoned last fall.

And that's why it also is the first time in five years that state fish managers expect no in-season tightening — or loosening — of rules about whether anglers can kill and keep wild spring chinook on the Rogue.

With no daily counts of how many wild spring chinook have made it into the upper Rogue, biologists and anglers will be left to wonder just what the heck is going on in the river on any given day.

"We don't have the ability to do in-season changes since we don't have the counting station," says Dan VanDyke, the Rogue District fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The regulations will be the regulations in the angling synopsis."

That means anglers must release any wild chinook they catch downstream of the old dam site near Gold Hill through May. Beginning June 1, after most of the early-run spring chinook have reached the upper Rogue, wild chinook can be part of the two-chinook daily limit downstream from the old dam site.

The upper Rogue remains catch-and-release for wild chinook through June. From July 1 through Aug. 31, anglers will be able to keep hatchery or wild chinook when fishing from the old dam site upstream to Dodge Bridge near Eagle Point.

Upstream of Dodge Bridge remains catch-and-release for wild chinook through the season, which ends July 31 there.

All that regulatory hodgepodge should start playing on upper Rogue anglers' minds any day now, with the first springer expected to fin its way into the Shady Cove area momentarily.

When Gold Ray Dam, Savage Rapids Dam and the Gold Hill diversion dam were in place, the first hatchery springers didn't make it into the upper Rogue until late April or early May, VanDyke says. Now the fish are chopping two weeks or so off their migration time. Last year's first chinook reached Cole Rivers Hatchery in March.

In fact, last year's chinook counts at Gold Ray Dam showed that one-fourth of the run passed into the upper Rogue by May 15, providing a longer season in the upper Rogue with more chances to catch these prized chinook.

Last year's run past Gold Ray Dam totaled 21,115 chinook — below the all-time average of about 30,000 chinook but definitely an uptick from past runs so poor that wild chinook harvest was banned entirely from 2006 through 2009.

Last year's run included 9,635 wild chinook, which was well above the 5,000-fish minimum target under the river's spring chinook management plan.

VanDyke says all indications are that 2011 will be at least as good as 2010, if not better.

"The outlook is positive for this run," VanDyke says. "I think we're past the latest low points for abundance."

Unlike chinook runs in other rivers, the Rogue currently has no preseason run forecast. But VanDyke says his agency will attempt to put one together beginning next year.

For now, all eyes are on what's occurring in the Gold Beach area — which is the only real foreshadowing of what valley anglers can expect once the chinook make it up here.

On Monday alone, boat anglers caught dozens of chinook, with more than half of them hatchery fish, guide Andy Martin says. Plunkers at Huntley Park pulled an astounding 17 onto the gravel bar that day, Martin says.

And LeFebvre fever was contagious.

LeFebvre and a friend hooked four springers Monday and landed three — two of which were hatchery keepers. They followed that up with one wild and one hatchery fish Tuesday before high water kept them home Wednesday.

"Monday was a great day for everybody," LeFebvre says. "It gets me all excited about next week."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com.


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