Coastal cutthroat trout inhabit a large range along the Pacific coast, extending from the Eel River in California north to coastal rainforests in Alaska. They prefer estuaries, lagoons, and small, low-gradient coastal streams. Cool, clean water with ample cover and deep holding pools is a good spot to find them, especially in warmer summer months.
In California, coastal cutthroat trout are at the southern edge of their range. Self-sustaining populations occur in many coastal basins, including Humboldt Bay tributaries. Coastal cutthroat trout also rear in several lagoons and ponds including Big, Stone and Espa lagoons, and the Lake Earl-Talawa complex. The principal large stream systems they occupy are the Smith, Mad, and Lower Klamath rivers. The largest known population in California resides in the Smith River. Historic coastal cutthroat trout distribution may have once extended past the Eel River south to the Russian River (Sonoma County), but they have not been documented in this area for quite some time.