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Ocean salmon season looks like a winner

BROOKINGS — Southern Oregon ocean anglers made up for a string of dismal fishing seasons with a break-out year in 2012, and they are in line for an encore performance this year — as long as the ocean cooperates.

The upcoming chinook salmon season off the Southern Oregon coast starts Wednesday, May 1, with a lengthy season similar to last year's and estimates of more than 1 million chinook finning in nearby waters. That's not as many fish as last year, but it's still a fine forecast for those trolling anchovies for chinook.

"We should have plenty of fish and lots of opportunity," says Richard Heap, a Brookings resident who represents Oregon ocean sport-fishing interests on the Pacific Fishery Management Council. "If the ocean lines up, we'll be perfect."

That test of perfection runs from May 1 to Sept. 8 for those fishing from Humbug Mountain near Port Orford south to the California border, meaning local anglers will get a full season of opportunity through Labor Day, as requested.

The limit remains two chinook a day, with a 22-inch minimum, and no restrictions on the keeping of wild chinook. Barbless hooks again are required.

The region will join the rest of Oregon's offshore anglers in a fin-clipped coho salmon fishery that opens July 1 and runs until its 10,500-fish quota is reached.

The seasons were crafted last week by the PFMC and become the law of the sea once the federal Department of Commerce signs off on them, which is expected.

Oregon's fish managers were seeking a 12,000-fish quota on fin-clipped coho. The PFMC shaved that by 1,500 fish to help offset quota losses off the Washington coast, where seasons are ratcheted down to protect a depressed Lower Columbia wild coho run.

"I think we got just about everything we could have," says Eric Schindler, project leader for ocean salmon management for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Basically, we have almost the same season as last year."

Last season, Brookings was Oregon's best chinook port by far, reversing a trend that saw three straight years of dismal chinook fishing. More than 2 million chinook were estimated to be in the waters off Southern Oregon last year.

Brookings hosted 18,610 angler trips last year, which led to 9,282 chinook heading home in coolers, the best haul out of this port since the monster chinook runs of 2002. The second-best chinook port last year was Winchester Bay, with 2,595 chinook landings.

In fact, Brookings-based anglers caught and released an estimated 2,022 chinook, topping total catches at nine of the state's 11 salmon ports.

The reason for the long and fruitful season was that ocean currents kept cold water off Southern Oregon most of the season, bringing with it plenty of bait fish and plenty of chinook. Just as importantly, a relatively calm summer helped generate far more fishable days than the previous three seasons, which saw more rough, non-fishable days than days on the water.

Though chinook estimates for Southern Oregon and Northern California are down from last year, they are still strong enough for ocean salmon anglers to expect an excellent salmon-fishing season if the weather cooperates.

"If we could get last year again, I'd be ecstatic," Heap says.

In lean years, seasons are whittled down to protect returns of Klamath River fall chinook, which is normally the weakest of the chinook stocks in this region. Klamath stocks are robust now, unlike some Columbia River runs that are causing season cutbacks in northwest Oregon ocean fisheries.

"It changes one year to the next in who takes the big hit," Schindler says. "This year, it's not the southern part of the state. It just doesn't make sense to do any trimming down there."

From 2009 through 2011, seasons here were cut back severely to protect Klamath chinook. In 2009, recreational chinook landings hit a low of 195 fish for the entire season.

The ODFW creel checkers in Brookings last summer had many mornings when they counted more chinook than that.

Even local commercial fishermen will get into the game this year, with chinook quotas roughly twice that of last year, Schindler says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.