Open season on chinook — 'Remember 2009'

BROOKINGS — Ocean anglers who helped make this tiny coastal hamlet the chinook capital of Oregon the past two summers might find themselves a bit let down to hear this year's season likely will see more average chinook catches.

But Richard Heap wants to remind them of one number — 2009.

That was the infamous "zeroed-out" season when not a single sport or commercial angler off the Southern Oregon and Northern California coasts got to wet a line in the ocean for chinook.

"Remember 2009," says Leap, a recreational salmon advocate in Brookings. "People should not forget that year. We didn't fish chinook at all."

That makes more than palatable this summer's likelihood of a May through Labor Day open season for chinook, but with only average numbers of catchable chinook in the ocean.

All three options being mulled by the Pacific Fishery Management Council for the 2014 season have the chinook season opening in May, and the most likely option has the season closing Sept. 7 — a season long enough to allow fishing on every summer holiday weekend.

"It looks like it's going to be a full season, and that's huge for us here," Heap says.

The PFMC has released its options for 2014 seasons, including the chinook season in the Southern Oregon subzone between Humbug Mountain near Port Orford and the California border, as well as the fin-clipped coho season from Cape Falcon just south of the Columbia River to the California border.

The council is taking comments on the options and will finalize the seasons when it meets April 5-9 in Vancouver, Wash.

The most liberal option — and the one Heap and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists expect will be adopted — has the season opening May 1 as it did last year. The next likely opening date proposed by the PFMC would be May 17.

Eric Schindler, ODFW's Ocean Sampling Project leader, says neither opener would mean much to anglers.

"It doesn't really matter if they open then because there aren't any fish there," Schindler says.

The chinook caught off Brookings typically are making their way up the California coast at that time, filling coolers in Eureka, Calif., while Oregon anglers are still focusing on lingcod.

"One of these years, the chinook will be there in May," Schindler says. "But we've never seen it."

Even after a relatively fish-less May for Brookings last year and a windy July that kept most Oregon ocean anglers at bay much of that month, anglers brought 10,426 chinook back over the Chetco River bar last summer, accounting for 35 percent of Oregon's recreational chinook landings.

That was by far the top catch for any Oregon summer port. It fell short of the season tally of 11,778 chinook landed at Winchester Bay, but the statistics can be a bit misleading. Winchester Bay is in the Cape Falcon to Humbug Mountain zone, which has its chinook season starting in mid-March and running into October.

While the PFMC sets the timing of seasons based on chinook abundance, those predictions don't guarantee good catches.

Last year's fine haul out of Brookings came in large part because the chinook showed up during good late-summer fishing days, and there was plenty of bait off Southern Oregon to keep them here, along with good weather to keep anglers fishing.

"A lot of it will be how the ocean lines up," says Heap, who represents sport-fishing interests for PFMC technical issues and debates. "That's the other half of the equation. If you have the fish, you have to have a reason to keep them around."

When the chinook aren't around, there's always the fin-clipped coho to target, and this might be one of the best years to do so.

The PFMC's options call for the fin-clipped coho season to open as early as June 21 and stay open as late as Aug. 10. That's a wide window, considering last year it was relegated to July days.

And the most likely quota in this basically Oregon-wide fishery will be 80,000 hatchery coho — more than seven times last year's quota.

Last year, Oregon anglers landed just 6,580 fin-clipped coho, largely because July was such a weather bust, Schindler says.

It will be tough for Oregon ocean anglers to tag that many hatchery coho, but they have a better chance to get two fin-clipped coho in a day than in past years when anglers were releasing as many as nine wild coho before getting one fin-clipped hatchery coho.

The fin-clipped coho abundance looks good in the ocean this year, Schindler says.

"There should be a lot more hatchery fish out there," he says. "And that's good. I hate those phone calls from people who say they have to release a bunch of fish."

In all, the seasons likely will play out to be an abridged version of the past two seasons. And that's positive, depending upon your frame of reference.

"Maybe not as good as the past few years, but we're definitely a lot better than we were in 2009," Schindler says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or

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