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Smith River Fly Fishing

Iconic to Montana and revered as a legendary float trip, the Smith River provides 60 miles of virtually untouched wilderness. Through a strictly regulated permit process, each year, only a lucky few can say they experienced the Smith River float. You’ll get to witness towering limestone pillars and breathtaking cliffs run the length of the river. You’ll only find a small cluster of cabins during your float, which provides one of the few hints of human intervention.

Known primarily for pleasure floating, overall angling pressure is minimal at best. Anglers, specifically fly anglers, are a small percentage of the general river users. This means low pressured trout that are eager to eat a well-presented fly.

We will also note that in this day and age of social media, email, and conference calls, The Smith is 100% off the grid. From just outside of White Sulphur Spring to the first gas station at the takeout, your cell phone will say “no service.” We’d argue this is one of the finest points about this trip!

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Sections of the Smith River

The permitted section of The Smith begins at Camp Baker fishing access site (FAS), where you’ll start your journey. This upper section is in the foothills of the canyon and is lined with rolling hills and low elevation mountains that are heavily timbered. A short 4.5-mile float brings you to the first of 28 designated campsites that dot most of the float. It’s recommended that you get to Camp Baker the day before your launch date, so you’re able to select your preferred campsites as these are first-come, first-serve.

You quickly enter the steep, cliff-lined canyon that the float is iconic for. For the next 3-4 days, you’ll be immersed in the beauty, solitude, and calmness that makes this river so incredibly special. Fishing through this section can be very productive most of the year with various nymphs, dry fly, and streamer patterns. Depending on the time of year, there’s always an effective form of fishing. It should be noted that there is nothing wrong with setting the rod down, having a beverage of your choice, and watching the cliffs go by. Many rivers have trout, but there is only one Smith River float!

There are multiple attractions along the river that elevate the unique Smith River experience that much more. One of which is the Pictograph Cave. A steep hike leads to a large cavern with perfectly preserved pictographs – arguably some of the best paintings in the state are found here. Boat parking is tight, and it is best to depart your camp early that day to ensure a spot. Another attraction is “Heaven On Earth,” a working cattle ranch that assists Smith River floaters during peak season. You’ll find ice cream sandwiches for sale, a three-hole golf course, ice, and more. When the weather is poor, it’s a great reprieve from the elements, too, as they have converted a horse stable into a shelter for floaters.

Once you pass Rattlesnake Bend (the last campsite), the river leaves the cliff walls you’ve been accustomed to for your entire float and enters 10 miles of agriculture fields and a sheep ranch. After being so far removed from civilization, the sight of the sheep and lambs is quite the sight! Fishing in this section is typically a streamer game – casting tight to the banks, looking for big brown trout lurking in the undercut banks. You’ll encounter Eden Bridge which will be the end of your Smith River adventure.

Seasons on the Smith River

Spring/Early Summer
Fishing is quite productive with tandem nymph rigs and fished tight to the bottom. Stonefly imitations, caddis pupas, prince nymphs, and more are effective patterns. Not to be overlooked are the large brown trout that call the Smith home. Streamer fishing can be very productive in the early spring as these fish are looking to pack on the calories after a long Montana winter.

As the water warms, bug activity increases but so does snowmelt. Runoff season starts quickly on the Smith as low-level snow begins to leave the surrounding prairie and foothills. When fortunate, runoff holds for a couple of days, and the caddis starts to emerge, bringing fish to the surface and ready to eat a well-presented elk hair caddis or x-caddis. The Smith is also home to a prevalent salmon fly hatch that also coincides with the annual runoff. For the lucky few, when water conditions align, you can cast large foam flies tight against the cliff walls – each year, large browns over 20″ are caught doing just this.

Summer
Once runoff subsides, classic western trout fishing begins to take shape. Using many attractor dries and small flashy nymphs, you are sure to bring fish to the net. In the early summer, golden stones are still prevalent, so be sure to pack chubbies, water walkers, etc. For the streamer fanatic, you’re in luck! As the river drops and clears, the fish are back on the feed and looking for high caloric meals – sizing your steamer pattern down is always a good idea as the water clears.

Fall
The least popular season on the Smith can also be the most beautiful. The popularity of floaters diminishes, and the fall colors begin their yearly change – this is a time to find true solidarity on The Smith. The river has continued to drop all summer, and the fish have seen angling pressure – albeit minimal. Sizing down your fly choices and your tippet size will still put you into plenty of fish throughout the day. Blue Wing Olive hatches accompany the cooling water temps – especially on cloudy days. As daylight decreases and the water continues to cool, streamer fishing will heat up as the fish prepare for their yearly spawn.

It should be noted that the flows on The Smith, especially in the fall, can vary drastically. It’s highly recommended to keep a close eye on the cubic feet per second (CFS) of the river during this time of year. Montana FWP has provided these recommendations for floating the river:

Drift Boat: 350 cfs

Rafts: 250 cfs

Canoe: 150 cfs

Lodging Options

Smith River Float TripThere is one trip that the entire Yellow Dog team looks forward to every spring, a trip that many of us Montanans consider the best trip of the year – the Smith River float. This is a fully-guided float trip on the pristine, protected, and isolated waters, covering 60 river miles and winding through scenic and remote canyon over the course of five days. Fly fishing the Smith River, one will primarily catch brown trout, although there are also populations of rainbows, cutthroat, and brook trout as well. When you arrive in camp at the end of each day, spacious two-person tents are already pitched, the camp is set up, dinner is cooking, and drinks are ready.

At the end of your five days off-the-grid in the Smith River Canyon, you’ll come to appreciate some of the beauty that Montana has to offer. It’s a special place in the heart of many anglers and non-anglers alike.

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