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Upper Rogue anglers can expect a three-peat

Spring officially came to the upper Rogue River Tuesday morning when the first spring chinook salmon of the season showed up in the Cole Rivers Hatchery collection pond.

And just like that, hatchery technicians hit a reset on the start of the upper Rogue's most popular fishery.

The 27-inch hatchery female had a hole punched in its gill plate and hitched a one-way ride back downriver for release Wednesday, giving anglers another chance to catch and keep her.

"So she's the first spring chinook of the season, and she'll be the first recycled chinook of the season, as well," hatchery Manager Dave Pease says.

Despite low-water conditions that have dogged the Rogue all winter, this year's first springer came two weeks earlier than last year's early arrivals, Pease says.

With Gold Ray Dam's fish-counting station removed in 2010, the hatchery's collection ponds provide the first proof that springers have made their way into the upper Rogue.

The past two years have seen the best returns to Cole Rivers since 2004, and wild fish estimates are up slightly, as well, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Rogue fish managers expect a three-peat is in store for upper Rogue anglers.

"The last two years, we've had some pretty good returns. Not great, but pretty good," says Dan VanDyke, the ODFW's Rogue District fish biologist.

Although ODFW does not do a preseason estimate on Rogue spring chinook returns like the agency does on the Columbia River, "we don't have any reason not to think we'll have something fairly similar to last year," VanDyke says.

While the wild chinook counts are up, they are not up enough to expand the times and locations where anglers will be able to keep wild spring chinook, which are considered the most depressed wild salmon stock in the Rogue Basin.

The Rogue River Spring Chinook Salmon Management Plan calls for easing wild fish restrictions when the wild spawning chinook estimates past what was Gold Ray Dam hits an average of 15,000 fish over the previous 10 years.

Last year's estimate was 12,147, bumping the running 10-year average to 8,253 fish, Van Dyke says. That running 10-year average is still getting dragged down by poor returns from 2005 to 2009, VanDyke says.

Only fin-clipped hatchery spring chinook can be kept in the upper Rogue until July 1, when the stretch downstream of Dodge Bridge opens for anglers to keep up to two wild chinook a day.

Anglers downstream of Fishers Ferry boat ramp — the official downstream boundary for the upper Rogue — can keep wild chinook beginning June 1.

Spring chinook are prized here as the hardest-fishing, best-eating salmon Oregon provides. Though frustratingly difficult to catch at times, adults run from about 8 pounds to well over 30 pounds, with 18- to 22-pounders making up the largest part of the run.

Spring chinook fishing generally begins in April along the lower Rogue. Bank and boat anglers already have been catching them in the lower river, and about 40 percent of those caught have been hatchery fish, says Jim Carey from the Rogue Outdoor Store in Gold Beach.

In the upper Rogue, most steelhead anglers don't switch over to chinook until May, normally after hooking big springers on winter steelhead plugs.

Fishing peaks in June and July, and the season ends July 31 upstream of Dodge Bridge where Highway 234 crosses the Rogue. Downstream of Dodge Bridge, the season remains open through August, but anglers there catch mostly fall-run chinook.

Driftboat and powerboat anglers either back-bounce roe in salmon holes or fish popular plugs such as Kwikfish or Flatfish in holes and migration lanes. Bank anglers flock to spots such as the Hatchery Hole, Casey State Park and the nearby Slide Hole, where anglers use teardrop sinkers, heavy leaders and a variety of beads, corkies and yarn to entice a bite.

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