SMITH RIVER In early December, steelhead were returning to Rowdy Creek Hatchery in such large numbers, it looked like this season's run was going to shatter records.
Then, in January, anglers were left scratching their heads as the number of fish coming back to the fish trap went from dozens per day to just a few.
"It started out red hot and then got really slow," says Andrew Van Scoyk, the manager of Rowdy Creek Hatchery. "It was a strange year."
Steelhead are continuing to trickle into the hatchery, making it likely crews will have no problem collecting the number of fish needed to raise 100,000 steelhead smolts for release into the Smith River. "I don't think there will be a problem," Van Scoyk says.
Through Tuesday morning, the hatchery had collected 351 male steelhead and 466 females. "We spawned 46 for 161,000 eggs so far," Van Scoyk says. "We should still get a few more."
Steelhead fishing got off to a good start on the Smith in December, then dropped off. Most guides towed their boats to the Chetco everyday, or headed south to the Eel.
During the last derby, however, there was a good bite on the Smith, one of the few this season.
Anglers waiting for the "bluebacks," smaller spring-run steelhead that provide good fishing in March and early April, may be out of luck. "They came and went already," Van Scoyk says. "We saw them really early at the end of January. Lots of little 4- to 5-pound wild males."
Like anglers who live for the world renowned steelhead fishing on the Smith, Van Scoyk is also baffled by this year's fast start to steelhead season then long, slow stretch. "It's a pretty strange year. It's hard to explain," he says.
The hatchery collected more steelhead than last year, but most came early. Through Tuesday, 224 more steelhead than last year had been collected at Rowdy Creek. Many of the fish came when the Smith was high and tough to fish, explaining why catch rates weren't as good despite the huge early run of steelhead.
But in late January and February, fishing was slow because few steelhead were in the Smith.
Aside from the total number of steelhead collected, mostly early fish, the hatchery did get one of the biggest steelhead ever trapped there.
"We got it about two weeks ago," Van Scoyk says. "It was 38.5 inches, about 22 to 23 pounds. That's probably in the top five of what we've ever gotten. It's a pretty rare occurrence to get one that big."
The final fall Chinook count at Rowdy Creek Hatchery is 74 males, 96 females and 64 jacks.
"The Chinook run was really slow," Van Scoyk says. "We came up just a little bit short."
This fall the hatchery will release slightly fewer fall Chinook smolts than its goal.
"We try to release about 225,000," Van Scoyk says. "My guess is we are more on pace for 190,000."
The good news on the salmon front is this fall's return is expected to be bigger than last season. With a grim outlook for ocean fishing, mainly because of low returns to the Sacramento River, there will likely be far less commercial fishing pressure on Smith River salmons stocks, which is good news for Smith River anglers. The jack count, the number of immature salmon that return early and indicate the size of the following year's adult salmon run, also is a bright spot at Rowdy Creek.
"We had a pretty good jack count, much higher than last year's," Van Scoyk says. "It could mean it won't be so dismal next season."
Poor ocean conditions are widely blamed for poor salmon returns to West Coast rivers this past fall.
Outdoors writer Andy Martin, a former editor of Fishing & 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 www.wildriversfishing.com.