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Steel on the Smith

Steel on the Smith

The North Coast is home to dozens of quality steelhead rivers, yet few come close to matching the size, quality and quantity of the prestigious steelhead found in the Smith River.

By Chris Shaffer

The Smith River is the most popular coastal steelhead river in California for several reasons, but the root of all of them stems from the size, quality and quantity of the steelhead available and the fishability of the system.

Not only is the Smith one of the most majestic rivers in the West, it also harbors some of the largest steelhead on the planet.

"It's the best in California for many reasons," says fishing guide Greg Squires of Access to Angling Outfitters. "Most importantly, every day the state record or perhaps the world record swims in it. It's definitely the best opportunity in California to hook a 20-plus-pound fish."

On the North Coast, it also poses the greatest chance you'll be able to fish. While many North Coast rivers can take weeks to clear after a storm, the Smith doesn't. The Smith is like a massive toilet bowl; it flushes and clears quickly. Depending on the severity of the storm, high water is normal for only a few days after the rain stops.

Fortunately, this short river is the quickest to clear in the state. Barring a series of massive Pacific blasts, the Smith is almost always fishable. At worst, it may kick anglers off for a day or two after the storm. Considering that the Eel, Mad, Mattole and other coastal systems can be unfishable for weeks at a time, the Smith has amazing characteristics.

"The Smith consistently fishes no matter what the weather conditions are. When Mother Nature kicks up her best storm, the Smith isn't gone for weeks at a time," added Squires. "When people plan a vacation it's a great place to go. At the Smith, the odds are you are going to be able to fish. On some of the other rivers, odds of you getting rained out are better than the odds of you being able to fish."


The Smith offers an excellent chance at 8- to 10-pound fish and yields enough 15-pound fish that it takes a fish better than 20 to turn heads. Quality fish are always abundant. Rarely do anglers catch fish smaller than 6 pounds.

Guide Mick Thomas shows off a 15-pound Smith River steelhead. Photo by Chris Shaffer

The Smith doesn't fish like many of the state's popular steelhead waters. There's an art to fishing its emerald-clear water. There's a trick to fishing when the water is high, low and how to alter techniques during each stage of the color change.


"To be successful you have to know where the fish are when the water levels change," says fishing guide Mick Thomas of Lunker Fish Trips. "When the water is high, you'll want to fish high. When the water is low, you have to fish low. Sure there are exceptions to the rule, but most of the fish will follow those patterns."

On the other hand, you have to know what portions of the river to fish when the water is high. According to Thomas, you'll want to fish the upper stretch of the main stem of the Smith. When the water is high, the best drift is from Hiouchi Bridge to the Forks. Keep in mind, different guides offer different theories.

"The upper section is a lot easier to fish in high water because you have a lot more water that you can work," Thomas added. "Unlike the upper section that has deeper holes, the lower section is a lot more spread out. In the upper section, you don't have as many willows to contend with."

Rather than drifting the whole river in a day, try making two passes on the upper stretch. This allows you to stay in the section of the river that harbors the most fish and the fish that are most easily accessible during high water, instead of fishing less productive water for half a day.


Special regulations have traditionally governed the Smith River to protect its delicate run of steelhead, with a closing date of March 31. This past August, however, the Fish and Game Commission extended the season through April and voted to allow barbed hooks.

While those regulations were set to be implemented this fall, a technicality required the commission to vote on the issues once again in late October. Department of Fish and Game officials said it's extremely unlikely that the new regulations will be overturned. Be sure to check the regulations before fishing beyond March 31 or with barbed hooks.

Catch-and-release fishing is urged on the Smith. Anglers who want to take a fish home for dinner may keep one wild steelhead over 16 inches or one hatchery steelhead; no more than five steelhead can be taken by an angler each year. — Chris Shaffer


"I don't fish the lower section much during high water. To be honest, it's kind of like wasting your time. Don't get me wrong, there's fish in the lower section, but there's also a ton of willows," added Thomas. "Normally the willows aren't an issue, but when the water is high, there are willows in the places that you want to fish during high water. What you have to be real careful about are the plunkers. There are a lot of them on the lower river during high water."

According to Squires, low water can be approached two ways: by either covering lots of water or by working a small area very hard, trying not to miss a single piece of each hole, run or riffle.

"In low water, you have to cover lots of water. Because the water is low, the fish hold low. The idea here is to try to find the fish that are scattered in the system because when the water is low, the fish tend to scatter," says Squires. "The fish aren't in big schools in low water. In low water, you can't get 100 places to fish in a mile drift like you would in high water."

Low water is also a time you have to worry about spooking steelhead on the Smith. "In low water, if the fish get spooked you have to move to the next hole," said Squires.

The second plan of attack is to

take a section of the river that you either heard fish were holding or you know fish hold in and work that section of the river extensively. "If you spook fish, go over to the bank and sit for a while," Squires suggested. "There are so many boats on the river now that you don't get your own hole. Work the areas that you know hold fish and work them hard. You have to be persistent."


