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BROOKINGS — Rich Heap and other salty dogs from the Brookings area set out in 2011 to learn whether they could catch enough Pacific halibut to make it worth their time, especially when chinook salmon seasons are in a lull.

So they motored over the Chetco River bar, hung a right and ran about 14 miles north until they were even with the Thomas Creek Bridge. At 345 feet tall, it's Oregon's tallest bridge, so they couldn't miss it.

Then they headed due west into water from 180 feet to 200 feet deep, dropped the biggest herring they could find and drifted it over the flat bottom.

"To me, it was like trying to hit a leaf in your yard," says Heap, of Brookings. "You know there are leaves out there, they're just hard to hit.

"Then we started to hit them," Heap says. "Of course, we thought that was pretty cool."

By the following year, anglers like Heap were raking in Pacific halibut during a season that ran for six cool months with no quota.

Now Southern Oregon halibut anglers are about to discover what it means to have too much of a good thing.

In response to the skyrocketing halibut catch in Southern Oregon and California, federal fish managers are recommending that the ports of Brookings and Gold Beach be placed into their own halibut sub-area and for the first time have a catch quota.

As part of its suite of halibut seasons and rules for 2014, the National Marine Fisheries Service has recommended that anglers fishing the newly created Southern Oregon sub-area between Humbug Mountain and the California border do so under a 3,712-pound quota — less than one-third of last year's catch.

If adopted as expected by NMFS and finalized Feb. 25 by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, the season will still open May 1, but it will close once that poundage quota is hit or on the traditional season shutdown date of Oct. 31, whichever comes first.

If this quota was in place during last year's record catch of 12,955 pounds out of Brookings and Gold Beach alone, anglers would have blown through the quota in the first six weeks of the season.

The new format has the support of Heap and other members of Oregon South Coast Fishermen, who are glad now to have their own fishery that's not lumped in with catches from California — or worse, with Central Oregon ports such as Newport.

Brookings is the king of Oregon's chinook ports, but Pacific halibut could move from one-time court jester to a chinook stand-in.

"We want to use halibut as a backstop that gives us a fishery when we're not fishing salmon," Heap says. "We'll have to fish that for a year or two to figure out how we catch them, then make adjustments."

Southern Oregon has always been thought to be near the southern end of Pacific halibut range, so it's never gotten much attention from anglers or halibut regulators.

It was broken off from the south of Florence halibut angling area and given a season on its own in 1997, largely because far more halibut fishing occurs north of here, and the local catch always had been insignificant.

California was added two years ago to make a halibut zone that ran from Humbug Mountain near Port Orford to Mexico.

The area never had a quota per se. The season always had fixed dates, but it was based on a catch estimate much the same way Southern Oregon's summer chinook salmon seasons are set.

It never seemed to make any difference when — as recently as 2010 — the Oregon catch totaled barely enough to make a colored graphic during PowerPoint presentations at the International Pacific Halibut Commission meetings.

Taking the lead from Eureka, Calif., anglers who discovered Pacific halibut in 2008, Heap and others set out to give it a try.

Then the boys started dialing in where to go and how to catch them, and 2011 became the Year of the Halibut off the Southern Oregon Coast. The catch soared to about 10,000 pounds of halibut, made up of fish that average from 14 to 18 pounds.

As the 2011 season was winding down, the International Pacific Halibut Commission saw the landings for both California and Southern Oregon and decided to form a working group to see what was happening and recommend changes if needed.

Last year was the last straw. Southern Oregon and California anglers were targeted collectively to catch 6,063 pounds of halibut, but the projected total catch was more than 50,000 pounds, according to NMFS.

Now, California is broken off and has its own catch target, but that state doesn't do creel checks as intensely as Oregon does. Its season will run May 1 through Oct. 31, with no fishing in August.

The new formula would give the Southern Oregon sub-area a quota equal to 2 percent of the quota allocated to Oregon's Central Coast nearshore fishery — the season off Central Oregon inside the 40-fathom line.

Because it is based on a percentage, Southern Oregon's new quota will adjust seasonally. This year, it's 3,712 pounds. For perspective, anglers fishing out of Brookings alone landed 3,808 pounds of Pacific halibut in one mid-July week.

"I don't think we'll see the day again when we're fishing into October," Heap says.

Because Gold Beach and Brookings have creel-checkers taking real-time data on landings, Oregon can quickly respond to any in-season changes and shut down the season when the quota is reached.

California doesn't check all of its ports for halibut landings, so that state is better suited for a fixed-dates approach.

The change could be a tough pill to swallow for Southern Oregon anglers who took years to figure out how to take advantage of this formerly wide-open season on halibut.

The Brookings Armada doesn't fish just off the Thomas Creek Bridge anymore. Last year, the halibut bite was good off Bird Island, which is much closer to Brookings.

Heap says anglers have caught them in the ribbon of 180- to 200-foot water between the two, so the Thomas Creek Bridge run is no longer Brookings' worst-kept secret.

"At the time, it looked to us like it was go out, drop (a bait) and hope for the best," Heap says. "It was all about having the confidence to try it."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Paul LeFebvre of Brookings shows off a halibut caught north of Brookings near the Thomas Creek Bridge. - Courtesy of Andy Martin