As the Smith River drops back into shape after the weekend's heavy rain, anglers face a pleasant dilemma for the Thanksgiving holiday: Fish for salmon or try to catch an early steelhead?
Large numbers of fall Chinook began to show up at Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery late last week, along with some early steelhead. Guides like Mick Thomas of Lunker Fish Trips will be targeting both species for the next three weeks.
"We'll mix it up here on out," Thomas said Monday, waiting for the Smith River to recover from the high water over the weekend. "We'll salmon fish the salmon water and try to catch a steelhead in the steelhead water. I've already caught half a dozen steelhead myself this season. Usually around Thanksgiving weekend forward you'll start seeing quite a few steelhead show up."
Still plenty of salmon
Last Wednesday, one of Thomas' clients reeled in a 55-pound salmon. It was one of several big fish Thomas saw rolling that day. "They were jumping and splashing everywhere," Thomas said. "I saw a number of those big fish."
The group of large fall kings Thomas say are likely already spawning, but expect more big salmon to enter the river now through the second week of December.
"We get some of the biggest fish in late November and early December," Thomas said. "It seems like they come after all the smaller fish. You usually have more water later and those big fish need more water to travel through and to get to the creeks to spawn."
With high water, Thomas will be drifting from the Forks to Ruby, back-bouncing roe and pulling plugs in the deeper slots and then side-drifting for steelhead in the flats and tailouts.
The first two weeks of December generally produce a lull in the action on the Smith, as the salmon run tapers off and the steelhead hold offshore before entering the river. But this year, the salmon have been late, and steelhead appear to be showing up early.
"I don't see that this year the way the runs have been this year," Thomas says. "Plus we've already caught steelhead a little earlier than normal."
The Klamath and Trinity had good steelhead runs this fall, which should be a good sign for the Smith and Chetco rivers' winter steelhead runs.
Thomas expects most of the early steelhead to be caught from Ruby down.
"The early steelhead fishing you get down around the lower river," Thomas says. "Ruby out on the flat. Baldwin's Flat. Those first few riffles in the first few miles of the river seem to produce more. Steelhead move just a tad slower than the salmon so they don't move up into the system quite as quick."
Bank anglers can plunk with large Spin-N-Glos for a shot at a late salmon or early steelhead, or drift fish with a gob of roe and a Puff Ball or Corky.
Crab season is here. Commercial fishermen said early tests indicate many of the Dungeness will have hard shells and be full of meat.
If using rings, be sure to check them every 15 to 20 minutes. Let cages sit for around an hour before checking and allow pots to soak for a full tide, or four to six hours. Nothing's worse than pulling up a pot and seeing a keeper crab hanging off of it and then letting go right at the surface.