Peak Season on the Chetco: Home of Oregon’s Largest Salmon
By Andy Martin
Tales of giant kings have long made Southern Oregon’s Chetco River a favorite of fall salmon anglers. Few rivers match the scenery, and quality of fish, found on the Chetco. Fish over 50 pounds are caught each year, although the vast majority of the salmon run 20 to 25 pounds. Fish over 30 are not uncommon, and kings topping 40 pounds can be seen almost daily at the lower river takeouts during peak season.
Salmon begin running up the Chetco in late September and are available through mid December. The season can basically be broken into three parts, early season estuary and bay trolling, bobber fishing in the tidewater, and peak season back-bouncing and plug pulling upriver.
Chetco Bay Trolling
Salmon begin to stage in the Chetco estuary, the area from the Highway 101 bridge to the tips of the jetties in mid- to late September. Big kings remain here until the first rains allow them to continue upriver. The fish will move back and forth from the ocean into the estuary throughout the early season.
Trolling the most effective method of tricking the estuary and bay kings into biting. Whole anchovies have been a favorite of local anglers for decades, but when I troll the Chetco I typically use plug-cut herring. There is something about a quickly spinning herring slowly trolled near the mouth of the river that big kings can’t resist.
While plain herring are effective, dyed baits also work very well. My favorite are green-label herring brined in Pautzke blue Fire Brine. The brined baits hold up well, and the color makes the herring even more enticing.
Anglers troll slow here. Go just fast enough to keep the baits spinning. Three to four ounces of weight will usually suffice. Leaders up to 6 feet long work best. Most anglers focus from the harbor entrance to the tips of the jetties, where the depth runs 15 to 25 feet. Kings also are caught on the flat along the middle jetty toward the Highway 101 bridge. This area fishes best at the top of the tide.
Tidewater Bobber Fishing
Early in the season, bobber fishing also is effective in the tidewater. In fact, once you get above the powerlines at rivermile 2.2 just above the Highway 101 bridge, that’s the only way you can fish until Nov. 4.
Fishing eggs below a bobber in the deep tidewater pools is extremely effective.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife requires the use of bobbers above the estuary for the first part of the season to prevent anglers from snagging, or lining salmon. Since the Chetco is usually very clear, small clusters of roe are necessary. Adding live sand shrimp with the roe also is effective. I cure my eggs in a mixture of half pink Pautzke Fire Cure and half red Fire Cure. I light the brighter color of the 50:50 mix. I also add a little sugar to the cure, as well as some borax, which helps prevent mold when I store the eggs in the fridge.
Before fishing, I cut the eggs into small clusters and soak them with Pautzke Liquid Krill. This is an extremely effective scent for fall kings. I also dump several sand shrimp onto the eggs, and use half a shrimp and a small roe cluster below the bobbers. I typically fish those baits 6 to 12 feet below the bobber, depending on the depth of the water I am fishing.
After the Nov. 4 all-method opener, which usually coincides with a big rain in early November, I switch gears to upriver, where I will back-bounce roe, run plugs and bobber fish. For back-bouncing, I use the same cure as for bobber fishing, expect I dry the eggs for 12 to 24 hours to harden them up so they last longer in the swifter currents upriver.
Adding generous amounts of Liquid Krill to the baits will sometimes spark a bite from finicky salmon upriver.
When running plugs, I like to use M2 FlatFish or 4.5 or 5.0 MagLip plugs, wrapped with a sardine fillet that also has been soaked in Pautzke Nectar or Liquid Krill. The extra scent from the Nectar or Liquid Krill can give anglers an edge in crowded sections of the river.
Editor’s Note: Pautzke pro staffer Andy Martin is a full-time fishing guide who lives just a few miles from the Chetco River in his hometown of Brookings, Ore. He has guided customers to numerous kings over 50 pounds on the river, including a 58-pounder near the mouth and a 65-pounder upriver. His web site is www.wildriversfishing.com.