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Event Article: Fishing the Smith River

Chasing Winter Steelhead on the Smith River


Date: 12/27/09
Location: Smith River, California
Event Date: Dec 19-20
Reviewer: Zander

Introduction: When winter rolls around the warm water fishing often dies down but species like Steelhead on the West Coast just begin heating up. We travel North to the free flowing emerald green waters of the Smith River in search of early season steelhead that are just beginning to enter the system behind the Fall run Salmon.




About the Smith River: The Smith River is located on the Pacific coast of northern California near the Oregon border. It was named for the explorer Jedediah Smith and is sometimes referred to as the Smiths River.


Cal and Gary get things started by pushing the drift boat into the Smith before sunrise


The Smith is a relatively short river at only 20 miles long and drains a rugged area of the Pacific Coast Ranges west of the Siskiyou Mountains just north of the watershed of the Klamath River. The Smith River may only be 20 miles long but it is still the largest river system in California that flows freely along its entire course.


Gary prepares the bait in the dark


The Smith is formed by the confluence of its Middle and North forks in Del Norte County, in the extreme northwest corner of California, near the community of Gasquet. The Middle Fork (20 mi/32 km) rises in Del Norte County, approximately 60 miles northeast of Crescent City, and flows south. The North Fork Smith River rises in Oregon on the northeast slope of Chetco Peak. The South Fork Smith River enters the Smith River near the community of Berteleda. The South Fork (25 mi/40 km) rises on the eastern edge of the Smith River National Recreation Area, approximately 30 mi (48 km) east-northeast of Crescent City, flowing southwest and then northwest. From the confluence with the South Fork, the Smith River flows generally northwest, entering the Pacific Ocean near the community of Smith River, approximately 10 miles (16 km) north of Crescent City.


Facing both wind and rain Gary rows us onto our first drift


Most non local anglers will stay in Crescent City where there are plenty of motels and hotels that are able to accommodate anglers. The drive from the San Francisco Bay Area to Crescent City took us just over seven hours and we stayed at the Hampton Inn right on the Coast which offers clean rooms and free internet access.


The Smith is lined with groves of redwood trees


Time to go fishing:  For this trip we hooked up once again with our friend and guide Gary Hix. We met Gary at Hiouchi, a small community in Del Norte County just ten miles away from Crescent City and adjacent to Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park. Almost all of the park land is water shed for the Smith River, and the rocky banks within the park served as our put in for the trip. The park itself is filled with dense redwood groves and the air felt cold, clean and moist. Annual rainfall in the area can be up to 100 inches during November through May but the Smith has a reputation for being able to clear extremely quickly, this is because the river has a rocky base with very little soil to muddy the river when flows increase.  


A view from the redwood groves and anglers can see the emerald green water of the Smith


The Smith is known for some of the biggest salmon and steelhead to be found in the Northwest, and is also home to a decent population of cutthroat trout. Salmon on the Smith have a very short Fall season, and on this particular trip we just missed the main run. The first big rains in the Fall drive the fish into the river so anglers need to be there as it happens or soon thereafter to pick the fish up by side drifting, back-bouncing or pulling plugs. The best time to fish for Steelhead at the Smith is during the Winter season from December to March.


There are sections of the Smith that are as smooth as glass


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