After 15 years behind the Costco photo counter in Medford creating snapshots of Rogue Valley fishing adventures, Laurie Stovall finally produced a Kodak moment of her own.

After 15 years behind the Costco photo counter in Medford creating snapshots of Rogue Valley fishing adventures, Laurie Stovall finally produced a Kodak moment of her own.

"Look at this," says Stovall, showing an image of her holding a fall chinook salmon in front of the Highway 101 bridge across the lower Rogue River bay.

"I've been trying to catch a salmon for 10 years, and I finally got one," Stovall says. "That was my first time in the bay. I can't wait to get back."

The lower Rogue bay is producing many firsts this year, and the river is living up to its preseason expectation as coastal Oregon's best fishery for wild fall chinook in an otherwise slow season.

After five straight years of dismal chinook fishing, the August fishery in the Rogue's estuary at Gold Beach is shaping up better than expected — and much better than other rivers with tighter catch restrictions.

A combination of better-than-expected early returns of wild chinook and consistent activity make the Rogue's bay the best place to catch wild chinook this month.

"The fishing has been pretty good. The best since '04, anyway," says Todd Confer, Gold Beach district fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"It's been a pretty good turn-around after a few years of really, really slow fishing," Confer says. "There's been a lot more happy people out there this year."

A string of years with poor ocean-survival rates earlier this decade created poor returns and even poorer catches coastwide in recent years. Ocean conditions have rebounded the past two-plus years, however, and future returns of wild salmon and steelhead are expected to reflect those improvements.

The 2009 run is the last one that will be dominated by salmon that suffered through poor ocean conditions in 2005 and 2006. So ODFW fish managers ratcheted down the overall wild chinook bag limit coastwide.

Low pre-season forecasts led to fall chinook fishing bans in rivers such as the Winchuck, and curtailed seasons on rivers such as the Chetco. On other streams, the number of wild chinook that anglers could kill went down to as low as one a day and two a season.

But the Rogue's all-wild run was forecast to be 21,500 fish — far lower than the six-digit returns of earlier this decade but good enough to keep the two-fish daily limit with a season limit of 10.

The season began with glass-half-full expectations that the Rogue would be slow for wild chinook, but not as slow as elsewhere.

Then a funning thing happened on the way to the pity-party.

"It started out pretty good and the effort has stayed up," says Confer, whose office is in the Port of Gold Beach overlooking the Rogue.

That includes Stovall, whose first day on the bay Aug. 14 opened with a bang when a 171/2-pound chinook bit her anchovy while trolling between the jetties.

"It was so exciting," she says. "I'm used to catching trout, where you hook them and just reel them in. This thing pulled so hard. I'd get it to the boat and it would run away taking out line.

"That was a great fight," she says. "I loved it."

She loved it even more the following day when she hooked and boated a 20-pounder.

"I swear it was 40 pounds," she says. "My muscles are so sore. But it was so much fun."

Almost as much fun as finally joining the proud anglers at the Costco photo counter passing around pictures of their catches as if they are pictures of newborn grandchildren.

"Some of the guys have been asking if I'm going to blow it up to a poster," Stovall says. "I'm not. But I do get to show my picture off."

The early run of fall chinook tend to be headed for the Applegate River and the middle Rogue, where fishing has just started to pick up.

Chinook will continue into the Rogue as late as early December, when fish bound for lower Rogue tributaries hit fresh water.

Anglers, however, will continue to troll the bay into September, when cooler water temperatures mean the chinook spend less time holding in the estuary before heading upstream.

Stovall plans to head back to the bay over Labor Day Weekend to add to her growing collage of chinook shots.

"I can't wait to go back." Stovall says. "I'm so addicted now."

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