Northern California’s Smith River may be one of the best steelhead streams on the West Coast, but sometimes I swear I’ll never go back.
A day of fishing here can make you feel like you’ve been in a cage fight. The river’s rocky bottom will do its best to beat your spirits into a pulpy mess and relieve you of every piece of terminal tackle in your box. And seeing the endless parade of professional drift boat guides launching in the morning can give you a sense of being thrown to the lions. The Smith’s famed steelhead will also test your resolve to fight on when they suddenly, without warning, collectively decide to become indifferent towards every last piece of bait that drifts by. And that’s during the best of times.
Fishing conditions on the river can go from impossibly low and clear one day to Amazonian the next. Anglers here have to adapt on the fly…or get kicked mercilessly to the curb.
But in spite of all that, the Smith keeps sucking me in; calling me back. Maybe it’s the dramatic scenery – the medieval mists snaking down the canyons and whirling around ancient redwoods – or the sense of adventure that a drift down one of the last wild, undimmed rivers in the Golden State provides.
Nah, who am I kidding – it’s the prospect of hooking a truly giant, leviathan of a steelhead that really gets me fired up for a run or two up to the Smith each season. There’s no doubt that you’ve got a very good opportunity to catch the largest steelhead of your life here.
The state record of 27 pounds, 4 ounces was taken on the Smith back in 1976 and a several over 25 pounds have shown up in recent years – including this monster 26.8 pounder (left) hooked last winter by teenager Alex Green, who was fishing off the bank.
More than a handful of giant bucks in the 20-pound class are also taken annually and the river gives up solid numbers of fish over 15 pounds.
With the Smith, it’s not just a size thing. The river also plays host to very good numbers of steelhead every season. In addition to harboring one of the healthiest wild steelhead runs in California, it also gets outstanding returns of hatchery-reared fish.
Another extremely attractive attribute of the Smith, is its ability to rapidly come into shape after a storm. Because logging has been minimal along the Smith and there are no dams anywhere in the drainage, the river is quick to clear after even the heaviest of rains. In fact, there are many times each winter when the Smith is the only stream in all of the north state that’s fishable.
Peak winter steelhead fishing on the Smith usually takes place between January and February (of course, everything’s weather dependent). In the early part of January, you’ll likely see more hatchery fish – though they can come through in good numbers all the way into March some years.
The wild steelhead typically show up in the best numbers in late January and into February. For some anglers, March is the preferred month because the weather’s often very agreeable, the crowds are mostly gone and the fishing can be outstanding. That time of year, there are fewer fresh, up-run winter fish but enough to keep things interesting – plus you’ll usually have some spunky bluebacks and a steady stream of downers to play with.
Over the past few of seasons, the Smith has remained open until the end of April (check with the Department of Fish & Game before you go, as regs can and do change). Recently, April hasn’t been a barn-burner of a month — but it’s a time when you can have the river virtually to yourself and still have a shot at a steelhead or two.
Since the vast majority of fishing activity on the Smith takes place below the Forks, let’s take a closer look at how to do well in that stretch. While there are plenty of good bank fishing access points in that stretch, side-drifting from a drift boat is truly the way to go. You’ll cover a lot more water that way and, hopefully, run into more fish.
Ideally, you’d like to see the river in the 9- to 11-foot range as registered at the Jed Park Gauge with some nice green color to it. With all the traffic that the river receives, it’s sure nice to have adequate flow and enough color to keep the fish from getting too spooky. Below 9 feet, you’ll encounter the most challenging conditions the Smith can dish out – low, cold and vodka-clear water. From 11 to 12 feet, side-drifting is still okay and you can even get away with it up to 13 feet, but after that, the river gets too big and pushy. At that point, it’s time to plunk with big Spin-N-Glos and salmon-sized globs of eggs.
Since all the boats here side-drift in the winter months, plan on joining the party – or draw the ire of the fleet.
If you drop into a run that has a dozen boats in it and you start backtrolling plugs, you’ll probably learn some colorful new adjectives from the local boys. Keep an eye on the flow of the armada and try to fit into it. There’s a definite way things work on the Smith and it’s best to try not to buck the system.
Because of all the traffic (and the hundreds of baits that the fish see throughout the day), the most proficient guides on the river use tiny clusters of natural-colored eggs. A cluster the size of your thumbnail would be considered large and most run fingernail-sized pieces on No. 4 octopus-style hooks. To keep the bait up off the bottom, everybody here uses puff balls (Fish Pills, Quickies, Thunder Balls, etc.). The general consensus is you fish with light pink and peach puff balls when the water is clear and orange when the river has some color.
Eight to 10-pound fluorocarbon leaders are the norm on the Smith and, to help battle the snag problem, many side-drifters use Slinky sinkers or rubber Plunk-N-Dunk (“sploosh ball”) weights. Fish with pencil lead and you’ll lose every rig in your box…maybe even at the first spot.
If you show up when nobody’s around (say in late March or April), you can get away with pulling plugs and lures like gold or silver size 35 and 40 Hot Shots can result in some awesome, rod-pounding takedowns.
From the bank, drifting egg clusters or Spin-N-Glows is the best way to go. Later in the season, anglers also catch fish on No. 3 or 4 Blue Fox and Mepps spinners fished on the swing. Fly fishing isn’t extremely popular here, but some anglers do catch fish on egg patterns fished under indicators.
For boaters, there are several floats from which to choose. The upper most drift boat put-in is at the Forks, and from there, guys will do several different drifts. When the water’s high and pushy, most start at the Forks and pull out at the Outhouse — the water below there just gets too big. During low and clear conditions, however, the boats will spread out a bit more and will pull off at places like Jed Park, Ruby Van Deventer Park, Simpson Park or the Outfitters to name a few.
Bankies can find fishing access at all those launch areas, though probably the most popular spot to fish is at Jed Smith Park.
To keep the Smith and other rivers in Northern California and Southern Oregon viable as fisheries, Friends of Cal-Ore Fish holds several charity derbies a year to raise money for “fishy” causes. To help out, check out www.cal-orefish.org
Without the heroic efforts of the fine folks at the Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery in Smith River, fishing on the Smith would not be anything close to what it is now. When you’re in town, stop by the hatchery and check out the facility…and maybe drop a few bones into the donation jar. The Rowdy Creek Hatchery is a non-profit outfit and can use all the help it can get. For example, a $40 donation would be enough money for the hatchery to raise approximately 50 yearling salmon or steelhead. A gift of $80 would raise approximately 100 yearlings and $750 would put 1,000 fish back into the Smith River and it’s tributaries. On the web: www.rowdycreek.com