Smith River MT, May 13-20, 2008

Discussion in 'Trip Reports with Pics' started by Kent Lufkin, Jun 3, 2008.

  1. I've been procrastinating writing this report, needing the past couple weeks to be able to digest the trip and put my hesitation into perspective.

    From the time Mike first proposed entering the Smith River launch date lottery back in January, the prospect of floating and fishing this western jewel of a river has become almost an obsession.

    After what seemed like an eternity of planning and packing, our original launch date came and went as the 'winter that wouldn't end' forced the FWP to close the river due to ice and low flows. Our fallback second date also aborted, again due to low flows. Our original group of five shrunk to three due to scheduling conflicts. Try as we might, we couldn't seem to get another date so in desperation, we packed up and left for Camp Baker at 2am on Tuesday, May 13, hoping to score a cancellation date on the way but ready to use a bottle of Maker's Mark and a sad story to try and persuade a group to 'adopt' us once at the launch.

    Turns out we didn't need bribery or begging as a cell phone call to the poor woman scheduling launch dates scored a last minute cancellation and her blessed words, "You're in the system", meaning we had a real launch date the next day. Although other groups were ready to launch before us the following morning, we'd signed in earlier meaning that we got an earlier pick of the river campsites.

    Building our three catarafts at the launch took seemingly forever as we labored beneath a threatening sky. The Smith was fairly colored with visibility of a couple of feet as we pushed off. We decided to leapfrog the larger, slower rafts of bigger groups and row 12 miles the first day to be in better position to start fishing the canyon the following morning. Occasional light rain and a stiff headwind made our row to Syringa a bit of a grind.

    Most of the river camps are set up to allow you to beach your boat, tie off to a sturdy stake and then camp a few yards away on a swath of lawn. By the time we'd pitched out tents, set up camp, cooked and washed up, we turned in early ready to hit the river hard the following morning.

    The next day brought an end to the rain and much of the wind but the high overcast remained. Mike was successful in coaxing a number of rainbows and a brown and whitefish or two to the net that day, but Tim and I were fishless by the time we pitched camp the second night at Upper Cow Coulee. The float through the start of the canyon stretch of the river had been simply breathtaking and the overcast had finally burned off that afternoon, sending us off to our tents under a canopy of stars and the promise of a nicer day.

    The third day saw temperatures soar into the high 80s or 90s if my thermometer was to be trusted. Despite the nicer weather, the fish still seemed to laugh at my offerings until I found a nice stretch against one of the cliffs. Noticing a couple of splashes, I was finally able to entice a nice rainbow to take an Adams, bringing my fishless streak to a temporary end. A few casts and a fly change later brought up another customer, this time to a red humpy. Sadly, those were the only two fish I would hook for the entire time we were on the Smith. Mike continued to outfish Tim and I, putting his indicator skills to good work as I continued struggling.

    We ended up at Upper Trout Creek that night with a group of four guys from Bozeman who'd already set up at Middle Trout Creek. They invited us to join them for a fire that night and we had a wonderful time that getting back to our tents proved to be a much bigger problem than it would have otherwise.

    The next morning, the river had risen 6" or more thanks to the runoff from the previous day's heat. Worse, visibility had dropped to under a foot. With flows so high, we decided to row the entire way out to the Eden Bridge takeout and fish the Missouri tailwater below Halter Dam instead. Fortunately, the high flows on the Smith made the 28 mile push our last day a bit easier.

    After a night in a Great Falls motel and a good dinner, we drove south to Craig the next morning and arranged a shuttle for the 8 mile float between Halter Dam and Craig. The good news was the Missouri was much clearer than the Smith and full of fish. The bad news was that our one-man boats didn't allow us to anchor and fish, so we used them to jump from spot to spot and wade fish along the many islands. I finally got my first fish of the trip to hand off one small island and another quickly followed. We pulled out, bought a 6-pack of Moose Drool from a Craig Tavern and headed back to our campsite below Halter Dam. Take a close look at the last photo below and see what's nailed all across the top of the tavern!

    The last day, we drove south and floated another 8 mile stretch below the Dearborn. The river is big and wide at this point and was much dirtier, thanks to the Dearborn puking out sediment upstream. Fishing a side channel at the bottom of another island, I hooked and landed a fine 20" RB along with a smaller one a short while later. The last half of the float was pretty boring as steep banks and a lack of islands made for an uneventful row to the take out.

    The sky was cloudy again as we packed up early the next morning. The wipers were on by the time we hit Missoula and stayed on until we hit North Bend. Every stream we crossed on the way home was way over its banks and carrying downed trees and other debris.

    With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the Smith float was a success on two fronts: floating it in a single-person cataraft was a real kick; and camping for 5 nights with good food, spirits and friends was equally rewarding. But the fishing left much to be desired and that's what I've been wrestling with since. I like to think I'm a pretty good fisherman, but frankly I got my ass handed to me this trip. There are probably as many tangible reasons for that as there are intangibles. But the bottom line is there's a huge difference between fishing and catching. Despite the other payoffs, this was definitely a fishing trip for me.

