EAGLE POINT — Richard Hergenrether's fishing float Tuesday along a popular stretch of the upper Rogue River tells all about how this year's dismal spring chinook salmon season has played out.

EAGLE POINT — Richard Hergenrether's fishing float Tuesday along a popular stretch of the upper Rogue River tells all about how this year's dismal spring chinook salmon season has played out.

In normal years, driftboaters are lined up at places like the Takelma Boat Ramp at "O-Dark Thirty," that moment well before dawn which can make or break the day's success.

O-Dark Thirty oarsmen row downstream with flashlights in their mouths, feeling their way through rapids in the race to be the first in honey holes teeming with fat, tasty spring chinook.

On Tuesday, O-Dark Thirty could have been 11 a.m. for Hergenrether, a Grants Pass-based fishing guide. His clients hooked and released one wild chinook while fishing more than five hours without seeing another driftboat.

"From Takelma on down, I was the only boat on the river here until lunch time," says Hergenrether.

By Sunday, there will be none.

The spring chinook season mercifully ends Saturday night along 26 miles of the upper Rogue, which is mired in another poor fishing season exacerbated by low returns of wild chinook.

Beginning Sunday, the stretch from the Rogue Elk Boat Ramp downstream to Gold Ray Dam will be off-limits to all chinook fishing. That's a month earlier than the normal closure and similar to last year's shut-down during a similarly dismal wild chinook return.

The remaining five miles of the upper Rogue will stay open for fin-clipped chinook only through July under emergency closures designed to protect the wild chinook that have reached the upper Rogue so far this season.

Projections of just 4,274 wild spring chinook reaching the upper Rogue to spawn this year would pull the wild chinook's three-year average below 5,000 fish. That triggers the mid-season emergency closures as outlined by the draft Rogue River Spring Chinook Management Plan.

"It's a three-year run that nobody wants to see," says Dan VanDyke, the Rogue District fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The closure keeps anglers away from wild chinook holding in deep holes around Shady Cove and instead focuses fishing on far upper Rogue holes where hatchery fish are more prevalent.

"This is the best way we've thought of to provide maximum spawning escapement while still allowing folks access to hatchery fish," VanDyke says.

It's a closure many anglers grudgingly accept. Rogue anglers are known for choosing to preserve their river's salmon runs over fishing should the latter hurt the former.

"If it's needed, it's needed," says Kern Grieve, 66, who is a patriarch of sorts for the upper Rogue's salmon-fishing community. "If it's not, it hurts us."

The need, and the hurt, were apparent Tuesday along the soon-to-close stretch of the Rogue.

Grieve's group of fishers boated and killed just one hatchery chinook, proudly displayed by angler Billy White on the Takelma ramp.

Normally, parking, snapping photographs and cleaning salmon on the ramps are frowned-upon activities while other boaters wait impatiently for access.

Tuesday, there were no others.

The lack of fishers is directly proportional to the lack of fish.

With just 7,530 spring chinook counted over Gold Ray Dam through June 22, there are barely enough salmon around this spring to energize the river and its anglers.

"I saw one other fish at Horseshoe Bend," Hergenrether says of a hole downstream of Dodge Bridge. "And I was fishing hard, too."

And that's it for Hergenrether, who expects to hang up his salmon rods this week and call the spring chinook season over.

"I guess I'll have to start steelhead fishing," he says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.