More than 1.6 million fall chinook salmon are in the ocean and finning their way toward Northern California's Klamath River, and that's the best news Southern Oregon offshore anglers could hear this year.
It's the highest estimate of Klamath chinook in at least 31 years, and perhaps the highest since biologists began estimating chinook numbers off the Southern Oregon and Northern California coast to set annual recreational and commercial fishing seasons.
It almost ensures another long summer season for pleasure-boaters launching out of Brookings and Gold Beach. Complementary estimates say the Rogue River's fall chinook run will be solid, as well.
While myriad entities are waiting to take credit for an ocean now lousy with chinook, the most likely reason is that 2009 was a hell of a summer to fly a kite at the beach.
Stiff and steady coastal winds churned the near-shore ocean into a 24-hour buffet for the chinook smolts that headed to sea that summer, creating off-the-charts survival rates for chinook during the most dangerous period of their lives — their first few months at sea.
Those chinook are now 3 years old, and an estimated 1.56 million of them have their noses pointed toward the Klamath — where returns of 3-year-olds were as low as 21,000 in 2009.
"The salmon smolts need that ocean stirred up, and it looks like they got it," says Eric Schindler, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's project leader for ocean-salmon management. "It would, potentially, be a record."
They're a tad impish, running 8 to 14 pounds. But, so what?
They all count the same to members of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which will meet over the next few days in Sacramento to hash out sport-fishing season options for this year. After public comment, the council will set the seasons April 6 in Seattle.
Smart money says the season will start as early as May 12 and run straight through summer to as late as Sept. 9 — making Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day all fishing holidays.
That's even better than last year's liberal seasons, when catch rates were low.
There will be so many fish around ocean anglers — who averaged less than one fish every six trips out of Brookings last year — they should be turning chinook eyes into X's at much greater frequencies.
"The season should be at least as good as last year, and we expect the catch rates to be a lot better this year," Schindler says.
Predicting salmon returns is as inexact as filling out March Madness brackets, but there are key indicators that can steer biologists in the right direction.
One of the main keys for chinook survival is called upwelling. That's the phenomenon when stiff and prolonged winds create heavy beach surf that pushes water down into the ocean depths, forcing nutrients toward the surface. These nutrients are the backbone of a food chain that chinook desperately need once they bolt from the rivers as smolts.
Good upwelling, good food availability. Bad upwelling not only shrinks the food base, it also forces more critters to prey on smolts for their food.
In 2009, the upwelling rocked, and the results showed last year when the Klamath and Sacramento rivers saw huge returns of 2-year-old jack salmon, indicating a very good survival rate for the 2009 smolts.
The Klamath run is dominated by 3-year-old fish, and estimates are that this year's pack of 3-year-olds is 1.26 million more than last year.
This year's 4-year-old Klamath chinook were born in 2008, when upwelling was good but not as good as 2009. That puts their estimate this year at almost 80,000 fish.
Together, that's more than 1.64 million potential Klamath spawners in the ocean.
The Sacramento preseason estimate is 819,400 fall chinook. The Rogue's fall chinook estimate is 45,000 fish, more than double last year.
All three stocks intermingle in the waters off Southern Oregon and Northern California, so ocean seasons are designed to protect the weakest of these stocks.
Since the 1980s, that normally has meant the Klamath-bound chinook. Seasons are set to ensure 36,000 Klamath chinook escape various ocean and in-river fisheries to spawn. Some years, that's impossible and fishing seasons are shelved.
This year, that doesn't seem like a problem thanks to that summer of good upwelling in 2009.
So the next time you're in Brookings or Gold Beach complaining about the wind blowing sand in your ears, remember that's a small price to pay for good chinook fishing three years down the road.