Fishermen heading out from Washington receive free safety kits from volunteer Auxiliary groupFor someone used to seeing boats so thick "you could walk across them," Sunday's opening of the Buoy 10 salmon season was on the slow side, according to Larry Kellis, a member of the local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.

A few hundred anglers headed to the mouth of the Columbia River Sunday morning to try their luck on the first day of the six-week season. The Coast Guard issued a rough-water alert for small boats early in the morning, but conditions eventually settled and anglers reported smooth seas for most of the morning.

Lifeboats responded to a small boat taking on water and a disabled sailboat, but the day was otherwise mishap-free, according to Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment.

Station Commander Jamie Frederick said many boats were farther out at sea where the runs were said to still be strong. He expected the pace to pick up in the mouth eventually, though - about 60 percent of the station's search-and-rescue calls come during the month-and-a-half Buoy 10 season.

The parking lot at the Cape Disappointment State Park boat ramp, normally overflowing on opening day, was not even full Sunday. But those people coming in appeared to have caught their limit, according to Coast Guard Auxiliary member Lou Pace.

For fishing guide Chris Palmquist of Vancouver, Wash., the Buoy 10 season offers him a week or so to "fish for myself." He and his friends landed three keepers Sunday morning before heading in to clean their catch at the boat ramp cleaning station.

The run seemed down from the peak numbers of two years ago, but Palmquist was still surprised at the relatively low number of boats out. He said a strong steelhead run on the Cowlitz and other rivers has drawn many anglers, while the steep price of fuel may be discouraging others.

"It cost me $130 to fill up my truck and my boat," he said.

Beat the heatThe chance to get away from the heat in the Portland area was an added bonus to a good day's fishing for Bud Baker of Boring, who said he thought the run was as good as in the past few years, if not better. He and his friend, Randy Rich of Gresham, keep a boat at Ilwaco harbor.

TOM BENNETT - The Daily Astorian

Cleaning his catch at the Cape Disappointment State Park boat ramp Sunday, Randy Rich of Gresham checks out one of the small fish he found inside the belly of a salmon he caught in the Columbia River. Rich and his fishing partner Bud Baker were part of a relatively small turn-out for the opening day of the Buoy 10 salmon fishery."We like Ilwaco better than all the other ports," Baker said. "The people are friendly, it's a nice harbor, it's close to the ocean and close to Buoy 10 - all that stuff makes a difference."

People heading out Sunday from Ilwaco, Cape Disappointment or Chinook, anglers received something extra - safety kits handed out by members of the auxiliary. They included boating safety pamphlets, a booklet on Oregon's boating regulations, as well as a depth chart of the river mouth and a business card with emergency numbers.

The charts divide the area into numbered grids, so that someone in a disabled boat, if they can estimate their location, can give the grid number to the Coast Guard and help speed the response time.

Even the red plastic bags that hold the kits can come in handy - Kellis said one person hung the bag over his boat's antennae as a distress signal.

The kits are part of campaign launched by the volunteer Auxiliary group two years ago to reduce accidents and fatalities during the Buoy 10 season, traditionally the Coast Guard's busiest time of year.

After seven people died during the 2001 season, the group put together plans for an outreach program to bring safe-boating information to anglers face-to-face. Today auxiliary members are stationed at the main boat-launching sites, where they give the safety kits to boat owners and remind them of some of the safety basics like wearing, not just carrying, lifejackets, and having a way to contact the Coast Guard in the event of an emergency.

In the past two Buoy 10 seasons, there has been just one death.

"We're shooting for zero fatalities," Kellis said.

Many tipsThe auxiliary members tell anglers about proper boat maintenance, alcohol use, filing float plans, checking weather and tidal conditions, even about avoiding "boat-rage." The group will even conduct free safety inspections of boats.

But it's the importance of personal flotation devices that the volunteers really stress, said Kellis. Most fatalities involve accidents in which the victim likely would have survived if they had worn a PFD.

"I tell them, 'If you're skeptical, go to a swimming pool and jump in, and have a friend throw you a lifejacket, and try to pull it on in the water,'" he said. "Or 'see how hard it is to pull someone out of the water who isn't wearing a lifejacket versus someone who is.'"

After a few years, anglers are getting familiar with the program and even many of the volunteers themselves, Kellis said.

"We get a lot of comments back. People appreciate that we're out there, and that we care about their safety," he said.

Before heading off to remind one angler about the rule requiring children to wear lifejackets even while just standing on a dock, Lou Place of Ocean Park, Wash., said almost all the people he's approached seem open to the information.

"There's that 1 percent who say 'I've been doing this for years, and I know what I'm doing,'" he said. "Those are the ones who get in trouble more often than not."

The auxiliary takes part is almost all Coast Guard tasks except for law enforcement. With its outreach program and other efforts, including on-water patrols, the all-volunteer group provides a service that full-time Coast Guard personnel couldn't do on their own, Frederick said.

"They are probably the most powerful force multiplier here," he said. "They're an incredible asset."

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