Welcome to the Smith River, California’s last wild river.
From its headwaters in the Klamath Mountains to where it empties into the Pacific Ocean, the Smith River flows freely, without a single dam to regulate it. It’s the only major river in California to do so.
The Smith is also a bewitchingly beautiful stream. Tumbling through steep stone walls and groves of redwood trees before emerging on the coast just north of Crescent City, in the extreme northwest corner of California.
But you’ve come to this article for the fishing, and simply put: The steelhead and salmon runs in the Smith River are the stuff of legends.
To this day, there are plenty of anglers who—with ample justification—would call the Smith River California’s best steelhead fishery.
Chinook salmon can be huge though not as plentiful, resident rainbow trout offer a worthy quarry for fly anglers, and the Smith and its tributaries host coastal cutthroat trout as well.
The main stem of the Smith River is relatively short. It flows just 25 miles, all of it within Del Norte County.
But when one includes its North, Middle and South Forks, the Smith River system totals almost 125 miles, to say nothing of the countless smaller tributaries that contribute to its watershed.
While salmon and steelhead fishing tends to focus on the main stem, the lack of manmade obstructions allows these fish to eventually spawn far up in the river forks, where many of them were born.
The Chinook salmon that spawn in the Smith River are monsters.
This isn’t a river that provides fast-and-furious salmon fishing action; even experienced local anglers often spend days waiting for a bite. But 50-pound salmon are caught in the Smith River every year.
Fall-run Chinooks start to mill around the mouth of the Smith River as early as August, and begin making their way upriver in September.
Anglers begin the season by drifting bait and trolling plugs in the broad, lower section of the Smith River. The deep area known as Sand Hole is arguably the best spot on the lower Smith.
The river is still relatively low this time of year, and early salmon often can only make it as far upstream as the mouth of Rowdy Creek.
Typically, the first big fall rains come in October, and they really open up the river, allowing salmon to surge upstream.
This marks the beginning of the best salmon fishing on the Smith River, and peak season extends well into December.
In November and December, deep holes throughout the river can hold big salmon.
Society Hole is a great spot just downstream from the Highway 199 bridge. The confluence of the South Fork and the main stem is another excellent option.
The Smith River offers numerous access points for shore fishing, wading and launching boats. Many local guides use drift boats almost like water taxis to hop from one prime shore fishing spot to another.
The Smith River is also accessible to jet boats when the water is up.
Salmon fishing tactics tend to be pretty simple.
Yakima Bait Company’s Flatfish and Mag Lip plugs are popular lures for various boat techniques including trolling, and some bank anglers will cast the Mag Lips and similar plugs as well as spinners and spoons for salmon.
Many anglers also drift or troll plug-cut herring and anchovies, though this tends to work best early on in the season, before salmon start their big push upstream.
As the season progresses, natural salmon roe becomes the most productive bait.
Many anglers back-bounce roe, a tactic that involves allowing the current to carry the bait, with a cannonball sinker on a dropper line to keep the bait near the bottom in deep holes.
Salmon will use any deep hole as a place to rest before continuing on upriver.
The Smith River hosts a limited fall run of coho salmon, also known as silver salmon.
Coho salmon are fully protected in California waters, which means that it’s against the law to target them specifically.
If a coho salmon is caught incidentally, which happens because the runs overlap Chinook and steelhead seasons, it must be immediately returned to the water.
Where and How to Catch Salmon
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Salmon Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips.
As in many Northern California Rivers, the winter steelhead run gets underway just as the fall run of Chinook salmon is winding down.
Steelhead—anadromous rainbow trout that spend much of their lives in the ocean—start running in the Smith River in December.
Peak steelhead season is January through March, but you’ll find fish in the Smith River system until April most years.
Unlike salmon, steelhead don’t always die after spawning. Survivors return to the ocean to spawn again the following year.
Steelhead don’t reach the epic proportions that Chinook salmon do, but they invade the Smith River in greater abundance.
Many Smith steelies weigh 8 to 10 pounds, which is above average in the state, and the Smith River is one of the most likely places to tangle with a steelhead approaching the 20-pound mark.
California’s state record, weighing just over 27 pounds, was caught here in 1976.
You can see why the Smith River easily made our list of Best Steelhead Fishing Rivers in California.
There’s solid drift-and-troll fishing for steelhead in the lower Smith River, but the best steelhead action is in the upper portion of the main stem.
The stretch from the U.S. 199 bridge up to the Forks (where the South Fork meets the main stem) is a perennial favorite.
This section of the Smith River above the highway has more water and deeper holes, making steelhead fishing easier, especially when the water is a little high.
It’s also a lovely stretch of water, with groves of redwoods overlooking the green water as it tumbles between the rocky banks.
Overall, one of the best pieces of advice regarding Smith River steelhead fishing is: watch the water level. Fish high when the water is high, and fish low when the river is low.
Steelhead also tend to push upriver when the water is on the rise, and hold up or fall back as it lowers.
The most effective steelhead bait by a mile is salmon roe. Side-drifting roe tends to account for more steelhead on the Smith River than any other tactic.
Plugs sometimes get the call when the water is clear, but a lot of anglers find spinners and spoons to be a tough sell.
Many anglers fish from drift boats, and staying mobile offers a definite advantage, but shore fishing can be good too.
One doesn’t tend to see a lot of fly fishing on the main stem of the Smith, but swinging flies across the current with spey rods can be effective too.
Once the calendar starts to turn toward spring, nymphing can also yield strikes as steelhead press upward into the forks.
