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In search of wild coho

FLORENCE — Terry Robinson had the formula last fall for catching wild coho salmon in Siltcoos Lake, one of only two Oregon waterways where anglers can legally catch and keep wild coho.

Motoring along the lake edges in a bass boat, Robinson paid careful attention to small tributaries like Fiddler Creek that flow into this lake amid the sand dunes outside Florence. Peering across the surface, Robinson spied faint whisps of movement in the still water, revealing the presence of big salmon.

"It's unlike any other kind of salmon fishing," says Robinson, of Springfield. "You find the feeder creeks and if you see rolling coho, you cast flies or lures into them."

His casts, however, went unrewarded. That's not surprising, because it takes, on average, 41 hours of fishing to catch one tight-lipped adult wild coho in Siltcoos, a fine example for why anglers call this fishing and not catching.

But the truly powerful export of Siltcoos' wild coho fishery isn't what leaves here in a cooler.

The now-open season at Siltcoos and nearby Tahkenitch lakes are offering arguments for expanding wild coho fisheries to the other coastal waterways, including possibly the Rogue River bay at Gold Beach — even though wild Rogue coho are protected as a threatened species.

Now in its fifth year, the Siltcoos season was crafted when those fish were listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, historically meaning they cannot be killed and kept by anglers without rare federal permits.

But the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife permits for anglers skim a few wild coho out of the basin without harming the two lakes' wild fish production.

Though the Siltcoos wild coho are not currently listed as threatened — they are, however, locked in a federal court challenge over their status — the fall fisheries were created in 2003 under a little-used part of the Endangered Species Act that allows for sport-fishing harvest on local, healthy populations of threatened species.

"In itself, it's a novelty," says Bob Buckman, the ODFW biologist who crafted the original seasons. "But it sets a good precedent up and down the coast.

"Down the road, it sets the stage that, when we anticipate good conditions for coho, we can open other coastal basins to wild coho harvest," Buckman says.

ODFW biologists already have discussed future expansion of the Siltcoos fishery along the coast. Plans were drafted to seek a permit for wild coho fishing in the Coos and Coquille rivers this fall, but ODFW biologists pulled back while awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit.

Other long-term possibilities include the lower Rogue as well as the Yaquina, Siuslaw and other coho basins.

"From what I hear, they could be candidates," says Lance Kruzic, a NOAA-Fisheries biologist in Roseburg who worked on the Siltcoos and Tahkenitch permits. "As long as the biological rationale is OK, they shouldn't have a problem.

"That's the intent — recover the population and where you can allow some harvest, do it in a manageable way. Here, they're pretty conservative. It's not real red-hot, but it's a unique opportunity."

It's that uniqueness that gets Siltcoos anglers back.

Siltcoos is one of a series of Oregon coastal lakes linked to the ocean by small tidal-influenced rivers or creeks. In freshets, wild coho dart up the swollen Siltcoos River to mill around in the lake for weeks at a time, like Rogue coho would migrate upstream and sit in an upper River hole until they are ready to spawn.

At Siltcoos, the coho wait for another freshet to dash up creeks to spawn. It's at these creek mouths where anglers like Robinson look to catch wild coho, most often by trolling bright red lures or flies or fishing roe or sandshrimp under bobbers in the still lake water.

Trollers often work the fir-lined shores cloaked in a silent mist.

This solace drew anglers logging 10,146 hours during the Oct. 1-Dec. 15 season last year, when they caught 247 coho adults. Of those 220 were kept under a bag limit allowing one wild adult and one wild jack a day, but no more than five adults a year.

Even after all those hours, 27 wild coho were released.

It would likely would have been 29 released coho had Robinson caught one.

"I probably would have released it," Robinson says. "Heck, I even released a nice, bright chinook here a week ago."

After fishing under unreached quotas the past four seasons operating under one-year permits, this year's Siltcoos and Tahkenitch anglers have a permanent season.

Beginning next year, the fisheries will be annual and show up in the regular angling regulations.

"We showed that we have low vulnerability," Buckman says. "We don't have over-harvest issues."

And the reason is as simple as to why it takes 41 hours of flogging the Siltcoos before getting a big coho to the boat.

"They're non-biters in freshwater," Buckman says.

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

In search of wild coho