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Anglers eagerly await arrival of spring chinook in upper Rogue

Like many Rogue Valley residents, Steve De Carlo gets captivated by the prospects of catching the big, tough and tasty chinook salmon that return to the upper Rogue River each spring.

So the 23-year-old Medford firefighter heads up the Rogue to the Hatchery Hole, the one spot on the entire Rogue ' possibly in the entire Northwest ' where he's most likely to catch a spring chinook.

This is the candy store of the salmon-fishing world, De Carlo says as he ties a hook onto his line Tuesday afternoon. It is the place to go.

The spring chinook are on their way, and they're better a little late than never for De Carlo and the hordes of boat and bait anglers waiting for the widely popular run of salmon to reach the upper Rogue.

The run of wild and hatchery-bred fish is running a few weeks behind schedule, likely the product of lower Rogue water conditions that literally kept the salmon at bay without triggering regular upstream bursts of chinook schools..

— But the first two weeks of May mark the peak days for spring chinook entering the lower Rogue, and more salmon-friendly water conditions likely have helped the chinook get back on schedule.

Waters from Gold Beach to Gold Hill are starting to boil with fresh salmon now, meaning the salmon should soon start hitting the upper Rogue in force.

I had five fish by this day last year, and none so far this season, De Carlo says. But they're coming.

And the anglers will be going ' straight up Highway 62 to the Cole Rivers Hatchery dike, where they'll stand shoulder-to-shoulder casting for the Northwest's most prized game fish.

I think by Saturday or Sunday, this place is going to be hot, De Carlo says.

Once the Hatchery Hole gets hot, it likely will stay hot.

As the last spot in the river before hatchery salmon fin into the Cole Rivers' concrete raceway, the waters along the hatchery dike often sport hundreds of chinook.

This slice of water had been closed to fishing since the hatchery was built in 1972 because fish stack up there so heavily it was thought that anglers would get a better than ethical edge at hooking these tough-to-catch salmon.

With excess numbers of adult chinook returning each year, the ODFW in 2001 opened the Hatchery Hole so Oregonians could take home more of these excess salmon instead of seeing them sold to a seafood processor.

Fish biologists estimated that anglers caught 3,000 spring chinook in the Hatchery Hole in 2001 alone, making it perhaps the most productive 200 yards of salmon water in the Northwest.

It's doing exactly what our intentions are ' increase harvest of hatchery fish, Cole Rivers Hatchery manager Randy Robart says. These fish are paid for by taxpayers, and they should get a good chance to catch them.

But Hatchery Hole catches appear to be so heavy that it is has created a dramatic effect on where Oregonians go to catch spring chinook.

Anglers normally catch anywhere from about 7,000 to more than 11,000 spring chinook in the Rogue annually, with harvest levels rising and falling based on numbers of returning fish and fishing conditions.

From 1995 through 2000, 24 percent ' or one out of every four spring chinook ' were caught in the upper Rogue, with the remaining all caught between Gold Ray Dam and the sea.

But rough data from salmon-steelhead tags collected from anglers in 2001-02, the first two years of Hatchery Hole angling, seem to tell a vastly different story.

The raw data shows that 62 percent ' or two out of three ' of Rogue spring chinook were caught upstream of Gold Ray Dam.

I just about fell out of my chair when I saw those numbers, says Tom Satterthwaite, an ODFW fish researcher who has worked on the Rogue more than 20 years. The proportion of fish harvested above Gold Ray Dam has gone through the roof, and it lines up with the stories that there's always people carrying fish out of the Hatchery Hole.

With extra hatchery fish in the mix, this year's run is expected to be better than the 10-year average of 36,454 spring chinook over Gold Ray Dam.

But how many get carried away from the Hatchery Hole this year likely will be less than the past three years.

A new ban on Hatchery Hole angling after 7 p.m. is expected to trim harvest there by about one-third, Robart says.

Like elsewhere in Oregon, Hatchery Hole angling used to close one hour after sunset. But drunken lawlessness, illegal angling and other problems prompted the ODFW to enact the early closure because most problems occurred in the evenings.

I'd guess 1,000 of those 3,000 fish were caught after 7 p.m., says Robart, the hatchery manager. It was always red-hot in the evening, just like the early morning.

Despite the early closure, Hatchery Hole successes continue to draw anglers from far away places as well as altering the fishing regimens of locals.

Terry Allen, 50, says she and her husband Randy have dragged a trailer from their Klamath Falls home to fish the upper Rogue, where they fish all May and June.

In the past, the couple would fish at several upper Rogue holes. Now they rarely venture off the Hatchery Hole dike.

My son says this place has spoiled him, Allen says. He won't go down the river in a driftboat any more. The only place he goes is here.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail