The chrysomelid beetles Chrysochus auratus and C. cobaltinus form a narrow hybrid zone in western North America. We used a combination of direct and indirect analyses to examine the fitness of Chrysochus hybrids. For the direct analyses, we compared the mating frequency, longevity, fecundity and fertility of hybrid females and parentals. For the indirect approach, we tested predictions of multilocus genotype frequencies at a focal site in the hybrid zone, based on the frequencies of mating combinations during the previous generation. Hybrid females produced fewer eggs than did parentals and the eggs they produced in the lab failed to hatch, in contrast to those of parental females. In addition, contrary to predictions that 15.8% of the individuals at the focal site would have multilocus genotypes other than those expected of parentals or F1 individuals, we found no such genotypes at this site. This hybrid zone appears to be an example of a classic tension zone, with endogenous selection against hybrid individuals. We discuss the implications of low hybrid fitness for the evolution of premating barriers in this system, and argue that the integration of direct and indirect approaches is a powerful means of assessing the relative fitness of hybrids, particularly for species in which mate choices are easy to observe in the field. © 2005 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2005, 84, 273–286.