SMITH RIVER, MONTANA
To protect a place or thing, you must appreciate and understand the value of it. The greater the number of individuals that have that appreciation and value residing in their souls, the more support you have and the stronger the voice when a call to action is needed. Although the Smith River is the only permitted recreational river in Montana and is enjoyed by thousands of outdoor enthusiasts each year, it continues to seemingly fly under the radar as a Montana destination in comparison to some of our other wildly famous resources. That all has slowly been changing over the last year as a proposed copper mine has brought the beloved Smith River front and center. Some cringe at the idea of more people knowing of their beloved spots and diluting their chances at drawing a permit yearly, but others see the necessity of a wider awareness and hope more people can become personally acquainted and educated on this beautiful river system and the overall majesty of the larger landscape of which the Smith River calls home.
A classic look at Montana’s Smith River.
The Smith River is what I would call the Grand Canyon of Montana. Flowing north out of the Big Belt, Little Belt and Castle Mountains it picks up size as it winds its way through windswept cattle country near White Sulfur Springs, Montana. As it passes Camp Baker, where floaters put in on their 59 mile float, it dives into a deep limestone canyon that provides some of the most stunning river vistas Montana has to offer. Cliff walls soar over corner after corner of this epic river and the beauty often distracts the fisherman from an eat of their fly by a hungry brown or rainbow trout.
This dynamic river is considered a red-ribbon trout fishery with trout densities back in 2011 averaging about 250 brown trout and 250 rainbow per mile in the upper stretches. Angler-days averaged about 14,200 between 1982 and 2009. The primary species to be hooked under these limestone walls are brown trout and rainbow trout, but cutthroat and brook trout do exist in lesser numbers as well. Given the nature of the upper 100 miles of river it often runs a varying hue of brown for much of the first half of the float season. Fishing a nymph will produce your best numbers but the Smith offers some exceptional dry fly fishing and great structure and pockets for the streamer junkie to target the larger fish in the river.
A nice Smith River brown trout.
Why the Smith is the #4 most Endangered River in America for 2015
Currently Tintina Resources is going through the permit process with Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality for an underground copper and related minerals mine in the Sheep Creek area. Sheep Creek is a tributary to the Smith River and prime spawning habitat for native fish populations from as far away as the Missouri River hundreds of miles downstream. The proposed mine has many worried. A few of the concerns revolve around acid mine drainage and it’s potential effect on fish and other aquatic life, the potential for a lowered water table that could effect adjacent stream flows in a river system that already has to deal with low flows during the summer months, as well as groundwater contamination issues. (More about the risks of the mine can be found in the links at the end of this post). Now it’s a fact that our society and most all of us rely on mining in our daily lives. I’m surely not anti-mining, but given Montana’s poor history with mines heavily polluting waterways it’s hard to not be highly concerned that we eventually will see many negative environmental effects from a mine such as this. The Upper Clark Fork basin is currently one of the largest Super Fund sites in the nation due to a flood in 1908 that caused an open-pit copper mine in Butte to spill millions of tons of contaminated sediment downstream along the river for hundreds of miles (https://www.hcn.org/articles/clarkfork_superfund).
Over hanging cliffs line a large portion of the Smith River.
With the debate raging on it was easy to see how both sides had valid points regarding their stance on the project. One side wanted to protect the environment and recreational value of the resource and the other wanted to mine a valuable raw material our society demands while providing jobs to the local economy which currently has few to offer. I figured the best way to feel out the subject was to actually get a first hand experience on the river. Both my brother Travis and I had drawn permits for mid-April, and we knew that after 5 days on the river we’d have a much stronger opinion on the matter at hand. As we spent time researching more about the river, I found that there was not much to be read or seen about the fishing on the river or the experience in general. A quick Google search of “fly fishing the Smith River” led to the first page being dominated by outfitters and fly shops offering guided trips. A read through these pages did provide some insight into the river but left more questions than it could answer. A quick look at Youtube revealed an assortment of poor quality, handicam style videos that didn’t seem to showcase the grandeur of a place that was seemingly so epic and suddenly so threatened. With little high quality content it seemed it would be hard for someone to understand the amazing value the resource had to offer without going on a trip firsthand. Given the nature of our work we felt documenting our trip would be a great way to raise awareness for a resource that seemed to desperately need it. It seemed that if thousands enjoyed the trip each year and our state was comprised of tens of thousands who enjoy fishing we could do better than only 8,022 signatures on a petition that needed 10,000 as of writing this.
Looking for risers in the foam.
Filming a nice cuttbow.
After a few weeks of quick planning we had arrived at Camp Baker with rafts, camping gear and a handful of cameras in tow. Our group totaled only six people and only Sam had been here before. Our goal was to see this resource firsthand and capture the trip through photo and video. We had no big production crew, no big sponsors, no shot lists or scripts and no expectations, just a group of good friends, a beautiful river and five days of wild experience before us. (Part 2 is now up on the site. You can read it HERE > Part 2)
To learn more about the Smith River Mine please see the following links:
Save Our Smith – (www.saveoursmith.com)
Tintina Resources – (www.tintinaresources.com)
Montana Environmental Information Center (www.meic.org/issues/smithriver)
Black Butte Copper – (www.blackbuttecopper.com)
Smith River Watch – (www.smithriverwatch.org)
Tintina’s mine proposal – (deq.mt.gov/Land/hardrock/tintinamines)
NY Times – (www.nytimes.com/smithriver)
Montana Kaimin – (www.montanakaimin.com/news/smith-river-mine)
Bozeman Chronicle 10/17/15 – (http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/opinions/guest_columnists/why-gamble-on-the-future-of-montana-s-smith-river)
Helena News 2/11/16 – (http://www.ktvh.com/2016/02/black-butte-copper-project-tintinas-technologies-part-3/)
-Written by Zack Boughton
-Photos by Travis Boughton, Zack Boughton, Calvin Connor, Maddie Sieler