GOLD BEACH — At first, the tap-tap-tap felt like the possible bite of one of those pesky surfperch that have been snatching anchovies trolled through the Rogue River Bay intended for fall chinook, and then it didn't.
Brian Winkler of Jacksonville snapped his rod skyward and the fight was on, with the fresh 18-pound fall chinook eventually netted and plopped into his boat.
"Look at those big, bright black spots on her back," Winkler says. "They're beautiful."
Expect many more of these beautiful spots to show themselves this summer during the Rogue Bay's fall chinook salmon season that is poised to be a short but bountiful one for anglers chasing these fresh fish in tidewater.
This year's run is forecast to be the highest since 2014, and fish already chasing anchovies into the bay are luring inland anglers like Winkler looking to catch fresh fish and beat the Medford heat.
"It's been pretty good fishing," says Steve Mazur, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist in Gold Beach. "It's hard not to have a good day out here. Wind can be a problem, though."
Perhaps a bigger problem is that this year's water conditions mean the bay could turn off as quickly as it can turn on.
In most years, the Rogue's warm freshwater forms a thermal barrier that keeps chinook in the Rogue's relatively short estuary. Once that river water cools to around 60 degrees, the barrier disappears and the chinook head off to the middle Rogue, the Applegate and Illinois rivers and other main tributaries that turn the Rogue Basin into a veritable fall chinook factory.
Thanks to a robust water year, Lost Creek Lake outflows are not set to drop below 2,750 cubic feet per second through July and will hold steady at 2,250 cfs through August. That will have lower Rogue temps hovering in the mid-60s, meaning a string of cool days in Medford could empty the bay.
"If we get those cooling trends in Medford, it won't take much to cool that water enough to get those fish moving," Mazur says. "It'll be pretty sensitive to the weather, there's no question about it. We'll see how it plays out."
Still, the Gold Beach faithful see a good short season as better than a long so-so one any day.
"Give me a month of good fishing, and I'll take that," Gold Beach guide Tim Young says.
This year's estimate of fall chinook chugging upstream past Huntley Bar is about 52,000 fish, which is about 1,000 more than the 10-year average and almost twice that of last year.
The Rogue Bay trollers typically take about 5 percent of the overall run before the fish get into freshwater, so that's an estimated 2,600 fish tagged in the bay.
Except for a few hundred chinook bound for the Indian Creek Hatchery just outside of Gold Beach, the Rogue Basin's fall chinook run is all wild.
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 fish.
So most of this year's bay catch will mimic Winkler's 18-pounder, which is nothing to sneeze at.