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Chinook ban continues

Rogue River anglers again will be banned from killing and keeping wild spring chinook salmon this season to ensure as many of this depressed run as possible can spawn, state fish biologists said.

This is the fourth-consecutive year that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has shelved the wild spring chinook harvest over concerns that the returns over Gold Ray Dam near Gold Hill are too low.

Under the Rogue River Spring Chinook Management Plan adopted in 2007, Rogue anglers are banned from killing wild spring chinook before June 1, when those fishing below Gold Ray Dam could kill up to two wild spring chinook a day.

But a new forecast for the Rogue estimates only 4,700 wild spring chinook over the dam, putting the run under the three-year average of 5,000 wild fish required by the plan to lift the wild-fish ban, ODFW biologist Todd Confer said Thursday.

"We'd need about 6,900 wild fish this year to break that three-year running average of 5,000," Confer said. "It doesn't look like that will happen."

Signed late Wednesday, the emergency ban calls for catch-and-release fishing only for wild spring chinook adults downstream of Gold Ray Dam.

The current ban does not affect the Rogue upstream of Gold Ray Dam, where anglers are already banned from killing any wild spring chinook until July 1.

A similar ban likely will go into effect in July and August between Dodge Bridge and Gold Ray Dam to continue wild salmon protection there, biologists said.

The ban is written to expire July 11 between the Rogue mouth and the Hog Creek boat ramp near Merlin so anglers can target the nearly all-wild run of fall chinook salmon, which is faring better in the Rogue basin.

Waters from the Hog Creek Ramp to Gold Ray Dam will open to the keeping of wild fall chinook Aug. 1.

Until then, anglers may still keep up to two adult hatchery-bred chinook a day. Fish released from Cole Rivers Hatchery on the upper Rogue have clipped adipose fins on their backs near their tails and over the past decade have represented about two-thirds of the Rogue run.

The bans are virtually identical to last year. This year's only difference is that anglers may still keep wild spring chinook "jack" salmon under 24 inches long downstream of Gold Ray Dam beginning Monday.

Anglers all spring have been eyeing low Gold Ray Dam returns and anticipating an extension of catch-and-release-only rules for wild spring chinook, which are considered the toughest of the Rogue's salmon to catch yet most prized for their edibility.

Trail fishing guide Vernon Grieve said he understands the need for releasing wild fish during down years such as this one.

But Grieve said he sees agency biologists managing anglers and not the spring chinook run, which he believes would benefit more by improved freshwater habitat or supplementation such as a hatch-box program now bandied about in the Oregon Legislature.

"If I thought Joe Blow throwing fish back would improve the runs, I'd be 100 percent behind it," Grieve said Thursday afternoon after a tough day fishing. "But us throwing fish back isn't going to solve the problem.

"If this is the only answer they have, it's not working," Grieve said. "They're making it harder and harder for us to play their game."

Peter Tronquet, a Medford man who is president of the board of directors of the Native Fish Society, joined Grieve on a public advisory committee that helped forge the Rogue's spring chinook management plan.

Tronquet also believes improved freshwater habitat is a key for rejuvenating the wild spring chinook run, which researchers say is the most negatively impacted of Rogue salmon and steelhead runs by the placement and operation of Lost Creek dam.

"I think the conservation standards are in the right place," Tronquet said. "It's unfortunate that we've had four years in a row that the wild spring chinook have done so poorly.

"We have to give the plan a chance to work," he said. "Unfortunately, people can't see results sooner."

Though the wild spring chinook forecast remains under that 5,000-fish threshold, returns have improved over the past four years.

The ODFW logged just 3,465 wild spring chinook over Gold Ray Dam in 2007, and 3,970 wild fish last year, Confer said.

Poor ocean conditions earlier this decade largely have been blamed for salmon crashes coastwide, but improved counts of adult coho now in the ocean, a heavy return this year of younger "jack" salmon and other data points to a turnaround in ocean conditions that should favor future returns.

"We should be looking pretty good for next year," Confer said. "We'll have to wait and see."

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