Smith River Shenanigans

Smith River Camp 2015

Camp life on the Smith River is one of the highlights on this 5 day overnight trip.  You’re never quite sure what is going to happen in camp, and by day 5 the activites skew toward the creative.  Last year on the Smith, gear guys Sam and Max decided to blow off a little steam once the final desserts of the trip had been served.  We always wonder what the gear guys do all day before we make it to camp.  Now we have a little better idea. 

We are getting to that time of year when Smith River applications are due.  The deadline is Feb. 18th and you can find all the information you need HERE

Smith River

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 on the Smith River

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.

brown trout on the Smith river

Big dry fly brown on the Smith

Missouri river

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


Fly Fishing Road Trips

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.

Smith River

Wading under the towering cliffs of the Smith

Smith River applications are due Feb. 19th if you want a shot at floating one of the most scenic rivers in the lower 48 during prime season.  You can find everything you need to know about the application proces HERE.  If you have not floated the Smith River before, it is a must do trip!  It offers solid fly fishing with some great hatches and big brown trout, but it is much more than that.  The gorgeous views are never ending, the campsites are excellent, and the quality time with friends and family cannot be matched.  If you aren’t quite up to the challenge of a 5 day overnight trip on your own, there are 8 outfitters licensed to guide on the Smith River.  Luckily I will be guiding for one of those outfitters during prime dates in June this year.  Whether you want to do it yourself or hire an outfitter, now is the time to start making plans and perparations.  Get your applications in this week and good luck!

Smith River Fly Fishing

Campfire stories on the Smith River

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