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Hawgs in a bubble

BROOKINGS — The tips of the north and south jetties at Chetco Bay are called the "jaws," and what's on the inside of them is telling Andy Martin a lot about what lies outside of them.

The jaws are the demarcation line separating the Pacific from the bay, and for the past few weeks schools of Chetco-bound fall chinook salmon have been finning past the jaws and back out.

"They're holding at the tops to the jetty, nosing in but not committing yet," says Martin, 41, a Brookings charter captain. "That's a good sign."

Over the next two weekends, Oct. 7-8 and 14-15, anglers will flock to Brookings to troll for those large chinook in a four-day fall season that will be the one and only opportunity to fish for salmon off the Southern Oregon shoreline all year.

The Chetco Bubble Fishery off the Chetco mouth runs the next two Saturdays and Sundays, and Martin believes early-season successes trolling in that sliver of bay water are a harbinger of fine ocean angling to come.

"We hooked nine and landed six (Tuesday)," Martin says. "Guys are catching fish in the bay every day. When the estuary is fishing well, the bubble fishery will be good."

After losing the entire summer of ocean-salmon fishing to protect a crashed run of Klamath River chinook, anglers will get their first and last shot at big chinook outside of Southern Oregon's rivers and bays.

The bag limit is one chinook a day over 28 inches long, up from the usual 24-inch limit to further reduce impacts on Klamath chinook, which are mostly smaller than 28 inches now in the ocean off the Chetco, biologists say.

The new limit shouldn't make much difference to most anglers, says Eric Shindler, project leader of ocean-salmon management for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"Everyone wants to look at it as a trophy fishery, so why would you want to keep anything under 28 inches?" Shindler says.

Also new this year is the break-up from an uninterrupted season to two weekends, in part to  give more people a chance to fish and to build in a buffer against chances of a storm or two wiping out the entire season, Shindler says.

Still the same, however, is the rule requiring barbless hooks.

Dating back to 1992, the bubble fishery gives ocean anglers a shot at Chetco-bound fish kegged near the mouth, a sharing of sorts of the chinook loot with in-river anglers who flock here beginning in early November.

The bubble reference is to a three-mile area shaped like a bubble between Twin Rocks and the California border.

"To the locals, it's gone from bubble season to hog season, because it's when you catch the big fish," Martin says. "Every year there are chinook 45, 50 pounds caught in this fishery.

"It's the best chance for a trophy salmon outside of Alaska," he says.

While the chinook are big, there's a lot more fishing than catching.

Since its inception, the overall catch rate has been .21 chinook per angler-trip, Shindler says.

"So one out of five people catch a chinook," Shindler says.

This fishing opportunity is quite unlike summer trolling seasons dominated by deep-water fishing with downriggers holding skirted anchovies horizontally to the rocky ocean floor.

Because the chinook are prepped to enter the Chetco to spawn, they are much closer to shore in much shallower water.

Martin says he likes to troll in about 30 feet of water just outside of the breakers on Sporthaven Beach just south of the Chetco jetties, using 6-foot leaders when the water is as clear as it has been this fall.

Anglers often use banana-shaped sinkers of about 3 ounces to skip anchovies off the sandy bottom, trolling parallel to the beach as slowly as possible while keeping the arced anchovy spinning.

Others troll just outside the kelp lines from the north jetty toward Salmon Rock about 200 yards away.

"It's called Salmon Rock for a reason," Martin says.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

These chinook salmon were caught near Brookings. [Mail Tribune / File Photo]