We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs.

Written By
Published Aug 15, 2022 2:42 PM

When it comes to smoking fish, it’s all about the wood. Beyond the smoker itself, the wood has the biggest impact on the flavor, color, amount of smoke, and many other factors of the smoking process. Picking the best wood for smoking fish isn’t rocket science, but it helps to have a rough understanding of wood types, smoking methods, and what options are available on the market. While pretty much any popular smoking wood can be used for fish, some are better for specific species of fish and smoking methods than others. Luckily, there are a ton of options available for nearly every type of fish and smoker you can imagine. From fruit woods to nut woods, pellets, chips, chunks, and logs, there’s a type and flavor for every scenario. Whether you’re a smoke-stained veteran or have aspirations to start, understanding and picking the right wood is vital to making the most of your catch.

Here’s a short list of some of the best wood for smoking fish on the market and some pointers to help you pick the right fuel for the job.

Things to Consider Before Buying Wood for Smoking Fish

Form 

Wood for smoking comes in a variety of forms, from chips to pellets, chunks, logs, planks, and more. The right choice for you has to do with the equipment you’re using and the type of smoking you intend to do. 

Small form factor chips and pellets have a lot of surface area, meaning they burn quickly and the temperature can be raised or lowered quickly. However, they will also be used up faster and are not as efficient or produce as much smoke as logs or chunks. Larger chunks and logs take longer to heat but are capable of both longer burns, on the one hand, and higher maximum temperatures on the other. Pellets are relatively uniform physically, and in general, there’s not a ton of difference in how premium pellets burn. 

Species of wood

Beyond brines and marinades, the type of wood used for smoking fish has the strongest effect on flavor. While less applicable to pellets, when it comes to chips, chunks, and logs the type of wood can also affect how the wood burns. 

While these are sweeping generalizations, you can think about the different types of wood as such: 

  • Hardwoods, like hickory, oak, maple, and pecan, are slower and hotter burning, with a nutty, buttery, bacon-like undertone. 
  • Milder hardwoods, like alder, provide a neutral smoke flavor that goes well with fish. Great for other foods you don’t want to overpower with smoke or flavor with specific species of wood.
  • Fruit woods, like apple and cherry, also burn quite slow and hot. They give a fruity sweetness and subtle tartness to their smoke.
  • Specialty woods, like mesquite and whiskey barrel oak, burn long and slow. These are produced for a specific taste, so they’ll provide the most pungent and intense smoke flavor.  

Species of fish 

Different types of fish take to some smoking methods and flavors of wood better than others. Understanding the texture, oil content, and flavor profile of the fish you want to smoke is a vital step to achieving the best outcome. 

In general, strong flavors complement strong flavors, and mild flavors complement mild flavors. Strongly flavored woods like mesquite and whiskey barrel oak can be overpowering, so they are best used in moderation and with strong flavored, oily fish. Fruit woods like apple and cherry and lighter flavored hardwood species like alder are great choices for most common types of fish like salmon, trout, and mild white-fleshed fish. It’s also worth considering the type of meat of the fish you’re smoking. A thin, flaky filet will smoke differently than a thick, firm fish steak.  

Price 

Wood for smoking fish is not prohibitively expensive, but there’s definitely an added cost to factor into each meal. On average, premium wood chips can be found for roughly $2 to $5 per pound, and pellets for about $1 per pound. Chunks and logs also tend to go for a bit over $1 per pound. 

Some species like maple and oak can be a bit more expensive, while mesquite and fruit trees like apple and cherry tend to be on the cheaper side. Prices vary slightly between species of tree, and manufacturer, and you’ll go through each type at different rates.

Best for Lightly Smoking: Camp Chef Alder Pellets

Best for Lightly Smoking

Why It Made the Cut 

Camp Chef’s Alder pellets provide the mild flavor of alder combined with the extreme controllability of pellets allowing you to lightly smoke your favorite fish without overpowering it. 

Key Features

  • 100% natural
  • Kiln dried
  • USA made

Pros

  • Versatile
  • Mild flavor
  • Affordable

Cons  

  • Fast burning
  • Pellet dust

Camp Chef’s Premium alder pellets are the best wood for lightly smoking fish. While there’s a time and place for strong marinades and deep smoke, sometimes you want to impart a mild and subtle smoke to your fish without the intensity and harshness that can accompany smoked food. This is especially true for white-fleshed saltwater fish or other mild flavored species. Camp Chef’s combination of mild flavored alder wood and the extreme controllability of pellet smoking allows you to dial in just the right amount of smoke for those types of fish. Their 100% natural hardwood pellets are free of binders or added flavoring and kiln dried for some of the highest quality and best burning pellets available.   

Pellet grills and smokers are known for their extreme level of temperature control, which makes them excellent for producing a consistent and light smoke. While you can certainly do the job with chips and chunks in a traditional smoker or grill, pellet smokers take a lot of the guesswork and micromanagement out of the equation. 

