BROOKINGS — For the roughly 44,000 ocean anglers fishing out of Oregon's 10 most-northerly ports, trolling a cut-plug herring off a downrigger for chinook salmon last year was called "fishing."
But for those lucky 18,610 anglers who motored over the Chetco River bar to fish out of Brookings, it was called "catching."
Brookings anglers reversed the trend of three dismal chinook fishing seasons in a row by dominating the catch last year, thanks largely to having more than two million chinook in the waters off Southern Oregon.
Though chinook estimates for Southern Oregon and Northern California are down from last year, they still are strong enough for ocean salmon anglers to expect an excellent salmon-fishing season that will start sooner than you think.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council has released its season options for this spring and summer, and they should offer as close to a repeat of 2012 as possible.
"Things should be very good for those of you fishing out of the southern part of the state," says Eric Schindler, project leader for ocean salmon management for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"I'm certainly not going to promise catches out of Brookings this year like last year."
Brookings played host to 18,610 angler trips last year that led to 9,282 chinook heading home in coolers, the most for anglers in this port since the monster chinook runs of 2002. Winchester Bay was a distant second among Oregon ports last year with 2,595 chinook landings.
In fact, Brookings-based anglers caught and released an estimated 2,022 chinook, more fish than were caught at nine of the state's other 10 salmon ports.
Three alternatives adopted Monday by the PFMC all reach the long-standing goal of allowing uninterrupted fishing from Memorial Day through Labor Day from Humbug Mountain near Port Orford down to the California border.
"Really, for the most part, there's not much difference among the three options," Schindler says.
The most liberal option calls for a season running from May 1 through Sept. 8, nearly mirroring last year's season.
The middle option has fishing starting on May 4 and running through Sept. 8.
The most conservative option has chinook fishing opening May 25, which is the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and closing on the evening of Labor Day.
All have daily bag limits of two chinook per day, but the alternatives differ in minimum size restrictions for keeper chinook. The first two options call for a 24-inch minimum size, while the third option has a minimum size of 22 inches.
The chinook season will be adopted independently of the fin-clipped hatchery coho salmon season that sports a single quota for the Oregon coast. The season will open July 1 and run through the month or until that fishery's quota is reached.
The quota will range from 10,000 to 12,000 fin-clipped coho, according to the PFMC. If the season closes July 31 without the quota having been filled, the leftover fish will roll into the September ocean season for wild and hatchery coho north of Humbug Mountain.
During July, the bag limit will remain two legal salmon, whether they are chinook or fin-clipped coho.
The council, which advises the U.S. Department of Commerce on ocean fishing seasons, is in the midst of gathering public comment on the alternatives. That includes a public hearing set for 7 p.m. on Monday, March 25, at the Red Lion Hotel, 1313 N. Bayshore Dr., in Coos Bay.
After public comment, the council will convene April 5-11 in Portland to set the seasons, which must be approved by the Department of Commerce before they begin.
The council doesn't have to stick to any of the options when it sets the seasons, but Schindler says Southern Oregon's liberal chinook seasons appear safe.
In lean years, seasons are whittled down to protect returns of Klamath River fall chinook, which is normally the weakest of the local chinook stocks. Klamath stocks are robust now, unlike some Columbia River runs that are causing season cutbacks in Northwest Oregon ocean fisheries.
"It changes one year to the next in who takes the big hit," Schindler says. "This year, it's not the southern part of the state. It just doesn't make sense to do any trimming down there."
From 2008 through 2011, when seasons were cut back severely to protect Klamath River chinook, recreational chinook landings took a beating, with a low of 195 fish set during the 2009 season. The ODFW creel checker in Brookings last summer had many mornings counting more chinook than that.
Last year's preseason prediction was the highest in 31 years, leading to the most liberal ocean-fishing season here in a decade.
"Certainly there were a lot of sweaty palms at the table, wondering if that forecast was real," Schindler says.
It wasn't, but it was close enough to create a season of fishing, and catching, of chinook off the Southern Oregon Coast.
"It's nice when things come together like that," Schindler says. "Hopefully, it will again."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.