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'Fish on!'

BROOKINGS — After motoring his 21-foot boat called "Reel Time" for the better part of an hour through sloppy seas on Wednesday, Frank Castro believes he's found his favored fishing grounds.

He's in almost 200 feet of water and the waypoints on his navigational electronics match where Castro caught a boat-load of chinook salmon just four days earlier.

Del Baumbach, Castro's fishing partner, attaches his fishing line to a downrigger that drops a spinning anchovy and flasher downward. The boat's gurgling at a chinook-friendly 2.5 mph as Baumbach stops the downrigger at 25 feet.

"All right, we're fishing now," Castro bellows.

Before Baumbach can even get the rod butt into a holder, the line detaches from the downrigger and the reel starts singing.

"Well, that was quick," says Baumbach, 46, of Brookings. "Fish on!"

That's become the most popular refrain of the summer for ocean anglers out of Brookings who are enjoying the best chinook salmon fishing season in more than a decade and thereby reclaiming their title as Oregon's top chinook port.

After two sickly fishing seasons, this summer chinook season outside of Brookings has exploded to a point where landings through Aug. 12 were just shy of 5,000 chinook, well over half the 9,014 chinook landed at all Oregon ports through that time.

In just the week ending Aug. 12, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's creel checker stationed at the Port of Brookings-Harbor counted 1,037 chinook. That's 21/2 times the haul for the entire 2010 season.

The Reel Time is responsible for 30 of those chinook, caught by Castro, Baumbach and a cadre of friends who join them on trips like this one.

Sucking on a Camel, Castro snorts and giggles as he drops the motor into neutral and readies to net Baumbach's catch.

It's a coho, or silver, salmon. The coho quota has been reached statewide and the season's over, so this fish gets a quick in-water release from the barbless hook and fins away.

"Those silvers are fun to play with, but that's not what we're here for," says Castro, 58, of Brookings.

It's been a while since the waters off Brookings have been the place to be. But a series of factors aligned this year to make Castro's fishing dreams reality.

The chinook season off the Southern Oregon and Northern California coasts are managed to protect the region's weakest chinook run, the Klamath River. To do so, chinook-fishing opportunities ebb and flow at sea because anglers can't tell the difference between a Klamath-bound chinook or one headed to the Rogue, Sacramento, Chetco or other rivers.

A poor preseason forecast for the Klamath means a poor ocean season. Good forecast? Good season.

This year's estimate of 1.6 million Klamath chinook heading to that river is the highest in more than 30 years. And when you add in a preseason estimate of 819,400 fall chinook returning to the Sacramento River, also a major infuser of ocean chinook schools here, the result is the most liberal chinook season in decades, which opened in early May and runs through Sept. 9.

Still, those fish have to show up to matter, and they have, chasing krill in cool waters of 52-54 degrees in currents so close to Brookings they're nearly spooning the coastline. Chinook have been caught from the Chetco River jetty out to 10 miles, but chinook-friendly water seemingly is everywhere.

Even thresher sharks, sea lions and the occasional orca have figured it out.

"Those guys have the perfect water for chinook feeding right off the coast," says Steve Mazur, an ODFW fish biologist in nearby Gold Beach. "I can't believe it's still going.

"I can't believe those guys aren't tired of salmon," Mazur says.

After a few more released coho and a lull in the action, Castro tires of running into coho.

He motors the Reel Time closer to a shoreline shrouded in fog. A cloud of salmon appear on his fish finder as he instructs Baumbach to drop one of the downriggers to 37 feet.

"Ooooh, now I've found you," Castro sings to the screen. "OK. Bite Me!"

Seconds later, the anchovy spinning at 37 feet pays off. Castro fights and boats the day's first chinook, a 14-pounder so bright it looks like it's painted with glitter.

"Not bad, not bad," Castro says. "We want something bigger."

But that's a tall order.

The spring forecast estimates as many as 1.56 million of those Klamath-bound chinook are 3-year-old fish that weigh anywhere from 8 pounds to about 14 pounds — not the 30-plus pounders often sought at sea.

The Reel Time's fish box this summer reflects that. The chinook have averaged 13 pounds. The biggest was just 22 pounds.

"It looks like they were pretty close in their estimates for the Sacramento and Klamath rivers," says Brandon Ford, ODFW's marine program spokesman.

There's plenty more reel time on the Reel Time this day.

Castro keeps his two downriggers busy, meticulously baiting the anchovy with beads and a small spinner blade while Baumbach follows the speed and direction barked out by Castro.

He repeatedly checks his catch logs for location and direction for trolling while a perpetual Camel burns between his lips that sing to the salmon.

He sets a downrigger at 60 feet, and the chinook all but fly into the boat.

In all, the Reel Time's four anglers end up with five chinook all 14 to 16 pounds, with one more released and several others hooked up but lost.

The Reel Time's up to 35 chinook gracing its fish box, with three weekends to go.

Castro hoots and cackles as he cradles the chinook while Baumbach makes room in the fish box filled by Castro's skill and a very amenable ocean.

"The instructional video," Castro says, "is now over."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman

Silver salmon were as plentiful as chinook off the Southern Oregon Coast Wednesday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch