The Montana skies were dark and ominous as we rolled out of Bozeman one cold May afternoon. We were headed north on Montana’s Highway 86, and by the time we passed the turnoff to Bridger Bowl, the temperature had dropped another 10°F and snow was falling. It was not the heavy, wet snow of a typical Montana winter, but rather the light, inconsistent snow of the late-spring transition time between May and June when Mother Nature can’t seem to make up her mind.
We crested the pass and dropped into the sprawling Wilsall Valley, continuing north through the town of Ringling, the micro-community made famous by an early Jimmy Buffett song. By the time we rolled into White Sulphur Springs, some 80 miles from Bozeman, the snow had switched to a misty rain and the skies were finally beginning to clear. We were on our way to the Smith River—a small, freestone stream located smack-dab in the middle of Montana. Relatively unknown to most anglers living outside of the Northern Rockies, the Smith is one of the most coveted, in-demand rivers and a true favorite for those living in the Big Sky State.
To say the Smith River is without a doubt one of the greatest angling and backcountry experiences available anywhere in the United States would be a massive understatement.
This year—as with each year previous—we had chosen White Sulphur as the rally point for our group. Ten of us from Montana and a few stragglers from out of state would meet up at The Mint Bar—one of only three drinking establishments in town. Regulars to the Smith River know that it’s a tradition to gather in White Sulphur the night before your designated launch date, both to ensure that you arrive at the boat launch early the next morning, and to celebrate the fact that you’re about to embark on one of the Western U.S.’s truly great, multi-day river adventures.
For those lucky enough to make this trip, the Smith River journey begins just north of White Sulphur at the Camp Baker access site. The next public access site is five days away at the Eden Bridge take-out, which makes for a very special and untouched freestone fishing and backcountry experience. The unique “inaccessibility” of the Smith has allowed Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to regulate the use of the river through a highly restricted lottery and permit system. In recent years, more than 5,000 people applied annually for roughly 700 permits, meaning those who enter the lottery have approximately a one-in-eight shot of scoring a launch date.
If you’re looking to fish the Smith and experience this 60-mile trip for yourself, you basically have three options for securing a launch. First off, you can enter Montana’s annual lottery online or mail in a launch application to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Cut off for applications each season is February 15, and successful applicants will receive a permit with an informational floater packet. Unsuccessful applicants will receive a refund or a postcard if you chose to donate your application fee to the Smith River Corridor Enhancement Account.
A second way to secure a launch is to wait until the last minute and call Montana FW&P for open dates that result from cancellations. The third option for fishing the Smith is the guided option—one that can guarantee you a prime launch date during the best time of the year. You can book a fully guided trip through one of only a handful of outfitters who are licensed to operate on the Smith, each having received a predesignated number of annual launch dates.
Originating high in the Castle Mountains of central Montana, the Smith River flows north between the Little Belt and Big Belt ranges, gathering water from half a dozen tributaries before finally flowing into the Missouri River 10 miles upstream of Great Falls. The first hint of the Smith’s canyon appears as wide open meadows that quickly give way to steeper slopes and long benches. The headwalls and cliffs then begin to grow higher and more frequent, until the river winds into a half canyon with towering sculptured limestone cliffs on one side and gently sloping meadows on the other. The river drops over 1,000 feet in elevation over this 60-mile stretch, creating as wide a variety of trout habitat as one can imagine.
The most important thing to be said about the Smith is that the fishing honestly runs a distant second to the overall wilderness experience of the trip. Sometimes the fishing on the Smith can be incredible. Other times, especially during late spring and early summer when runoff can be a factor, the fishing can be difficult. Either way, the overall experience the Smith delivers is well worth the trip. Although anglers frequently encounter 18-to 22-inch fish and 30 trout released in a day is not uncommon, the overall atmosphere and beauty of the river seems to always take precedence.
While the Smith is primarily a brown trout fishery, there are healthy populations of rainbows as well. Fish average 13- to 16-inches with an occasional 18- to 24-inch fish landed. And since the Smith is a natural freestone river as opposed to a tailwater, the insect populations are as diverse as the river itself. Everything from the smallest trico mayfly to the great salmonfly stonefly thrives throughout the river system. While hatches and timing can vary with the water conditions and weather, the season’s major hatches typically begin with the famous salmonfly stoneflies in mid-May. These hummingbird size salmon flies are quickly followed by the large golden stones, which continue through the month of June.
Hoppers and cicadas primarily dominate July hatches, and the dry fly action continues to be fantastic. And while it can easily seem as if this is a river custom-made for fishing big dry flies, smaller hatches are always present to fill in the gaps. Blue winged olives, pale morning duns and many different types of caddis hatch on a constant basis through the summer months. If anglers are willing, subsurface fishing can also be very productive.
While our annual May trip is always a self-guided adventure down the river, many anglers opt to go with the fully outfitted package, fishing two anglers per 14-foot inflatable raft with a guide. These rafts are the watercraft of choice for the majority of Smith guides, and each boat is usually equipped with a custom fishing frame, two seats for anglers and a cooler full of food and drinks. After each full day of guided fishing, anglers arrive in camp where the gear boats have already been unloaded, two-person sleeping tents are already pitched, the kitchen is set up, and the campfire is blazing. Most of the outfitters on the Smith pride themselves on their on-river cuisine, where Dutch ovens and open fire grills produce such gourmet meals as ribeye steaks, grilled salmon and pork tenderloin.
To say the Smith River is without a doubt one of the greatest angling and backcountry experiences available anywhere in the United States would be a massive understatement. This is why every year, despite weather, runoff, and the demands of family and work, we load our trucks and trailers and make the drive to meet our friends and fellow Smith River-addicts at The Mint Bar in White Sulphur. When die-hard Montana fishermen feel this strong about a river trip, you know it must really be something special.
If your plan is to fly to Montana on a commercial airline, you’ll want to fly into either Helena or Bozeman the day before your first scheduled river day. When packing for a Smith River expedition, it is good to think of your gear in terms of two separate groups. The first group is camping and sleeping gear that is packed away in large, waterproof dry bags each morning for the trip down the river. This gear should consist of a sleeping bag, ground pad, tent, extra tarps, and clothing for the five-day trip. A high quality dry bag is necessary, as nothing can ruin a trip faster than a soaking wet sleeping bag.
The second group of gear is what you’ll have easy access to each day for fishing. This gear should consist of a small duffel or waterproof backpack with such items as your rain gear, extra fleece layers, camera, binoculars, sunscreen, fly-vest, and all necessary fishing tackle. Extra rods and reels are always a good idea as well. Breathable Gore-Tex chest waders are also recommended for the Smith.
Once off the river at the Eden Bridge take-out, you are approximately one hour from Great Falls, two hours from Helena, and about three hours from either Bozeman or Missoula. Most anglers make reservations to stay overnight in either Helena or Great Falls, with plans to fly home the following morning.
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