GOLD BEACH — Toni and Larry Bates had an epic day on the lower Rogue River bay last week, but you would never have guessed it by looking at their cooler.
One fin-clipped coho salmon lay dead and ready for the barbecue, unlike the 16 wild coho the couple caught and released to get that one legal-to-keep hatchery fish.
"Caught wild fish all day, and it wasn't just us," says Larry Bates, of Ukiah, Calif. "Every time I turned around, there were five boats hooked up. I bet there were 700 coho caught and released today.
"This fin-clipped thing is ridiculous," he says.
The Rogue bay is in the midst of an excellent fall coho season, and those trolling anchovies in search of the rare hatchery fish continue to ask when they will join other Oregon coastal anglers in getting a chance to keep a wild coho despite its status as a federally protected threatened species.
The short answer is no time soon, but it's not for lack of effort among state fish biologists equipped with few tools to justify it.
"I've been very interested in getting a wild coho fishery in the bay for years, but it's complicated," says Russ Stauff, Rogue Basin manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The lack of a recovery plan for wild coho in Southern Oregon and Northern California, despite their 15-year status as a threatened species, in part leaves no easy way to prove that sending some wild coho home with bay anglers makes solid sense.
In fact, killing a few on purpose could reduce the numbers killed accidentally after release.
"Year after year, we see people fishing in the bay and handling a lot of wild coho to get at a hatchery coho," Stauff says. "It would make a lot of sense for us to have a limited wild coho fishery. But I don't know when it'll happen."
Until then, the Rogue Bay faithful will have to follow the words of Grants Pass angler Steve Baksay, uttered after fishing pal Tim Roberts released their ninth wild coho with just three hatchery ones in the fish box.
"I can put you on top of the cohos," Baksay says. "It's up to you to catch the hatchery fish."
The Rogue's hatchery coho program is relatively small, with just 150,000 smolts released annually from Cole Rivers Hatchery. Based on netting in the Rogue just east of Gold Beach, the run varies between 10 percent and 30 percent hatchery fish in recent years, ODFW records show.
Often, that's what the catch rates are in the bay, says Steve Mazur, an ODFW biologist in Gold Beach.
"Every year we get the same reports," Mazur says. "There's just not a very big hatchery program on the river."
All wild coho along the Oregon Coast are listed as threatened species, but they're broken into two groups called Evolutionarily Significant Units, or ESUs. Those north of Cape Blanco are under the Oregon Coast ESU listed as threatened in 1993. Those from Cape Blanco down to California's Eel River, including the Rogue, make up the Southern Oregon/Northern California ESU — commonly called SONC by fish wonks — and were listed in 1997.
The federal Endangered Species Act generally bans the killing of threatened fish species, but the law has provisions for it if science can justify that allowing anglers to keep some wild coho doesn't cause wild spawning numbers to drop too low.
Just what exactly is too low is spelled out in a federal Pacific Fishery Management Council document called Amendment 13. That document sets the Rogue's spawning — or "escapement" — floor at 4,100 wild coho.
The Rogue has not hit that in the past four years, so wild coho would have been a catch-and-release fishery anyway.
"In coming years, coho are definitely going to be above 4,100," says Lance Kruzic, a fish biologist with the federal National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees threatened coho protection and recovery.
If ODFW petitions NMFS for a Rogue Bay fishery, Kruzic's agency would review it to see whether a proposed fishery would ensure that floor not be breached.
ODFW has been able to do that on all wild coastal coho populations north of Cape Blanco near Port Orford, but not on the Rogue.
"If you have everything in place, we say go for it," Kruzic says. "Let's have a bay fishery."
The problem, Stauff says, is that everything isn't in place on the Rogue.
Unlike coho streams north of Cape Blanco, there is no recovery plan in place for SONC wild coho, and there is no management plan for Rogue coho. That means no strong frameworks have been developed to measure the Rogue's wild coho health well enough to say anglers deserve to put a few threatened species in their coolers.
"That's the rub," Stauff says. "We just don't have all the pieces.
"Critics will show up, especially in Oregon, when you say we want to target listed fish and kill them," he says. "It can work, but you have to do your homework."
But on the bay, anglers are weary of all this counting of fish on paper, frustrated that they're releasing wild coho after wild coho just to keep the rare hatchery fish.
"Let us take our two and be done," says Brian Winkler of Jacksonville.