By Andy Martin

This season's winter steelhead return on the Chetco and Smith Rivers is shaping up to be one of the best in recent memory.

The number of fish entering the trap at Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery is paced to set a new record, while Chetco River anglers also have encountered a large early run of steelhead.

andquot;It's pretty good for early in the season,andquot; Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery manager Andy Van Scoyk said Monday as he removed steelhead from the hatchery's trap. andquot;It's one of the better early returns we've seen in a long time. We are ahead of our all-time record by a little bit.andquot;

Nearly 120 steelhead had already returned to Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery through Tuesday morning, well ahead of last year's season-to-date numbers. With the peak of the run still a month away, Van Scoyk said more than 2,000 steelhead may return to the hatchery this season, which would break the record.

Anglers on the Chetco and Smith rivers aren't only seeing good quantities of fish so far this season, they are seeing quality as well. Steelhead are running bigger than normal this season.

andquot;There are a lot of really nice-size fish,andquot; Van Scoyk said. andquot;They are extra big this year. We are seeing fish 18 and 19 pounds.andquot;

Recent rains are drawing fish to the hatchery's fish ladder, but also are giving anglers on the Smith and Chetco a shot at plenty of chrome-bright steelhead.

andquot;When we have good flows and we are getting a bunch of fish, they usually get a bunch in the river as well,andquot; Van Scoyk said. andquot;So far for steelhead it seems like fishermen are pretty happy.andquot;

Biologists will begin collecting steelhead for the Chetco River's hatchery program this weekend, said Steve Mazur, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's assistant district biologist for Curry County.

andquot;They are catching fish early on the Chetco,andquot; Mazur said of anglers fishing from shore and drift boats. andquot;They have been catching them since late November. I would expect there to be a pretty good return. It looks like good numbers of hatchery fish are coming back to the Chetco.andquot;

The lower Rogue also is seeing a healthy start to steelhead season.

Good hatchery programs combined with strong runs of wild steelhead are credited for the solid start to steelhead season.

On the Smith, Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery raises 100,000 baby steelhead each year. The fish are released at the Forks, fueling a healthy sport fishery for more than 10 miles of river. The steelhead that are spawned for the hatchery are collected at a fish trap just below the Highway 101 bridge over Rowdy Creek.

Biologists use tangle nets to collect spawners for the Chetco's hatchery steelhead program. Around 50,000 baby steelhead are released each year in the Chetco. Mazur said about 70 percent of the fish spawned at the hatchery are wild steelhead, maintaining the healthy genetics of the Chetco's steelhead run.

Besides steelhead, the Smith and Chetco also have hatchery salmon programs. Biologists were able to net enough fall Chinook from the Chetco this fall to meet hatchery goals, while enough salmon also returned to the Rowdy Creek trap to raise more than 200,000 baby salmon for the Smith.

Mazur said biologists will be netting steelhead from Ice Box downstream on the Chetco. On the Smith, fresh steelhead are returning daily to the Rowdy Creek trap. Van Scoyk counted 17 fish in the trap that moved in Monday afternoon.

The Chetco's hatchery steelhead are raised at Elk River Hatchery, while the Smith's are reared at Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery.

Free tours are available daily at Rowdy Creek. Van Scoyk said local residents with family members visiting for the holidays may want to stop by and see workers net fish from the trap and spawn the steelhead. Large steelhead can also be seen in the hatchery's holding ponds. For more information about Rowdy Creek Hatchery, call (707) 487-3443.

Outdoors writer Andy Martin, a former editor of Fishing andamp; Hunting News, runs a halibut charter boat in the Gulf of Alaska during the summer and guides on America's Wild Rivers Coast during the winter. His Web site is