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Fishing-rule changes will target 'flossing'

A subset of upper Rogue River bank anglers sound like they are taking the advice of their dentists as they ply their latest version of illegal and unethical fishing techniques when chasing tough-to-catch spring chinook salmon.

The trick is known as "flossing," a form of snagging that tries to look and sound legal even though it is no better than trying to ram a treble hook into a chinook's tail and haul it in backward.

With a leader as long as their body dangling behind a tear-drop sinker, the flosser casts into the river. As the line sinks and swings through a hole, the flosser's hope is that a chinook swimming with its mouth open will find the line slipping across its jaws.

After a few long tugs or even a run backwards up the bank, the angler slides the line through the chinook's teeth like a piece of mint-flavored Glide until the hook rips into its jaw and it's fish-on — even though the fish never "bit" the hook.

"They say, 'I'm just trying to get it off the bottom,' or 'I'm just doing what everybody else does,' " says Senior Trooper Jim Collom of the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division. "But we know what they're doing."

You will hear a lot about what these flossers are doing on the upper Rogue and elsewhere on Oregon rivers over the next nine months when the angling community embarks on a new dialogue about snagging techniques and how to ban them effectively without handcuffing legit anglers.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is about to launch a public process aimed at revising state fishing regulations, something the agency does every four years. And ways to curtail flossing and other snagging techniques will dominate the discussion.

Agency biologists will solicit suggestions from anglers on rules that should changed beginning in 2013, including how to curb snagging statewide and at local problem areas, such as the upper Rogue River's infamous Hatchery Hole along the Cole Rivers Hatchery dike.

Other problem areas include rivers along the north coast, including upper and lower stretches of the Willamette River, says Rhine Messmer, the ODFW's recreational fisheries program manager who heads the angling regulations review process.

Agency biologists plan to develop a more detailed briefing document on the snagging problem during the upcoming public process, outlining how pervasive it is, what anti-snagging measures have been tried in the past and what any new proposals entail, along with the rationale behind them, Messmer says.

One of the possible rule change floated by the OSP is changing the legal fishing hours from one hour before and after sunset to just 30 minutes before and after sunset — the same as legal shooting hours for hunters.

Collom says that first 30 minutes of fishing time can be so dark it's next to impossible to see who is legally hooking fish and who is snagging.

More fish get carried out of the upper Rogue's Hatchery Hole during the first 30 minutes than any half-hour block on any given day, Collom says.

"But when we're there working, and they know we're working, there are a heck of a lot fewer fish kept," Collom says. "What's that telling you?"

But a change like that also speaks to the issue of over-regulating the vast majority of legitimate anglers to put the thumb-screws on a small minority of cheaters.

Cutting a half-hour off each end of the fishing day could hurt, for instance, fly-fishers banking on a good dusk insect hatch or honest spring chinook fishers using Kwikfish lures or back-bouncing roe before first light.

Messmer says ODFW does not yet have a position on a change in fishing hours.

Agency biologists also don't quite know what to do about the flossers.

It gets at the heart of the angling equivalent of hunters' fair chase. To catch a fish in Oregon, you need to entice it to bite a hook. Trick its little brain with a bunch of feathers that look like a real fly. Con it into biting a gob of roe with a hook hidden in it. Or piss it off by swimming a big, fat plug in front of its grill hoping the chinook snaps at it out of fear, or spite.

That way, at least the fish takes an active role in its immediate future.

For decades, people illegally have yanked big hooks through salmon holes hoping to latch onto a back or tail by which to yard it in. That's cut-and-dried poaching that's easy to identify and hard to ignore.

Flossing might seem a bit more gentrified, but it's no different.

Most flossers end up hooking salmon on the outside of their mouths. Those are just as illegal to keep as chinook reeled in sideways with a hook near its dorsal fin or backward with a hook in its tail.

Only fish hooked on the inside of the mouth can legally be kept.

That goes the same for flossers using monofilament, lead and hooks or the fly-fishing flossers stripping a fly line over the gums of open-mouthed salmon.

While the occasional flosser gets a hook jammed in the inside of a chinook's gum line, the intent is nefarious.

In fact, some Hatchery Hole flossers no longer even bother to put a bead, corkie or other attractant on their hooks. They're casting and retrieving bare hooks.

Not even a tiny piece of yarn to pretend their intent is legit.

"I ask them, 'Do you really think you're trying to get them to bite just the hook?' " Collom says. "Really?"

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