Afternoon salmon and steelhead anglers returned to most of the Rogue River Thursday when an emergency fishing closure triggered by the drought was lifted after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started dumping more water into the river.
At the request of state fish biologists, the Corps increased outflows from Lost Creek Lake into the upper Rogue by 16 percent, enough to exempt a 120-mile section of the Rogue from the 2 p.m. statewide fishing closure enacted July 17.
The higher, cooler flows make it more likely wild salmon and steelhead in the river can withstand the stresses of catch-and-release fishing during unseasonably warm water from this summer's mix of heat and drought.
The afternoon closure covered the Rogue from Fishers Ferry boat ramp upstream of Gold Hill to the top of tidewater just east of Gold Beach, including the salmon and steelhead stretches in the Grants Pass area popular with the after-work crowd targeting fall chinook and summer steelhead.
"That'll get the fire started," says Dave Bradbury, owner of Bradbury's Gun and Tackle shop in Grants Pass.
"A lot of guys said they'd try to rearrange their schedules to fish in the mornings, but a lot of guys can't," Bradbury says. "They didn't think they'd do any fishing this year because (afternoons) are the only time they have."
While Thursday's stepped-up releases from Lost Creek Lake helped anglers, they were done to help wild fall chinook salmon migrate in more fish-friendly environs.
At the request of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Lost Creek Lake releases were kept at 1,500 cubic feet per second since mid-July to ration stored reservoir water for release once wild fall chinook started moving en masse out of the estuary at Gold Beach.
Survey crews pulling nets Wednesday through the Rogue at Huntley Park near Gold Beach caught more than 60 fall chinook salmon adults, the first big haul of the season, according to ODFW.
"We think that's a good signal that the bulk of the fall chinook will be moving upstream," says Dan VanDyke, ODFW's Rogue District fish biologist.
ODFW immediately asked the Corps to ramp up the flows to 1,750 cfs, starting after sunset Wednesday, VanDyke says.
The goal, VanDyke says, is to see flows at Agness stay above 2,000 cfs — a level that historically helps stave off outbreaks of warm water-related diseases that can kill huge numbers of migrating chinook during droughts.
After late-July water temperatures hit 80 degrees in Agness, water temperatures have vacillated from 71 degrees in the morning to 75 degrees in the afternoon, according to Natural Resources Conservation Service records.
Migrating fall chinook get stressed at temperatures higher than 75 degrees.
"Conditions already have moderated and they will improve with the extra water," VanDyke says.
They also cool the river enough to reduce worries of catch-and-release fatalities among wild salmon and steelhead already in distress from warm water. River temperatures typically spike after 2 p.m. under hot summer skies.
ODFW fish biologist Todd Confer in Gold Beach says he estimates that more than 14,000 fall chinook have headed upriver so far based on the Huntley Park seining surveys.
This year's preseason forecast is that about 55,000 fall chinook will reach the Rogue Basin, with the vast majority bound for the Grants Pass-Gold Hill area, the Applegate River and Bear Creek.
That forecast is slightly below the 10-year running average, Confer says.