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World records

True fish stories

Giant chinook salmon take a bite out of record books ' starting at 57&

189; lbs.

When Don Shangle caught a 57&

189; -pound fall chinook salmon Aug. 14 in the lower Rogue River, it became a fish of a lifetime with a shelf life shorter than a fresh fillet.

At the time, Shangle's salmon eclipsed anything Rogue anglers had caught in at least three decades, generating a big-fish buzz up the Rogue.

It was the first and the biggest, Shangle says. But that only lasted a damn week.

Seven days later, someone caught a 65-pounder. As the fall season progressed, the Rogue yielded so many huge chinook that Shangle's salmon of a lifetime has become just a footnote in perhaps the most incredible string of chinook catches ever recorded in salmon-happy Southern Oregon.

The recent run of fall chinook salmon here sported so many unusually huge fish that 2002 became the Year of the Chinook, that rare time when the best fish stories were not about the ones that got away.

In a five-week span, three anglers on the Rogue and nearby Chetco rivers set chinook fly-fishing world records that hadn't been touched since the 1980s. All three of those fish out-weighed record chinook caught in Alaska, the supposed big-salmon capital of North America.

And a Redding, Calif., angler netted the largest chinook ever caught by a sport-angler in California waters as it swam in the ocean north past Crescent City toward ' where else? ' Southern Oregon.

In one short season, a river made famous by Zane Grey for its steelhead became the hot spot to hook a huge chinook.

It used to be that a 40-pound fish got a lot of attention, says Sam Waller, a Gold Beach guide and a Jot's Resort tackle-shop clerk. This year, it had to be at least 50 pounds for anyone to even notice.

Most notable of all is the 71&

189; -pound chinook that Grant Martinsen of Grants Pass caught Oct. 21 in the lower Rogue. The fish, which Martinsen almost cut into steaks before weighing on a certified scale, was one of three posted this weekend by the International Game Fish Association as pending world fly-fishing records from the Rogue and Chetco, near Brookings.

This is all a bit more than I expected, says Martinsen, 57. All I expected was a few good dinners, not a world record.

No one factor is responsible for Martinsen's monster chinook, or the dozens of others surpassing 50 pounds. Most likely, it's a combination of phenomena and events that together conspired to make this year's great salmon.

The big fish are the genetically superior chinook that return to freshwater after five years on the ocean ' meaning they must survive infancy in the river then four years of commercial and recreational fishing before returning to their home rivers to spawn.

Few of the super-salmon survived that much pressure in past decades. But a crash in salmon seasons in the 1980s curbed ocean fishing so dramatically that 21st century salmon have a far greater chance to run the gauntlet, says Russ Stauff, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Gold Beach.

Those fish that did run the gauntlet in recent years found great ocean conditions producing abundant food, allowing the normally big fish to pack on extra weight, Stauff says.

But why so many super-salmon in 2002? A possibility, Stauff says, is that the New Year's flood of 1997 swept away the Rogue chinook eggs except for those laid in the deepest and most sturdy of gravel egg nests, called redds. Those deep redds were dug by the biggest of the 1996 spawning year ' the largest and oldest chinook.

This higher concentration of genetic mega-salmon spent their five ocean years amid some great feeding conditions and limited chances of getting caught by sport and commercial anglers. After five years of gorging themselves in the ocean, those fat flood survivors headed upriver to spawn in 2002.

I think it's likely that combination of factors, Stauff says. Truthfully, though, we really don't know exactly why we're seeing these extraordinarily huge fish.

Regardless of whether sport-anglers buy Stauff's explanation, future fishermen will have to measure their successes against the 2002 chinook.

They're going to talk about the big fish from this year for years to come, says Jim Dunlevy, a Medford-based fishing guide whose clients this year caught the seven largest fish of his 13-year guiding career. I know I'll be telling these stories.

And these stories are not your average fish tales. They come verified by photographs, tape measures and certified scales.

First came Shangle, whose 57&

189; -pounder was the largest chinook seen in the Rogue in more than two decades. And for the first time, talk of a 60-pounder in the Rogue seemed legit.

Everyone was like, wow, there really are fish like this in the Rogue, and maybe we can get a 60-pounder, says Shangle, a 48-year-old car buyer for Lithia Motors in Medford.

Maybe quickly became reality, first just south of the border. Frank Cox of Redding, Calif., hooked a 65-pound salmon Aug. 21 off Crescent City and immediately dropped to his knees ' not in homage to the chinook, but because he was afraid he would fall off pal Ed Easton's 20-foot boat. Eventually, the fish joined Cox in the boat, not vice-versa.

We got the fish onto the floor of the boat and we thought, holy cow, Cox says. This is not normal.

Then 10 days later came Steve Perry, a Reedsport tackle dealer. Perry caught a 66-pound chinook while bank-fishing in the lower Rogue. It not only drew the Northwest's spotlight on Gold Beach but it also sold a lot of Perry Mag Spinners ' the lure that hooked the whopper salmon.

There's a lot of people out there trying to copy my lures, but this will take care of a lot of those copycats, Perry said at the time.

Less than a month later, Perry's spinners were out and little black flies were in.

That's what Martinsen used to hook and boat his 71&

189; -pound chinook in the lower Rogue. It not only is the pending world fly-fishing record for 8-pound test leader, it is also the largest chinook ever caught on any sized line.

Pictures of Martinsen and the record fish ran Page One across the Northwest, thrusting the shy former Grants Pass High School football coach and biology teacher into angling's global spotlight.

Even the British Broadcasting Corporation called me for a live radio interview about that fish, Martinsen says. It's crazy, but a guy just has to realize that's what happens with fish like this.

Despite it all, fishermen such as Waller can't resist the mystique of the salmon seen but never weighed.

Waller, of Gold Beach, watched Bob Youngman of Redding hook a salmon that Waller insists was the biggest of the year.

The fish came to the surface once and checked us out, Waller says. He looked like an alligator.

The fishing line, unfortunately, broke when it entangled in a snag.

We estimated that fish to weigh 75-77 pounds, Waller says. But, of course, that's just another fish story.

Here are the fly-fishing world records for chinook salmon set in Southern Oregon this year that are now pending final verification by the Florida-based International Game Fish Association, which certifies angling fly-fishing and all-tackle records for freshwater and saltwater.

IGFA categorizes records based on the pound-test strength of the monofilament leader.

8-pound leader ' 71&

189; pounds, caught by Grant Martinsen, Grants Pass, in October 2002 on the Rogue River

. Previous record: 52&

189; pounds caught in November 1982 in the Chetco River.

12-pound leader '

60&

189; pounds, caught by Loyd Price, Roseburg, in October 2002 on the Chetco River. Also, 57&

188; pounds, caught by Larry Cullens, Atwater, Calif., in September 2002 on the Rogue River.*

Previous record: 56 pounds, 14 ounces, caught July 1989 in Alaska's Kenia River.

16-pound leader '

63 pounds (current world overall fly-fishing record), by Bill Rhoades, Madras, in November 1987 on the Trask River.

*Since Cullens' fish came a month before Price's fish, it will be listed as a record that was then beaten.

Above: A combination of good ocean conditions, reductions in fishing seasons and other factors have made 2002 the year of the Super Salmon ? meaning dozens of chinook surpassing 50 pounds.