Opening day of the recreational ocean salmon season may be an annual rite of spring, but it's a little bit like Christmas for die-hard anglers who spend the winter pining away for a chance to catch the sleek, silvery fish.
So if there's a crush of boat-towing vehicles headed toward Bodega Bay for Saturday's season opener, it should come as no surprise.
King salmon are calling.
"I call it 'pink gold,'" said sport fisherman Mike Erion, who works as a manager at Outdoor Pro Shop in Cotati. "People just love it."
"We haven't really been chasing salmon since late September of last year, so we're very excited," said Rick Powers, skipper on the New Sea Angler passenger boat. "There's a lot of anticipation, a lot of excitement."
Powers said part of the fun of a season opener is figuring out where the fish are biting best, as the population density tends to shift up and down the North and Central Coast during the season.
But the signs in Bodega Bay area already hopeful, with nutrient-rich water and sightings of jumping fish, he said.
"We've been lucky out in Bodega Bay," Powers said. "Bodega's been a good steady bite for the last five years."
Word gets out fast when that's the case, drawing crowds to the coast that can cause a backup two or three miles long for the launch ramp at Westside Regional Park, he said.
"It's kind of like a Super Bowl atmosphere," said Patrick Clifton, of Santa Rosa, who was out at Spud Point Marina on Wednesday readying his boat for the weekend. "The people are all jacked up to go fishing."
One Saturday last year, Clifton spent 2.5 hours in line waiting to get his boat in the water, he said.
"The guys typically sit around all winter long waiting for this to happen and the excitement ramps up," Erion said.
Federal biologists are forecasting relative abundance in the California coastal salmon fishery this year.
It's nothing nothing like the boom year of 2012, when nearly 2.5 million Chinook salmon were estimated to be waiting in offshore waters at the start of the season. But this year's preseason estimate of roughly 934,000 fall-run Chinook is well above forecasts for most of the past decade, when the fall-run Sacramento River population crashed, resulting in a complete ban on sport and commercial salmon fishing in 2008.
The improved outlook will will permit 2014 sport anglers to fish seven days a week and have a "pretty much continuous" season through the summer and into fall, state Fish and Wildlife spokesman Harry Morse said.
Fisheries south of Horse Mountain and the Arcata area of Humboldt County are included in Saturday's opening.
The catch limit is two fish per day, and each must be at least 24 inches in total length if caught in the San Francisco District that includes Bodega Bay. At some point later this summer, the minimum length will be reduced to 20 inches, though when that will happen is still up in the air.
North of Point Arena, in the Fort Bragg district, anglers can keep salmon that are at least 20 inches in length beginning Saturday.
Coho salmon, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act, are off-limits entirely.