Gazing out of his office window at Cole Rivers Hatchery on April 9, interim manager Dave Pease saw a small cluster of anglers walking off the dike and through the hatchery grounds like they often do when they're done fishing the Rogue River's famed Hatchery Hole.
Dangling from one of their hands wasn't the standard winter steelhead catch of April. This was a bright spring chinook salmon, caught weeks earlier than normal for the upper Rogue.
"I just watched one walk out of here this morning," Pease says. "It's true. They're here. There's 10 to 15 guys up there, and they've all switched over to springer gear."
Spring chinook made it early to the upper Rogue this season, and anglers hope they'll return often — on their lines and in their barbecues.
After depressed runs for the past seven years, this year's Rogue spring chinook run is off to a flying start and is poised to become the best showing of the Rogue's signature salmon since 2004.
"All signs are pointing up," says Dan VanDyke, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Rogue District fish biologist. "There's no question we've come out of that downturn."
ODFW does not produce a run-size projection for Rogue springers, but there's reason for optimism. Run-size projections for the Klamath River estimate that more than 1.6 million Klamath fall chinook weighing 8 to 25 pounds are finning off the Oregon and California coasts and headed to that river this year.
Good spring chinook returns on the Rogue track with good years on the Klamath, VanDyke says.
The bottom line is, the run numbers should improve," VanDyke says. "I'm looking for pretty good runs of spring and fall chinook this year."
Hearing that news — plus word of fresh springers already in the upper Rogue — puts fishing guides such as Vernon Grieve in a positive mood heading into one of their most important seasons.
"I'm pretty amped up," says Grieve, of Trail. "I hope it carries through."
Spring chinook are prized here as the hardest-fishing, best-eating salmon Oregon provides. Though frustratingly difficult to catch at times, adults run from about 8 pounds to well over 30 pounds, with 18- to 22-pounders making up the largest part of the run.
Spring chinook fishing generally begins in April along the lower Rogue, where bank and boat anglers offer spinning anchovies or Spin-Glo's in migration lanes in hopes of intercepting salmon that are bound for the upper Rogue.
After high water from March storms ebbed this year, chinook fishing got hot instantly on the lower Rogue, with guide boats seeing multiple fish for several consecutive days.
In the upper Rogue, most steelhead anglers don't transfer to chinook until May, normally after hooking big springers on winter steelhead plugs.
Fishing peaks in June and July, then the season ends upstream of Dodge Bridge where Highway 234 crosses the Rogue. Downstream of Dodge Bridge, the season is open through August, but anglers there catch mostly fall-run chinook.
Driftboat and powerboat anglers either back-bounce roe in salmon holes or fish popular plugs such as Kwikfish or Flatfish in holes and migration lanes. Bank anglers flock to spots at places such as the Hatchery Hole, Casey State Park and the nearby Slide Hole, where anglers use teardrop sinkers, heavy leaders and a variety of beads, corkies and yarn to entice a bite.
Only hatchery fish — those with clipped adipose fins — can be kept through May river-wide. On June 1, anglers downstream of the old Gold Ray Dam site can start keeping wild chinook as part of their two-fish daily limit.
The run is dominated by fin-clipped hatchery fish released from Cole Rivers, and wild fish spawning surveys last year led biologists to estimate that 9,940 wild spring chinook passed the former Gold Ray Dam site near Gold Hill last year.
Now that the fish-counting station is gone with the removal of the dam, no one knows when the first springer reached the upper Rogue this year.
But the high, relatively warm water from late March and early April freshets drew fish upstream more quickly than normal.
Only once in the past dozen years has the first spring chinook reached Cole Rivers Hatchery by April 15, VanDyke says. Several were caught right in front of the hatchery raceway, but none had actually made it into the hatchery as of Tuesday.
"But we've heard rumors that we've had 100, 150 in so far," Pease says.
During the Gold Ray Dam era, on average just 0.3 percent of the run made it over the dam by April 15, VanDyke says.
A roundly popular theory is that the dam's removal has sped up returns of salmon and steelhead to the upper Rogue, and VanDyke says he's collecting information to test that hypothesis.
"It'll be 20 years before you can say definitively if there is a cause and effect there," he says.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email@example.com.