For many, getting an opportunity to float down Montana’s threatened, and world renowned Smith River is a once in a lifetime experience. For some, myself included, it’s an opportunity that seems to present itself every couple of years or so. Solely because of all our buddies who are equally obsessed with fishing, floating, and kind enough to send us an invitation when they draw a permit. This year on the other hand, the permit holder is no-one other than yours truly. So, without further ado, lets jump right into All Things Smith River.
Step 1: Acquiring the permit.
If you’re reading this, you’ve either already got a permit in hand, or you’re wondering how the heck you can get one for next year. The answer is simple, yet complicated. The Smith River is without a doubt a very special place, and one of the handful of rivers in the United States that requires a permit to float. Each year between the beginning of January, and the middle of February, Montana Fish Wildlife And Parks opens their application period to applicants from all over the world who hope to pull a coveted permit. If you’ve never applied before, you can do so HERE. Keep in mind that although drawing a permit isn’t easy, there are dates that are easier to draw than others. Montana FWP considers “peak season” to run from May 15th – July 15th. Therefore, launch dates in that time period will be the hardest to draw. However if you’re willing to roll the dice, and take a gamble on Spring weather or low water later in the season, you will have a much better chance of drawing a permit. This year I was fortunate enough to draw a permit during peak season, and I’ve got my fingers crossed in hopes of a much warmer float than last time. Remember what I was saying about taking a gamble on Spring Weather? Take a look at the photos below to see what our 2016 launch day looked like.
Step 2: Getting there.
The launch site (Camp Baker) is located in Central Montana, about 35 miles Northwest of a small town called White Sulphur Springs. Make sure to have all of the essential pieces of gear you’ll need before getting there, as there will be limited opportunities to buy outdoor gear in town. That being said, it’s a great place to get gas, sit down for dinner, and grab a couple cold ones the night before you launch. If you’re already in Montana, driving to Camp Baker is relatively easy. Once you arrive, you’ll want to check in and try to get yourself towards the top of the list for launching the next day, and get your campsites reserved. Before launching, everyone in your party will be required to pay a small launch fee. The fee for Montana residents over the age of 13 is $25.00, and $60.00 for non resident adults. Each group is allowed 15 people per permit. Although you are not required to show up the day prior to your float, I’d highly recommend it. This will allow you to get a good spot in line for launching the following day, and give you a buffer incase you do forget something essential, and need to drive back to Helena to get it. If you do find yourself in that predicament, stop into Cross Currents Fly Shop for anything you may have forgotten. In 2016, we rented two rafts from them, and I would recommend them to anyone.
Picking up the rental rafts from Cross Currents Fly Shop was a breeze. Check them out if you’re in need of rental equipment for your trip down the Smith.
Things got a little western on the way from White Sulphur Springs to Camp Baker, and we immediately knew we were in for a heck of a day when the sun rose the following morning. As expected, we woke up to 8″ of snow.
Step 3: What you’ll need.
Preparing for a five day float trip can be an incredibly daunting task for someone who’s never done it before, and can still make you feel like you’re forgetting something important no matter how many times you’ve done it. Below is a list of essential items to bring on your trip.
- Raft(s) – Preferably with a fishing frame attached.
- Oars – Bring an extra set of oars for each boat in your party, not only is it required, but it’s a smart thing to do.
- Lifejackets – Under Montana law, you are required to have at least one life jacket on board for each occupant of the boat.
- Anchor – Don’t be the guy that gets 5 miles down river from the put in and realizes he forgot to attach the anchor to the boat. Check, and double check your anchor before putting in at Camp Baker.
- Camping Gear – Depending on the dates of your float, you’ll want to make sure you have a three or four season tent, with a heavy duty rain fly, especially for those early, or later dates.
- Dry Bags – Dry bags are a necessity on any float trip, as they keep your belongings dry. I personally like to bring one smaller bag to put camera gear in and keep with me all day, and one larger bag for the rest of my belongings that need to stay dry, but can be packed away.
