Written by: Brian McGeehan, Montana Angler Fly Fishing

A five-day float on the Smith River offers the chance to experience true wilderness fly fishing.
All photos courtesyMontana Angler Fly Fishing , except where noted

crown jewel of Montana’s off-the-beaten path fisheries, the Smith River is a
small but floatable river that winds its way through a limestone canyon that
effectively divides the Big and Little Belt mountain ranges. The scenery is
spectacular, with a blend of lush meadows, towering limestone cliff walls, and
dense stands of evergreen forests. The fishing can also be superb, under the
right conditions, and the river offers a healthy population of wild brown and
rainbow trout. Accessing the middle of the canyon is a challenge, and the best
way to fish the river is to commit to a five-day float trip that
allows you to cover the 59 miles between Camp Baker and Eden Bridge. The Smith
is the only river in Montana that requires a permit for all outfitted guests
and private users. There are only a few outfitters that are permitted to
operate on the Smith River. Private users can apply for launch via a lottery
system operated by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.

strict permit system on the Smith ensures that there is limited fishing
pressure, compared with some of Montana’s other famous fisheries, especially
since many of the lucky lottery winners simply enjoy the river without fishing.
Any given launch date on the Smith holds prospects for high-quality fly fishing,
although nothing is ever guaranteed due to the river’s freestone nature. Since
guided guests need to book trips months or even years in advance and private
users apply in February, it is impossible to know what the river conditions
will be when you plan your trip. The Smith is a smaller volume drainage, so most
floaters and anglers target the spring and early summer, when flows are at
their highest. Summer dates can produce warm water and low flows on average or
below-average snow years. On good snow years, good fishing can extend deep into
the heat of summer. Fall can be a spectacular time to fish the Smith, with
extremely light fishing pressure and ideal water temperatures. However, in fall
the flows are sometimes too low to successfully navigate the canyon via boat.
The most difficult launch dates to book or win via the lottery are June and
early July. May launches are also popular times ,since higher flows ensure easy
floating. Summer and fall dates are easier to acquire, but anglers and floaters
run the risk that the river will be too low to run a trip.

The Smith isn’t known for trophy fish, but there are surely some gorgeous trout in the river.

April and May

Spring is a great time to target for a float on the Smith River. Many of our
most productive fishing trips are in May, and lucky anglers can experience some
of the river’s thickest hatches during this window. Plus, an early-season trip
ensures that water temperatures will still be cold. River flows in April can be
somewhat unpredictable: if weather is colder and the water is still locked up
in the snowpack, there is some risk that flows will be too low to float. Most
years, from mid-April on, flows should be good enough to launch a trip. By May,
the river is generally on the rise, as air temperatures warm, and floating is
generally easy. The Smith generally has some “color” to the water for most of
the float season, but it rarely has so much sediment that it is unfishable. The
toughest spring conditions occur when the river is rising rapidly, due to hot
weather producing rapid snowmelt or heavy rains. Moderate increases in river
flows are generally tolerated well by the trout, and fishing remains good to
great. When the river is rising fast and gaining hundreds of cubic feet per
second of added discharge from one day to the next, trout need to find new lies
within the river and fishing is tougher. Even in tough conditions, though,
persistent anglers can still put some trout in the net. When the river is
stable or dropping in the spring months, fishing is nearly always fantastic and
often some of the best of the season, with strong trout and high catch rates.
May is one of our favorite months.

May is a perfect time to intercept some of the heaviest spring hatches,
including the Mother’s Day caddis and Baetis
mayflies (blue-winged olives). In April, Skwala
stoneflies often produce the first dry-fly fishing of the season. Baetis hatches can be thick in April or
early May, anytime heavy cloud cover and wet weather arrives. The famous
salmonfly hatch happens earlier on the Smith than on other Montana waters, with
the peak of the emergence in mid May. Dry-fly fishing over the salmonfly hatch
depends on the stability of the flows, though. Oftentimes, the water temps that
coincide with the hatch sync with rising flows, so trout are usually targeting
the large nymphs. On days where the weather is cool but stable and still warm
enough to keep the hatch going, lucky anglers can experience some amazing dry-fly
fishing by casting huge foam patterns along the cliff walls.

