By Andy Martin

Special to the Pilot

More than twice as many winter steelhead have shown up at Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery compared to last season, making a new record return possible with the bulk of the run still ahead.

Through Monday, 194 male steelhead and 261 females were counted at the hatchery's fish trap. Last season, through the same date, 88 males and 82 females were counted.

Rowdy Creek Hatchery raises hatchery steelhead for the Smith River.

The Chetco River also is receiving a large run of steelhead this winter, many above average in size.

andquot;It sounds like fishing is pretty good for steelhead this year and it seems like there are some large fish being caught,andquot; says John Weber, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) biologist.

Officials have no way to count the number of steelhead coming back to the Chetco, but get a pretty good indication from anglers and crews netting steelhead for the river's hatchery program.

The tangle nets, however, only yield a few steelhead at a time.

Rowdy Creek Hatchery raises 100,000 steelhead a year, which are released at the Forks of the Smith River to fuel sport fishing.

ODFW raises 50,000 baby steelhead a year for the Chetco, which are raised at Elk River Hatchery and released near Social Security Bar. Most of the Chetco's hatchery steelhead are caught from the North Fork down.

Both rivers have healthy wild steelhead populations, which are benefiting from this year's high water.

andquot;On these high waters, these wild fish get on the move so the window for catching them is shorter because they don't hang around long,andquot; Weber says of the challenge biologists face in netting them for the hatchery.

So far, ODFW crews have netted 27 steelhead for the hatchery. Crews drift tangle nets - which catch the steelhead by catching their fins instead of gills - between Loeb State Park and Second Bridge.

Free tours are available daily at Rowdy Creek Hatchery.