If you missed Part 1 you can read it here > Smith River, Montana – Part 1
Part 2 – The Trip Days 1-3
Day 1 broke under a fresh couple inches of snow. A light snow filtered through a soft glow steadily growing over the eastern horizon. The diesel turned over and we pulled the boats over towards the launch. After a few minutes of playful jabbing about the weather we took it upon ourselves to unload the snowy boats and begin our day.
A little over an hour later and we had our three rafts in the water and loaded with our gear for the next 5 days. Despite the frozen hands and a bitter edge on the day the overall moral was high and everyone was eager to start our push downriver. One thing we had been concerned with over the past week was the condition of the river. A long week of warm and sunny weather had sent a push of water downriver from the mountains and had bumped the river. The water clarity wasn’t ideal but from all reports it seemed that the river would give up fish in all but the dirtiest of flows. After the group shotgunned a beer we split up and pushed off. The next few hours went off without a hitch and the weather had yet to unleash more than a light snow and a gentle breeze.
Montana quickly showed her teeth though. A brutal wind out of the West whipped up the canyon and fired the wet snow in a horizontal pattern that had us wishing we had brought ski goggles. The fishing was slow for those willing to freeze their hands working a streamer or nymphs along the fishy water which was hard to find with clarity that was all but nonexistent. As we pushed into the afternoon we switched gears from fishing to just making it to camp so we could attempt to build a fire.
After finding some wet wood along the float we finally rounded our last bend of the day and anchored up to set up our first camp of the trip. Everyone was feeling cold and wet despite plenty of Gore-Tex and warm layers. The first order of business was to build a fire. A strong group effort resulted in a fire finally gaining some strength and we began the process of piecing together camp and a warm meal. (Tip #1 – although you can find wood along the float, I’d recommend bringing fire wood with you for each night. Wet wood sucks and most campsites have very little in terms of firewood near camp)
With a belly full of elk meat and potatoes we all huddled tight to the fire until the urge to sleep overcame any warmth the dwindling fire could provide. With calculated promptness we all found our ways into our sleeping bags and tents hoping the next morning would break with clear skies and a touch of Montana sun. A quick peek from the tent in the morning revealed blue skies. That short moment of happiness was quickly humbled by taking one look at the frozen waders and boots littered around camp. A team effort set in motion a small fire and a breakfast of bacon and eggs and a warm cup of coffee. As the sun finally rose high enough to throw it’s warm rays on our camp Sam hooked into the first fish of the day, a nice golden brown who wanted a red worm breakfast.
With the storm gone and the sun out we finally could enjoy some warmth and some of the most stunning river views found in Montana. With each bend of the river a new view seared it’s spot in our memories as we casually rowed and fished our way downriver.
A few things were apparent by the end of Day 2. The fishing was tough. Our best fishing came when we pulled in and worked inside bends hard with nymphs. It seemed a guys could pull a half dozen fish out of each good run if he wanted to put in the time. Unfortunately with a good chunk of water to cover each day we couldn’t spend time in all the spots we wanted. We also found good fishing at the low ends of the tributaries which were all open this year due to a new regulation change. Again with little time to spare these moments were kept short and sweet but kept everyone in the game and catching fish. The more obvious take-away from the day was that the Smith River is easy on the eyes. The grandeur of the mighty rock walls and faces almost lose a bit of meaning since each bend reveals a new epic view. As we floated beneath these towering giants I was surprised no one has died from falling rock. With some cliff walls easily pushing a hundred feet or more, even a small rock would be life-threatening if it dislodged and found you at the bottom of its fall. After a long day we pushed into camp and began the process of unloading the rafts and assembling camp. With the forecast calling for more sun we hit the hay and got some much needed rest in anticipation of another long day starting early in the morning.
Our goal for the afternoon was to go bear hunt on some public land near our camp. A moderate hike put us up on a ridge we hoped held good grass. Unfortunately the snow from our first day had stacked up and covered the hillside and ridge we were hunting. We saw one set of bear tracks and a bunch of elk and deer tracks as we slowly climbed up above the Smith River canyon. With little for options given the snow, we sat down and glassed the hill across the canyon to the north. A few minutes in and Sam spotted a nice black bear traveling across the opposite hill. The bear fed his way down into the timber as he dropped out of sight into the canyon looking for anything green. With a precarious snow covered canyon below the decision was made to work back to camp and cook up dinner for the evening.
To read about the rest of our trip and hear our thoughts on the current state of the Smith River read Part 3 which will be live on our site tomorrow!
-Written by Zack Boughton
-Photos by Travis Boughton, Zack Boughton, Calvin Connor