Rogue anglers win some, lose some

GOLD BEACH — Rogue River anglers will all but sidestep a halving of fall chinook salmon daily bag limits along the Oregon Coast in response to anticipated poor returns to coastal streams that are in need of as many spawning chinook this year as possible.

Oregon fish managers late Wednesday unveiled a proposal to cut the coastwide bag limit beginning Aug. 1 from two wild fall chinook a day to one, and the season limit from as many as 20 wild fall chinook a year to just five.

The Rogue, however, will remain one of just two waterways that will keep the two-fish daily limit on nonfin-clipped fall chinook, but the annual catch on the Rogue will be cut from a maximum of 20 to no more than 10.

A combination of relatively steady returns of wild chinook owing to Lost Creek and Applegate dam operations and virtually no fin-clipped hatchery chinook in the Rogue made it a rare candidate to skip this year's emergency changes, biologists say.

"Our Rogue fall chinook are still more robust than what we see in other rivers, so we can allow for a more flexible bag (limit)," says Todd Confer, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist in Gold Beach. "The reality is, we're not going to a strict one-fish bag on the Rogue.

"That would have meant you'd have been 'One and Done" on the Rogue," Confer says.

The only other exception will be at Isthmus Slough in Coos Bay, which sports a vibrant fishery on hatchery-bred chinook that do not have clipped adipose fins.

The changes, which would remain in effect only through the remainder of 2008, are in the form of proposed administrative rules changes the ODFW has drafted for consideration June 6 by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.

If adopted, they would go into effect Aug. 1, before most fall chinook fisheries begin.

But all does not remain rosy on the Rogue, where yet another poor showing of wild spring chinook means a seasonwide ban on keeping wild Rogue spring chinook.

For the third consecutive year, June 1 will come and go without the planned opening of wild fish to the spring chinook bag limit in the river's lower 135 miles from the mouth upstream to the Hog Creek boat ramp near Merlin.

With only a few hundred wild chinook counted so far at Gold Ray Dam, the Rogue's spring chinook management plan calls for the wild-fish harvest ban after the June 1 planned opening.

ODFW Director Roy Elicker signed the required paperwork to that effect Wednesday.

Fishing will continue, however, with anglers allowed to release wild spring chinook and keep up to two fin-clipped hatchery chinook a day.

"For fall chinook, the pain will be a little less on the Rogue," Confer says. "The place they're going to get hurt on are the springers."

The proposals surfaced late Wednesday on the ODFW Web site containing the commission's agenda for its upcoming meeting.

Oregon fish managers have long hinted that cuts in this year's fall chinook angling seasons would follow a crash in the sport and commercial ocean seasons.

Chinook returning to Oregon coastal streams this year are the remnants of smolts that entered the ocean during a string of poor ocean conditions.

Though indications are that ocean conditions have improved this year, the results of previous years' conditions are coming back to haunt these coastal fisheries that rely on salmon money for survival.

Had this happened 25 years ago, the Rogue likely would be in the same boat. But the building and operation of the basin's two dams generated a boon for naturally spawning fall chinook in the basin above historic levels.

Supplemented summer and fall flows in the Rogue and Applegate helps create more usable habitat for adult and juvenile chinook. Even though returns last year were lower than the big returns earlier this decade, they still rank around historic averages for the basin, Confer says.

This year's forecast is for a run similar to last year.

"If that's the case, we're fine," Confer says. "If we're wrong and it comes in lower, maybe we're being too liberal."

The liberalness of the current proposal goes even further.

The Rogue's ban on wild chinook harvest will be lifted on July 12 in tidewater. That allows anglers who troll the bay for early fall chinook to fish those final two weeks in July after the spring chinook are past Gold Beach.

"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to restrict that (bay fishery) in the last two weeks of July," Confer says.

Also, the emergency rules are drafted in a way to ensure that fall chinook caught in the Rogue won't interfere with future fishing opportunities on the Elk, Sixes, Chetco and other streams.

Under the rules, anglers could kill five Rogue chinook under the two-per-day limit, and still save their five other chinook they can catch and keep from streams within the statewide limit.

Or Rogue anglers who stay home could take all 10 of their fish here.

The only hitch is wild Rogue chinook caught in the bay during July will count against anglers' 10-fish season limit.

Reality is, few Rogue salmon anglers kill five fall chinook a year, let alone 10. So the change likely means about 5 percent more Rogue fall chinook will hit spawning grounds instead of coolers.

"Assuming that falls out the way we expect, we don't see any significant issue for fall chinook on the Rogue," Confer says.

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