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Big Klamath chinook count foreshadows good year

It's the best of times and the worst of times for wild Klamath River fall chinook salmon, and that means better — but not great — fishing seasons are on the horizon for anglers on both sides of the border.

Federal fish managers estimate that more than half a million 3-year-old wild Klamath chinook are alive and finning in the ocean now. That's an all-time record and 12 times higher than last year, when a dearth of Klamath chinook led to wholesale commercial fishing closures and a tight sport season.

The estimate is good news for many reasons and to many people. And in a roundabout way, it is a foreshadowing of a spring chinook salmon season on the Rogue River that will likely will bring more happier, but smaller, returns than last year.

First, more Klamath salmon likely means higher sport and commercial quotas in the Klamath Management Zone as the Pacific Fishery Management Council meets this week in Sacramento to hash out season options for this spring and summer.

When crafting seasons off Southern Oregon and Northern California, the PFMC puts heavy weight on estimates of the Klamath's wild 3-year-old chinook because the majority of Klamath chinook mature at age 3 and head up-river at 12-15 pounds apiece.

Federal law demands that 35,000 salmon escape all angling to spawn in the Klamath Basin each fall, and the 3-year-olds dominate that "escapement."

The PFMC estimates that a repeat of last year's season would allow 65,300 adults to return to the Klamath for spawning this year. So ocean anglers, and those who rely on them, can expect a reward for last year's pain by receiving longer seasons and higher quotas.

"It's looking real good across the board this year," says Wayne Butler, a Bandon charterboat operator. "After the catastrophe of last year, it's amazing to see such a huge turnaround in one year.

"There should be great fishing south of (Port Orford)," Butler says. "If there's that many salmon, you can't help but stumble into them."

All those 12- to 15-pound salmon now hovering off Northern California and Southern Oregon also suggest that woeful ocean conditions that have depressed wild and hatchery returns of salmon and steelhead could be well on the mend.

"It's a pretty good indicator that ocean-survival rates have gone up, but, of course, that's a relative term," says Tom Satterthwaite, a fisheries scientist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Things have been pretty poor for the past three or four brood years."

Improved ocean conditions are a must for wholesale rebounds to wild and hatchery returns, Satterthwaite says. Despite their importance in the equation, exactly what causes good or bad ocean conditions remains unpredictable.

"It's a cycle," he says. "You have the ups and the downs, but we haven't figured out the causative factors for the ups and downs."

But all is still not well in the salmon world.

Even the rosiest pre-season PFMC stock assessment reports have a dose of cold water hidden in them somewhere. This time, that somewhere is a phrase just 12 words away from the mention of the all-time best forecast for returning 3-year-old wild Klamath chinook.

The abundance estimate of 4-year-old wild Klamath chinook is just 26,100 fish — the lowest on record.

That's no surprise, Satterthwaite says, because this year's 4-year-old wild chinook were born in 2003, the same year from last year's dismal Klamath return of 3-year-old wild chinook. They just matured a year later.

The dismal crop of 4-year-old Klamath chinook has little impact on the ocean fishing because the glut of younger fish more than overcompensates for it.

Ironically, is speaks louder about what's about to happen on the Rogue River in coming months.

The Rogue's wild spring chinook salmon survival rates tend to track well with wild Klamath chinook, when comparing year classes.

But the Rogue's wild spring chinook return is dominated by 4-year-old fish, which comprise as much as half the run on any given year, Satterthwaite says.

Just 15 percent of the wild Rogue spring chinook run are 3-year-old salmon.

That means what should be the bulk of the wild run —those 20-plus pound, 4-year-old wild springers so beloved to Rogue anglers — likely won't be here this spring.

But hidden inside that dung heap stands at least one pretty respectable donkey.

The hatchery run of Rogue spring chinook is dominated by 3-year-old fish — the same fish born and rearing in the ocean with those half-million wild Klamath fish.

Given that Rogue and Klamath brood years track, the guess is there are mega-schools of hatchery spring chinook outside the Rogue right now.

They might not be big fish. But after last year, who's going to quibble that the Rogue springers they keep catching are a mere 14 pounds this season?

"There's a possibility for a significant amount of those 3-year-old hatchery fish back," Satterthwaite says. "So this year's looking a little better for the freshwater fishermen."

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