Smith River Fly Fishing

by MICHAEL CHECCHIO

California’s Smith River hosts the state’s last great runs of winter steelhead and king salmon.

The Smith River is California’s last major river that is not dammed along its length and has strong runs of winter steelhead and king salmon. Kings to 50 pounds enter the river in late October and by December, steelhead (below) averaging between 12 and 18 pounds begin swimming into the Smith.

When I arrive at the Smith River in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, it seems to be making its own green light under the gloom of tall trees and a wintry sky. An old-growth forest spreads from both banks of the Smith up into the high, rocky slopes of the canyon, an ancient woodland of coastal redwoods, Douglas-firs, Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and rare Port Orford cedar.

This particular park of redwood groves was named after Jedediah Strong Smith, the first white trapper to explore the interior of northern California. The state park is inside Redwoods National Park and is bordered by Six Rivers National Forest, 300,000 acres of mostly old-growth trees that make up the Smith River National Recreation Area. The ancient forest that holds plants and soil in place on mountainsides and in canyons keeps the river cold all year and shelters the headwaters. This arboreal realm contains long reaches of the Smith’s three main branches—the North, South, and Middle forks. It also contains the 53,000-acre Siskiyou Wilderness, an area that has the highest density of plant life in North America.

Because the original forest is intact, the Smith holds its shape and color longer in winter storms and is the first to clear afterward.

I stare into the shadowy, black-green pools of the Smith, which are deep and reflect the canopy of the surrounding redwoods. The river seems to radiate a low aqua-green light. The water is clear, almost transparent, and a mineral in the bedrock called serpentine adds to its arresting color. The jade river flows freely and naturally, without a single dam, for its entire length. It is the last free-flowing river of any consequence in California. Although the Smith is a relatively short river by California’s standards, more than 300 river miles along its various branches have been officially designated wild and scenic, more than any other stretch of river in the country.

I plan to fish several pools starting at the campground at the park. The campground is only a few miles downstream from where the three branches of the Smith join to form the main stem. The forks drain a rugged terrain of steep rocky canyons that have formed many whitewater rapids, but once they join the land begins to level out for the last 16 miles to the ocean. Just past the confluence of the Middle and South forks, the river starts flowing within sight of the tallest redwood groves.

Probably more large winter steelhead are hooked and landed in a dozen pools spread out through seven miles of redwood groves found between the Highway 101 Bridge and the hamlet of Hiouchi than in any other stretch of river in California. The pools are well known among fly fishermen and familiar to anyone who has read the fishing stories of Russell Chatham. Some of the more prominent are Brundeen, White Horse, and Water Gauge riffles and the holes Early, Walker, Society, Hiouchi Bridge, Bluff, Park, Sophie, and Cable.

The Smith is California’s last natural bastion of wild fish that migrate from freshwater to the ocean and back. The river hosts runs of the largest king salmon and steelhead in California, as well as sea-run cutthroats. King salmon enter the river in late October and are caught throughout late fall by fly casters usually fishing out of prams. They follow the salmon from tidewater pools like Bailey Hole and work their way upstream into the redwood pools all the way up to the forks. Casting into the deepest holes where salmon tend to congregate, they hook and land mostly bright fish still fresh from the ocean and weighing from 12 to 50 pounds.

Ken Morrish/FlyWaterTravel.com Photo
The wide lower river (above) is best fished out of a pram when targeting king salmon holding in the deepest pools. As they move upstream, winter steelhead are often within reach of wade fishermen, who fish for them by swinging flies on sinking lines or dead-drifting stonefly nymphs or egg patterns on long leaders, floating lines, and indicators.

By December, winter steelhead begin swimming into the Smith, holding in the redwood pools between storms, moving swiftly through the forks when rain raises the river. The steelhead average from 12 to 18 pounds, but there are many fish in the 20-pound range. The Smith has held the state record for steelhead for some time, a brute that tipped the scales at over 27 pounds. It also has a lesser-known spring run of sea-run cutthroats that hold in the estuary and on the lower river, as well as resident cutts found year-round in the upper river and its branches. Fishermen catch them in the estuary and on the lower portion of the Smith throughout the summer, although fly fishing for them isn’t nearly as popular as it is for fall salmon and winter steelhead.

