The Smith River is a gorgeous 59-mile stretch in western Montana of blue ribbon trout fishing with minimal whitewater. The floating season is a short window from early May – early July on a typical year. Several thousand people put in for a float permit but only about 800 permits are awarded. The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department allows nine parties to launch each day, which also takes into account the commercial groups. My husband, Nate, was fortunate enough to pull a permit this year for a Saturday launch at the end of June.
Being a heavy snow pack year here in the Northwestern states, all river levels have been typically higher than average. Nate choose late June as his first choice launch date being that the levels are usually pretty low for excellent fishing opportunities, but not too low that you couldn’t get a raft or drift boat through. This year, late June saw unusually high flows. We launched at about 900 CFS, the average is about 500 CFS.
The week prior to our launch North Idaho and parts of Montana saw snow and a light frost bad enough to damage some garden vegetable plants. It was such a strange spring we experienced. However, by some miracle, the day of the launch was exceedingly pleasant temperatures of high 70’s and blue skies.
The exposed, rocky cliffs and grassy banks typical of the Smith.
© Keli Keach
|There were 10 of us, 4 people from northern Idaho, 4 from southern Idaho, one from Wisconsin and one from New Mexico. We all met in the small town of White Sulfur Springs, MT which is about 30 miles away from the put-in location. It is a great little town where you can find a poker game on a Friday night at the tavern and take in some of the local culture. It made for a fun rendezvous for our group to meet and get stoked for the five days ahead.|
Saturday, launch day and most people had a little trouble getting up and around early due to the meet-and-greet the prior night. Nate had intentions of getting to the put-in early so as to claim his preferred camp sites before most people arrived. 10 am or so and we finally rolled up to the put-in to see who was already there and setting up. Ranger Kirk, the official on duty this day was very helpful and accommodating during the camp site declaration process. Though we didn’t get any of the sites that Nate had originally planned on, Ranger Kirk helped us pick some good ones for our group size and trip plans. We wanted to stay for four nights – the maximum allowed although you can easily complete the float in a three-night stay.
Our group had five boats. We all set up our boats in the warm Montana sun and by about 1 pm or so we set off for our first camp, Rock Garden about six miles downstream. It took a little bit for me to understand this river and row the heavily loaded down fishing vessel. I opted to switch from rowing to fishing initially. The river, although nearly whitewater-free, has many twists and run-ins with rock walls and strange eddies. It gets really rocky when the flows are low so there is a lot of technical maneuvering to be done.
|We reached our first camp to find a great shaded area with plenty of trees for hammocks and wide space to spread out the tents. Jesse from Hailey, ID and John from Wisconsin made dinner which included Wisconsin bratwurst and a huge can of baked beans. Though delicious, we couldn’t finish the monster can of beans. Earlier that afternoon Ranger Kirk had informed us of the frequent occurrence of bears in the area who have been attracted to careless campers’ food. We weren’t quite sure what to do with our beans so we opted to burn them, and hang the rest of the garbage in a tree.|
The next day we had about a 17 mile float ahead to our next camp - Lower Sunset Cliff. The fishing was slow because of the high, murky water. Nate was sold on the red San Juan Worm as being the hot fly for the trip so he tied about 50 of them. The fish just weren’t having any of the San Juans… or anything else.
David snoozing in his ENO Double Nest Hammock at the Rock Garden Camp.
© Keli Keach
Spectacular backdrop to the Sunset Cliff Campsite.
© Stacy Jensen
|Alan from Twin Falls, ID, Liz from Shoshone, ID and Nate all arrived at camp first to set up and get dinner going. They had done a lot of the prep work prior so they made it look easy. Pork sloppy joes (with a vegetarian version for Keli) more baked beans and brownies with ice cream. (I had no idea of the marvels of dry ice.) Jesse and John pulled into camp late as they had stopped to hike up some of the creeks to clearer water and hopefully more fish. I don’t think they had much luck but got to see more sites than the rest of us had that day.|
Camp games and entertainment are nearly essential on any river trip. Luckily, Alan and Keli had us covered. That night we played Bocce, Frisbee and read through a few of the 101 questions to getting to know your friends book around the camp fire.
|Day three and we have a special treat planned. There is a ranch called “Heaven on Earth” about 4 miles downriver from camp this day. It is a spectacular ranch on hundreds of acres right along the river. They have a 9-hole golf course, cabins, eating facilities, (flush toilets and running water!!!), trail rides and of course multiple miles of private access fishing on the Smith. For one small fee, we played golf, were provided refreshing bottomless beverages and got to spend one awesome afternoon in the middle of Montana with views that almost brought a tear to the eye.||
Part of the group (Jesse, David, Stacy, Keli, Liz and John) on the golf course at the Heaven on Earth Ranch.
