Chinook opener

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Northern California salmon anglers will have their first saltwater fishery in three years as Chinook season is set to open south of Horse Mountain on April 3.

In a surprising regulatory "non-event" in early March, both the Pacific Fisheries Management Council and California Department of Fish & Game chose not to cancel a previously scheduled April 3-30 Chinook season.

The PFMC instead released its three options for the 2010 salmon season — ranging from a full season in Fort Bragg, San Francisco and Monterey to a complete coast-wide closure — and left any potential regulatory changes for the federal agency's annual mid-April season-setting meetings in Portland, Ore.

Come April 3, anglers will be running out of Monterey, San Francisco, Fort Bragg and Shelter Cove, fishing on runs headed back to the Sacramento River system, the Klamath River and various rivers in southern Oregon.

"I'm just praying that everybody is slammed with fish," said DFG senior biologist Melodie Palmer-Zwahlen, a member of the PFMC salmon technical advisory team. "I'm happy that it's open in April, so we'll know from Shelter Cove to Avila what's happening where, and it'll give us a good indication of what's going on out there. We'll be out in force monitoring on April 3, and I really hope we see some fish."

The PFMC cited a higher expected abundance of fall-run Chinook on the Sacramento River as the primary reason for the April saltwater season. The 2010 Sacramento Index of ocean abundance calls for 245,500 fall Chinook to return to northern California's largest river system, a projection that, according to the PFMC, should provide both adequate spawning escapement of 122,000 adults, and enough surplus Chinook for an April sport season.

"We're getting good reports back from commercial boats out of Moss Landing that there's some salmon around, and some big ones, too," said Capt. Tom Dolan at Monterey Bay Charters. "Two years ago we were hooking incidental salmon while we were in shallow water fishing for halibut, which means there were a lot of fish.

"The volume of sardines last year was bigger than I've ever seen, too, so we're pretty optimistic. We're not seeing any problems out on the ocean; on the contrary, we're seeing tremendous amounts of bait."

As anglers gear up for the opener, though, many observers are cautioning against the all-to-possible reality of an over-forecast of the Sacramento run, which historically served as one of the foundations of California and Oregon offshore sport and commercial fisheries that accounted for 800,000 fish a year from 2000 to 2005.

The Sacramento was forecast for 122,100 adult Chinook in 2009 and saw a return of only 39,800. It was similarly misforecast in 2007, when Sacramento fall Chinook projections called for 265,000 fish and only 87,900 returned.

"You can get rid of all the numbers and look at one thing: we had 39,800 fish show up on the Sacramento River last year, and now they're saying we'll have a quarter million this year," said Bill Divens of Salmon King Lodge. "You don't get exponential improvements of a run like that.

"The best we ever had was in 2004-05, when it improved by a factor of 2.2, but even that was an absolute aberration. How could anybody with a straight face say we'll have a quarter million?"

The Sacramento saw over 755,000 adults return in 2002, and then experienced a historic crash to just over 66,000 fish by 2008.

The PFMC will meet April 9-15 to set fishing seasons for salmon in California, Oregon and Washington.

Editor's note: Based in North Puget Sound and operating from Alaska to Baja, Joel Shangle has been a news junkie on the West Coast saltwater scene since the 1990s, first as editor of California Fishing & Hunting News' and now as editor of California Sportsman, which hits newsstands in October. He's the host of Northwest Wild Country, a popular fishing and hunting radio show airing throughout western Washington, and has the deepest source list this side of the Library of Congress. In other words: if you're catching fish on the West Coast, just try to get away from him.