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Salmon ahead

Federal fish managers next week will start crafting the 2022 ocean salmon fishing season

BROOKINGS — Since he started running ocean-fishing trips in January, Brookings charterboat Capt. Andy Martin has seen many foreshadowings of spring.

Regularly a customer jigging for big lingcod discovered a feeding chinook salmon, also known as king salmon, in Southern Oregon’s offshore waters where they’re not normally seen until spring.

“On almost every charter trip we were getting at least one king that we had to let go,” says Martin, owner of Brookings Fishing Charters.

But these released salmon weren’t considered a bummer. Martin is confident they are an omen for this year’s upcoming recreational ocean salmon season.

“When you see those fish early, we’ll see them in the season,” Martin says.

Photo by Mark Freeman Jamie Lusch holds a chinook salmon landed and released while ocean fishing for lingcod near Brookings in 2018.

Exactly when and how long that season will be is on the cusp of debate as federal fish managers and the public next week start crafting what salmon fishing will look like coast-wide for the recreational and commercial fleets.

Buoyed by improved estimates of salmon now swimming off the Southern Oregon and Northern California coasts, the Pacific Fishery Management Council is running data through the sausage-making exercise of crafting fishing season options for public comment.

The council is looking at estimates of 850,000 adult chinook finning off the Southern Oregon and Northern California coasts, in an area called the Klamath Management Zone.

Those fish include chinook bound for the Sacramento and Klamath rivers in California and Oregon’s Rogue River. These chinook all leave their home rivers, head south and mill together in the Pacific before returning inland to spawn.

Sacramento and Klamath chinook stock estimates are up, while the Rogue is down about 10% from last year’s forecast, according to the PFMC.

Richard Heap, a Brookings man who represents Oregon sport anglers on the PFMC’s salmon advisory subpanel, says he expects an overall season similar to last year.

However, the debate will be where to drop that chunk of fishing days over the four spring and summer months when chinook are kings of the south coast.

Heap says he’s pushing for one option to start in late May and run through July and, potentially, into early August. This structure could take advantage of better wind conditions as seen in spring here last year.

A second option could be to start in late June and run deep into August.

They represent different ideas on what format would take into account the most and best fishing days for Brookings, which is one of Oregon’s most productive salmon ports.

An early season may take advantage of more available chinook and better wind conditions like last year, while the later-starting season is more in sync with history.

More fish and less wind is the summer mantra Martin and other salmon-philes utter regularly, and Martin says he prefers the May opener, especially if last year was any bellwether.

Amid a month generally of light winds, May’s chinook catch out of Brookings was large enough to catapult the smallish port to top dog among Oregon coastal ports last year, according to ODFW records

Historically, that was not the case. Seasons often were crafted to be strong on the back-end, with the goal of a full August and a Labor Day Weekend of fishing something anglers sought.

But not since 2014 has the August catch been dominant, records show.

In recent years, cold water off the San Francisco Bay Area has kept some chinook from migrating north into Southern Oregon waters as they typically do, Heap says.

That weather pattern also has led to windy late-summers off Brookings, where wind — not bar crossings — are by far the most limiting factor to angler trips.

“We’ll try to figure out how to shape the season so we can have the best opportunity out there,” Heap says.

Martin believes that means front-loading the season as much this year as possible.

“I’d much rather have the opener (in May) when we have the possibility of the most salmon abundance,” Martin says.

The council will also mull whether to recommend a return of the October “Bubble Fishery” targeting Chetco River-bound chinook right off the river mouth.

A dearth of excess returning chinook to the Chetco has kept that fishery — which is very popular among locals when weather permits — closed since 2019.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.