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Chapter 3 -- History of the Smith River Watershed (continued)

Fisheries History

An early account describes the abundance of salmon, "Near [the mouth of the Smith River] are a number of sloughs, branching out from right and left, and during the fishing season these waters are literally alive with salmon." "The average catch of fish is from 100 to 1,000 at a haul and as many as 1,500 have been caught in one haul of the seine." "The fish caught weigh from five to sixty pounds" (Bledsoe 1881). Commercial harvest of salmon in the Smith River was already underway in the 1860s as noted in an account of the 1861 flood, "Near the mouth of the river, a fishery owned by W. H. Woodbury was washed away together with four hundred barrels of salmon" (Bledsoe 1881). More extensive records of salmon harvests are available from a cannery which operated at the mouth of the Smith River from 1878 to the 1930s. Although the cannery records may be incomplete, they indicate annual harvests in excess of 50 tons in the 1890s (Table 19, Appendix D). These harvests occurred after the heyday of hydraulic mining in the watershed. Fish populations declined until operation of weirs and nets in the river was no longer commercially viable. During the 1930s, the Smith River was closed to commercial fishing (California Assembly 1961).


Table 19. Cannery records of salmon harvests in the Smith River, 1893-1897. (For more information see Appendix B).

Quantity harvested:

Begin date:

End date:

28 tons

October 22, 1893

December 30, 1893

22 tons

February 19, 1894

March 26, 1894

36 tons

September 28, 1894

October 30, 1894

50 tons

September 4, 1895

November 2, 1895

33 tons

October 2, 1896

November 19, 1896

50 tons

October 1, 1897

November 18, 1897


In most rivers of the Pacific Northwest, early researchers found that salmon runs occurred year round with surges at certain times. However, observations on other rivers may not apply to the Smith River due to water quality characteristics. The clear water of the Smith River does not contain as many nutrients as most other coastal rivers (USFWS 1960). The low nutrient content possibly limits productivity of the stream ecosystem and potential fish production.

There is disagreement about whether a large run of spring chinook once existed in the Smith River. In the diary of the manager of the Smith River cannery, there is record of the sale of 32,200 pounds (100 barrels) of salmon on February 19, 1894 to the Occident and Orient Commercial Company. Another 123 barrels of salmon were sold in March, 1984. Because the barrels of fish were presumably sold as soon as feasible after packing, some sources assume that these 28 tons of fish were spring-run chinook. Others insist that spring-run chinook do not enter the river at that time and that these fish must have been fall-run chinook. The record shows only the sale of the fish and does not explicitly state that the fish were caught in the Smith River (Appendix B). Further investigation may or may not resolve this question.

In the early 1940s during the summer, fishermen could easily catch the limit of twenty five fish (California Assembly 1961). According to Avery McNamer, a long time Smith River sport fisherman, the salmon runs on the Smith River had declined steadily from 1946 to 1961. Local community leaders and residents reported that in 1974, "The salmon and steelhead return to the Smith River has been on decline for more than 20 years... Number of fish very poor—down approximately 90%" (California Resources Agency 1980). Norman Weir, a life long resident, reported that in the early 1930s they harvested fish "by tons in nets, year after year after year" and thousands of salmon returned to spawn in Rowdy Creek (California Assembly 1961).

After 1945, ocean salmon trolling increased in importance, and expanded dramatically in the 1970s. In the early 1990s, commercial harvesting of salmon in the ocean was severely restricted from Fort Bragg to the Canadian border. Sport fishing was also limited in areas north of San Francisco to central Oregon (USFS 1995).

Sport fishing pressure on the Smith increased during the 1950s. For example, in mid-October 1961, there were over 150 trailers at the mouth of the Smith River (California Assembly 1961). However, the lack of fishing success on the Smith during the summer was an economic concern because fisherman and their money departed for other areas. By 1957, local groups wanted to increase tourism by developing a summer sport fishery. To this end, the Del Norte Rod and Gun Club and the Del Norte County Chamber of Commerce pressured the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) for a stocking program. Certain planting and hatchery programs were later approved for the Smith. One program released fifty thousand yearling coho to provide sport fishing opportunities. These fish originated from Noyo River stock and were raised at the Mad River fish hatchery.

Early fishery restoration efforts relied mostly on hatcheries. For decades it was common for hatcheries to use salmonid eggs from other watersheds. From the 1920s to the 1960s, the Smith River was stocked with fish from other areas including coho, Atlantic salmon, chinook, steelhead, and cutthroat trout. Fish were planted on the lower Smith in the 1920s (California Assembly 1961) and on Hurdygurdy Creek in 1928. Success was limited due to disease, poor survival after release, and the high costs of hatchery operation. In 1961, a commercial fish hatchery was established at Monkey Creek (California Assembly 1961). The Rowdy Creek hatchery was established in 1967, and is the only hatchery presently in operation in the Smith River system. This "public enhancement" hatchery raises steelhead, chinook, and coho salmon. This hatchery attempts to maintain the native salmonid genetic composition by breeding fish that return to the hatchery with wild fish stock (Waldvogel personal communication 1996). Although this hatchery continues to operate, hatcheries by themselves are no longer regarded as an effective method of maintaining anadromous fish populations.

Prior to 1951, the river was open to fishing all year from the mouth to three miles upstream at Baileys Hole. About 1959, the allowable fishing zone was extended up to the Highway 101 bridge which is beyond the influence of tide water (California Assembly 1961.)

In the 1950s the California Department of Fish and Game began clearing log jams from tributaries of the Smith River. About 1960, the Wildlife Conservation Board also began clearing streams in the Smith River basin (California Assembly 1961).

In 1961, Rowdy Creek was "blocked" with woody debris allegedly due to logging in combination with high stream flows. Because this stream crosses the relatively flat coastal plain it has a natural tendency to aggrade, and at this time aggradation of five or six feet was reported. During low flows, the stream flow was entirely subsurface through the aggraded gravel. Juvenile fish tend to become stranded under such conditions, and there have "fish rescue" efforts to save these fish.

The earliest known stream surveys in the watershed occurred in 1935 (Appendix A). There are no records of further surveys until 1952. Basinwide estimates of salmon and steelhead were made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1960 (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 1960). However, these estimates were extrapolated from studies on the Eel River and seem to lack sufficient empirical support.

Recent CDFG "punch card" surveys of fisherman indicate that, of the fish caught in the Smith River, seventy five percent are released. The effect of catch and release on steelhead is believed to be minimal (Waldvogel 1996).

In 1990, the Smith River National Recreation Area Act required that management set a high priority on anadromous fisheries improvement ("Smith River National Recreation Area", Title 16 U.S. Code, pts. 460bbb-3.(a)(3) 1994 ed.). In 1997, coho salmon in the Smith River were listed as threatened by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Threatened status was conferred on all coho subpopulations within an "evolutionarily significant unit" that includes the Rogue River in Oregon, the Mad River in California , and all coastal streams in-between (Weitkamp et al. 1995).


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