BROOKINGS — For one astounding hour on the morning of June 27, Richard Heap found himself in the middle of salmon nirvana.
The ocean off Brookings was loaded with krill, a south wind was blowing — which usually brings good fishing — and the chinook were on a feeding frenzy.
Heap would get a rod baited and lowered on one of his downriggers, and all hell would break loose before he could get a second rod in the water, allowing Heap and his fishing partner to boat four chinook up to 30 pounds in one hour.
"When it all comes together, it's absolutely spectacular," Heap says. "And that's what happened."
And Heap certainly isn't alone.
Oregon's ocean anglers are experiencing another banner year for chinook fishing, and Brookings is again leading the way as the chinook capital of the Oregon Coast.
"As far as chinook go, Brookings is the place you want to be," says Brandon Ford, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Marine Resources Program based in Newport.
"It's hot," Ford adds.
Catch data more than bear him out.
Since the season opened May 4, 4,079 anglers crossed the Chetco River bar and returned to the Port of Brookings-Harbor with 2,321 chinook as of Sunday, according to ODFW creel counts. That's easily twice what was caught for anglers fishing out of Winchester Bay near Reedsport, data show.
Brookings anglers also released 138 chinook and took home 165 fin-clipped coho — as part of a coho fishery that included the release of 1,084 coho, statistics show.
That spectacular hour in Heap's boat came during the week of June 24-30, when 580 anglers fishing in private boats kept 592 chinook, for a catch rate of slightly more than one chinook a person.
Charter boats that week did even better, with 25 customers boating 38 chinook, for a catch rate of 1.52 chinook per angler.
On Thursday and Friday of that week, Heap launched at the port around 7:30 a.m., "and already there were boats coming in with limits from the early-morning bite," he says.
"Everybody was catching fish," Heap says.
Last season, Brookings was Oregon's best chinook port by far, reversing a trend that saw three straight years of dismal chinook fishing in the ocean. More than 2 million chinook were estimated to have been in the waters off Southern Oregon last year.
The reason for the long and fruitful season was that ocean currents kept water off the Southern Oregon coast in the low 50s most of the season, bringing with it plenty of bait fish and chinook. Just as important, a relatively calm summer helped generate far more fishable days than the previous three seasons, which saw more rough, nonfishable days than days on the water.
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 if the weather cooperates.
During the early part of the season, most of the Oregon-bound chinook still were off the coast of Northern California. At the end of June, conditions here finally brought them north. The north winds ebbed, water temperatures hovered in the low 50s and the waters teemed with krill, salmon's favorite food. When that slight south wind arose, fishing turned into catching in the water off Brookings.
"There's a whole series of variables," Heap says. "The fish were here and the krill were here, and we all just went nuts."
Anglers who packed the port's cleaning station made some strange discoveries.
"Their stomachs were almost painfully stretched," Heap says. "You wonder why a fish with a stomach that full would still bite."
But as the ocean can giveth, it also can taketh away.
Last week, the winds came out of the north again, and catches waned. Still, catch rates out of Brookings were better than most.
Creel checkers showed that 526 anglers on private boats caught 157 chinook and 52 coho, for an overall catch rate of .4 fish per angler. The charter-boat patrons fared better, with 29 people catching 23 chinook and five fin-clipped coho, for a catch rate of almost one salmon per rod.
"When we get a south wind, we'll be back on," Heap says. "I think we'll see it again, if we get the ocean to lay down just right."