Although the Smith is best fished from a boat, most of the good redwood pools have some bank access. I find the path that leads through the grove in the campground and come out upon a wide gravel bar that is wet and shiny from the rain. This is Park Hole, and the water in the transparent shallows darkens to a deeper emerald the farther out I wade and cast. I move cautiously up to my waist, but am forced to step back a bit, as the current is too strong in this deceptively smooth-looking pool.

I am using a 300-grain shooting head to get my fly down to the bottom. The Smith is not an easy river to fly fish. Winter steelhead hold close to the bottom and won’t move far to chase a fly. The current is strong even in the more peaceful looking pools and has a tendency to sweep a fly off the bottom and out of the fish’s range. Many fishermen adjust for this by using a floating line with a strike indicator, a long leader, split-shot, and a heavily weighted fly. But I prefer to fly fish in the more traditional manner.

With a firm sweep, I roll cast line out of the water, make several long false casts, and then shoot line as far out over the river as I can get it. At first I angle my casts slightly downstream, but this way the fly doesn’t get down far enough, so I begin casting straight across to give it more time to sink.

I am working the fly through the tail end of the pool when I feel a tug on my line and pull up. A steelhead vaults out of the water, returns with a splash, and begins kicking up a boil on the surface. I back out of the water to follow the fish that is pulling hard at my line, my reel sputtering like a flatulent duck. I am not only fighting the fish I am battling the strong current. Fifteen minutes later I manage to beach the fish and lay it momentarily on the gravel where it shines like a bar of freshly minted silver.

I let the steelhead go and work my way through the tailout of Park Hole and then over to the next pool downstream, Bluff Hole. I’d probably do better fishing this pool from a short gravel bar on the opposite bank, but crossing the river would be a chore, requiring a long drive over the bridge to the south bank and a short hike on the Hiouchi Trail, a footpath that follows the river through the redwoods.

Timing the Runs

Kings, October and November; winter steelhead, late December through March 31 (end of season for steelhead).
ken Morrish/FlyWaterTravel.com Photo
Winter steelhead hold close to the bottom and won’t move far to take a fly. Interchangeable sinking shooting heads help get your fly down to the fish in the Smith’s fast water.

Flies and Tackle

The lower and upper rivers provide ample wade-fishing opportunities for winter steelhead. Single- and two-handed rods from 8- to 10-weights are the best choices to handle the various sinking tips needed to swing Comet-style flies, leeches, Popsicles, and prawns at different depths. Indicator fishing with egg and stonefly patterns on long leaders works well in the deeper water upstream, but fish are harder to land in the upper sections.

Mike Kuczynski at the Eureka Fly Shop has been guiding on the Smith for two decades and says that the Smith’s winter steelhead hold deep over the cobbles. When the river is low, steelhead hold in the middle of the stream, and when the river is high, they hold close to the banks. Current speed and depth determines whether you should use slow- or fast-sinking lines. Large flies from #1/0 (the largest legal size) to #4 are best. Kuczynski recommends Green Butt Skunks and Skykomish Sunrises for slow-sink presentations; #4 bead-chain-eye Comets, Boss Heads, or Flame Bosses, conehead Popsicles, or conehead Candycanes for medium-sink presentations; and cerise Hairballs or Hairball Leeches for fast-sinking presentations. When the river is off-color, purple provides the best silhouette.

Ken Morrish/FlyWaterTravel.com Photo

For kings, try #6-10 sparsely tied Comets with bead-chain eyes, black tails, and bright green bodies or other colors on heavy-wire, short-shank hooks. Because kings tend to hold in deeper water, this is primarily pram fishing with 10-weight rods and shooting heads (anything from Type II to lead core) to get to the fish’s depth. Use 10- to 12-pound-test tippet for steelhead and 15-pound-test for king salmon.

Resources
The Smith’s water conditions can fluctuate. If the lower Smith is flowing over 13 feet (check USGS streamflow for site #11532500, Smith River near Crescent City, California, https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/), consider fishing elsewhere. However, the Smith comes back into shape quickly. For current stream conditions and shuttles (if floating), call Lunker’s Bait & Tackle, Crescent City, California, at (707) 458-4704. Call the California Department of Fish and Game’s Low-Flow Information Line (707) 442-4502, for river closures due to low flows. Stream access maps are available ($3.50) from StreamTime at (530) 242-1732 or www.streamtime.com. Contact the Crescent City Chamber of Commerce for information on camping, lodging, and other services (707-464-3174; www.northerncalifornia.net).