There’s always some color to the water in the canyon, but during good flows, it’s not a problem.
Photo by Pat Clayton, Fish Eye Guy Photography

Early June
Peak flows on the Smith generally occur in late May or early June. Due to the
smaller drainage and lower elevation mountains that feed the Smith, river flows
peak earlier than on other systems in Montana. While flows are high in early
June, the river most years has started to stabilize and on a lower-water year
may even be dropping. Higher flows this time of year generally rule out dry-fly
fishing opportunities, though. This is the time of year for big ugly patterns,
and anglers have their best luck stripping streamers or fishing nymph rigs.
Pattern selection does not need to be sophisticated, and a good selection of Pat’s
Rubberlegs, San Juan Worms, Zonkers, crayfish, and a few smaller Princes or Copper
Johns will suffice. If flows are higher (over 800 cfs), look for trout in “soft
water” where the river current is slower, such as the insides of bends or in
seams behind large rocks.

to early July

Generally by mid-June, the river is on a steady decline, with flows dropping
each day. Water temps are also rising quickly, which kicks off another round of
hatches that include golden stones, pale morning duns, various caddisfly
species, and yellow sallies. This is one of the most variable times of the
season, and fishing conditions can change from day to day and even hour to
hour. On an average water year, this is typically one of the best dry-fly
windows on the Smith. On low water years, warmer water temperatures can become
an issue as early as the last week of June. Lower flows and long days can also
kick off algae growth, Generally speaking, the fishing can be good in this
window even if it is a low water year, but fishing may shut off early as you
move into early July. On a good water year, early July fishing can be fantastic
as the higher flows help to keep water temps at a comfortable level for trout.

A float on the Smith usually creates some great memories.

early summer window is one of the most sought-after times to obtain a launch.
For private users, this is the most difficult time to win the lottery system,
with odds as high as 3,000:1. Guided trips for these dates often book
more than a year in advance. Although this is the most difficult time to “get a
spot,” we find that the chances for good fishing in May and early June are
often just as good as late June.

Mid July through early September
Summer on the Smith is definitely hit or miss when it comes to fishing and floating
the Smith. On a high snowpack year, the river may be floatable all summer and
good fishing can extend into late July and even August. On average water years,
the river often drops to levels too low to effectively float (at least to float
and enjoy it) and requires extensive dragging of boats. Due to the uncertainty
of midsummer dates we do not book trips in this window. Since the lottery
system for private launches occurs in late winter it is best to avoid selecting
dates in this window since the odds are good you will not be able to use your
launch date. If it is a high-water year and you have some flexible dates you
can often obtain a cancellation date for midsummer.

During the float, you’ll run into som big walls and (maybe) some big hatches.

Mid-September through October
Fall is a quiet time in the Smith River canyon. As days grow shorter, water
temperatures drop to near ideal levels for trout. Around mid-September, irrigators
turn off their head gates, which often results in a small but meaningful bump
in water levels. Fall trips are always a gamble on the Smith, and some years
the river is still too low to effectively float. There is about a 50 percent
chance that flows will be high enough to get down the river for experienced
boaters for a late fall trip – it all depends on water levels. Generally when
the flows are right you have the entire canyon to yourself this time of year.
Fishing can be terrific in this window, with lightly pressured trout looking
for hoppers on sunny days or blue-winged olives on rainy or snowy
days. Fall is often a dry time of year but a few fronts may begin to move that
bring rain or even snow, so it pays to watch the weather carefully and make
sure to bring cold-weather gear based on the forecast. This a truly great time
to enjoy some high-quality dry-fly fishing, if you are lucky enough to catch
the river at the right fall flows. By October, anglers can also have some
success on the larger pre-spawn browns by stripping large streamers through the
bigger runs.

Caves like this one seem like perfect trout-holding spots.

The Smith is a special river and offers anglers and floaters many faces depending on the time of year, snow levels, and rainfall. You never really know exactly what type of conditions you will experience until your trip arrives, so it is best not to overthink dates. In general, if you are planning far in advance, your safest bet is to target May and June dates when you can count on enough water to float. If you are flexible and willing to roll the dice, a fall float can be a special experience.

Brian McGeehan is owner and outfitter of Montana Angler Fly Fishing, an Orvis-Endorsed Fly-Fishing Expedition in Bozeman, Montana.

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