A retread chinook salmon flies out of a Cole Rivers Hatchery truck Wednesday at the TouVelle State Park boat ramp. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Jim Craven

Excess chinook salmon flow into Rogue River

A "beep-beep-beep" of a Cole Rivers Hatchery truck resonated Wednesday at the TouVelle State Park boat ramp for the first time in five springs, the latest indication that the Rogue River's spring chinook salmon are on the mend.

For the first time since 2005, excess hatchery spring chinook were trucked downstream and released at TouVelle so upper Rogue anglers get a second chance at catching the Rogue's top fishing draw.

Hatchery workers used two trucks to haul and release 403 spring chinook at the ramp. The chinook averaged 12 to 18 pounds and are considered leftovers after hatchery workers culled out 203 early-run spring chinook as brood stock for spawning later this summer.

A piscatorial waterfall cascaded from the stocking truck early Wednesday, then the salmon finned confusingly in the shallows before dribbling downstream.

Unlike releases of recycled "retread" steelhead, the truck was not met by anglers armed with fishing rods ready to mine this sudden salmon vein.

"They're not like the steelhead, where people catch them right off the truck," hatchery assistant manager David Pease says. "These chinook aren't as aggressive. But I do know guys will catch them."

The recycled fish all are hatchery-bred and sport the clipped adipose fin that allows upper Rogue anglers to keep them should they be caught.

They also sport a hole-punch in their left gill plate, indicating they earned the 41-mile trip from the hatchery to TouVelle for another run through the angling gauntlet that has seen its best May activity since the early 2000s

"For this time of year, the fishing's been great and running those (chinook) to TouVelle puts that many more fish in the river," says Susan Billows, co-owner of Pat's Hand-Tied Flies along the upper Rogue near Trail

"That's good news," Billows says. "It does my old heart good."

The early returns of spring chinook to the upper Rogue have been the strongest since 2004 and have allowed state fish managers to lift a ban on rules requiring anglers downstream of Gold Ray Dam to release all the wild spring chinook they catch.

The run remains dominated by hatchery fish returning to Cole Rivers, which annually keeps 1,628 fish — combinations from early-run and late-run spring chinook — for brood stock, Pease says.

Excess later in the season often are sold to fish processors or given to American Indian tribes as part of Oregon's treaty responsibilities.

As far back as the mid-1980s, early-run extras have been released at TouVelle, but poor early returns have seen that option disappear the past four years.

Under the program devised by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, up to 4,000 spring chinook can be recycled before July 1, Pease says.

Those released after July 1 have a greater risk of straying onto native spring chinook spawning grounds.

Chinook and steelhead released at TouVelle tend to drop downstream and often end up around the first river bend at the Sewer Hole, where treated water from Medford's water-treatment plant is released into the Rogue.

After they gather their bearings, they tend to migrate upstream like other spring chinook, and are no easier or hard to catch than any of the notoriously finicky Rogue spring chinook.

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