The anglers on the "Reel-Lentless" came back to Bodega Bay empty-handed Thursday, though not for a lack of bites.

Bob Monckton, the charter boat's captain, said the day-trippers pulled in multiple "shakers" — smaller salmon that had to be released. On the previous Sunday, though, Monckton took out a group where everyone caught their two-fish limit.

Nobody pays to catch shakers, but Monckton said the range of size and ages of the fish on the two days bodes well, showing a healthy, diverse population of salmon early in the year.

"All signs are there that this should be a good season," he said.

Many in Bodega Bay hope so, guarding their optimism that this is the end to three disastrous years for the local salmon industry, an economic punch that has been felt across the small coastal town.

On Wednesday, fishermen's hopes got their strongest official validation yet, as regulators signed off on a May 1 start to the first commercial salmon season of any length since 2007. The recreational season began April 2.

"I see more movement on the docks now that we know we have a salmon season than I've probably seen in three years," said Peter Doyle, working on the hydraulics of his boat "Supreme," a 48-foot troller. "But everybody is a little cautious."

The waters were rough for most of the week because of high winds. But by Friday evening, Vince Orsini, skipper of the Miss Anita charter boat in Bodega Bay, had returned for the third time with his limit since last Sunday.

There's plenty to be wary of, fishermen say. Even as officials expect 730,000 salmon to return to the Sacramento River system this fall, six times the numbers estimated last year, there's no certainty until the salmon are caught.

But at least they'll have a chance to try. In 2008 and 2009, officials halted local ocean salmon fishing because of the precipitous drop in salmon returns.

Salmon boats went out to sea last year, but with paltry results. Regulators approved just an eight-day commercial season that was effectively halved by high winds that kept boats in port. With less than a week to fish, Bodega Bay's commercial fishermen landed just $61,360 worth of salmon, according to preliminary numbers from the California Department of Fish and Game.

Sports fishermen had fewer restrictions, but they too met with frustration caused by low salmon counts. Charter boats brought 865 salmon to dock in 2010, less than half the 1,969 they landed in 2007, according to preliminary state numbers.

The shrinking numbers sent waves across town, starting with Spud Point Marina, Bodega Bay's largest dock. Last year, it sold $6,902 worth of ice, compared with $42,337 two years earlier.

Fuel and berthing sales dried up, too, during that period. The marina sold about $514,690 in fuel and oil through mid-2010, less than half of the $1.1 million through mid-2008. Berthing revenues, meanwhile, dropped 30 percent over the two years.

"I went from a waiting list approximately three years long to having no waiting list at all," said Noah Wagner, marina supervisor. "Once the salmon closure came, people started pulling their boats and putting them in their driveways and their backyards."

The economic consequences of the salmon collapse didn't stop at the docks. Anthony Delima, assistant manager of wholesale seafood at The Tides Wharf, which overlooks Bodega Bay, said his operation had to cut hours and lay people off during the lean years.

"We're just scratching by," he said. "It made it real hard."

Fewer fishermen loading up on coffee, sandwiches and snacks also forced her store to move its opening from 6 to 7 a.m., said Natalie Douglas, manager of Pelican Plaza Grocery and Deli on Highway 1.

"It totally affected our business," she said, adding she's not ready to get too excited by the buzz about this salmon season. "We're hopeful, but it's too early to tell."

A stellar crab season already has eased the financial pressure for many fishermen, some of whom leaned on federal disaster assistance to make ends meet over the past three years.

Bodega Bay boats brought in more than 4.2 million pounds of crabs in November and December, more than in any full year in the previous decade.

But not every fisherman crabs and even those who do need more than a single season to make a decent living, said Chuck Cappotto, president of the Bodega Bay Fishermen's Marketing Association.

"You have to be able to string together several good seasons to make up for the several bad ones we've had," he said. "It's going to take awhile before everybody is back in the black, I would think."

He's hoping for more than just a bigger bounty out of the season. He's looking for a future to the graying industry. The average age of a captain in the Bodega Bay fleet is around 60, estimates Cappotto, who is six years older than that.

There's been little to make young people consider fishing as a viable way of life, he said, which in turn affects older fishermen wanting to sell their boats.

"The reality is that for a lot of these people, the boat is their retirement," he said. "Traditionally you sell your boat to someone younger and move on."

A good salmon season coming after the record crab haul of this past winter could help bring in new blood and restore that cycle, he said.