Pellets in the hopper of a pellet grill, best wood for smoking fish
If you want to lightly smoke fish, using a pellet grill will give you so much control over the process. Use Alder pellets for a closer to neutral flavor. Cosmo Genova

Alder is commonly used when you just want a neutral smoke without the added flavors associated with fruit woods, like hickory, mesquite, etc. Alder is often preferred for fish like trout and salmon that have a distinct natural flavor of their own. A light alder smoke can go a long way to enhance that flavor, whereas something like oak or cherry—while great choices for salmonids—will significantly change the flavor of the fish itself. Camp Chef produces a variety of other great wood pellet flavors, but their alder stands out as an excellent choice for lightly smoking fish. 

Best Budget: Oklahoma Joe’s

Best Budget

Why It Made the Cut

Oklahoma Joe’s wood products are extremely affordable, making them a great choice for those on a budget or who smoke a high volume of fish. 

Key Features

  • 100% natural
  • Works with most grill and smoker types
  • Easy way to add a smokey flavor to a meal

Pros

  • Affordable
  • Versatile
  • Easy to use

Cons  

  • Few flavor options

Oklahoma Joe’s offers some of the best budget wood for smoking on the market. If you’re strapped for cash or frequently smoke a high volume of fish, the cost of premium wood chips and pellets can add up pretty quickly. From my own experience, there are plenty of times when I’ve elected not to smoke something simply because pan-searing or grilling would be cheaper and easier. Long smokes on a pellet smoker can be especially expensive, easily adding five to ten dollars (or more) to a meal by the time you’re done.

Oklahoma Joe’s solves that dilemma for you. You get the same quality as many of the big-name premium wood producers at a price that anyone can afford. But just because they’re cheap doesn’t mean they’re low quality. While their selection isn’t the most expansive, Oklahoma Joe’s has all the basics covered. They offer hickory in chips, chunks, logs, and pellets; applewood in chips, chunks, and pellets; cherry in chips; and mesquite in chips and chunks

What they lack in variety, they make up for in value. A two-pound bag of apple or cherry chips is only $6.99, while their hickory and mesquite are only $4.99. You can get their twenty-pound bag of applewood or hickory pellets for only $9.99, which is nearly half the cost of an equivalent bag from Traeger or Camp Chef. Oklahoma Joe’s Competition Blend pellets will cost you a little more ($19.99) but include hickory, cherry, and maple wood pellets for a well-rounded, and versatile smoking blend. 

If you love to smoke but hate to pay for it, Oklahoma Joe’s has you covered. 

Best Overall: Western Premium Smoking Chips

Best Overall

Why It Made the Cut

Western Premium BBQ Products are expertly sourced, cut, and dried to provide consistent smoking and phenomenal flavor. 

Key Features

  • Works with many types of grills and smokers
  • Consistent chip sizing
  • All natural, no additives

Pros 

  • High level of quality control
  • Versatile
  • Great flavor selection

Cons

  • Not available in pellets

Western Premium BBQ Products manufactures some of the best wood chips for smoking. For over 24 years, Western and its parent company, Duraflame, have been producing cooking wood in a variety of forms. They offer chips, chunks, logs, and briquettes to cover whatever smoking and grilling methods you prefer. Their products are available in most popular wood species, including alder, apple, cherry, hickory, maple, mesquite, peach, pecan, and oak. They also offer a number of Jack Daniels branded products including chips made from their charred oak whiskey barrels. Many of these flavors, particularly the fruit woods, are perfect for smoking fish. 

Western wood chips, best wood for smoking fish
Consistent chip size with great flavor, if you’re making chip packets to smoke your fish, you cannot beat Western’s lineup. Cosmo Genova

While Western offers a variety of products, their BBQ smoking chips stand out for their quality, consistent chip size, and exceptional flavor. The first thing you notice about their chips is the uniformity of the sizing as well as the lack of sawdust and scrap in the bag. Western takes great care in their cutting, sorting, and drying process to ensure you’re getting your money’s worth. Chips are dried in roughly 10,000-pound batches with great attention given to the moisture content. This ensures not only the best smoking chips, but also protects the wood from moisture, mold, mildew, and bugs. There are no chemicals used in any part of the manufacturing process, so you know you’re getting a 100% natural product that burns and tastes great.

Western smoking chips are versatile and can be used in just about any grill or smoker you can think of. While they do not currently offer their products in pellet form, chips can be used in most wood-fired, charcoal, electric, or even gas grills and smokers to fully smoke a meal or add a little extra smokey kick.

Best Pellets: Traeger Wood Pellets

Best Pellets

Why It Made the Cut

Traeger’s all-natural wood pellets are affordable, high quality, and come in a variety of flavors and blends perfect for smoking fish. 

