Chetco could face fish rule changes

The Chetco River will host a showdown over expanding the catch-and-release ethic on the river's wild salmon and steelhead runs, whose individual health seems to be heading in opposite directions.

At least one sport-fishing organization is expected to propose a ban on wild steelhead harvest on the Chetco, while another is seeking to reduce the number of wild fall chinook killed by anglers.

The proposed release of wild steelhead isn't because the run has shown signs of weakness.

The Chetco appears poised to be the next stream where the just-don't-kill-wild-fish mantra will resonate among anglers who prefer filling their coolers only with hatchery-bred steelhead.

"I haven't seen anything yet, but I expect to see something along those lines," says Greg Harlowe, from the Northwest Steelheaders Association in Newport. "Certainly there's been a lot of talk in the community about that."

Anglers from at least one Curry County-based fishing group say the catch-and-release focus appears trained onto the wrong Chetco species.

"I don't see any rationale for that," says Rich Heap, a Brookings angler who is an officer for the Oregon South Coast Fishermen group. "The steelhead run here is great."

But the wild fall chinook run has been dipping over the past decade in the Chetco, and anglers are about to have their first real chance to do something about it, Heap says.

Beginning in 2009, virtually all the hatchery fall chinook returning to the Chetco will have clipped adipose fins thanks, in part, to Heap's group, which helped pay for the clipping.

Heap says that makes 2009 a good time to reduce the wild chinook bag limit to one per day and four a year — identical to the October ocean season just off the Chetco mouth.

"Why should the harvest rate increase once those fish swim across the bar?" Heap says. "Here's an opportunity to have a uniform approach to managing this fishery."

The Chetco proposals will be two of hundreds of possible changes statewide as the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife this month begins its quadrennial vetting of all Oregon fishing regulations.

Every four years, agency biologists ask everyone from anglers to state police what changes they would like and why. After months of meetings and public debates, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is scheduled to vote on the packages in September.

Though the proposals for Chetco steelhead and chinook are similar, the circumstances are vastly different.

With headwaters in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, the Chetco has remained a wild steelhead factory.

Todd Confer, the ODFW's Gold Beach District fish biologist, says redd counts and other surveys show the Chetco is well seeded with wild steelhead despite the current regulation that allows anglers to keep one wild steelhead a day and up to five wild steelhead a year.

"There was steelhead production everywhere we'd expect it," Confer says. "That implies that the populations are robust and that there's no problem with a low level of in-river harvest.

"The driving factor is ocean conditions, not in-river harvest," Confer says.

That's enough to satisfy Mike Beagle from Trout Unlimited's Medford office.

Beagle says allowing a few wild steelhead from strong runs go home with anglers can help anglers appreciate and identify with strong wild runs, and perhaps infuse a fisherman's zest to help improve wild steelhead habitat.

"I, personally, release all my wild steelhead, but it's neat to bring home a fish that's wild or hatchery," Beagle says. "It's part of the fabric of the Northwest.

"Maybe bringing the occasional fish home will give people more ownership of steelhead," Beagle says.

Things aren't so rosy with wild chinook, where the number of spawning chinook and out-migrating smolts have been down the past decade, Confer says.

"It's not dismal by any means," Confer says. "But its not the kind of escapement we'd like to see. It's not robust."

Creel surveys show that the reduced bag limit should lead to some protection for wild chinook in the heavy estuary fishery, but not likely much from the driftboat fleet, Confer says.

For now, Confer says he's willing to support the reduced harvest on wild chinook on the Chetco.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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