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Coho cornucopia

The Rogue River is seeing the best return of coho salmon in years, which is good for anglers and the Oregon Food Bank
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneCoho salmon are processed Thursday at Cole Rivers Fish Hatchery.
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneDrew Carmichael, hatchery technician. processes a coho salmon at Cole Rivers Fish Hatchery.

TRAIL — A recently rare piscatorial act of charity Thursday at the Rogue River’s Cole Rivers Hatchery may be a sign that things 157 river miles to the west are changing in favor of salmon.

Another 449 excess coho salmon will end up in the hands and pans of Oregon’s hungry under this donation to the Oregon Food Bank, and it’s a round-about suggestion that the poor ocean conditions off the Pacific Northwest for the past several years perhaps are over.

Despite cutbacks in coho releases from the hatchery to the Rogue, the return this year is strong enough for the hatchery to donate 1,665 excess coho so far to the Oregon Food Bank, the first since 2016 and the most since the last big Rogue coho return in 2006, records show.

“It’s great to be able to do this again,” hatchery Manager Dave Pease says. “It’s been a while.”

After years of poor ocean conditions, recent spikes in the freshwater return of coho salmon in the Rogue and coast-wide likely point to a resurgence in ocean productivity that bodes well for fish returns in 2021 and perhaps in the future.

NOAA-Fisheries reported improved nutrient levels to spur a healthier food chain in late 2019 and 2020, which corresponds to this fall’s wild and hatchery coho.

Since the majority of coho return at age 3 to the Rogue instead of age 4 like chinook, ocean survival rates often first surface in coho returns.

“This is what we’ve been hoping for,” says Pete Samarin, a Rogue fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

And the Upper Rogue’s anglers are starting to notice the difference.

For decades, hatchery coho have been poor contributors to the upper Rogue fishery, largely because they aren’t affable biters.

Wild coho on the Rogue and elsewhere in Southern Oregon and Northern California are protected as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act and they must be released unharmed when caught.

Anglers, however, can keep up to two fin-clipped coho a day as part of their two salmon or steelhead daily limit. But that’s rare in freshwater.

ODFW data dating back to 2005 shows that two-thirds of Rogue hatchery coho are caught in the Rogue bay each fall, while just 10% of hatchery coho are reported caught in the upper Rogue. The rest are caught from the top of tidewater just east of Gold Beach to the Fishers Ferry boat ramp.

The best ways to catch them are with plugs fished in holes far below the boat or pink rubber worms fished under bobbers in places like the Hatchery Hole along the Cole Rivers Hatchery dike.

While coho fishing effort remains exceptionally light, most anglers have yet to see the positive handwriting on the wall.

There are two ways to track coho returns to the Rogue, and both show some of the most promising data for salmon and steelhead returns in last decade.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Rogue netting surveys at Huntley Park just east of Gold Beach have been off recent charts.

On Oct. 15, for example, netting crews hauled in 265 adult coho, data show. That one-day haul eclipsed the 10-year average for the entire fall coho collection there of 190 adults.

Also, Cole Rivers Hatchery technicians have collected 2,191 coho that ran the 157-mile gauntlet up the Rogue from the ocean. That’s that’s the most since 2006.

That’s seven times last year’s total return and comfortably twice the 10-year running average, records show.

Even more impressive is that the hatchery used to release 200,000 coho smolts annually. Since 2016, that number has been shaved back to 75,000 smolts annuallly to boost hatchery releases of more desirable chinook and steelhead.

And topping it off, those wild coho returning this year were born amid in-river drought conditions thought to have wiped out large swaths of coho before they could reach the sea.

“I don’t even know how these wild fish even made it to the ocean,” Samarin says.

Add in large returns of young halfpounder steelhead to the Rogue this year and anglers have the makings of a river on the rebound.

“Hopefully, the trend continues,” Samarin says. “Hopefully, our 3-year-old chinook will come pouring in next year. ”

The catches to date allowed the hatchery, through American-Canadian Fisheries seafood company, to donate the excess coho to the Oregon Food Bank.

The company processes the whole salmon into individual fillets that are vacuum sealed and sent to the food bank for distribution for free.

In return, the company gets the remainder of the carcasses to create fish meal.

The program is a key source of protein for Oregon’s hungry at a key time when such resources can be diminished.

Reach Oregon Outdoors writer Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.