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Camping and Fishing Along Smith River, Montana

April 1, 2003
Filed under Camping Destinations, West Camping

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Early in the afternoon on the second day of a boating excursion down an isolated 57-mile stretch of the Smith River, I wished that I had been walking instead of floating. As a matter of fact, I was walking. I was standing in ankle-deep water trying to coax an air-filled water buffalo loaded with a tent, sleeping bag, and a five-day supply of underwear across a patch of glacial rocks that should have been under water.

It was no consolation that Lewis and Clark suffered greater deprivations following a similar route while on their passage to the Pacific Ocean nearly two centuries ago. After all, they now have a trail named after them and their names are in history books along with Thomas Jefferson. I would be lucky if I could retrace just one short section of their excursion while playing hooky from the office. Along the way I hoped to place a hook covered with colorful synthetic materials in front of the elusive native cutthroat, rainbow and German brown trout in the blue-ribbon trout stream. As I dragged the raft toward deeper water, I recalled the words of Craig Madsen of Montana River Outfitters as we discussed the mid-September expedition earlier.

GOOD FOR THE SOUL

“You’ll practically have the whole river to yourself. The fishing is great this time of the year. The photography is spectacular. Cell phones don’t work here. It will be good for your soul,” Madsen said. The last time I listened to advice like that, I ended up on a sailboat race to Hawaii.

Two hundred feet downstream, guide Eric Bergman was having an equally tough afternoon. The equivalent of Gabby Hayes driving a chuck wagon in a Roy Rogers’ movie, Bergman’s oversized raft was piled with a four-layer-tall collection of baggage. He was transporting tables, chairs and propane tanks — the tools necessary to cook for a group of eight; a 20-foot square tarp to cover the kitchen; plus tents, cots and assorted gear for the anglers and guides who were following us down the river. He also had a 50-pound bag of dog food for guide Brian Scott’s Labrador retriever.

Standing under a blazing September sun he lectured his raft on its responsibility for a successful voyage. “Listen you %$#&*!, you better move your *&%$# bottom down this #$%&! river, or I’m gonna kick you,” he sputtered, then proceeded to do just that. Afterward, as if transformed, he inhaled deeply and began humming an old Jefferson Airplane tune. He pulled the raft into deeper current, assumed a dignified stance, stepped aboard and began paddling toward our next campsite. That’s how it is some days in paradise.

Located in the west-central section of Montana just east of the Continental Divide, the Smith River is a gem that draws river rats of all persuasions during what are, essentially, two recreational seasons. The first season begins with spring runoff, usually in late April, and continues through June. That’s when the river’s flow rate is reduced from up-stream ranchers tapping it for agricultural purposes. By late summer, it begins rising again and is floatable and fishable until the onset of chilly weather, late in September. Since an unusually dry spring had produced less rainfall than normal, the river was lower than we had anticipated.

Described by some as “one long riffle with hundreds of small pools,” the Smith is easily negotiated by a novice, shallow enough to wade, and warm enough to swim in until early fall. Flowing north through the Little Belt Mountains, it’s fed by 15 tributaries before entering the mighty Missouri. One section is classified as having Class II whitewater during peak runoff, but we discovered that the greatest navigational challenges were the many sharp turns the river takes as it winds its way through limestone canyons surrounded by massive cliffs and past meadows populated by elk and deer.

HOOKED ON THE SMITH RIVER

Because the river became so popular, it was being loved to death and overfished. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks established a lottery system that limits the number of recreational and commercial boat launches. Peak usage on the 57-mile stretch between Camp Baker and the takeout at Eden Bridge occurs during May and June, so it takes some luck to secure an individual permit. That’s where outfitters like Madsen fit into the equation. They have permits, boats and tents, and offer the knowledge of experienced guides. Beginning in June, it is possible to arrange a travel permit only days in advance of a trip by taking advantage of cancellations.

Though the river attracts fishermen like a magnet, it’s also popular with campers traveling on inflatable rafts, canoes and kayaks. Consequently, rather than hearing the clatter of outboard motors, the air is filled with the sounds of grasshopper wings and bird song. We spent nights at strategically located spots from 6 to 12 miles apart and had them to ourselves. The entire stretch can be covered in three long days, but is best done as a five-day trip. That allows more time for leisurely breakfasts, plenty of time to fish, and arrival at the campsites in time for the cocktail hour.

When I took up fly-fishing several years ago, I was disappointed to learn that a critical component is acquiring enough entomological savvy to identify endemic insects and cast imitations that fool the wily trout. The news was particularly troublesome since I am a total dullard in all matters relating to science, and only managed to satisfy my college science requirement by tap dancing through a couple of oceanography courses using smoke and mirrors.

“Don’t worry about it,” Scott told me. “These fish are attracted to ’hoppers, so toss your fly onto the bank and let it drop into the stream. Or use a Royal Wullf, which imitates a Trico spinner on the surface. The other approach is to use stonefly and caddis nymphs,” he added.

“Huh? What?” I thought.

The river’s low water level created two options, both good. With the boat moving slowly I managed to cast into a promising-looking run and drifted at the same speed as the fly, a tiny white parachute visible just above the water’s surface. That fooled some of the fish, some of the time. In deeper, faster-moving water I abandoned the craft for the beach, and waded to likely looking spots where fish retreated to avoid the warmth of the midday sun. I tied on a double hookup with two nymphs and a small shot and bounced them along the bottom. My luck was holding so well that I managed to catch two fish at the same time. It was a first for me, but was greeted with a large dose of skepticism when I announced it to my fellow travelers.

CAMPING ON THE SMITH RIVER

By the time the sun crossed the yardarm and our three boats reached camp, Bergman’s blood pressure was back within medically acceptable limits, tents were up and the kitchen was in full operation. The campfire successfully held off an early evening chill as Bergman and Scott fashioned a meal large enough to feed a small army. The meal included the three major river-rafting food groups — meat, potatoes and beer.

Later that evening, as we sipped fortified coffee and warmed our bones, we compared notes and agreed that the fishing had been productive. We had all carved notches in our nets, but the river’s trout population was unaffected since we admired, then released our catch.

Following an early morning start, I traveled several miles before finding a comfortable-looking log on the bank that provided seating while I munched on an apple. The other fishermen were well ahead, and the only sound I heard was the breeze blowing in trees above the canyon and the steady beat of the river. A red-tailed hawk made lazy circles above a meadow, eventually converting a field mouse to a midmorning snack.

Downstream were more fish for the catching, the solitude of the river, another campfire and the nocturnal yipping of coyotes. There would be more portaging, too. Though earlier an irritant, the low water level of the river was now an ally. It brought me closer to nature, slowed my progress and extended the passage. Now I wished for longer days since each oar stroke drew me closer to journey’s end, and it would be several months before I could make a second, slower trip down the Smith.

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