Winter Fun and Thoughts of Spring

Typical scenery on Montana’s beautiful Smith River.

We’re in the heart of winter, when days are still short, most days are cold, and hunting seasons are over.

Take heart! Spring is coming. Every day, sunset comes a couple minutes later. The ultimate proof is that I just got my first gardening catalog of the season.

Another sign of spring is that this is the period for applying for a Smith River Private Float Permit.

A float trip on the Smith River is one of the ultimate Montana outdoor experiences; a chance to truly get away from it all.

For the benefit of the few people not familiar with the Smith River, it’s a tributary of the Missouri River, merging with the big river near Ulm, south of Great Falls. The heart of the Smith River, a 59-mile stretch from near White Sulphur Springs, to Eden Bridge, upstream from the confluence, is basically accessible only by floating the river, and to float the river you have to enter a lottery.

It’s not exactly a wilderness trip, as much of the route is in ranching country, with some occasional trophy homes along the river, and even a small golf course midway through the trip.

The scenery is stunning, with high cliffs that tower over the river, including areas with ancient petroglyphs. There’s abundant wildlife along the river, including black bears, which means you need to protect your food supply when you set up camp for the night.

It’s a camping trip, with river campsites along the route, which means you can’t dawdle along, because you have to cover around 15 to 20 miles daily. But, not to worry, there’s plenty of time for fishing and the fishing can be great.

The deadline for entering the lottery is midnight on February 14. Applications can be submitted on-line or by mail.

A small number of outfitters are licensed to provide guided trips on the river, as well. Going with an outfitter is a good way to simplify the logistics of the trip, as they’ll take care of all the food and such complexities. All it takes is money.

For more information and details, go online to

While we dream of spring and warm days, a better option might be to take advantage of winter recreation, and there are abundant opportunities for outings in our part of Montana, and this weekend’s Snöflinga festival is a good start.

Lots of people love ice fishing, and believe nothing’s better than to spend a day on a frozen lake angling for trout, or whatever the lake might provide. Popular ice fishing destinations in this area include Georgetown Lake, Canyon Ferry Lake, Lewis & Clark Canyon, Ruby Reservoir, and others.

Standing out on a frozen lake can be a cold and windy proposition, though a portable shelter and propane heater can take the misery out of the outing.

Surrounded as we are by snowy mountains, we have lots of options for skiing, both cross-country and downhill.

Within an hour or so, we have Discovery Basin ski area between Anaconda and Philipsburg, or Maverick ski area west of Dillon. There’s Bridger just out of Bozeman, or for the big ski resort experience, there’s Big Sky an hour south of Bozeman.

For cross-country skiing, it can be as simple as a local golf course, or following groomed trails at the Moulton x-c area north of Walkerville, or the Mt. Haggin cross country area, probably the only such developed recreation area wholly within a Wildlife Management Area.

Of course, there are the die-hards who scorn cold weather and put on waders and head for open river water for fly-fishing. I don’t county myself in that group, though in mild winters, and this is shaping up to be a classical El Niño winter, we can get mild days, even in January, when fly-fishing can be an enjoyable outing.

Even if the regular hunting seasons are over, there are hunting opportunities for non-game animals such as rabbits. Cottontail rabbits are relatively plentiful—and delicious.

In short, don’t get the cabin fever blues. Go out and have fun.

2 thoughts on “Winter Fun and Thoughts of Spring

    • It is pretty, Lee. It’s a great trip, though I’m content having done it once. My aging, aching back protests repeated nights sleeping on a next to worthless pad.

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