The Smith river steelhead population consists of both wild and hatchery-raised fish. Hatchery steelhead can be easily identified because their adipose fin—the small, fleshy fin on the back just above the tail—has been clipped.
If you catch a steelhead with an adipose fin, that means it’s a wild steelhead and must be released unharmed.
How to Catch Steelhead
More: Steelhead Fishing: Simple Techniques and Tips
There are trout in the Smith River system year-round, offering ample opportunities for fly anglers outside the traditional fly fishing seasons. Some of the best fly fishing waters are farther up in the South, Middle and North Forks.
The farther upstream you go, the more the forks begin to resemble mountain streams instead of true rivers.
Resident rainbow trout inhabit pools and riffles here throughout the year. The water is cool and clean, and fly anglers often catch rainbows in the 12- to 15-inch range.
Early summer offers some of the best fly fishing.
Coastal cutthroat trout inhabit streams throughout the Smith River system too. These fish are not known for size, maxing out at about 18 inches (cutthroats over a foot are rare) but they’re much sought-after by trout affecionados.
Coastal cutthroat trout are semi-anadromous, meaning some choose to spend some time in the nearby ocean much like salmon and steelhead.
These “sea-runs” are unique in that they are much more reliant on fresh water than their larger cousins, returning to the Pacific for only a brief period. Some never leave fresh water at all. Northern California represents the southernmost edge of their range.
The best time to catch cutthroat trout is spring and summer, when most of the salmon and steelhead are gone from the Smith River. Look for them in calm pools and other slower-moving waters, especially around fallen logs and undercut banks.
Streamers are often the best flies for cutthroat trout. Nymphing can also be effective, but tends to catch more rainbow trout than cutthroats. Dry flies in terrestrial insect patterns can also do the trick.
Thanks to both trout and steelhead, the Smith River is included in our Best Fly Fishing Rivers in California.
Longest of the forks, the South Fork of the Smith River offers outstanding fly fishing, and much of it is designated California Heritage Trout Water.
The Sand Camp and Big Flat areas are popular for fly fishing, and smaller tributaries like Craigs Creek, Rock Creek and Goose Creek also offer healthy trout populations.
The most-fished and easiest to access of the three forks, the Middle Fork of the Smith River offers great fly-fishing opportunities.
Some of its smaller tributaries, including Patrick Creek and Kelly Creek, are known to harbor cutthroat trout.
There’s excellent fishing around Grassy Flat and the Patricks Creek Campground.
The North Fork of the Smith River is the most remote of the three forks. Its headwaters are in Oregon, and it flows almost entirely within State and National Forest land.
There is excellent fishing for rainbow and coastal cutthroat trout in its many secluded pools, but accessing the best spots, at least in California, requires trekking into the backcountry.
How to Catch Trout
Pick up some more pointers with Trout Fishing: How-To Techniques and Tips.
Planning Your Trip
The Smith River flows through a somewhat isolated corner of Northern California. This, of course, is part of the river’s charm, but it also means that the largest major city (Redding) is about four hours away and it’s a good six hours or more from the Bay Area.
Despite the distance, the river is easy to get to via U.S. Highways 101 and 199.
The coastal city of Crescent City is about 15 minutes away from the river, and offers an abundance of options for shopping, dining and accommodations.
The smaller communities of Smith River, Fort Dick, Hiouchi and Gasquet are all significant hubs for anglers along the river.
Smith River Access
The Smith River is easy to access along much of its course.
CA State Route 197 (North Bank Road) runs alongside the lower Smith River, until it meets with U.S. Highway 199, which parallels the Upper Smith River and continues inland following the Middle Fork.
Portions of the Smith River flow through Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, Six Rivers National Forest and Rogue-Siskiyou National Forest.
There are countless places to get to the water. Some of the most popular, starting at the coast and working your way upstream, are:
- Howonquet Village – Located at the mouth of the Smith River, the village offers an abundance of open beach, as well as the iconic Ship Ashore waterfront resort.
- Del Norte County Boat Ramp – Launch ramp with ample parking on South Fred D. Haight Drive
- Highway 101 Bridge – The bridge offers limited access to the river. The area just downstream from the bridge (known as Pump Hole) can be productive.
- Ruby Van Deventer Park – A beautiful Del Norte County Park with excellent river access as well as camping.
- Highway 199 Bridge – Foot paths on either side of the bridge lead down to the river and provide access to the area known as Society Hole.
- Jedediah Smith Campground – This campground within Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park lies within walking distance of the river. The state park also offers boat launch facilities.
- Forks River Access & Boat Ramp – Free public boat ramp and access site at the confluence of the main stem and South Fork, operated by the Forest Service.
- Margie’s River Access – River access with parking and walking path to the river, just off Highway 199 in Six Rivers National Forest.
- Panther Flat Campground – A large, popular campground along the river in Six Rivers National Forest. Located near the confluence of the North and Middle Forks to form the main stem.
- Grassy Flat Campground – Shady, secluded National Forest campground along the Middle Fork of the Smith River.
Know Before You Go
Because the Smith River’s flow is not regulated by dams or other man-made obstructions, it is prone to rising rapidly after a major rain. It’s important to always use caution when fishing the river if rain is expected.
On the plus side, the free-flowing nature of the Smith River allows it to clear quickly after rain.
Even after a major storm, the river is fishable again after just a couple days. This makes it one of the best NorCal rivers for winter and spring fishing; many other rivers are unfishable for weeks after a storm.
Fishing seasons and regulations vary between different sections of the Smith River and its tributaries. In addition to a California fishing license, a North Coast Salmon Report Card or Steelhead Report Card is required to fish for salmon or steelhead.