SHADY COVE — Taking advantage of a rare mid-week day off in the construction business, Gee Romero wanted to make sure his upper Rogue River fishing trip with guide Charlie Brown would pay off.
By 7 a.m., it had. A 35-inch spring chinook salmon was in the boat. And to cap it off, it was one fin short of a full salmon.
"It was a big, bright, beautiful hatchery fish," says Romero, 26, of Medford. "When Charlie cut the fillets, they were just how you want them. Neon-orange."
Upper Rogue anglers are hoping this year's spring chinook run will produce many more neon lights, but they likely can expect that light will shine a little later and more dimly than it did last year.
This year's returning adults headed to the ocean during the drought years of 2013 and 2014, which likely thinned the numbers of smolts that survived their mass exit to the Pacific.
Also, warm ocean currents have triggered downturns in survival rates of other salmon and steelhead runs north and south of Southern Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"We're definitely going to see the effect of three years of drought and odd-ball ocean conditions," says Dan VanDyke, ODFW's Rogue District fish biologist. "That said, I'm still optimistic for our returns this year."
The upper Rogue is just starting to become the go-to place for spring chinook. The run is a mix of wild springers and hatchery-bred fish denoted by clipped adipose fins. All wild chinook must be released unharmed until July 1, when anglers can keep up to two a day downstream of Dodge Bridge through August. Upstream of Dodge Bridge, where Highway 234 crosses the Rogue, it is catch-and-release for springers until that stretch of river closes to salmon fishing July 31.
The season typically begins in the Shady Cove area in early May and runs through July upstream of Dodge Bridge, and the lion's share of springers are caught upstream of Shady Cove.
For both boat anglers using various concoctions of roe, sandshrimp and plugs and bank anglers slinging beads and corkies, it is the most popular fishery on the Rogue.
Last year produced a good showing of more than 29,000 fish. ODFW estimated that more than 15,000 were wild chinook, more than 8,000 were hatchery fish that returned to Cole Rivers Hatchery, and 5,500 chinook went home to barbecues and smokers, according to ODFW.
With the counting station gone with the removal of Gold Ray Dam in 2010, the only in-season barometer for gauging whether the run is early, late or light are Cole Rivers counts, and those send a mixed message.
As of Tuesday, 144 springers had entered the hatchery. That's half of the 10-year average and a far cry from the 1,122 that reached Cole Rivers at the same time last year, when drought conditions saw extremely low spring flows in the Rogue.
This year's good water conditions more closely resemble those of 2011, when just eight chinook had reached the hatchery by this time that year, ODFW records indicate. That year, the run was late and the hatchery ended up collecting 6,752 chinook.
That's less than a quarter of the fish that used to show up at Cole Rivers. Making matters worse, those that are surviving are contributing even less to catch rates than before.
Anglers from Gold Beach to Trail this year are consistently reporting catch rates of about 75 percent wild fish and 25 percent hatchery.
"The hatchery fish don't seem to be contributing to the fishery as they did in the past," says Todd Confer, ODFW's district fish biologist in Gold Beach. "That's something we need to figure out and address."