Catching a steelhead trout is the kind of triumph often found on a “bucket list” of things to accomplish before one kicks it. Catching a steelhead on the beautiful Smith River — that’s just showing off.
Hopeful fishermen float the Smith River in a drift boat near the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park campground last week. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson
Although many locals of the Smith River watershed have a steelhead feather in their cap, the feat is prized by destination fishermen who hunt steelhead worldwide.
We are about a month into this winter’s earlier-than-usual start to the steelhead season, and the best has yet to come as Smith River steelhead typically fish through April.
Ken Morrish is a fly fisherman very fond of the Smith River, and as co-owner of Fly Water Travel, a destination fishing travel agency based in Ashland, Ore., he places catching a steelhead on a fly in the Smith above all else.
“The big appeal is the incredible wild fish stronghold,” Morrish said. “And nothing compares to it with that natural beauty and purity.”
A large part of the draw is the challenge of catching crafty, wild steelhead, which are known for their cunning ability to avoid the hook.
“The Smith is really the toughest of all the rivers to fly fish. That’s one of the things that makes it cool,” Morrish said, adding that it’s the place he recommends to anglers looking to test their skills.
Don Vecchetti, the local fishing guide behind Don’s Reel Time Guide Service, has nine years of guiding on the Smith under his belt, but he had to learn a few tricks from old-timers of the drainage to master steelhead fishing. It took two years for Vecchetti to land his first steelhead from the bank.
“They are wise and stealthy and not as easily fooled,” Vecchetti said. “Salmon can be fairly easy to catch, but with steelhead, presentation is everything and even when you hook one, steelhead will take advantage of every mistake you make.”
Steelhead are known to be masters of spitting out the hook with even the smallest amount of slack line.
Like a sensei of martial arts, Vecchetti recommended “patience and an open mind” to the steelhead seeker.
Although Morrish feels territorial and secretive about some rivers, he praises anyone’s success on the Smith.
“Anytime I hear about anyone catching a steelhead on the fly in the lower river I’m always sincerely happy for them,” Morrish said. “I’ve seen most of the great steelhead rivers in the world, but there’s something special about the Smith that makes me keep wanting to be a lifelong student of it.”