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Low Rogue fish counts close Hatchery Hole

TRAIL — State fisheries managers will close the Rogue River's popular Hatchery Hole to angling for the rest of the season Sunday evening amid concerns that not enough fish will return to Cole Rivers Hatchery to meet spring chinook salmon production needs for future releases.

Opened to anglers in 2002 as a way to fish for what then was a glut of Rogue hatchery spring chinook, the water at the base of the hatchery entrance has the Rogue's highest concentration of hatchery spring chinook — and provides the most success for anglers, who line the hatchery dike throughout the spring chinook season, which just got underway.

Cole Rivers failed last year to collect enough spring chinook to reach its production goal of releasing about 1.7 million spring chinook smolts into the Rogue, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. So far this year, just three spring chinook have entered the hatchery's collection pond, putting the facility on catch-up to collect the 1,100 females and 550 males needed for spawning, agency biologists said.

"The ODFW is not willing to miss production," said Russ Stauff, ODFW's Rogue Watershed manager.

Waters leading into the vast majority of Pacific Northwest salmon hatcheries are closed year-round to angling, as was the 1,200-foot stretch below Cole Rivers when the hatchery was built in 1973. It was opened only as a "privilege," Stauff said, because far more spring chinook were entering the hatchery than needed, including excess fish sold to seafood processors.

Therefore, it seemed "more prudent" to restrict anglers in that one section in order to meet the needs of anglers riverwide, Stauff said.

"When we don't have an abundance, that's the first place to be restricted," Stauff said. "That's fair. I have 159 other miles of river to manage for angler benefit."

ODFW already has suspended any spring chinook sales from Cole Rivers this year, Stauff said.

The closure comes amid a steady drop in hatchery salmon returning to the Rogue. Agency biologists are looking into potential changes in Cole Rivers operations to improve returns of hatchery chinook, which are grown as mitigation for wild spring chinook spawning habitat lost by the building of Lost Creek dam, less than a mile upstream of the hatchery.

Although production is down, Stauff said, Cole Rivers fares well compared to the closest other two hatcheries that produce spring chinook — Rock Creek Hatchery on the North Umpqua River and the Trinity River Hatchery in the Klamath River Basin.

The closure, which was imposed by emergency rule in ODFW headquarters Friday, pushes the angling "deadline" — the highest point that fishing is allowed below the hatchery — to the traditional 1,200 feet downstream of the fishway. It also marks the current location where boat anglers can begin fishing.

The closure begins Monday, but angling upstream of the Highway 62 bridge about a mile downstream of the hatchery closes at 8 p.m. each evening to reduce drunken lawlessness that has plagued the river stretch during past spring chinook seasons.

The closure is in effect through July, when the season there historically ends.

Anglers currently can keep up to two hatchery spring chinook a day. They must release all wild spring chinook.

The spring chinook angling season is one of the most popular salmon or steelhead seasons in the Rogue from the mouth at Gold Beach through Shady Cove and Trail.

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

A fisherman works to bring in a spring chinook salmon while fishing in the Hatchery Hole below Cole Rivers Hatchery in 2011. The area below the hatchery will be closed to fishing starting Sunday night in response to low returns of migrating salmon. [Mail Tribune / file photo]