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Salmon wranglers

TRAIL — To Cole Rivers Hatchery workers over the years, a small pool at the base of the hatchery's outflow to the Rogue River is known as the Grate Hole for the metal grates cloaking the water pipe.

To the occasional poacher over the years, it's been the Great Hole unless they get busted for illegally pulling spring chinook salmon out of this Rogue side-channel.

This year, however, that hole could very well be dubbed Saving Grace, because it may be the last chance for this year's drought-plagued, ocean-ravaged Rogue hatchery spring chinook run to keep future springer years from falling into the dumps like this one.

After years of ignoring the hatchery springers that nose into the outflow instead of the regular collection pond, hatchery workers have built a makeshift trap at the outflow to capture as many fish as possible.

It's a bit of salmon-wrangling, chasing salmon around the jerry-rigged trap with regular fishing nets to hopefully catch enough fish to give the 2020 and '21 runs a fighting chance to fuel the Rogue's most popular fishery.

To get their 1.7 million smolts for release next year, they need eggs from 1,100 females, along with 550 males. The 877 fish collected Wednesday more than doubled the year-to-date capture, bringing the total to 669 females and 496 males for brood.

The hatchery failed to make its full brood last year because of low returns, and two straight years of undershooting releases would double the dread.

"We have to do everything we can to make brood," hatchery Manager David Pease says.

With two months left in the season, the Rogue springer run is on the cusp of either being late as expected or missing in inaction for anglers frustrated at low fish counts, still lower catch rates and even lower catches of hatchery springers they can keep.

Saturday marks the beginning of the two-month period when anglers fishing downstream of Dodge Bridge can keep wild chinook as part of the two-fish limit, while salmon fishing upstream of Dodge Bridge ends for the season July 31.

Anglers knew coming in that this would be a light run, with the majority of hatchery chinook migrating in drought conditions to the ocean where light winds and shifting currents turned more of them into prey than predators.

History also told anglers that this year's high spring flows meant they could expect a late run, especially to Cole Rivers.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife records show that by the end of June in average-flow years, 51 percent of the year's return has reached Cole Rivers. During the low-water 2015 run, 78 percent of the run had hit the hatchery by now.

The lowest early return by the end of June was 10 percent of the run in 2005, when May flows as high as 6,100 cfs at Dodge Bridge slowed the run to a crawl.

"That's the biggest (May flow) number for the past 20 years," ODFW fish biologist Pete Samarin says. "I'm sure that held them up for a solid two weeks, maybe three. This year, we didn't have any crazy peak flows in May, just a steady high."

Another known entity is that when water temperatures hit 56 degrees at the old Gold Ray Dam site, the springers get on the move, Samarin says. Only recently did water flows eclipse that temperature.

"There could be fish coming," Samarin says. "There could be a slug of fish moving right now with these water temps."

Based on the flow correlations to run timing, Samarin believes Wednesday's count at the hatchery likely is 40 percent of this year's run. And that's not good, considering hatchery fish return, on the whole, earlier than wild fish.

"I'm hoping it's less than 40 percent," he says. "But nothing would suggest a whole bunch of hatchery fish are going to show up in late July or August."

Already knowing hatchery returns were poor, ODFW shut down fishing May 15 at the Hatchery Hole, which was opened in the early 2000s to give anglers a shot at what then was a glut of hatchery fish.

That makes the Grate Hole their last chance.

Many chinook are attracted to the outflow because it also is where they are released as smolts, so it's natural for them to home in on this side-channel, and it's well worth the efforts of the Cole Rivers crew.

They anchored chain-link fencing around the grate and added a V-weir so fish would swim in but not out.

The effort began Monday and quickly scored 11 springers, followed by 103 Tuesday and 40 more Wednesday.

Some hatchery workers waded in the trap chasing chinook, netting as many as a half-dozen at a time. A human net-brigade funneled the full nets out of the trap to a stocking truck, where they were stuffed in for quick transport to a concrete pen.

The trap will only be worked during the day, and it will get regular visits from Oregon State Police to ensure the Grate Hole doesn't turn into someone's illegal Great Hole.

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

Spring chinook are collected Wednesday from a makeshift fish trap at the Rogue River's Cole Rivers Hatchery to help gather enough brood stock for future returns. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]