BROOKINGS — Word that spring chinook salmon fishing was slow in the lower Rogue River bay recently sent Hugh Fechtler looking elsewhere for a little weekend fishing fun with his two sons.
He bought a handful of jigs and motored his boat over the Chetco River bar for a little bottomfishing action on a glassy ocean day. Instantly, the black rockfish, lingcod and vermilion made them happy they didn't stay on land.
"It was just awesome," says Fechtler, of Rogue River. "I was so busy working the net for them that I had no time to fish."
Their two days of early April bottomfishing had the Fechtlers forgetting what they initially sought.
"If you want to take your kids out where they won't be bored and will catch something, take them bottomfishing," he says. "That's where the action is. Besides, they're tasty."
Whether they like it or not, recreational anglers looking for some time at sea this summer will be mimicking the Fechtlers by steering away from salmon and focusing on bottomfish.
A near shut-down of ocean salmon angling this season means bottomfish will garner ocean anglers' attention in greater percentages this year, but whether that translates into higher catches and mid-season shutdowns remains a mystery.
Citing concerns over diminished Sacramento River chinook, the Pacific Fishery Management Council earlier this month shut down recreational and commercial fishing for chinook salmon along the Oregon and California coasts. Oregon's only summer salmon season south of Cape Falcon is for fin-clipped coho salmon, with fishing opening June 22 and closing once anglers catch their 9,000-fish quota.
The only recreational ocean-fishing for chinook likely will be two short seasons this fall off the mouths of the Chetco and Elk rivers.
That puts the pressure on bottomfish to whet anglers' appetites.
Salmon anglers eschewing their flashers and hoochis in favor of jigs could put enough pressure on rockfish to trigger mid-season closures if weather conditions and success rates threaten state-imposed quotas on these species.
But the salmon ills could actually help bottomfishers.
"My initial thought after the salmon closure was that we could be in trouble fairly early with bottomfish," Bandon charterboat operator Wayne Butler says. "But a lot of people who go salmon fishing go bottomfishing that same trip anyway."
Though anecdotal, Butler's observation seems to be supported by catch rates. During years with severe cutbacks or closures to recreational salmon fishing off the Oregon coast, bottomfish catches also show declines.
"So we may not see a steep increase," Butler says.
"Chances are likely we'll end up closed before the end of the year," he says. "My hope is we make it through the Labor Day weekend."
Problems with rockfish numbers have plagued Oregon anglers and fish managers throughout this decade, during which concerns over boosting these slow-growing species led to bag-limit cutbacks and the first-ever mid-season closures in 2004 after state-imposed quotas were met.
After unprecedented mid-season closures in 2004 and 2005, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission dropped the bag limit on black and blue rockfish to six per day. That helped anglers limp through the 2006 season, largely thanks to bad weather that kept efforts down.
A harvest cap of 359 metric tons for black and blue rockfish made 2007 look ripe for a closure. But an explosion of tuna fishing off Oregon's central and northern coastal ports took a lot of pressure off rockfish species.
Tuna came as close as four miles offshore at Depoe Bay and eight miles from the Chetco River mouth at times, close enough for anglers in small boats to get into the tuna action on calm days.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife statistics show that anglers caught not only 50,000 albacore, they also landed blue-fin tuna, thresher shark and the first Dorado ever documented in Oregon.
The result was that, to date, anglers caught just 71 percent of the black and blue rockfish quota.
Those incredible tuna-fishing days might not be on the horizon this year, largely because the ocean currents that pushed those species are not expected to be repeated this summer.
Still, coastal dwellers plan to prospect the south coast seas for tuna and another under-fished species here — halibut — and that could create excitement lost with the salmon season.
Mike Ramsay, owner of the Sporthaven Marina at the mouth of the Chetco River, says he and others plan to look for schools of tuna early in the season, as well as pockets of Pacific halibut, a species so rarely fished off the Brookings area that Southern Oregon has a season May through October with no poundage quota.
"We're going to push hard to figure out where the halibut are," Ramsay says. "I think I can get five or six boats of guys out there and we ought to be able to find them. That could certainly draw some interest."
Butler says he and others hope to explore fishing opportunities for other near-shore flat fish like sanddab and starry flounder.