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Salmon frenzy

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GOLD BEACH — Forgive Mark Gibbs if the Rogue River Bay and its bulging population of fall chinook have given him a warped view of salmon fishing.

The Long Beach, California, man hopped in a guide boat for this first crack at salmon fishing and it didn’t take long for him to join the club.

“I just put my line down in the water and, BAM,” I hooked him and he took off,” Gibbs says.

Gibbs’ 18-pound salmon was followed quickly by a 28-pounder to cap the kind of day in the bay that some anglers wait years to experience.

That’s why the Rogue faithful might start calling this whole exercise catching instead of fishing this summer in the bay, where the promise of a great season on the back of a great chinook forecast is coming to fruition.

Last year’s season was largely hailed as the best in two decades, and this year’s forecast of more than 130,000 fish finning up the Rogue has materialized into a fast and furious fishery already two great months in, with likely another solid month to go.

“Last year was a great year, and so far this year has surpassed it,” says Troy Whitaker, a Grants Pass-based guide working the bay. “It’s been fabulous.”

In most years, plying the bay for chinook can look like a case study of absurdity: anglers in 100 or more boats trolling in the same counter-clockwise circle like lemmings, up and down the bay expecting success after experiencing hours of failure.

Instead of long bouts of boredom punctuated by several minutes of madness, this year’s action has been contagious. Guys in car-topper boats sporting outboards so old the Smithsonian might want them are catching big chinook while trolling next to seasoned guides all stacked gunwale to gunwale.

Everyone’s trolling with the same bait — a single anchovy. The trick is to hook the anchovy so it spins tightly in the water, like a drill bit, behind a spinner blade just a few feet off the bottom.

“If the bait’s not spinning, there’s no chance of catching,” says Brookings-based guide Andy Martin, a Rogue Bay veteran.

Get them spinning right, it doesn’t matter what your boat’s dollar value is.

“There have been days at the mouth where it’s been lights out,” Martin says. “It’s been a free-for-all out here.”

Close to 200 boats have been packed near the mouth at times, often full of anglers who otherwise frown on sharing an upper river fishing hole with another boat. But normal standards get thrown overboard just to get in on the action.

“We’ve seen a tremendous amount of fish, and a tremendous amount of boats,” Whitaker says. “You have to take the good with the bad.”

Steve Mazur could see both the good and the bad coming.

Mazur is the Gold Beach District fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife who used last year’s Rogue fish-seining counts at Huntley Park east of Gold Beach to crunch the 130,000-chinook return estimate that had anglers throughout Western Oregon and Northern California drooling.

Last year’s post-season estimate was that 90,000 chinook hit the Rogue’s freshwater, and that didn’t take into account the roughly 5,000 chinook caught in the bay, according to ODFW estimates.

Mazur says this year’s numbers might not reach that magical 130,000 when it’s all over in late October, but it’s close enough to create its own energy now.

Terry Atkins heard the Rogue buzz in Cottage Grove and shared it with his fishing buddy Al James of Bend.

“We heard all the reports and decided we’d give it a try,” says Atkins, 67.

They normally fish for salmon in Winchester Bay with Roseburg-based guide Joe Mello, but the trio hit Gold Beach recently for two days of fishing and they each caught their two-fish limit both days.

“We ended up with 84 pounds of fillets,” Atkins says. “And, man, that is gorgeous salmon.”

That’s officially classified as gorgeous, ever since 1962.

The 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle included a contest to find the best-tasting salmon in the world. Rogue chinook won in a cook-off that’s been disputed by Columbia River salmon anglers ever since.

“Catch them in the bay, and the fat content will be the highest it will ever be,” Martin says. “They’re built like footballs, the best-tasting salmon in the world. It’s why we’re here.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTwriterFreeman.

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Guide Joe Mello, of Roseburg, nets a fish for clients Terry Atkins, of Cottage Grove, and Al James, of Bend, while fishing in the Rogue River bay at Gold Beach. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch