Brian Winkler of Jacksonville trolls in the Rogue River bay in Gold Beach for chinook and coho salmon downstream of the Highway 101 bridge. Photo by Cathy Noah

Trading coho for chinook

GOLD BEACH — When my rod tip pulsed toward the surface of the lower Rogue River bay in earnest, I reared back expecting to feel a hefty fall chinook salmon chugging downstream and hunkering down for a fight for its life.

The fish cartwheeled skyward and finished with the signature splash of yet another wild coho salmon. Now, instead of 20 pounds of prime chinook fillets on the line, it was nothing but an anchovy stealer destined for release as required for wild Rogue coho.

I haphazardly played it to the driftboat, where fishing pal Brian Winkler peered over the transom with a face like he'd seen a ghost. A unicorn. Possibly even Bigfoot.

"What you have there, my friend, is a true endangered species," Winkler says. "A hatchery coho."

Used to catching and releasing one after another of the Rogue's protected wild coho, we enjoyed a Walter Mitty moment when this 27-inch, fin-clipped fish headed for the barbecue Sunday instead of back in the bay like nine out of 10 coho catches legally do in the lower Rogue.

But those who curse their chances at catching and keeping the Rogue's rarest legal take-home salmon take note: It's only going to get worse.

A shift in Cole Rivers Hatchery production has boosted its releases of the more highly prized hatchery spring chinook salmon by about 80,000 annually into the Rogue. In exchange, the hatchery has pared its coho releases from a target of 200,000 smolts annually to no more than 75,000 smolts.

It is a pound-for-pound production trade, which Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists sanctioned as a way to put bigger, more popular hatchery spring chinook in the river in exchange for fewer hatchery coho, which ODFW statistics show are the weakest contributors to in-river catches.

"I think it's a trade that benefits anglers both in the upper river and the lower river," says Dan VanDyke, ODFW's Rogue District fish biologist.

It also should reduce straying of hatchery fish onto the spawning grounds of wild coho, which are protected as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act, VanDyke says. It will also reduce predation by the bigger hatchery coho smolts on smaller wild spring chinook fry in April when the coho are released from the hatchery, he says.

The production shift began last year at no net gain or loss to anglers because the smolts flushed to the ocean were too small to contribute to catches. But the impacts will be felt beginning next fall, when that year's smolts will dominate the coho returns as 3-year-olds.

"We're likely going to see some reduction in the number of coho coming back," says Todd Confer, ODFW's Gold Beach District biologist, who oversees the bay fishery.

But it won't hurt too badly.

First, perpetual fungus outbreaks in eggs and fry at the hatchery have kept Cole Rivers from hitting its 200,000-fish target for the past decade, hatchery Manager David Pease says.

The majority of hatchery coho caught annually are in the bay by trollers. Bay anglers caught 304 hatchery coho in 2012, when the river-wide catch rate was a whimpy 5.9 percent, ODFW statistics show. It got worse in 2013, when bay trollers caught 155 hatchery coho as part of a river-wide catch rate of just 2.2 percent.

No wonder the public advisory committee helping shape the Rogue River Spring Chinook Management Plan in 2007 voted unanimously to raid the hatchery coho program for more hatchery spring chinook.

"They said trade coho for spring chinook, and that's what we're doing," Confer says.

The only losers in this equation are those trolling the bay during the last week of September and the first few weeks of October when coho dominate the waters here.

"Still," Winkler says, "we're really here for chinook."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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