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Ocean conditions drive Chinook success

On Oregon Waters, Larry Ellis,
always look forward to every year's Preseason I Report for ocean salmon productivity. The Salmon Technical Team (STT) assembles the report, and gives their best-educated guess at what kind of salmon numbers the various regions in the Pacific Northwest should expect.

The Preseason I Report gives pre-season predictions. The final numbers of fish that are actually available to anglers won't be tallied until the season ends, when the post-season estimates will be available.

There is no doubt that this year's predictions of Sacramento and Klamath River Chinook that will be swimming in the ocean are significantly lower from previous years. And since Sacramento and Klamath River Chinook make up the bulk of the salmon that are caught in the ocean in the Klamath Management Zone (KMZ), a lot of anglers are saying that this year's season is going to be a total bust.

That's not necessarily so. The season can still be salvaged, at least partially, with good ocean conditions.

You can have high projections with poor ocean conditions and have a lousy season. On the other hand, the season can have a low-to-moderately mediocre projection with terrific ocean conditions, and you can count on putting a few Chinook in the fish box.

Jim Bithell with limit of lingcod, by Larry Ellis
Jim Bithell from Charthouse Sportfishing was able to limit out his clients on lingcod and rockfish last week when the ocean laid down for several days out of the Port of Brookings Harbor.

Here are the projected numbers.

This year, the Klamath River ocean abundance for fall Chinook is predicted to be 142,200 Chinook, the lowest projected return since the year 2006, which had a pre-season projection of 110,000 Chinook. But for the moment let's scratch Klamath River Chinook off the drawing board because they tend to be further out to sea as well as tending to swim at deeper depths than Sacramento River kings.

This season, the pre-season estimate of Sacramento River Chinook swimming in the ocean calls for approximately 299,600 kings, a very low but still doable projection for ocean salmon fishermen. Sacramento River Chinook are the main driver for the Port of Brookings Harbor's salmon fishery.

Interestingly, even though the 299,600 figure doesn't seem like a lot of fish, it is still higher than last season's (2015) actual Sacramento River return.

"The Sacramento's (pre-season) forecast for 2015 was 652,000, but the post-season estimate came in at 255,000 (Chinook)," said Eric Schindler, Ocean Salmon Project Leader for ODFW.

So in other words, if this year's pre-season forecast of 299,600 Sacramento River Chinook comes to fruition, it will have beat last year's actual return by approximately 44,600 kings.

Admittedly, last year's ocean salmon fishing for recreational sport fishermen was one of the worst seasons I have personally ever seen, mainly due to El Nino events that drove the Chinook down to depths ranging from 300 to 600 feet, making them primarily only accessible to the commercial fleet.

"We do know that El Ninos are bad for salmon, and we've gone through a very severe El Nino," notes Schindler. "When I looked at everything that I was seeing, it looked exactly like the 1982/1983 El Nino event."

So had the El Nino event of last year not occurred, it is likely that the recreational harvest of those 255,000 Sacramento River Chinook from last year would have been substantially greater.

So this year's ocean salmon season boils down to one word - hope!

Hope that ideal 52-degree salmon water temperatures will be within 100 feet from the ocean's surface. Hope for plenty of bait to feed the salmon, which includes anchovies, Pacific sand lance, smelt, herring, sardines and krill. Hope for current rips and slicks. And the biggest hope of all - that all of the aforementioned conditions will coincide with each other.

But should the El Nino event of 2015 continue this year, it would greatly behoove anglers to think "deep". The commercials were able to fish from 300- to 600-feet deep using their powerful hydraulics and 50-pound downrigger balls.

The Scotty and Canon downriggers used by recreational anglers can only lift a 15-pound downrigger ball from depths of 100- to 150-feet.

So to go deeper, think about using 65-pound braid for your mainline and use a wire spreader/cannonball sinker combination. Using a 24-ounce sinker, I have been able to get my gear down to the 200-foot mark.

A person should also think about using those flashers that Jerry Bechhold makes that contains L.E.D. lights: the Flashy Big Kahuna and the Preditor. Those puppies throw out a lot of light, and a glowing flasher in those dark depths might be the ticket to attract salmon from 300 feet.

The PFMC will be selecting the final alternative for this year's season in the KMZ at their meeting in Vancouver, Washington from April 9-14.

Tight lines!

Larry Ellis, author, writer, columnist and photographer has had a 50-year passion for fishing in California and Oregon's saltwater and freshwater venues. He is a well-known writer for Oregon, Washington and California Fishing and Hunting News, Northwest Sportsman, California Sportsman and Pacific Coast Sportfishing. He currently writes monthly for Salmon Trout Steelheader Magazine, and is the weekly fishing columnist for "On the Water" for the Curry Coastal Pilot Newspaper. He particularly loves living in his hometown of Brookings, Oregon - The heart of salmon country and gateway to fishing paradise. Posted with permission of the Curry Coastal Pilot of Brookings, Oregon

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