Spring chinook, like this one moving through the Gold Ray Dam counting station, have been down again on the upper Rogue River, prompting a likely discussion next week on whether emergency angling rule changes are necessary.

Chinook woes spawn return of closure talk

That increasingly familiar sucking sound you hear along the entire Rogue River is this year's spring chinook returns, whose early numbers are so low they again are putting the upper Rogue's storied fishery in jeopardy.

The currently poor showing of wild spring chinook at Gold Ray Dam could trigger a second straight year of mid-season emergency closures on the already limited keeping of wild chinook.

Through May 15, the numbers of spring chinook past the dam's counting station is about one-fourth of the average of what has reached the upper Rogue over the past decade.

The 1,248 chinook through Mid-May is even fewer than the 1,620 fish over the dam by that time last year.

That has state fish managers expecting to huddle next week and discus whether mid-season fishing restrictions are necessary to protect what few wild spring chinook have made it so far.

"No question, we're keeping an eye on it," says Dan VanDyke, the Rogue District fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in White City. "The last two years have been very poor and it's not shaping up good this year.

"I hate to speculate," VanDyke says. "But if changes are needed, we'll probably make a decision next week."

Under strikingly similar circumstances last year, the ODFW beginning June 5 ordered only catch-and-release fishing for wild, unmarked spring chinook. Anglers, however, could still target fin-clipped hatchery chinook, which dominate the Rogue run but are caught at disproportionately lower rates than hatchery fish.

Also, the stretch of upper Rogue from Gold Ray Dam to Elk Creek was closed July 1 — a month early — to all chinook angling to protect wild salmon holding in deep holes until they spawn in August and September.

That put a damper on what historically is the most popular upper Rogue angling season of the year. But biologists believe the closures did what they were designed for; 4,755 wild springers made it into the upper Rogue, enough with room to spare above the 3,500 wild spring chinook floor outlined in the ODFW's draft Rogue Spring Chinook Conservation Plan.

Biologists call it escapement — the fish that escape sea lions, disease and fishermen long enough to spawn in the Rogue. It's also the measuring stick most used to determine whether angling will or won't hurt salmon's ability to reproduce.

"Last year, the emergency changes were all about maximizing the spawning escapement," VanDyke says.

News of another poor wild spring chinook return and the possibility of angling cutbacks likely will cause the collective shoulders of the Rogue's angling faithful to slough. Just like last year.

"Ah, geez," comes the initial reaction of Casey Kelley, a Medford-based fishing guide and one of many Rogue Valley residents whose income rests upon a strong Rogue chinook run.

Spring chinook are a big draw among anglers because their bodies are so big, their fight so spirited and their flesh so prized for summer barbecues and smokers. But they are at times frustratingly tough fish to catch.

Kelley says fishing amid last year's cutback "was tough. Really tough." But his clients by and large toughed it out along with Kelley, and together they caught enough fish to satisfy.

But how long that will last is a mystery.

Chinook anglers, more than any other in Oregon, are known for appreciating the fish as much or more than the actual fishing itself.

Long, sometimes tedious and often fruitless hours spent trying to cajole bites from one or two chinook mean there's very little voluntary releasing when catching these big, bright fish.

"It would be one thing if it were fly-fishing for steelhead," Kelley says. "A lot of people release steelhead. But salmon fishing is meat fishing. It'll be tough to accept for a lot of people."

The perils to wild early-run spring chinook are well documented. Placement and operation of Lost Creek dam make them the single largest losers since the dam tamed the Rogue 30 years ago.

ODFW biologists and a collection of anglers have helped forge the draft management plan to help address the spiraling decline.

Guidelines from the draft were used last year when the emergency closures were enacted. The guidelines will be consulted again next week.

Anglers and biologists already headed into this year's spring chinook season under-whelmed by projections.

The run was expected to be below average, but it was expected to be buoyed by a good expected return of younger, smallish and later-returning hatchery chinook.

And this year's chinook could simply be late. With only 16 percent of the run over Gold Ray Dam historically as of May 15, this year's return could be a late bloomer.

But lower Rogue anglers — the bellwether anglers who get the first taste of a boom-or-bust chinook run — already have all but packed it in on their season.

"What's disappointing is we're not hearing a lot of good reports from the lower river," VanDyke says.

What you do hear, though, is that increasingly familiar sucking sound.

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

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