The Chetco River on Oregon’s rugged South Coast sometimes sits just outside the glare of the spotlight on the famous Rogue River, but this smaller river near Brookings is simply an excellent place to catch big fall Chinook salmon and winter steelhead. As fishing guides will tell you, it’s one of the best fishing rivers on Oregon’s southern coast.
The action starts in the early fall when Chinook start making their way into the bay at Brookings, located just over five miles north of the California border.
Before the fall rains begin in earnest, most anglers troll the bay in September and October as these big salmon start to stack up and await rains that will let them reach their spawning grounds upriver. Trolling anchovies is popular on South Coast estuaries. This tidewater, with good access at the Port in Brookings, is narrow but long enough for anglers to stretch out a bit to fish.
And big salmon they are. The big Rogue may have more overall fish (though spread out into many more river miles) but the medium-sized Chetco is well-known as one of Oregon’s “big fish” rivers. Thirty-pound fish are hardly worth mentioning here, 40-pounders are a regular occurrence and 50-plus salmon are not so common but possible on this river system, where a fair number of the fish spend an extra year or two fattening up at sea. (The 65-pounder in the accompanying photo is the largest caught in recent decades.)
Overall, the lower reaches of river and tidewater hold the most promise for catching both the Chinook and steelhead, according to a local ODFW biologist. The deadline for salmon fishing currently is set at Nook Creek, about a dozen road miles upriver from Highway 101.
When the fish move into the free-flowing river, look for a number of bank access points in the lower reaches, most easily reached from North Bank Chetco River Road. Local ODFW fish biologists suggest that two spots to consider for bank fishing are at Alfred A. Loeb State Park, a 12-minute drive from Highway 101, and another a little more than a mile farther up North Bank Road, at a spot locally known as the Ice Box located just below a high bridge where the road crosses to the south side of the Chetco.
Boat access is excellent at multiple sites on the Chetco below Nook Creek, where you’ll need a drift boat (no motors allowed in much of the river) and this river can be busy when the fishing is good. There are lots of gravel bars where anglers also can pull over and spend extra time at a favorite hole.
For Chinook fishing above river mile 2.2, note that special gear restrictions are in place for much of the season to discourage snagging, so read the latest rules included in ODFW’s annual regulations booklet or website carefully and be on the lookout for mid-season rule changes, just in case. At present, those strict rules are lifted in early November to allow other effective methods, and November is typically the month when most of this river’s Chinook are landed.
While the Chinook run much bigger, the Chetco very often puts out more winter steelhead than salmon. The Chetco is easily one of the best winter steelhead rivers on the far southern Oregon coast.
You can legally fish for steelhead above Nook Creek, and there is lots of public access within the Rogue River-Siskyou National Forest, but a biologist said that most of Chetco’s steelhead, like the salmon, tend to be caught in the lower eight miles or so. Steelhead don’t generally bite well in tidewater, unlike salmon.
The Chetco has a nice run of hatchery reared winter steelhead with clipped and healed fins to mark them, but at this writing wild steelhead also can be kept in more limited numbers, but you should check regulations before fishing.
The winter steelhead season here begins in earnest in December and continues to be worthwhile through March. Peak fishing will vary by river conditions, but typically there are good numbers of bright fish available in January and February. Time your trips between major rain storms, as flows that are too low and clear or too high and off-color make for low catch rates.
Cutthroat trout also are native to the Chetco and may be fished in season under trout regulations, although they certainly aren’t as much of a draw here as salmon and steelhead.
Both searun and resident cutts are available in the system, with the searuns returning to the estuary and lower river in mid- to late summer after fattening up in near-shore ocean areas. During those warm months, during summer vacation and before the salmon anglers move upriver, there may be lots of rafters, kayakers and similar pleasure boats dotting the river and its gravel bars.
Fishing for resident cutthroats is often best higher in the system or in the tributaries, where there are fewer people and these fish find cooler water.