Fish the Chetco According to River Flows

Chetco River - Brookings, OR (Curry County)

Robert and Ronnie Lockett traveled from Eureka, California to catch several adult Chetco River kings last week which were caught on bobbers-and-bait in between Loeb State Park and Social Security Bar.
Photo Credit: Larry Ellis

by Larry Ellis

Start counting backwards! Salmon warriors are anxiously awaiting for November 4 to roll around, and that's this coming Friday. That's when bobber restrictions on the Chetco will be lifted and the river will finally open to all fishing techniques.

Rain is to the Chetco River as big waves are to surfers, and there has been plenty of precipitation during the month of October. In fact, the early fall rains have actually created the perfect storm for Chetco River Chinook aficionados.

So if you want to be a successful salmon fisherman on the Chetco, fish the river according to river flows. This is the Chetco River Flow Bible according to the author.

Remember, the following techniques are only allowable on the Chetco starting November 4th.

But first things first. In order to fish the Chetco according to river flows, you have to know what those flows are. Fortunately for us salmon slayers, we have the Chetco River Gauge to go by, which is located near Ice Box on the Chetco River.

Here's how to read the Chetco River Gauge...
In either your computer or cell phone address bar, type the following words: This will bring you to another page.

At the very top left corner of the page, left-click on "recreational river flows". This will take you to the most-visited river gauges in Oregon and California, which will be displayed in a column on the left side of the page.

Under the first heading "Southern Oregon", left-click on the last river, "Chetco near Brookings (USGS)". This will take you to another page displaying two Chetco River graphs.

The first graph lists the Chetco River's flows in cubic feet per second (cfs). Scrolling downward, you will come to a second graph, which lists the Chetco's water level in feet. For the purpose of this article, we will be using the first graph, the one that lists the Chetco's flows in cubic feet per second.

All You Need is Rain - Rain is All You Need
If the local vicinity gets pummeled by enough precipitation (like it has the past few weeks), it increases the flow and height of a river, and salmon feel safe entering the river proper.

If the river raises quickly to 10,000 cfs or higher, the river usually blows out, which means that the suspended particulate matter in the river usually contains lots of mud, due to runoff.

When a river is high and muddy, stay home and do something constructive, like tying leaders.

If rain has not continued to hammer the area, the river will continue dropping, and as it drops, it will also begin to clear. As the river clears, it does so on a continuum. It doesn't clear all at once; it clears in stages.

The Chetco will now start clearing and will take on a tea-green or slate-gray appearance. At this particular coloration, if the river is between 4,000 and 8,000 cfs, plunking Spin-N-Glos from the bank will be the technique that rules the river.

You won't find any boaters on the river when it is between 4,000 and 8,000 cfs because it is much too swift and dangerous to successfully deploy any boating techniques. I will say that on occasion, you will find boaters starting to pull plugs when the Chetco is between 4,000 and 4,500 cfs, but you won't find many boaters on the river at this phase.

As the river drops to 4,000 cfs, and if it takes on a pea-green complexion or clearer, drift boats will begin to back-bounce roe and to pull sardine-wrapped plugs.

As the river drops between 3,000 and 4,000 cfs, you will still see a few plunkers on the riverbank, but you will also see a lot of shore anglers deploying drift-fishing techniques using Corkies-and-roe, plain Corkies, Okie Drifters and yarn balls. This is also great textbook plug-pulling and back-bouncing water for drift boaters.

As the river drops to 2,500 cfs, shore anglers will continue to deploy drift-fishing techniques but they will start to downsize their gear due to water becoming progressively clearer. The clearer the water, the smaller the lure or bait.

2,500 cfs is also great water for shore anglers to deploy various side-planing appliances such as the popular SideWinder planer board. These are great tools for pulling lures such as the K-14 Kwikfish, the 3-inch and 3.5-inch Mag Lip, HotShots or Brad's Wigglers and Wee Wigglers.

2,500 cfs is also awesome water for boaters to continue pulling plugs or back-bouncing roe.

As the river drops between 1,500 cfs and 2,000 cfs, shore anglers would do well to use lighter line and smaller drift-fishing lures. Boaters will continue baby back-bouncing roe and pulling smaller-size plugs.

As the river drops toward 1,000 cfs, the water has now approached drinking-water clarity. Bobber-and-bait techniques start to become more prominent for both bankies and boaters. 

Fishing the Chetco according to river flows is not just the whim of the wisp or a fisherman's fancy - it is an angler's salvation - and your ticket to Chinook heaven.

Tight lines!

Larry Ellis, author, writer, columnist and photographer has had a 50-year passion for fishing in California and Oregon's saltwater and freshwater venues. He is a well-known writer for Oregon, Washington and California Fishing and Hunting News, Northwest Sportsman, California Sportsman and Pacific Coast Sportfishing. He currently writes monthly for Salmon Trout Steelheader Magazine, and is the author of two books, "Plug Fishing for Salmon" and "Buoy 10, the World's Largest Salmon Run."  Both books can be bought from Amato Publications (, Amazon and eBay. Ellis particularly loves living in his hometown of Brookings, Oregon - The heart of salmon country and gateway to fishing paradise.

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