By Andy Martin
It was my first year guiding full time on Oregon’s Chetco River, and Easter Weekend took place in late March. Just a month before, dozens of boats crowded the lower river, as steelhead season was at its peak. On this day, there wasn’t a boat in sight. It was sunny, warm, and despite low, clear conditions, the fish weren’t spooked because there was so little pressure.
Our first pass at Emily Creek resulted in a fish. Three hours later, at Tamba Bar, we got our only other bite of the day, and despite the steelhead run being just about over, we’d landed two bright fish, a successful late-season outing.
Prime time on the Chetco has passed by the time March rolls around. But as the season wanes, so do the crowds, and anglers looking for a chance at one more steelhead before the side-drifting gear is put away for the year have good chances of finding success here.
Late Season Fishing
The peak season on the Chetco runs from the last few days of December through February. By March, many of the steelhead have spawned and are making their way back to the ocean.
On the upper river, where only a limited number of guides (including myself) have a Forest Service permit to fish, anglers sometimes encounter big numbers of downers. These fish fight well, and are often aggressive biters. When anglers encounter a group of “downers” the number of hookups can quickly add up.
On the lower river, fresh fish will continue to move into the river through the end of March. While the numbers of fresh steelhead are considerably less in March, fewer boats fishing them can lead to a solid day’s fishing.
A solid late-season steelhead on the Chetco.
Some of the biggest native fish also arrive late in the season. While the majority of the Chetco’s steelhead run 6 to 10 pounds, you never know when a 15-, 18- or even 20-pounder will show up. Some of the biggest spawners show up at the end of the run. These are the main stem spawners that spawn in the upper river.
Smaller steelhead also are common late in the season. March is when the “bluebacks” arrive. Bluebacks are one-salt steelhead that return to the Chetco and Winchuck rivers, as well as several Northern California coastal rivers, at the tail end of the winter steelhead run. These fish are usually very aggressive, and fight especially hard. They are basically a steelhead jack, and return to the ocean during the spring months after several weeks in the river.
I like to use roe cured with natural-colored BorX O Fire the entire season. I always add a little sugar to sweeten the cure. This is steelhead candy, and steelhead can’t resist it.
Late in the season, the water is often low and clear, so I often reduce leaders to 8-pound test, use smaller hooks (size 4), and use darker colored Puff Balls, such as dark orange or red. This year it looks like we will have higher flows, so pinks and chartreuse Puff Balls also will be used.
Steelhead season closes the last day of March on the Chetco and other Southern Oregon Coast rivers, including the Elk, Sixes, Pistol and Winchuck. Fishing remains open on the Smith in Northern California through April. Like the Chetco, it can deliver a sold late-season trip, especially once the crowds are gone.
Editor’s Note: Pautzke Pro Staffer Andy Martin is a full-time Oregon and Northern California fishing guide and charter boat captain. His web sites are brookingsfishing.com and wildriversfishing.com.