The Smith River canyon
I had the opportunity to guide the Smith River about a week with a couple of my long-time clients. For those unfamiliar, the Smith River is located in central Montana and is the only river in the state that requires a permit to float whether you are doing a guided or unguided trip. It is a 59 mile float which makes for a 5 day overnight experience. The two guarantees on the Smith are great camp life, and some of the most stunning scenery in the state. The river winds through a canyon with towering cliff walls, multi-colored rock formations, and even Native American pictographs in a couple spots. The two variables on the Smith are water conditions and weather, both of which impact the fishing. Since the Smith is a smaller stream it is best floated during the run-off season in June which also happens to be one of the wettest months in Montana. Too much rain or snow melt and the river is high and muddy, too late in the float season and the river is low, clear and the trout get very spooky. Add to that the risk of snow, torrential downpours, and even hail and it makes hitting a perfect Smith River trip damn near impossible.
Crow’s Foot camp on the Smith
I have been on the Smith several times before and for the most part the weather has been decent. The river was always high and off-color though. We caught fish on every trip although it was mostly all nymphing and at times we hard to work hard at it. This year the stars aligned for us. We had absolutely perfect water conditions and great weather for the entire trip. The fishing on the first day was the best I had ever seen on the Smith and it only got better from there. Day 2 was as good as it gets kind of fishing and it remained solid through the trip. Lots of rainbows and brown trout with some big fish each day. We ate like royalty and sat around the campfire each night in one of the most stunning places in the state. Previously I had always thought that the Smith was a really pretty float with decent to marginal fishing. Now I know that when conditions are right it very well may be the best overnight trip in the West.
Big dry fly brown on the Smith
The view from the Missouri river near Craig
It’s that time of year again when our local Missoula rivers start to go out of shape and we head on over east of the divide to the Missouri river. Craig, Montana is the hub for fly fishing on the Missouri, and it’s a funky little trout town that I absolutely love. I was just over there and at the end of the day had a beer with three local guides. Over the course of 10 minutes I heard stories about “Blue Truck Joey”, “Teardrop John”, and “Mudpuddle.” Yeah, it’s that kind of place. There are 3 fly shops, one restaurant, and one bar in Craig. If you need gas head upstream to Wolf Creek and for groceries look downstream to Cascade. If you show up in early March the town is nearly dead. Joe’s bar is the only place guaranteed to be open although a couple fly shops are usually staffed if the weather isn’t horrendous. Roll through Craig in June and it’s a completely different story. Every flat piece of ground will have a drift boat parked on it, clusters of guides and clients mill around in the morning, and Izaak’s restaurant and Joe’s bar will both be packed in the evening. Depending on the season, we will spend 6 to 10 weeks over on the Missouri each year and over time we have learned a few things to make surviving the Missouri river season a little easier.
- You will drink too much….be prepared! There’s no reason to even say, try not to drink too much. There are only 3 things to do in Craig, fish, eat, and drink. You can only fish so much, and after dinner there is nothing left to do except drink. Don’t believe me? Just watch the locals. Your best bet is to down some advil and a Gatorade before bed. Wake up and add more advil and Gatorade, hope the fishing is good in the morning and you’ll be OK by lunch.
- Take good care of your buddies who live in Craig. Lodging is a challenge in Craig so if you are lucky enough to have friends in the area then treat them like gold. Lodging options range from staying with clients in a rental cabin on the high end to sleeping in the back of your truck on the low end. Treat your Craig friends to copious amounts of wild game and beer, maybe even do the dishes once in a while.
- Don’t be an A-hole on the river. The Missour river is a busy stream, but it’s big and there are usually plenty of fish to go around. That guide you low-holed in the morning might be on a bar stool next to you that night with 6 of his buddies.
- Bring cash! Joe’s bar doesn’t take credit cards or checks, and yes you will find yourself at Joe’s bar if you are staying in Craig.
- Go home when they start pouring shots of Fireball!!! I know I already said you will drink too much in Craig, but when the locals start buying rounds of Fireball it’s time for you to leave. Most non-residents of Craig can’t handle that level of drinking. Being a little hungover in the morning is one thing, getting black-out drunk and barely functioning in the AM is only made worse when you see the locals already at work and looking just fine.
