Winter Dreams: Montana’s Smith River

This is the time of the year to plan—or think of planning, at least. A catalog from a California flyshop that does trip bookings came a couple weeks ago and that got me drooling over the prospects of taking a trip to Argentina or Chile, or the Kamkatcha Peninsula, or the Bahamas. The list goes on and the possibilities are endless, when it comes right down to it. All I need is an oil well or two to pay for it.

Then in today’s mail was a Fly Rod & Reel magazine with an article by Greg Thomas, an Ennis resident and freelance writer, and current managing editor of the magazine. The article touts Montana’s Smith River as the “West’s best float trip.”

Of course, there are a lot of Montanans who don’t need to read a magazine article to be convinced that the Smith River, if not the west’s best trip, has to rank way up there.

The scenery on the river is spectacular, with sheer limestone cliffs hundreds of feet high along the canyon’s sides. Abundant wildlife can be found in the river corridor, and as the critters are somewhat accustomed to floaters they’re often approachable. Fishing can be great, though there are never any guarantees. Above all, the Smith river trip is a great experience, in that the only way to experience the river is to float it, as the main part of the river is accessible only by water, and access is by drawing a permit.

I’ve done the trip just once, when I was invited to join the party of a friend in Helena who had drawn one of the permits. Of course, doing that one trip doesn’t make me an expert on the Smith River. Nevertheless, what makes the trip so unique is that taking the trip is such a commitment. It takes about four to five days to do the trip and when you get in your boat at the Camp Baker put-in, near White Sulphur Springs, it’s with the knowledge that if you’ve forgotten something, you’d better be able to do without it, because there is no turning back. That’s something that some people who weren’t prepared for late spring snowstorms have learned through bitter experience. Lounging around a campfire on a warm summer evening is pleasant. Spending nights shivering, huddled in a soggy tent might be unforgettable, too—especially if that turns out to be that way the whole trip.

There are, of course, some anachronisms associated with the trip. While some of the river corridor goes though National Forest lands, most of the trip is through ranching country, along with some vacation home and resort developments. There is even a nine-hole golf course along the river at one point. Also, some of that wildlife you hoped to see might include black bears and raccoons raiding your food supply.

In any event, if you’re interested in applying for one of those cherished float permits, the application is available on-line at, and your completed application must be submitted to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) by February 16, 2010. You can also get permit applications from FWP offices. The application can be submitted on-line or by mail. The whole process is managed by the Parks division of FWP.

Something that’s new this year is that pets are no longer allowed on the Smith River trip. This change has been in the works for years, as certain aspects of taking dogs on the trip, such as pet waste and harassment of wildlife, have long been controversial.

While most of the trips on the Smith River are do-it-yourself projects, a small number of outfitters are licensed to do float trips down the Smith, and I have it on good authority that, after a long hard day of catching fish, with a guide doing all the rowing, it’s not all bad to come into a camp that’s all set up, with tents pitched, dinner started, wine properly chilled, and hors d’ouvres on the table to help tide you over until dinner.

This is where that family oil well comes in handy.