Montana's Smith River offers a cool, scenic spring float

Montana river offers a cool, scenic spring float.

rphillips@idahostatesman.comMay 7, 2014 

  • MORE SMITH RIVER INTEL

    Permits for the Smith River are issued through a lottery. The annual application period is in January and February, with permit results posted online starting March. Competition is fierce for launches in May through July.

    Up to 15 people can float with one permit. A person applying for a Smith River permit must be a minimum of 12 years of age at the time the permit application is submitted. There is no age restriction to participate on a Smith River float trip.

    The float from Camp Baker to Eden is mostly whitewater-free. There are riffles and a Class II rapid on the final day. Floaters are allowed four nights on the river.

    The river is restricted to non-motorized watercraft, such as rafts, canoes, kayaks and drift boats, but rafts are the most commonly used craft.

    Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recommends rowers and paddlers have at least intermediate level skills. Dogs are not allowed on the river.

    The put-in at Camp Baker is about a 9-hour drive from the Treasure Valley.

    For more information, go to stateparks.mt.gov/smith-river.

An email popped into my inbox in early March:

"I drew a Smith River launch permit for April 23 and was wondering how adventurous you feel?"

It came from one of my fishing and hunting buddies, Darren Strong of Boise.

I checked my calendar, and I already had vacation scheduled for that week. Great. Unfortunately, I was planning to visit my mother in southern Oregon.

The phone call was awkward, but Mom understands how permit rivers work - you go when you get a chance because the dates are inflexible.

Then there was the matter of floating 59 miles and four days on a Central Montana river in April. You could encounter any kind of weather. Not only could you, you could expect it.

I called Strong: "This plan is so stupid it's almost irresistible. I'm in."

I wasn't alone.

Jake Yundt of Star and Will Van Overbeke of Eagle also signed on, and Yundt lined up two other boaters from Napa, Calif., to meet us in Montana.

The trip logistics were arranged through a string of emails and texts; who would bring what and how meals would be divided. The days clicked by as a cold, wet spring loomed, and as launch day approached, I packed my warmest clothes and hoped for the best.

THE BLUEST SKIES AREN'T IN MONTANA

The drive to the launch near White Sulfur Springs, Mont., wasn't bad. The skies were gray and the winds gusty, but warmer than expected. It was a good sign.

It seemed everyone had read a different weather forecast, but all debate came to a halt when we pulled into the launch site at Camp Baker. The sky darkened and cold winds blew from the mountains followed by pelting rain.

We scrambled to set up tents, and I abandoned the effort when mine turned into a kite.

A violent gust sent a tent tumbling into a puddle. We hadn't even rigged boats yet, and things were comical or catastrophic, depending on whose tent turned into tumbleweed.

We went to bed to the sound of rain pattering on our tents. It's an auspicious noise when you're about to start a four-day float.

OUT OF THE SHOWER, INTO THE FREEZER

It was wonderfully silent when we woke up, but when I stuck my head out of my tent, those rain drops were now ice beads frozen to my tent's rain fly.

We warmed up with hot coffee, broke camp and loaded three rafts.

It always amazes me how much you can stow on rafts. Possibly one of the heaviest single items was a load of firewood on Van Overbeke's boat, and I had to giggle at the double-bit axe on Robert Green's boat. Where do you put a double-bit axe in a raft? Short answer: in a dry box.

We had our pre-launch brief with a volunteer from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. I had quietly balked at the $60-per-person river fee. Seemed excessive to me, but then I found out there were outhouses at every camp.

Outhouses! Not to get all poopy, but if you've done river trips where you have to set up and take down a porta-potty every day and empty it at the end, $15 a day is a small price to pay to skip that chore.

The ranger said Smith River's corridor is 80 percent private, so fees paid leases on some of the campsites, which were well marked with signs and had 4-inch posts driven into the ground for boat tie-offs. They were a nice touch.

BROWN WATER, BROWN TROUT

All that rain before our launch turned the river muddy. We had enough fly gear to open a shop, but we watched our oars disappear in the murky water.

Our options were limited - fish or don't. We chose to fish.

The Smith is fairly shallow and rocky, so we lost a lot of flies on the bottom. Snags were the only thing that bent a rod, and if nothing else, it was a good way to weed out the fly box.

Selecting a fly was more a choice between which flies we were willing to lose than which was most likely to catch a fish.

Strong and I went fishless. The weather alternated between wind gusts, spats of snow and glimpses of sunshine through occasional breaks in overcast skies.

Regardless, it felt good to be on the river. There was a gentle rhythm of dipping oars and water slapping against the raft. The scenery changed from rolling hills to forests with fortress walls of gray bluffs on each side.

It was beautiful, and spotty weather was a small price to pay to be there.

WHEN 50 FEELS LIKE 70

We camped in a meadow by the river with a grove of trees to provide shelter.

The wind still blew, which always made setting up camp a challenge.

Green had the bulk of the kitchen gear in his raft, which included a giant canvas rainfly that was part circus tent and part sail. Putting it up was a circus in itself, but once up, it provided a cook shack and central gathering place.

Yundt and Green met on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Last spring, they flew into the river and did a combo of hiking and floating though the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.

They endured single-digit temperatures and ice dams across the river but were also accompanied by thousands of elk rather than hundreds of other floaters.

By comparison, our temperatures were downright balmy, and after a couple of days of freezing temperatures, wind, rain and snow, 50 degrees felt like 70, and as dusk faded to darkness, stars twinkled in the clear night sky.

A DIFFERENT WILDERNESS

For those who've floated Idaho's wilderness rivers, the Smith is a little different.

The river corridor is a mix of private, state and federal land. Not only river runners appreciate a scenic canyon.