© Stacy Jensen
Unfortunately, we were unable to spend the night at Heaven on Earth Ranch as they were already booked with overnight guests. So after chatting with the Ranch owner Gary for a while, we headed out to our next camp about 8 miles downriver.
Alan loves to play downriver Frisbee toss and miraculously we managed not to lose the Frisbee. We also stopped a few miles before camp at a petroglyph site. That night we stayed at Fraunhofer Camp. This was a small-ish camp along the river with a huge upper meadow full of wild flowers. One thing (and an important one at that) is that as of the 2008 floating season, the wonderful Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department provides pit toilets at every established camp site. This particular site had the pit toilet in the meadow, slightly protected by one tree for semi-privacy. The views were spectacular from this toilet!
John and Jesse sliding along through the
© Stacy Jensen
|Upon arriving at Fraunhofer, Brian from New Mexico and Mike from Boise, ID prepared spaghetti with spicy sausage. It was an early night for us all as we had too much fun at the Ranch that afternoon. The next morning, as I was lying in my tent, I heard voices earlier than usual. It turned out Mike, Brian, Jesse and John all decided the fishing was so slow that they would float out a day earlier. They were up early packing their boats to shove off. Most of us got up too late to see Mike and Brian off, but Jesse and John stayed around for a group picture and good-byes. Jesse had lost his fly rod the day prior and John flew all the way out from Wisconsin to catch some fish, so they were determined to find a different river. It was sad to see nearly half of our group leave early. I haven’t heard yet how they did fishing that day… but I know that was my lucky day!|
Once everyone left we had time to pack up that morning and shoved off once again to our last camp, Lower Given’s Gulch. Another gorgeous day of 70-80 degree weather and blue skies. We all took our time getting to camp as we only had 12 miles to go this day and all day to do it. Fishing was slow, but suddenly and unexpectedly, I hooked a 16” brown trout off the grassy bank on a red San Juan. Nate and I pulled off to the side, full of excitement, to get the fish unhooked and to get a picture. I was stoked for the rest of that day, and of course had to share the pictures with the rest of the group when we got to camp.
Lower Given’s Gulch is almost the last camp before the final five miles of the trip. This last stretch is all private land with no camping, so we didn’t want to miss this camp. There are two rapids on the entire stretch and they both are right around our camp so maneuvering was a tad tricky. This camp, although gorgeous, was quite windy in the afternoon. We put up our NRS River Wing which helped immensely in wind blocking. That night Keli, David and myself, all from Moscow, ID and all dedicated NRS employees prepared dinner. David made nacho cheese dip to accompany the salsa and corn chips appetizer. Keli and David had prepared ahead three pans of vegetarian enchiladas and set up the Firepan as an oven to reheat them. Delicious! Dinner was followed by my Dutch oven cobbler, so easy and yummy!
The wind died down and the evening was gorgeous. This was a fun camp because we got front row seats to see everyone else run the Class II rapid. (Sounds small, I know but on this particular river it’s the most technical part.) The fishing was good at this camp too; Nate caught a nice brown trout, size unknown…||
A Smith River brown trout.
© Stacy Jensen
Our last day on the river, excitement was in the air to experience the last of the river, but sadness also loomed as we didn’t want to leave quite yet. We packed up and shoved off for the last five miles of private land. The landscape is significantly different in the last few miles. What we had experienced for the first 54 miles was spectacular tall rocky cliffs, grassy meadows and unique rock features. The private section is grassy rolling hills which make for excellent grazing land. It looked a lot like the landscape in southern Idaho.
David and Nate, still trying their luck, on the last day.
© Keli Keach
|Nate caught the biggest brown this last day, we figure it to have been about 20”. He also lost his fly wallet full of hundreds of dollars worth of flies, a disappointment for sure. |
The last of the float went really quickly, we ended up at the take-out, Eden Bridge, around noon. It was a hot one out for de-rigging out boats and packing the truck. The work went fairly quickly though, and before long we were on our way back toward Helena.
At Helena we had to say good-bye to the last of our group, Alan and Liz who were heading south from there. We headed north toward Missoula. River trips are so much fun (minus the packing and unpacking). Getting together with friends, enjoying the sights and the experience of it all are an invaluable treat in life. I’m already planning to put in for a draw permit for next year.
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