January’s Thoughts of Spring in Montana

The days are finally getting a little longer after the winter solstice. It seems as if those mornings are still mighty dark, but each day is slightly more than a minute longer than the day before, and in this coming week that will accelerate to about two minutes per day. It’s a slow process right now, though our days are currently about 15 minutes longer than they were on December 20.

As days get longer, the hunting season gets shorter. Of the general hunting seasons, the waterfowl season runs the latest, and right now it has just a couple days to go. Here in the Pacific Flyway area of Montana, the season for ducks and geese will close at sunset on Friday, January 13. In the Central Flyway, the duck season is already closed, and the goose season will close on Friday.

As the hunting seasons come to a close, it’s time to start thinking ahead.

Montana’s Smith River is one of Montana’s great treasures and a float trip on the Smith is an experience every outdoors-loving person should have on their bucket list. Many people consider the year a bummer if they don’t do the trip.

As most people familiar with the Smith know, all float trips on the Smith are by permit only, and the deadline for applying for a 2012 float permit is Wednesday, February 15. Applications may be submitted by mail or online at the Fish, Wildlife & Parks website.

A few cautions with the process are that applicants must be age 12 or older to apply. People who drew a 2011 permit for the most popular period of May 15 to July 15 must wait a year to apply for dates in that period, though they can apply for floating dates outside that period, as well as acquire a cancelled permit for cancelled launch dates or accompany another launch trip.

A change from a few years back is that pets are no longer permitted on Smith River float trips. This does not apply to service dogs and hunting dogs used for hunting purposes during legal hunting seasons.

If the 2011 hunting season is about done, that also means that it’s time to plan for the 2012 season. This month, FWP is holding a number of public meetings around the state to explain proposed changes in the 2012 hunting seasons and to give people the opportunity to comment on them.

In our area of southwester Montana, the first meeting is tonight, January 11, at the War Bonnet Inn (Quality Inn), here in Butte. Additional meetings will be on January 12, at the Search & Rescue Building in Dillon, January 17 at Lima High School in Lima, and January 18 at the AOH Hall in Anaconda. All meetings run from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Also available at the FWP website is a full listing of proposed changes statewide. One item that caught my eye is a proposal to extend the season for mountain grouse to January 1 of each year, to be consistent with other upland bird seasons.

That Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website, by the way, the portal for all that good information about…well, Montana’s fish, wildlife and parks, is fwp.mt.gov. It’s a good site to bookmark on your computer’s browser.

That unseasonably mild weather of last week (hopefully we’ll be past that by the time you’re reading this) might have been pleasant, though it also meant that Montana lost snowpack in January instead of increasing it. There’s still a lot of potential for the coming months, though as these days get longer it gets harder and harder to pile up the snow before the sun turns it back to liquid.

Still, for those who really dislike our northern winters, even when it’s as mild as it has been recently, and heading south isn’t an option, take heart.

As I pointed out already, the length of our days is steadily increasing and in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, many of us experienced a sure sign of approaching spring: the first gardening catalog of the season.

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 http://fwp.mt.gov/recreation, 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.