By Larry Ellis
Pilot staff writer
This is the time of year everyone waits for. Jack Chinook salmon are finally trickling into some of the upper tidewater sections of the Chetco, marking the true beginning of the salmon season.
A jack is just another word for a 2-year-old Chinook that comes back a little earlier than the rest of the herd. And even though it returns prematurely, it is still a fully mature salmon except for the fact that it will weigh anywhere between 3 and 7 pounds, depending on how much food supply was available to it in the ocean.
These jacks are robust 4 to 6 pounders, so they must have chowed down heartily while serving their time in Davey Jones' Locker.
As the name implies, a jack is a male sorry, unfortunately there are no Jills. For some reason, female Chinook just don't come back as 2-year-olds. That is not to say that it hasn't happened, it's just not the norm.
Nobody really knows the reason why jacks come back prematurely. Perhaps it's Mother Nature's way of preserving the species. One good case in point rendering credence to the "preservation of the species" theory would be what happened one year at a former Burnt Hill Salmon Ranch/ODFW project.
The ranch manager told me that there was one year where only female Chinook returned to the trap at Lobster Creek. No 3-year or older males returned. There was, however, one lone jack-in-the-box. Since a jack is fully capable of reproduction, they used the milt from that one 2-year old to fertilize all of the eggs from the females.
And apparently, by the looks of the future returns, the progeny of one jack does not necessarily mean that only jacks will return. All age classes resulted from the spawn of that one jack. It appears that Mother Nature's handiwork is once again at play in preserving the species, although the true mystery of what makes the jacks return will remain an enigma continuing to keep researchers enthralled for years to come.
One thing is known for sure: the jacks are the leaders of the pack. Within a few weeks, the big bucks and does will follow. You can set your watch by it. So it's time to start seriously thinking about trolling the estuary or bobbering some Chinook.
This time last year, there were already a few lunker 'nooks being boated by experienced trollers. The fish appear to be a little late this year, but that's OK. From what's been going on in other estuaries, the few fish that are being caught have some serious shoulders to 'em.
Tillamook Bay has been kicking out at least one 50 pounder a week, and the Alsea's average estuary fish has been in the 30-pound category, not in her normal 20-pound class. In addition, the Alsea has been giving up a few 50-pounders of her own. The biggest fish caught in the Coquille STEP derby held recently was around 37 pounds. The runner-up was also another 37-pounder, just a few ounces shy of the winner.
The last ocean season of the year is coming up Oct. 1, what ODFW officially calls, "The Chetco River Ocean Terminal Area Fall Chinook Salmon Fishery." (Whew, that's a mouthful!) Let's just call a spade, a spade. It's locally known as the Chetco Hawg Season, and although October isn't here yet, those fish will start stacking up closer and closer to the jetty jaws, day by day.
Those jacks that are being caught in upper tidewater? They are the brethren of that batch of fish. It isn't known yet what the numbers are going to be, but most people think the fish that will be caught will be monsters. There will probably be a 50 pounder or two caught, possibly even a 60.
Under normal conditions, those big salmon will move into the estuary on the incoming high tide, pushing into the deep-water tidal holes such as Tide Rock, and they'll move out of the holes into the estuary and back out to sea on the low tides. They'll do this until the first major sends them upriver.
As of last Thursday, there hasn't been any estuary fish caught yet. The fish could be a little late as a result of all this warm tuna water that's been keeping them off shore. But it's inevitable that the Chetco hawgs will be transitioning into the river. So be prepared to troll the estuary with spinnerbait rigs, plug-cut herring, spinners, whole anchovies or herring.
Bobbers will also be employed in the estuary, as well as in lower and upper tidewater. Bobbers have come a long way since the days of Huckleberry Finn and cane poles. Today's bobbers are sleek athletic versions of their former selves.
The biggest changes to the bobbers have been tweaks in their design within the last few years. The latest craze is the Salmon Stalker, a long cylindrical shape designed to be used with various weights of crescent sinkers. For example, there are 1-ounce bobbers, 1 1/2 -ounce bobbers, 2-ounce bobbers you get the picture.
They are manufactured with the purpose of sticking straight up, but they lay perfectly flat or go under water at the slightest breath of a salmon. If the bobber should suddenly disappear underwater, set the hook. If the bobber should suddenly pop up and lay flat reel down and put the screws to 'em.
The rigging is simple. You have a 24-inch mooching leader with a single or double fixed-top-hook. The leader is attached to the bead chain of a crescent sinker. From the top of the sinker, you then have a bead, the mainline, the bobber, another bead and then your bobber stopper.
You can use pre-made bobber stoppers, or just tie two granny knots on top of each other made of 20-pound monofilament.
Anchovy tails are jack candy. Some people will use roe, sand shrimp or a combination of a sand shrimp tail with a cluster of eggs, also called a shrimp cocktail. Since salmon are always looking up, you always want to be about a foot above them, so for starters, set your bobber stopper around 8 feet.