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Chetco reopens despite falling chinook numbers

BROOKINGS — Chinook salmon anglers will be on the Chetco River for the first time — though not for long — beginning today after rains washed away a persistent emergency fishing closure there.

Rain-swelled flows in the Chetco rose enough Tuesday for state fish managers to open fishing upstream of the Highway 101 bridge for the first time since August.

The closure was meant to protect a low run of wild chinook from harassment by anglers while the fish were stuck in tidal-influenced holes waiting for enough water in the river to migrate safely.

"With these flows, the fish are going to be moving right now as the river comes up, so we'll get good distribution," says Todd Confer, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Gold Beach District fish biologist.

But the U.S. Geological Survey has forecast flows to rise dramatically today and through the weekend, which likely will chase anglers off the Chetco as early as Friday.

"They'll get a couple days of fishing before the river blows out," Confer says. "Fishing will pick up next week when the flows drop," Confer says.

Chinook fishing typically tapers off dramatically in December, and Southern Oregon anglers often begin targeting the Chetco's early-run winter steelhead during the Thanksgiving weekend.

"You'll probably get a good week of fishing," Confer says.

It's a week more fishing than some salmon advocates have wanted on the Chetco, which was forecast to see about 800 wild chinook enter freshwater this year.

That return is far below the 3,000 to 5,000 wild chinook that is more common there.

Still, anglers like Brookings-based fishing guide Andy Martin are excited finally to get access to their home stream and the big, feisty chinook for which the Chetco is known.

"We are finally getting enough rain to get those fish moving," Martin says. "Hopefully, the wait will be well worth it, with lots of salmon for the opener."

Confer says the ODFW went into the year fearing that anglers could end up over-fishing wild chinook during the early part of the season, when low flows historically cause fish to keg up in tidal holes.

This summer, agency biologists closed fishing upstream of the Highway 101 bridge until Nov. 7.

Confer says he chose that date because a review of the past 35 years of USGS flow data showed that at least one good freshet had occurred in the Chetco by then in all but one year.

But this year that freshet did not materialize until this week.

"Basically, we got the second (dry) year out of the past 36 years," Confer says.

"We didn't have the kind of opportunity out there that we would have liked," Confer says. "But we did what we needed to do in our conservation mode."

Fishing will remain closed upstream of the Forest Service bridge at river mile 10.5, a place called Ice Box.

The majority of the chinook that pass Ice Box are wild chinook.

The Chetco's fishery is fueled by a hatchery program, with hatchery chinook sporting clipped adipose fins.

The limit remains two chinook per day, of which only one can be wild. Also, only two wild chinook may be kept per angler on the Chetco this year, including tidewater catches earlier in the season.

Confer says he made the decision to open the Chetco on Tuesday. The ensuing time was needed to get the emergency regulation change drafted, approved by ODFW leadership, and filed with the Secretary of State before it became official, he says.

Chetco anglers typically catch about 10 percent or more of the wild chinook headed into freshwater, Confer says. This year, he expects the catch rate to hover around 5 percent.

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