Key Features

  • Made in USA
  • Premium quality
  • No binders

Pros

  • Clean, low ash burn
  • All natural material
  • Traeger quality

Cons

  • Exclusively pellets

It’s hard to talk about smoking these days without at least mentioning Traeger. Traeger is well known for pioneering pellet grills and smokers and bringing this beloved technology to the mainstream public. But a smoker is nothing without fuel, and Traeger also manufactures pellets to accompany their industry-leading smokers. Their pellets are made in the USA from 100% premium quality hardwoods, and they provide the best flavor and burn quality without the use of any weird additives. They’re made from hardwood sawdust that is heated and compressed, meaning Traeger’s pellets do not use any type of binding agent or chemicals to hold them together, and there’s no adjunct oils or flavors to artificially change their taste. 

Traeger wood pellets next to a grill, best wood for smoking fish
You’ll know all about their grills, but if you’ve got a pellet smoker, Traeger should be your go-to for pellets. Cosmo Genova

Traeger pellets are available in most of the popular wood flavors, as well as a few proprietary blends. Their flavors include hickory, apple, cherry, pecan, and mesquite, which are all great options for smoking fish. I’m a big fan of Traeger’s cherry pellet for smoking candied salmon and lake trout, and their maple and pecan for firm white-fleshed saltwater fish. Some of their blends include limited edition offerings such as their Bold Blend (featuring hickory, cherry, and rosemary), Brisket Blend, and Meat Church Blend of hickory and oak. Traeger’s Signature Blend features cherry and maple and is a fantastic all-around pellet for fish, meat, and other smoked goodies. Even when I’m not smoking, I like to smolder a little Signature Blend in the bottom of the grill to give my food a smoke-kissed flavor without the intensity of a fully smoked meal. Most Traeger pellets come in a twenty-pound bag and cost roughly $1 per pound, with some limited edition blends coming in eighteen-pound bags and costing closer to $1.35 per pound. With any wood pellet, there is some residual sawdust to take into account, but their prices are well within the industry norm. While Traeger obviously recommends you use their pellets and smokers together, their pellets will work with pretty much any pellet grill or smoker out there.     

How I Made My Picks

As a lifelong angler, professional cook, and outdoors writer, smoking fish is something that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. Over the years I’ve smoked many different species of fish with a variety of commercially available and homemade smokers. I have also smoked using many types of gathered and purchased wood products, and have a relatively deep understanding of their qualities. While I am by no means a fish-smoking savant, my professional and life experience allows me to speak about it with some degree of authority.   

For this roundup, we got our hands on a variety of the best wood products on the market and tested them out on some salmon, halibut, and other fish. We smoked them in a pellet smoker and grill using chips, pellets, and chunks of different woods in order to test out each style, flavor, and manufacturer. This was done not so much to compare the products but to better understand their qualities in order to help the reader make the most informed purchase decision possible.  

FAQs

Q: How long should you smoke fish?

Many factors go into how long you should smoke fish, so it’s hard to give an estimate without context. In most cases, you want the fish to be fully cooked through by the smoking process, but not at a high enough temperature that the fish is functionally baked and releases its proteins. This can vary dramatically by the type and thickness of the fish, if the fish was marinaded, the type and size of the smoker, the temperature consistency throughout a cook, etc. Two to four hours at around 150 degrees Fahrenheit is a good ballpark figure for something like a salmon filet.    

Q: What is the best wood to smoke salmon with?

Most popular smoking wood species are excellent choices for smoking salmon. Fruit woods like apple and cherry are among the most popular, with maple and mild flavored woods like alder being preferred by some. Strongly flavored woods like hickory and oak are less often used for salmon, but there are times when their pungent flavors are needed. In general, it’s best to pair salmon with a wood that compliments the type of end product you’re going for. If you’re using strong marinades you want something like cherry that has enough flavor to cut through the other components. If you’re doing a more delicate preparation where the natural flavor of the fish is the star of the show, use something like alder that won’t overpower it.   

Q: Is apple wood good for smoking fish?

Apple is probably the best and most popular wood for smoking, period. Applewood’s long and slow burn and subtle sweetness make it an excellent choice for most types of fish and other proteins. Applewood has enough flavor and character to carry most preparations, without being too strong or pungent. You could smoke just about any fish over applewood and end up with a delicious product at the end. 

Final Thoughts on the Best Wood for Smoking Fish

Smoking fish is one of humanity’s oldest traditions, one we still enjoy today. Despite its ancient past, there has never been a better time to get into smoking fish than right now. With more equipment, supplies, and information than ever, it’s a fantastic—and easy—time to dive into smoking your hard-earned catch. Whatever method you choose, you’re going to need to pick the best wood for smoking fish. While it may feel like there are an overwhelming number of options to choose from, you can’t go wrong with wood chips from Western Premium BBQ Products, pellets from Traeger and Champ Chef, or budget-friendly options from Oklahoma Joe’s.