In Focus: Smith River Steelhead

January 11, 2007 11:00 pm
"Aren't you glad we came to the Smith?" Lance Hunt of Redding (left) said to Mike Merriman of Sonoma County after Merriman hooked into a 12-pound steelhead while fishing at the day-use area of Jedediah Smith State Park. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).
"Aren't you glad we came to the Smith?" Lance Hunt of Redding (left) said to Mike Merriman of Sonoma County after Merriman hooked into a 12-pound steelhead while fishing at the day-use area of Jedediah Smith State Park. (The Daily Triplicate/Bryant Anderson).

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

The fish are cooperating nicely – that's the word from guide service businessmen who take fishermen out to stalk the wily steelhead on Smith River.

Right now the steelhead are at the peak of their run. The season started at the first of December and ends in March.

"It's been a great season, I've been out every day," said Mike Coopman of Coopman's Guide Service. "This season's been as good as any."

Mick Thomas, owner of Lunker Fish Trips Bait and Tackle, estimates that from each fish caught during the steelhead season, $300 comes to Del Norte County.

That's the ripple effect fishermen from other areas generate when they book a fishing trip, get a motel and spend a few days having a good time.

Neither the county nor the Crescent City-Del Norte Chamber of Commerce tracks the monetary value of the steelhead season, so we'll rely on first-hand fishermen's experience for this story.

Nonetheless, the county has a modern gold mine it can profit from during good fishing years — a large recreational fishery that can generate "lot of revenue" when the fish are plentiful, as they are this year.

Visualize a moderate number of guide boats on the river during a slower day, up to a small flotilla when things are truly hot.

Now visualize the amount of money fishermen on those boats pay to come here, to stay in motels and show themselves a good time.

Guides run from three to five up to 10 boats per day. Multiply that by the 12-15 local guide services and factor in the extra 25-30 non-Del Norte County guides who come in to work the season here.

Not only is Del Norte blessed with its fishery, Coopman pointed out that the Smith River is "extra busy" this year.

"We have the only game in the area," he said. "The other rivers have been blown out."

Unlike the Rogue and Chetco rivers in Oregon or the Trinity to the south, the Smith River has very little sediment and isn't prone to the muddiness heavy precipitation stirs up in the others.

Not only does the area boast the only river, not only are the fish frisky this year — they're big.

Averaging 8-12 pounds, the good news doesn't stop there. Guides report some fish as heavy as 17 and 20 feet.

Last month Alex Green, 14, probably caught the fish of his life — a trophy steelhead — by casting from the bank.

The hefty fish topped the scales at 26 pounds when it was weighed on official state scales at a grocery store in Hiouchi.

"That's 1 pound 4 ounces off the state record," Thomas said.

Added Coopman, "It's a very special fish."

Coopman said that he tries to promote catch and release fishing, although he doesn't tell his customers not to keep the fish they land.

Guides say the bulk of their customers come from Central and Southern California, sometimes from Reno, Nev., Washington state and Boston, Mass.

Some have hosted clients from as far away as Germany and Paris, France.

"The steelheader is an endless person," Coopman said. "He'll go to any lengths to catch the fish."

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Steelhead savvy

Local steelhead guides offered these tips for landing the trophy fish:

•What's on the line? Anglers are having some success with yarn and puff ball rigs. The contraption is also called a driftball or a fish pill.

•Which kind and when? The idea behind driftball rigs is for them to be decorative. Fishermen who shared tips suggest using bright colored yarn (orange or pink) and puffballs when the water is murky, but switching to duller colors (green or blue) after it clears.

•Fish lips: The hardest part of fishing for steelhead is learning to distinguish how they bite. The key is to tell the stealth bite apart from your rig bumping on the streambed.