BROOKINGS — While dragging a chunk of roe through a Chetco River riffle, Andy Martin watches his rod tip intently while waiting for that little nibble of a 20-pound winter steelhead.
When the rod slams to his driftboat gunnel, however, Martin knows it's no 20-pounder. It might not even be a 20-incher.
Just what constitutes as a "blueback" has as much to do with what type of salmonid you're fishing for as where you cast your line.
That's because the term blueback is used to describe any of several species of salmon, steelhead and trout throughout North America.
"Blueback is a popular word for a lot of things," says Todd Confer, the Gold Beach District fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Are we talking about cutthroat or steelhead?"
Both. In Southern Oregon and Northern California, bluebacks are smallish, late-run winter steelhead that hit local streams in March and April ready to spawn.
In other stretches of the Oregon Coast, bluebacks are a common colloquialism for sea-run cutthroat trout.
Washington anglers sometimes describe kokanees as bluebacks, and Alaskans will call sockeyes bluebacks even though they are bright red when in their spawning regalia.
And just in case that isn't confusing enough, Salmo oquassa — aka the blueback trout — is a char native to a string of lakes in Maine.
— Mark Freeman
But the "blueback" steelhead at the end of his line is a welcome addition to a day on the Chetco and other Southern Oregon coastal streams now playing host to their end-of-the-season runs with one of the Northwest's least-understood anadromous fish.
Smallish fish with gun-metal-blue backs, these abridged versions of winter steelhead are now filling area streams, providing a second tier of fishing opportunities, debunking the steelheaders' credo that bigger is always better.
"Right now we're after those big, late-run winter steelhead on the Chetco," says Martin, a Brookings-based fishing guide. "But with the bluebacks in there, your odds of catching something go way up.
"There's so many of them and they're so aggressive," Martin says. "If you see one, chances are you'll see a dozen or more."
Bluebacks run as small as 16 inches and up to 26 inches or more. They're almost all wild, mostly males, all ready-to-spawn and raring to bite just about anything tossed their way.
And their presence signifies the beginning of the end to the 2010 coastal steelhead season.
Bluebacks don't normally show up until March, and Southern Oregon streams such as the Chetco, Winchuck and Pistol rivers all close to angling shortly after dusk Wednesday.
So there's just one more week for bluebacks to defy the typical steelhead nibble and slam that bait or plug with the ferocity of a pit bull in a poodle's body.
"They bite a lot harder than a typical steelhead," Martin says. "There's no problem seeing that bite on a blueback. If you find them, you'll get quite a bit of action on them."
What curious anglers won't find is a lot of information on blueback steelhead here.
Tom Satterthwaite, an ODFW biologist who has worked on the Rogue for more than three decades, says precious little research has been done on bluebacks other than some sampling in the late 1970s and early '80s on the Rogue.
Those studies show that bluebacks are a distinct subset of the winter steelhead run, he says.
Most winter steelhead return on their first spawning run after two years at sea, but bluebacks return after just 10 months in salt water, he says. That accounts for their smaller size, much like Rogue summer steelhead that first make a false spawning run as 15-inch "halfpounder" steelhead.
Being young males ready to spawn, bluebacks are akin to teenage boys on hormonal rampages, and enough of them get into the spawning mix over the millennia to pass on this genetic life-history trait.
"It all makes ecological sense," Satterthwaite says.
It also makes good piscatorial sense to target bluebacks in the waning days of winter steelhead fishing, when rain gear gives way to shirt sleeves on the Chetco.
Sometimes called "jack steelhead," they are just as aggressive as the Rogue's halfpounders, but larger.
"They're like halfpounders on steroids," Martin says.
Most of the bluebacks hang together in the lower sections of the Chetco, primarily from the Ice Box gravel bar down to tidewater, Martin says.
Driftboaters have a distinct advantage on the Chetco, where outboard motors are allowed. While prospecting the various riffles and runs for steelhead, those who hook a blueback can motor back up the riffle and hit it again ... and again.
"If you find one blueback there, then pound the spot," Martin says. "You can get half a dozen or more out of a single spot before they move on or you spook the hole."
Because most are ready to spawn, their brightness belies the quality of their meat. And they can be kept as part of the regular steelhead limit on the Chetco, where anglers can keep one wild steelhead a day — including bluebacks — and no more than five wild steelhead per year.