Portions of the canyon seemed to have a cabin on every corner, but strangely, few roads. Most roads into the canyon ended at the river, so there was no road running parallel to it.

Most appeared to be weekend or vacation cabins because, with a few exceptions, they sat empty and silent.

They ranged from conspicuous trophy homes to rustic, traditional bunkhouses that looked straight out of an Old West painting.

RED RIBBON ANGLERS

Lest you think we were only floating and staring at the lovely scenery, we weren't.

After a tough start to the fishing, we hoped the river would clear, and it did, sort of. The clarity about doubled on the second day, but that was from about 4 inches to about 8 inches.

Strong got our second day started right when he landed a brown trout on his first cast.

We tossed large streamers and drifted nymphs hoping to coax more trout out of their apparent slumber.

We figured the odds were good that with six guys casting flies into the murky water for miles of river, one of us was bound to put a fly in front of a fish's nose.

I later connected with another brown on streamers, and the other guys reported some success.

Fishermen are eternal optimists, and we continued casting into the murky water even though a trained monkey would probably need more intellectual stimulation than casting flies like a metronome for hours for an occasional reward.

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks rates the Smith as a "Red Ribbon" trout stream, which we pondered.

"What exactly does that mean?"

Obviously it means it's not a "Blue Ribbon" trout stream, which is the pinnacle. But none of us had ever heard of a yellow-ribbon stream, so is a red ribbon one notch below blue, or does it mean don't bother?

It was something to think about as we drifted through the canyon and kept fishing. Red Ribbon, no ribbon, it didn't matter. We fished on.

COW PIE CAMP

It wasn't a bad place, just kind of ironic that our assigned camp was in about a 1-acre fenced area, which we assumed was to keep cows out, but there seemed to be more cow pies inside it than out.

No worries. They were last year's vintage, and it was easy to find a clean, grassy spot to pitch a tent.

The weather remained mild, and the river actually cleared to the point we could see rocks a foot beneath the surface.

The river descended through a canyon that alternated between castle gray walls and redrock, all contrasted by vibrant meadows and hillsides beaming with spring greenery.

Geese stood sentry on every gravel bar, and females nested in cliffs along the river. Their honking was the soundtrack every morning at camp, and there seemed to be constant turf battles occurring.

Males seemed to mill around with no fear of our presence. They just stared at us as we walked from the rafts to camp and back.

The next morning at camp, I saw Van Overbeke fighting a fish in a riffle above camp.

A short while later he was in camp making us all breakfast, then he was back on the water catching more fish.

He was starting to make us look bad all the way around.

But it was a reminder that persistence pays off.

BUGS AND BROWNS

Between Strong and me, we had five fly rods, and flies ranging from San Juan worms to streamers the size of baby bunnies to delicate mayfly imitations.

There's a reason for the variety; you never know what's going to entice a trout.

We noticed a few insects flying above the river and clusters of them on the water. Eventually, a few snouts broke the surface to eat them.

Sure enough, there was a mayfly hatch. Rises were sporadic, but it was a sign we couldn't ignore.

Strong tied on a dry fly, and I held the raft steady in the current so he had multiple casts at the rising fish.

Before long, we cheered as a brown trout slurped his fly off the surface. I rowed out of the current to the opposite shore and realized there was a perfect back eddy that carried us upstream like a conveyor belt and fed us back into the current.

We switched spots, him taking the oars and me the fly rod, and we made another pass.

Another brown took a fly within feet of the other. It was my first trout on a dry fly for the year, and it's always a welcome treat after dredging nymphs for months.

We traded off a couple more times, and each pass netted a fish.

Then as quickly as it started, the rising fish disappeared, and we continued downstream.

ROWERS ON THE STORM

Our final camp was a beautiful grassy bench beneath a canopy of Douglas fir trees. Low clouds hung over the river, and the timber reminded me of the lower sections of the Lochsa and Selway rivers.

The clouds threatened rain, and they weren't bluffing. About the time we set up camp, the drizzling began.

We had pulled off about three days of relatively dry camping, and we knew more storms were in the forecast, so it didn't come as a surprise.

It rained all night and continued into the morning. There were 14 miles of river between us and the take-out.

The last day of a river trip is always bittersweet because your mind starts thinking about all the chores at the take-out and the long drive home, so it's hard to enjoy the remaining time on the water.

Harder still when there's a pelting rain and a steady upstream wind.

Strong and I barely touched the fly rods and alternated turns on the oars to keep warm.

We turned the boat backward and pulled on the oars to gain speed downstream and combat the wind.

"At least now the wind's at our back," I said while steadily grinding downstream.

The canyon walls dissolved into rangeland, and after about four hours of steady rowing, a highway loomed in the distance, clueing us that the take-out was near.

When we arrived at Eden Bridge, a camp host met us on the ramp.

I expected him to check permits, or some other bureaucratic function.

"Would you guys like some coffee?" he asked.

I thought he was kidding.

"I have a bunch of flavors. It will only take a minute."

He was serious. I was blown away.

"That would be great," I said.

Seriously? A hot cup of coffee while breaking down rafts on a soggy day. Suddenly that $60 permit fee seemed like a bargain.

"I will never have a bad thing to say about Montana," I told host Mike Hall as I sipped the coffee.

On the drive home we talked about another trip down the Smith. It's a notoriously tough permit to draw during the prime season of mid-May to mid-July.

We all agreed our trip was a blast. Yes, we hit some nasty storms, but it was mixed with some pleasant spring weather. We were dressed and prepared for whatever came our way.

We considered the option of returning for a low-water trip during summer, taking small boats and going backpack style with light gear. Sounds like fun, and another way to experience a spectacular river canyon.

Roger Phillips: 377-6215, Twitter: @rogeroutdoors

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