The majority of the fish caught on the Smith are taken from drift boats. Nevertheless, anglers who know how to properly fish from shore have a legitimate chance at hooking steelhead. Basically, it's either try plunking or side-drift roe. In actuality, when the water is high, plunkers soaking roe in Liquid Krill tend to do better than drift-boaters because they stay in one place and allow the steelhead come to them.

"At low water, plunking is ineffective," Squires said. "All it does is tie up the holes and I think it's a rude gesture toward other anglers who want to enjoy the river. Plunking is a high-water thing, not a low-water thing."

From shore, it's best to side-drift roe, different color yarns and variations of yarn flies. Some anglers use spoons and spinners, but they aren't the choice bait on the system.

"This isn't that kind of a river. Personally, I never really see people use them and maybe that's why people don't catch fish on spinners and spoons," says Thomas. "This river is a place for bait and plugs. When we get a big rise, the steelhead push upriver. It's their trigger mechanism. The high water tells them it's time to go home. Bank fishermen do well when the river is running high because they have their bait in one place and let the fish come to them."

Little Cleos, other spoons and Panther Martin spinners may take fish on any given day, but the focus on this system is roe. "This is a side-drifting river. You don't see many people fish with anything other than bait," Squires said.

Nor do you find many fly anglers. "They promote the fly-fishing on this river, but it's not as good as they say it is," said Thomas. "I've seen some of the best flyfishermen alive get humbled by this river."


Regardless of where you are coming from, it can be a long drive to get to the Smith River. You are looking at six hours from the Bay Area, at least four hours from Redding, two from Medford, Ore., and 12+ from Los Angeles. Fortunately, there are good accommodations for anglers looking to spend a few days fishing and nights either bundled in a tent, warm in an RV or toasty in a hotel room.

The Smith River can be a tough place to camp in winter. Blistering cold and everlasting rain can make tent camping rough. Nonetheless, a few campgrounds remain open throughout the winter.

Panther Flat is the lone local US Forest Service campground open all year. Roughly two miles from Gasquet, it is on the Middle Fork of the Smith and has pay showers, flush toilets and picnic tables. Call the Smith River National Recreation Area, Six Rivers National Forest, 707-457-3131.

Anglers can also camp at Jed Smith State Park, near Hiouchi. There are hot showers, picnic tables and other amenities; RVs to 36 feet are permitted. For information, call Jed Smith State Park, 707-464-6101 ext. 5112.

For less rustic accommodations, some anglers choose to stay in Hiouchi, which is on the Smith River. Contact the Hiouchi Motel & Café at 707-458-3041; space is limited.

The majority of anglers stay on the California/Oregon border near Brookings, Ore., or in Crescent City, a 20-minute drive south of the border. Both cities offer full services. The most popular place for anglers to stay is Ship Ashore Resort 707-487-3141, just inside California. This is where most anglers meet their guides. For lodging in Crescent City, contact the Del Norte County Visitor Bureau 707-464-3174. — Chris Shaffer




Plugs work great when the water is low and clear. On the Smith, size 30 or smaller silver, copper and silver-and-black Hot Shots are standard. Under low and clear conditions, anglers are advised to use a 10-pound main line with a 4-foot 8-pound leader.

"Plugs work very well in clear water," Squires said. "Fish can see your boat for long distances away in the Smith. If I'm going to plug, I'd like to run them at least 80 feet away from my boat. Steelhead can see stuff above that water line from a long way away. The Smith River has visibility like no other. When it's low and clear, those fish can see more than 100 feet. In clear water on the Smith, I can see the bottom of a hole in 30 feet of water."

In clear water, downsize your baits. The dirtier the water, the bigger lures and bait you can use. The great thing about fishing roe is that is will always work. Never overlook a simple Puff Ball and yarn.

"Bait works every day, whether the water is low or high. It's a natural thing that is occurring in the river," said Squires.

When faced with low and clear conditions, anglers need to pay attention to how they handle their drift boats. In high water, spooking fish isn't necessarily an issue. On the other hand, positioning your boat properly in low water can make a huge difference. It's best to attempt to position your drift boat away from areas that possibly harbor steelhead. You can successfully fish an area without running your boat over the steelhead first. In low and clear water, a boat's shadow is likely to spook fish.

"Don't be ashamed to follow the guide boats if you don't know how to position it under low water levels," Squires said. "These fish are very spooky. In low water conditions, knowing how to utilize your boat can help you catch a lot more fish. The guides on the river are careful not to spook fish. If you watch what they are doing, you can't go wrong."


As with all coastal systems, paying close attention to river levels on the Internet prior to your departure to the Smith is important. There are two gauges on the river. Both can be found at The upper gauge is at Jed Smith State Park and is a good indicator of how the river will fish. (Keep in mind: conditions can change rapidly.) On the Jed Smith gauge, it's ideal when the river is at 9-10.5 feet. If the river is above 15-17 feet, it is too high to fish. When the gauge is below seven feet, it can be rough to run a drift boat. You may have to get out in a few places and drag your boat, but you'll be able to catch fish.

The lower gauge can be found on the Highway 101 Bridge (also know as the Doctor Fine Bridge). Fishing is ideal when the gauge reads between 15-17 feet here. If the gauge is higher than 20-21 feet, the river will be too tough to fish.

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