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First springer opens door to improved 2017 runs

GOLD BEACH — A Huntley Bar plunker saw his rod double over last Friday, and the fight that ignites springtime along the Rogue River began.

The way the reel sang he knew it had to be the prize of the Rogue — a spring chinook salmon, bright and powerful, with sea lice on the chrome scales outside, and inside, the best-eating fillets ever caught in Oregon freshwater.

When it came to hand, the first Rogue springer of 2017 came in with one little fin too many.

"It was wild, so it was released," says Jim Carey of the Rogue Outdoor Store in Gold Beach, eight river miles to the west of the Huntley Park gravel bar. "At least the wild one indicates that they're here."

This first confirmed springer — legit and witnessed by a friend of Carey who didn't get the guy's name — is the first in what is shaping into likely the best chinook year on the Rogue in at least three years.

Preseason forecasts completed this week by state fishery biologists call for the best return of fall chinook out of tidewater this year since 2014. While there is no mechanism in place to ballpark a spring chinook estimate, there's reason to believe they will follow suit and come in at just around the 10-year average.

That would mean almost three times the estimated 2,698 of hatchery springers that hit freshwater last year, a number scientifically classified as piss-poor.

"The numbers of hatchery fish definitely will be better," says Pete Samarin, a fish biologist focusing on the Rogue Basin for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "There's no denying that. It can't get any worse. "It all looks to go up to where it should be, if not higher."

Predicting chinook returns on the Rogue is a bit of a crapshoot, particularly spring chinook.

The wild fish are relegated to just 30 miles of wild spawning grounds in the mainstem Rogue from below Shady Cove to Cole Rivers Hatchery. They are complemented by hatchery fish that tend to disappear at sea during years with poor ocean conditions — like the ones that produced the last two sub-par adult returns. 

The long-term trajectory since the placement and operation of Lost Creek and Applegate dams is that overall spring chinook numbers are trending down and fall chinook have trended up from pre-dam years, because the fall fish benefit from summer flows boosted by reservoir releases.

The all-wild run of fall chinook in freshwater benefit from about 500 miles of spawning habitat that includes the mainstem Rogue as well as the Applegate and Illinois rivers and other major tributaries such as Bear Creek.

Wild springer numbers should be better this year because ocean conditions likely treated them well as smolts, Samarin says.

"We had good ocean conditions four years ago when those fish hit Gold Beach," Samarin says.

As for fall chinook, the predictability currently is much better, largely do to regimented seining, counting and releasing of fall chinook at the same Huntley Park that produced this year's first Rogue springer.

The estimates are best for comparisons, with this year's forecast at about 52,000 fall chinook past Huntley Park. That's about 1,000 higher than the 10-year average and almost twice that of last year.

And those numbers don't count the fall chinook forecast to be caught in the very popular and productive Rogue Bay fishery. Bay trollers typically shave off about 5 percent of the chinook run before it gets to Huntley for counting.

Based on last year's jack counts and ocean factors, the run should be dominated by 3-year-old chinook running 14 to 18 pounds, and fewer of the larger 4-year-old chinook.

"The forecast is that age 4 fish are going to be weak, and I think we'll see that all up and down the coast this year," says Todd Confer, ODFW's fish biologist in Gold Beach. 

 So expect to catch more, but smaller, chinook in the Rogue during both the spring and fall chinook runs.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.