  2. Kent.
    Thanks for the trip report,
    Nice pics, thanks much for posting them as I have spent a good bit of time looking for some good pics of the smith and now I found them..
    Glad you had a great trip.

    Bill Dodd.

  3. Nice report, Kent. Sorry the catching wasn't better. Say, that isn't a san juan worm in that fishes mouth is it? Musta' broken off some other bloke's line, huh?

    I love that next to last picture of the low sun on the hillside.

  4. Thanks for sharing the report and the great pics. The Smith is high on my list of places to go someday, so I really appreciate the detail and insight.
  5. Kent, sounds like a great trip in spite of the slow catching! I love the action shots of the boats on the river as it helps put the size of the river in perspective. It's great you guys did it in cats as I'm sure the river running was way more fun.

    After seeing your pics, I looking forward to my trip even more. I've been too busy to plan/organize much this spring but now I only have 2.5 weeks 'til I leave. I guess I'd better get busy... thanks for sharing your trip!
  6. been waiting for this report! how did the toons hold up? well the trip sounded great, but you could of interjected a few more fish #'s in there for ya to sound all pimpin' :) ,(we are fisherman ,we're allowed to do that, you know- interject :) ,but gettin your ass handed to ya isnt bad either, but only in flyfishing terms! haha.. is this a summer only river or do you get to fish it in winter also, or should i say try and survive there in winter:)
  7. Awesome shit Kent, thanks for posting this!
  8. Great report Kent.
    I would say the trip was worth it even with the slow fishing.
  9. Thanks for posting the trip report Kent. It was a great trip despite all of the initial weather tribulations and cancelled starts. The Smith River canyon is astounding and pictures from the bottom up just don’t do it justice. The fishing was tough. Guys on boats with a dedicated rower were happy to get a fish a day and they were able to throw flies where somebody in a one man boat or fishing from the shore just couldn’t get. Speaking with others since the trip, it seems to be feast or famine in the Smith River’s angling department is common. But a common theme is the beauty of the canyon.

  10. Thanks Kent for a well written report and a good choice of photos.
    Fish or no fish the trip was well worth all the effort and perseverance it took to make it happen. I'd do it again in a minute. The overall beauty of the Smith as well as thousands of individual moments and images are etched into my memory banks.

  11. Great report and pics Kent! If I was to pick a place to have my ass handed to me the Smith would be at the top of the list of making it still worth the effort. After reading your report I'm thinking that's a trip I'd like to try someday.
  12. Love the pictures. Keep up the good "work".
  13. Kent, you might have passed us that last day on the river. We were in a friends pretty wood driftboat. I was on the Smith May 11-15th. We probably lucked out a little more regarding the flows. That warm weather on the 14th & 15th definently bumped up the flows and reduced the already marginal water clarity. You did get to miss the snow and rain which fell all day on the 12th, making for challenging fishing and beer drinkin. I would guess the high temp that day was 34.

    I would agree, tough fishing but an awsome experience overall. There were 3 of us in a wood drift boat which a buddy built. It's probably a little too pretty of a boat to have on that river with the low flows, but it made the trip plush giving us tons of room. We had to jump out quite a bit the first couple days to walk through some low spots. It worked out well for me as the owner rowed most of the time (and he's a great on the oars) -- so I fished most of the time.

    Fishing: Pretty slow. I landed 3-10 fish a day. Slowish considering I was basically able to fish all day from the boat and the river wasn't blown. Size 6-10 stonefly nymphs below a San Juan was the setup I kept coming back to, with most fish on the stone. It was amazing how many flies I lost nymphing. Caught a few tossing big black streamers.

    The last couple days we focused on the drys in the afternoon and did pretty well. Large mayflies were coming off. Rigged up with a big PMX and big adams. The PMX was mostly to help us spot the other smaller dry in the foam, but actually brought up a few including my bros 21" brown.

    My advice for anyone planning this trip. Bring at least 3 dozen of whatever nymphs you expect to be using (seriously, you lose a ton of flies). Don't take a nice boat unless the flow is up. AND--VERY IMPORTANT--bring enough beer. We packed 12/day/person and ran out early the last day. The other boat had 18/day/person. They were right.

  14. Great report and photos Kent. When it comes to great waters and fisheries, it seems where ever you go in the world can be hit or miss. It can be fabulous fishing, or just mediocre or plain lousy; all in all, as you noted, there is much more to the experience than catching!


  15. If we flyfished just to catch fish, we'd all have quit a long time ago. Great trip and a great report. Mahalo. Duff
  16. Great trip and report, Kent!

    That's the problem w/ one-man rigs, gotta stop and wade to fish, unless you can eddy-out, or make yer rod-to-stick transitions real smooth and fast. Makes it hard to cover as much water as standing up throwin' flies, with someone else on the oars.....

    Plus, carrying all that survival gear slows ya down, too. :rofl::rofl:

    Glad none of ya had to use it.:thumb:

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