- Extra Clothing – If your launch date is during peak season, this could mean bringing a couple of extra pairs of board shorts. If you’re launching earlier in the season, this can mean full on winter gear including gloves, hats, and multiple layers of insulation. Don’t be the guy that shows up unprepared. Take the time to pack well in advance, and keep an eye on the extended weather forecast to make sure you pack accordingly.
- Camp Shoes – It’s nice to take your wet sandals, or heavy wading boots off after a long day on the river. Bring a pair of Crocks or Chacos to wear around in camp.
- Fishing Gear – Montana’s Smith River is home to a wide variety of species, patiently waiting for you to float a San Juan worm past them. (COUGH COUGH… San Juan Worms do well on the Smith, and pretty much anywhere else for that matter.)
- Fishing License – You can purchase a fishing license at any certified FWP license provider.
- Collapsable Camping Stove / grill – You’re on the river for almost a week, live it up, and enjoy nice meals in camp. Nobody wants to eat freeze dried meals the whole time.
- Collapsable Camping Table – There’s nothing worse than trying to cook on the ground, and getting everything messy. Bring at least one collapsable camping table to cook and clean on, and possibly more depending on the size of your party.
- Cooking Accessories – Depending on the size of your party, and space available in your boat(s), you’ll want to bring plenty of pots & pans, utensils, plates, bowls, and camp mugs (for coffee, whiskey, or both.)
- Rain Gear – I’ll say it again so you don’t forget, BRING YOUR RAIN GEAR.
- Food – Depending on the size of your group, you’ll want to make sure you have enough food for the five day float, and then a little extra, just incase.
- Beverages – Be sure to pack plenty of water, gatorade, and other hydrating beverages, along with a handful of adult beverages (If you are of legal age). That being said, the Smith River is an incredible place, and needs to be respected. If you are indulging in adult beverages, be sure to keep the river clean by disposing of trash properly, and most of all make sure to stay safe and be a responsible floater.
- Bear Spray / Side Arm – The Smith River is known for it’s abundance of black bears, and while taking the right precautions to deter bears can lower your chance of seeing one, it’s always advised to come prepared. Be sure to bring bear spray, or a side arm of your choice, just incase.
- Bear Resistant Food Storage – It is required to have all of your food stored in bear resistant containers throughout the duration of your float, take this seriously as it is the law, and something that will be double checked and enforced at the time of your launch / throughout the trip.
Step 4: Bon Voyage!
Waking up on the morning of your launch day can be exhilarating, and full of excitement. Smiles grin from cheek to cheek, as floaters chomp at the bit to get their boats rigged and hit the water. Once the boats are rigged, and everything is in order, you patiently wait your turn to launch in the order that you checked in (this is why checking in the day before can come in handy). Take this time to check your gear list, make sure boats are rigged properly, and rig up rods for an epic five days of floating, fishing, and camping along some of the most beautiful landscapes that Montana has to offer. If I had to describe the Smith in one sentence, I’d call it the “Mini Grand Canyon”, only way cooler because it’s located right in our own backyard. Once you hit the water, you might as well turn your cell phone off, and bury it deep in your bags. Trust me, you won’t need it. Floating through the vast canyons of the Smith is spectacular to say the least, and is something everyone should experience at least once in their life. That being said, the scenery isn’t the only spectacular part about it. Great fishing opportunities can be found throughout the entire 61 mile float, as fish will be keying in on streamers, nymphs (cough… San Juan Worms), and dry flies (depending on the time of year).
Depending on your experience level and ambition, you’re either thinking “Holy crap I’ve gotta do that!” or “Dang, that sounds like a ton of work.” The short answer is that it’s a lot of both, but 100% worth it in my opinion. The Smith River truly is something spectacular, and an opportunity to float it should not be passed up by anyone in their right mind. Some of the best memories of my life have been made along the walls of the Smith, and I’m ecstatic for round two this June. My final piece of advice to you would be to have fun. Enjoy the company you’re with, the lack of cell service, and the abundance of hungry fish and beautiful landscapes. If we all had a little more of that in our lives, the world would be a better place. Watch Stoked On The Smith, below for a large dose of stoke!
Words & photos: Calvin Connor.
Cinematography – Stoked On The Smith: Travis Boughton, Zack Boughton, Calvin Connor.