The Applegate River in Southern Oregon is best known as a place to catch winter steelhead and trout.
The Applegate is one of the major tributaries to the world famous Rogue River, but it doesn’t have the year-round opportunity for keeping as many salmon, steelhead and trout as the larger river.
What most anglers cherish about the Applegate River is its more off-the-beaten fishing for native and hatchery steelhead.
The wild fish, which have an intact adipose fin, must be turned loose unharmed, but you can tag and keep a steelhead with a missing and healed-over adipose.
The Applegate is planted with hatchery-reared steelhead smolts, but some years there is relatively modest harvests of these fish.
The hatchery winter fish here often appear in the best numbers near the end of the prime fishing season and into the closed period during the spring, said Charlie Brown of Fishing the Rogue guide service.
Once it closes, anglers in this part of the state tend to look to the Rogue, especially for hatchery steelhead.
Some years anglers on the Applegate report only a few dozen harvested steelhead, while in better years that number jumps into the hundreds.
At this writing, steelhead fishing is open most of the year but is closed for nearly two months during April and much of May.
Typically the best fishing occurs just ahead of the closure during the month of March, when the largest numbers of steelhead are in the river.
Where to Catch Steelhead
The Applegate’s steelhead fishery is found entirely below Applegate Lake, a large reservoir known for good trout and bass fishing.
That lower section of river is fairly closely followed by more than 40 miles of roads between Applegate Dam near the California border and the confluence with the Rogue only about 10 miles west of Grants Pass.
Salmon caught in the Applegate River may not be harvested.
Note that there is a marked fishing deadline prohibiting angling closer than 1,500 feet below the dam.
How to Catch Steelhead
Bait angling is currently allowed throughout the Applegate River and sand shrimp or salmon egg roe can be very effective for steelhead.
Many anglers prefer to use artificial lures for wild steelhead, because it results in fewer injuries to the fish.
An article by Medford Mail-Tribune outdoors writer Mark Freeman, who quoted a local guide familiar with the river, notes that fishing with spoons is a popular and effective way to fish for Applegate’s steelhead.
Steelhead also respond well to other lures, including spinners and jigs. Fly anglers also like the challenge of catching wild steelhead, and the Applegate is a good place for this as well.
The Applegate is a bank angler’s destination, so plan to cast. Fishing is prohibited from a floating device and this is not really a boating river.
Where to Fish for Steelhead
There is lots of private property along the Applegate River that greatly reduces access to the banks.
The article linked above mentions some of the public access spots with potentially good steelhead fishing, including both sides of the Highway 199 bridge, Turtle Lane Park (off Fish Hatchery Road), Cantrall Buckley County Park, Jackson Campground and U.S. Army Corps land below the fishing deadline.
More information: Steelhead Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips
The Applegate is also open to trout fishing, both below and above the dam.
The mainstem below the dam, and just one open tributary (Glade Creek), is primarily a catch-and-release pursuit of wild rainbow and cutthroat trout.
Trout must have a clipped fin to keep a limit of two, but these will be few if any because the river isn’t stocked with hatchery-marked trout. (The reservoir is stocked.)
Some “trout” in Oregon’s river systems are fin-clipped steelhead that haven’t yet gone to the ocean.
More information: Trout Fishing: How-To Techniques and Tips
Some anglers have reported catching small bass in the river, which may wash down from the Applegate Reservoir.
More information: Bass Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips
Note that the lower section of the Applegate River is closed beginning April 1 until it reopens in late May.
The steelhead have started spawning and the previous year’s salmon and steelhead smolts are heading out to sea during the spring migration period.
Check the current regulations before fishing, including noting that trout larger than 16 inches are considered steelhead in the river below the dam.
The upper river and its tributaries above the reservoir are open for trout fishing all year, with typical harvest limits and no requirement that trout must be fin-clipped or to count larger trout as steelhead (there aren’t steelhead in the upper system).
But note that the upper Applegate flows out of California, so check that state’s regulations if you are fishing south of the state line.