About a month ago I got the news that I had drawn a permit to float on one of Montana’s most scenic and pristine rivers; the Smith River. The news came as no surprise due to the fact that floating the Smith in April was a trek that requires lots of warm clothes, firewood, and the determination to fight through a blizzard if one were to happen. Planning continued for weeks even though I had many people laugh at the notion of floating the Smith River in early April. I heard a fair share of negative responses such as “Oh man, you’re going then? That’ll be interesting” or even the more extreme, “Holy shit, you guys are going to freeze!”…
I tended to think about the more positive stories I heard about early season floats on the Smith, the ones about hitting the weather perfect and having some amazing fishing. One major concern we all had was that the flows would be too low. I spent some time talking to my friend Matt who floated the smith a couple years ago at 120 cfs, barely float-able at that level. We decided to make our cutoff for flows at 150 cfs. Anything below that level and we would call it quits.
As the weeks went by we began to assemble the crew and our gear. After many complications such as people dropping out or not being able to find an even number of people to fill the two seats per boat, we were finally left with eight of us. Along for the trip was the same old group of friends, Trevor, Garret, Cody, Chris and myself. Also our friend Paul and new friends Ben and Ian. It was a great group and we all knew our trip would run smoothly.
As the day of our float approached and school was finally put on a temporary hiatus for spring break, we lucked out with the flows as they rose to around 180 cfs as if our trip was meant to happen. We spent the weekend making our final preparations for food, gear, and enough clothing to stay warm, all the while thinking about the great adventure we were all about to embark on. On March 31st, we headed for our launch site at Camp Baker.
The drive as we got closer to the Smith was beautiful. Living in western Montana makes you appreciate the different kind of beauty that eastern Montana conveys. Vast plains and range lands made us all feel as though we were truly in Big Sky Country.
Big Sky Country
Upon arriving in Camp Baker we discovered the Smith to be fairly small and off colored. We enjoyed much of the evening playing wiffle ball and being the only ones at the campground until dark when a few other brave souls showed up including one guy with a canoe.
I woke up to the sound of sandhill cranes and a very frosty rain fly covering my tent. It was a very cold night and it made me think of how cold it was going to be in the deep canyon section of Smith. We began loading the boats quickly because we had a long 15 mile float ahead of us. The first section of the float was through rolling range land and the fishing was not very good. Each boat landed a couple of fish and as we entered more canyon like stretches the fishing got better. I was able to land a solid brown of about 19 inches which was one of many fish that Trevor and I landed in the last couple hours of fishing. We were pretty impressed with how many quality fish between 14-17 inches there were.
A cold morning to start our Smith River float
The first good fish of the trip
It was a surprisingly warm night at our first camp. Everyone seemed to have landed some quality fish. Now the only thing that was lacking was the huge limestone cliffs and epic looking scenery of the Smith. We would soon have our first glimpse of the canyon the next morning.
The canyon wasn’t far downstream and we soon found ourselves floating on the Smith we had dreamed of for the last few months. The fishing was great later in the day and I landed my best fish of the trip, a brown that tapped a little over the 20 inch mark.
If there was one thing we really did right on the trip, it was the food. We enjoyed our top sirloin, potatoes, and green beans for dinner. Living like kings was turning out to be really nice.
On day three we continued our way down the canyon section of the river. So far we had lucked out with the weather and we hoped it would hold the whole trip. The scenery remained epic and the fishing really good.
Ian with a decent Brown
On day four the fishing remained pretty good. Nymphing was still the most productive. However, we soon decided to follow a trail to some Native American pictographs. We had heard from several people about the pictographs on the Smith. Little did we know that we’d have to work hard to get to them. After following a steep winding trail up a few sets of cliffs we finally dropped over the other side and made our way up to the entrance of a massive cave. It wasn’t until we were inside when we saw many ancient paintings done by Native Americans long ago. Humans, animals, and symbols that nobody could understand were scattered all over the wall. I later read that many archaeologists had visited the site and estimated the paintings had been done anywhere from 100-1100 A.D. To think that the paintings have been there for more than a thousand years is absolutely amazing. It was by far one of the coolest things I have seen in my life and I’m sure the other guys felt the same way. We all admired the paintings and the Smith far below for a few more minutes before heading back to the boats.
When we got to our final camp that evening we knew that our trip in terms of the fishing, was nearly over. We had a long float for our final day and the lower Smith is very flat and mostly shallow. It had been an amazing trip and everyone agreed that it may have been the best trip of our lives. The last thing to do was to burn all the firewood and enjoy homemade chili and hot dogs.
The last 15 miles turned out to be a tough 15 miles. Chris and Paul, who had brought a NRS drifter, had done fine with it all trip. Unfortunately only a few miles into our last day they hit a rock and put a hole in the floor. We took some time to patch it and then moved on. It seemed to take forever to get down to the takeout especially with the wind blowing directly upstream for a good portion of the float. Eventually we made it to Eden bridge where Cody and Trevor’s trucks were.
The Lower Smith River
High fives went all around as we realized we had made it all in one piece. We knew we had lucked out with everything. The flows, the weather, the fishing, the right amount of food, gear, and a great group of friends. It was a trip that I will never forget and one of the best I’ve ever been on. Until next time, goodbye Smith River.
The crew from left to right, Cody, Ian, Ben, Garret, Chris, Alec, Paul, and Trevor.