GOLD BEACH — Standing in ankle-deep water on Dunkelberger Bar, Jerry Cornish notes the tell-tale wiggle on the end of his fishing rod that signals one of the 124,832 reasons to feel good about fishing the lower Rogue River again.
Cornish reels in a fat and feisty "halfpounder" steelhead, unique in Oregon to the Rogue, which is bursting with these fish this month.
"At first, I thought it was my favorite rock," says Cornish, 60, of Salem. "Now this guy's going into the frying pan this weekend.
"Every now and then even the unluckiest guy gets lucky," he says.
By the looks of what's happening in the lower Rogue these days, Cornish might consider getting himself a bigger pan.
After seven years of glaringly sub-par halfpounder runs, the lower Rogue is experiencing a resurgence in these smaller, immature steelhead, an indicator that adult steelhead returns should be on the upswing the rest of this decade or more.
Based on netting surveys done thrice weekly in the Rogue at Huntley Park near Gold Beach, state fish biologists estimate the Rogue has seen 124,832 halfpounders return from the ocean in the past three weeks alone.
That's 106,000 more than last year's paltry return of 18,757 fish, and well above the 33-year average of 101,448 halfpounders.
With more fish on the way, this year's halfpounder run has the opportunity to better 2000's record return of an estimated 238,870 halfpounders.
The run has caught the attention of serious halfpounder anglers like "Dunkelberger Bill" Grossi, a Nevadan who fishes this same gravel bar 18 miles east of Gold Beach each weekday from Aug. 1 through Sept. 1. He's already caught 50 halfpounders, most of which have been released.
"Usually, you don't start getting any until now," says Grossi, 62, a retired Teamster. "It's been the best in years."
Russ Stauff, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue watershed manager and a halfpounder aficionado himself, says more anglers should follow in Grossi's footsteps.
"If you're a responsible, dedicated angler, you have to think about bagging everything and hitting the lower Rogue."
For Stauff and others, halfpounders are that special.
The halfpounder life-cycle is unique in the Northwest to steelhead in the Rogue and Klamath rivers. These young steelhead leave the Rogue in spring as 6-inch smolts, then turn around in August and September to head back into the lower Rogue as 12- to 14-inch fish that weigh close to what their name implies.
They remain in schools and often migrate as far as the Galice area, all the while aggressively eating underwater insects. Then, in March, they migrate back to the sea. Most come back later that summer as first-time spawning adult summer steelhead, while the rest return as winter steelhead roughly from December through March.
Gargantuan halfpounder counts usually mean good adult returns in the immediate future, Stauff says.
"We're pretty confident we're looking at a good year next year, and hopefully beyond," Stauff says. "It'll be killer adult fishing next year, unless something bad happens."
The something good that made this happen is likely the heavy-sweater weather that pounded the Southern Oregon coast this past spring.
The heavy winds and surf that pummeled the coast pushed water from the surface toward the ocean floor, drawing nutrients from the bottom in a phenomenon called upwelling.
Good upwelling jump-starts the food chain and leaves the ocean teeming with food for steelhead smolts when they are at their most vulnerable. Plenty of shrimp and krill means plenty of food for them — and more chow for bigger fish that aren't as likely to turn to smolts for their meals.
Such conditions were poor for much of this decade, and halfpounder returns suffered. Following a resurgence in favorable ocean conditions this year, halfpounders are the first Rogue salmon or steelhead to show those benefits in the river.
"It's a turnaround in ocean conditions," says Tom Satterthwaite, an ODFW fish researcher plying the Rogue since the 1970s. "Obviously, it's a good sign."
Other signs indicate the Rogue's famed spring chinook salmon run could be on the upswing as well, Satterthwaite says.
Returns of 12-inch "mini jacks," or 2-year-old chinook, accounted for roughly 2,700 of the 12,548 spring chinook counted this year at Gold Ray Dam near Gold Hill. That's well more than last year's mini-jack count of about 1,100, which indicates good ocean-survival rates for spring chinook that left the Rogue last year and which will start contributing to the river fishery next year.
"That's an indicator that chinook runs likely will turn around really quickly," Satterthwaite says.
For now, it's halfpounders that rule the day at Dunkelberger Bar for man and beast.
Two ospreys squealed overhead as they looked for halfpounders ranging too close to the surface. On the far bank, three otter played in the riffle between dives for little steelhead that strayed too close.
But Cornish out-fished them all, landing three of his daily limit of five fin-clipped hatchery steelhead.
"Nothing's more beautiful," says Cornish, who has fished for halfpounders at Dunkelberger Bar for 40 years. "If you get a fish, so be it."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.