Spectacular canyon on the Missouri
This week’s photo is from a section of the Missouri river dubbed the Land of the Giants. It was a special treat for me as one of my long-time clients asked me to join him for a day of fly fishing at Land of the Giants. This particular stretch of river is only accessible by jet boat, and we were guided by Capt. Scott Willumsen. This piece of water surely lives up to it’s reputation as we caught a pile of big rainbows. The canyon is absolutely stunning and the fishing makes it a trip that everyone should experience at least once.
A quiver of Winston Rods crammed into the truck
I have been taking fly fishing road trips for as long as I can remember. My most recent trip last week over to the Missouri was a reminder of how much things have changed over the years. Back in my twenties most of my fly fishing road trips were spur of the moment. They usually involved 2 or 3 other guys and a couple of dogs jammed into a pick-up truck. Money was short in those days so the beverage of choice was usually whatever 30 pack of beer was on sale, and the food budget put Ramen noodles at the top of the list. Hotels were out of the question so the tent was always with us. One of the more memorable trips was to the Beaverhead river in the spring. It was beautiful in Missoula, but we showed up on the Beav to find a foot of snow and the only clear ground to pitch the tent was right up against the FWP outhouse at the access. The wind had scoured a bare patch of earth next to the shitter. It was so cold that by 3 am we were all huddled back in the idling truck drinking beer and waiting for the sun to come up. I think we only caught one trout that whole trip, but we had a great time.
These days fly fishing road trips have a whole different feel. Now, with just two of us we can fill up a whole truck with all the gear we take. Not much camping anymore either as rental cabins seem to fit the bill with full kitchens and comfortable beds. Elk steaks, stinky cheeses, and bacon and eggs have replaced the Ramen with red wines and high-end bourbons instead of cheap beer. I still miss those hastily planned road trips of my youth, but I do enjoy the creature comforts of my trips today. One thing that hasn’t changed is my desire to travel and fish, the road trip remains a constant in my fishing life.
Not an empty seat in Missoula again this year
The f3t Fly Fishing Film Tour came to Missoula this past weekend. It is one of the most highly anticipated fishing events of the year. The timing is perfect because most Montana anglers are going a little stir-crazy by late January and it’s a great excuse to get toghether with fishing buddies for some entertainment. It’s not as good as actually going fishing, but it’s a close second. Over the years it has grown into an all afternoon affair. The local fly shops offer big sales to go along with food and drink, and it’s hard to beat the pulled pork and free Big Sky Brewing beers at the Grizzly Hackle fly shop. The crowd has evolved over the years too, and includes just about everyone. I sat next to a new mother and her infant son while there was a row of
older very seasoned anglers behind me. Of course, fly fishing guides and the 20 something crowd is always well represented in Missoula.
I have a great time at the Film Tour each year. It’s a fun night out on the town with a lot of other fishy folks. But the responses in the following days are similar each year. I always hear, “It was OK.” That basically sums up my feelings too. On a whole it was just alright. Most years there is a film or two that stands above the rest. Those films all have something in common, they contain the best fish/fishing footage. These film makers are all trying to tell a captivating story, and I understand that, but the star of the show is the fish and a lot of the films in recent years have been damn stingy with the fish footage. The crowd instantly erupts when a big trout eats a dry, a jack demolishes a popper, or a tarpon cartwheels in the air. When there is too much story and not enough fish, the line for beer gets longer in the lobby and the chatter in the theatre gets louder. I won’t go into the specifics of this years films in case you haven’t seen them yet, but the first one will have you one the edge of the seat wanting more….then you’ll be waiting awhile. That unbelieveable fish footage is incredibly hard to get. Perhaps that is why it’s so rare. Maybe the f3t crew purposely wants a wide variety of films. I’m not sure, but if I’m trying to sell tickets and book new show dates I’m putting in as much of the stuff that makes the crowd go nuts as possible.
With that said, the f3t Fly Fishing Film Tour is absolutely worth going to. This year there are a couple of solid films with local boys Montana Wild putting together a quality effort. It’s a night to hang out with your buddies, drink some brews, and see some fish flicks. Just grab a seat on the aisle, it makes it much easier to jump in the beer line when the story overtakes the fishing.