Chetco River steelhead anglers have a chance to win big — and use their catch for a cause.
The Oregon South Coast Fishermen have launched this year’s Chetco Chrome Challenge, asking anglers to donate their catch in exchange for raffle prizes and the chance to be crowned “King of Chrome.”
“This is designed to be fun. Catch fish, and donate your fish to the broodstock program,” said Dave Kuehn, who’s heading the challenge.
It’s simple to enter: Pay the entry fee, and you’re in the general raffle pool.
But if you want to be in the “Chrome” prize pool? You’ve got to catch and donate a wild steelhead.
The goal isn’t just the giveaway: Kuehn and his crew are using the competition to help spur donations to the Chetco River Broodstock Program. The target is to collect 50 pair of steelhead this season to donate to the program.
Usually, anglers on boats and along river bars have just two options when they catch a steelhead: They can release the fish back to the stream or harvest it if they haven’t met their limit.
But the broodstock program offers another option: Donating fish to the Elk River Hatchery to spawn more steelhead.
Once caught, steelhead to be donated are transferred by anglers into plastic tubes. From there, Kuehn and his volunteers transfer the steelhead into pens, which sit in the river while they wait to be collected by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife staff.
There, while the lucky angler enjoys their entry into the raffle and goes home with a fresh “Catch ‘em & Hatch ‘em, I gave back” sticker, the fish’s journey is just halfway done.
“It’s quite involved,” Kuehn said. “But it’s working.”
ODFW staff bring the fish to the Elk River Hatchery, where they mate and their offspring are returned to the Chetco, beginning the lifecycle again.
“The goal of the hatchery program is to provide extra fish to supplement the fishery,” said John Weber, an ODFW biologist who leads the department’s Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program on the river. “You’re supplementing the fishery by having the additional fish return that are produced in the hatchery.”
According to Weber, hatchery fish tend to have higher reproduction rates than wild steelhead. Since they have less natural loss during the first two years of life in the natural environment, more fish survive from a pair of hatchery steelhead than a pair of wild steelhead.
“You have high survival of the offspring in the hatchery,” Weber said. “The value is that we’re going to essentially have more fish return to the river.”
Over time, that higher survival rate increases the population of hatchery steelhead in the Chetco, allowing anglers the opportunity to harvest hatchery steelhead while releasing wild fish to their native environment if they choose.
Kuehn puts the goal simply: “To increase angler opportunity.”
“We’re just trying to make sure we have steelhead to harvest,” Kuehn said. “It’s to maintain a robust run.”
This is the third year Kuehn and OSCF are running the Chrome Challenge on the Chetco, but Weber said ODFW has been relying on volunteer donations of steelhead to the broodstock program for six years, since the department stopped netting the river to catch fish.
Kuehn has been fishing for steelhead on the Chetco for about seven years. He started the Chrome Challenge with OSCF after visiting his son on the Mad River in northern California, where an annual derby rewarded the angler each season who caught the largest hatchery fish.
That got him thinking about what could be done on the Chetco, and he turned his attention to the broodstock donation program.
“I just thought maybe I could do something fun,” he said.
So he launched the challenge and the raffle to give anglers the chance to be crowned “King of Chrome,” if they catch and donate the most steelhead to the broodstock program.
Kuehn doesn’t keep many of the steelhead he catches – they’re essentially just large trout as far as cooking and eating them is concerned, he said. The rest of his catch he either releases back into the river or donates to the broodstock program.
For him, it’s not about what he takes home, but about being on the river.
“I like the sport of fishing. The angling, the catching,” Kuehn said.
Anglers must have an ODFW permit to collect or transport live steelhead. Permits are available to those who sign up for the Chrome Challenge by submitting a form to Kuehn, who can be reached at 805-350-0542.
The possible raffle prizes, including fishing equipment or guide trips, are one incentive. But for Kuehn, the goal of expanding Chetco steelhead angling odds is incentive enough to donate his fish.
“It’s so much fun,” Kuehn said. “Once you catch a steelhead, you’re addicted.”