After years of severely restricted or canceled salmon fishing seasons, North Coast fishermen said they are excited about the possibility that there may be a salmon season this year.

But raised hopes have been dashed before, and there's still a long way to go before commercial and sport fishermen find out where and when they can cast their lines.

"We're pumped about the season, and then we're not," said third generation salmon fisherman Stan Carpenter of Sebastopol. "The last time there was supposed to be 700,000 fish they didn't show. But, they might."

The cautious optimism is based on the number of salmon expected in ocean waters this year, which was announced by the California Department of Fish and Game on Tuesday. Officials predict 729,893 salmon to swim the ocean waters, compared to last year's projection of 245,483 fish. Last year the number of salmon proved to be half the projection.

"We have missed the numbers up to 200 percent, and all of the time we've estimated higher," said Harry Morse, spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game. "We're trying to project what happens in an ocean where we do not know all the environmental factors."

Even so, Morse said that whenever those numbers have been seen in the past, there has been both a commercial and recreational fishing season.

"These numbers, they do look encouraging, and we're probably looking at a season, though there probably will be restrictions," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

The Department of Fish and Game recorded dramatic declines in the number of salmon that made their way up the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems in 2008 and 2009, prompting them to cancel the commercial salmon season for the first time in history.

Last year commercial fishermen were limited to eight days of salmon fishing, a time frame that was too short to be financially feasible for many fishermen. The Department of Fish and Game said those closures led to economic losses of more than $279 million and 2,670 jobs.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council is holding a week-long meeting in Vancouver starting Saturday to discuss the state of the salmon stock and to make recommendations for when and where fishermen may fish.

The Council is expected on Wednesday to propose three different options for the salmon season. Those proposals will then be brought to the public for input in a series of meetings at the end of March to be held in Westport, Wash.; Coos Bay, Ore.; and Eureka.

"This is the big start to the salmon management processes," said Jennifer Gilden, staff officer for outreach at the Pacific Fishery Management Council. "It has been going on before now, but this is when the public gets involved."

The council will make its final recommendation at a meeting in San Mateo in early April.

Carpenter said he's been observing a lot of krill and anchovies in the water this year — food for salmon — while he's been out catching Dungeness crab.

"We just have to wait and see what's out there," Carpenter said. "I don't think anybody knows until we start getting out there fishing. The ocean looks really good. It's really healthy looking."

Morse said the health of the fishery has been improved in part by changes the Department of Fish and Game made in how it manages fish on the rivers.

The DFG helps young salmon make the trip from the spawning grounds where they hatch to the ocean where they spend most of their lives, by trucking the baby fish in special pens and setting them free near Vallejo.

Four years ago, the DFG began releasing the fish on the outgoing tide, to help them find their way to the ocean without getting lost or eaten by predators.

"Those little fish have to get to the ocean," Morse said. "We held some of the fish longer, and we let them get larger, so when they got down there they had a better chance of survival."

Rick Powers, the captain of a charter boat at Bodega Sport Fishing Center, said fishermen are happy to get out on the water, but are waiting to see whether the predictions are correct.

"It will sure be a very big boon to these coastal communities, because it's been quite a hardship for any of the businesses up and down the coast," Powers said.