So You Want to Float the Smith River?

Here’s what you need to know… Presented by Hatch Adventures

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Montana’s Smith River is one of the state’s most valuable resources and is home to some of the most unique scenery in the west. It’s deep canyon walls and picturesque views make for a float trip experience that you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Additionally, the Smith River is the only river in Montana that you must draw a permit to float. Each year thousands of applicants put their name in the hat in hopes of drawing a coveted float permit. In this blog post, I’ll share a few tips and tactics to help you make the most of your Smith River permit (If you’re one of the lucky ones that draws, that is!)

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What gear do I need to bring for the Smith River?

If you find yourself planning a Smith River float in 2020, you’ll want to make sure you are well equipped with the best gear possible. The weather can be very unpredictable and you’ll want to be prepared for anything. I’ve personally had days on the Smith that are 90 degrees and sunny, followed by days that are 50 degrees and raining. Check out the gear list below to get a good idea of what you’ll need. 

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Raft – A good raft is the most important piece of gear you’ll need for the Smith. Keep in mind that you will be at least two days of floating away from civilization at the very minimum, so bringing a high-quality reliable raft is a must. I have rented rafts from Hatch Adventures in Bozeman, MT for the past two years and have been very impressed with the quality and customer service. 

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Bear Proof Storage – The smith river is home to a large population of black bears depending on the time of year that you float, and bear-proof food storage is required by Montana State Parks throughout the duration of your float. I’d recommend bringing multiple YETI coolers, along with a few dry boxes. If you do choose to rent from Hatch Adventures, all boats are equipped with YETI coolers and dry boxes. Just be sure to put a padlock on them at night before you hit the hay. 

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Proper Clothing – Montana is known for it’s unpredictable weather, and you’ll want to be prepared for the worst. I’d recommend keeping an eye on the forecast the week prior to your float, and planning accordingly from there. Packing a good layering system is key for an enjoyable and safe float down the Smith. Below is a list of specific clothing items to bring along with your everyday wear / swim trunks & sandals.

  • Base layers (merino wool, tee shirts, athletic shirts.)
  • Insulation (fleece pullover, sweatshirt X2, fleece pants, wool socks X5.)
  • Midlayers (Down Jacket or vest, light jacket, gloves, beanie.)
  • Rain Gear (BRING YOUR RAIN GEAR.)
  • Sun Protection (straw hat, sunglasses, UV shirts, etc.)

Camp Gear – Some of my best memories on the Smith River have taken place in one of the many designated campsites along the river. On most Smith River trips you will be camping a total of four or five nights depending on how many miles you plan to float each day. Good camping equipment is key for a comfortable float. Below is a list of specific gear items to make your trip more enjoyable. 

  • Sleep System (Three or four season tent, treated down sleeping bag, sleeping pad, camp pillow, dry bag for storage.)
  • Cooking (Coleman camp stove X2, Jetboil, extra fuel for stoves, utensils, paper plates, drinking mug – for coffee or whiskey, collapsible camp table, helinox lightweight camp chairs.)
  • Fire (waterproof matches, lighter X5, fire starting log, kindling, fire wood – wood can be very hard to find along the Smith River and in it’s campsites.)

What is the fishing like on the Smith River?

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Depending on the time of year, weather, and water levels / clarity the fishing can be very good or very slow. I have floated the Smith in early June and experienced phenomenal fishing, and also floated it in mid-May and experienced very slow fishing. I would recommend bringing a wide range of flies from nymphs, dries, and streamers. If timed correctly, the salmon fly hatch on the Smith River can be out of this world. In general, I would focus on using prince nymphs, Sanjuan worms, pats rubber legs, wooly buggers, leech imitations, chubby chernobyls, hoppers, and a handful of midge patterns. I like to bring a 5 & 6 wt rod on the Smith and have one set up as a streamer rod, and the other as a nymping or dry fly setup. The Smith River is home to rainbow, cutthroat, and brown trout, along with the occasional whitefish. For the best fishing on the Smith River, I’d recommend putting in for a float in either June or July. One of the Smith River’s most prized fishing gems is it’s numerous tributaries. While you’re on your float, be sure to keep an eye out for them as they can produce some of the best fishing of the trip. With that being said, be sure to obey high watermark laws as many of these tributaries flow through private property on their way to the Smith. 

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What are the logistics of floating the smith river?

For a first time floater, sorting through the logistics for a successful float can be a daunting task. I’ve outlined some general information below that will give you a good place to start when planning your trip. 

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Arrival at Camp Baker –  Your trip will start at Camp Baker State Park, located about 35 minutes outside of White Sulphur Springs, Montana. This is where you will stage gear, get rafts ready, and ultimately launch your rafts. Launching order is based on a first come first serve basis as there will be other groups launching on the same day as you. You are able to put your name on the list the day before your float, so I’d recommend having someone in your party head up to Camp Baker around 24 hours prior to your float to secure a prime spot for the following day. When the rest of your party arrives at Camp Baker, you will spend the night at the campground there before launching the following morning. 

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Registration – On the morning of your float you will be briefed on the rules and regulations by a park ranger inside of the Ranger Station located at Camp Baker State Park. Do note that each member of your party MUST HAVE A PHOTO ID to be able to float as they will take down each person’s information. In addition to this, each floater is required to pay a launch fee before floating. The fee is $25 for Montana residents and $75 for nonresidents. Be sure to have the exact amount needed in cash on the morning of your float as they do not accept card payments. Additionally, this is when you will pick your designated campsites along the river. 

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How long is the Smith River Float? – The duration of your float depends on how many miles you intend to float each day. The stretch of river you will be floating is 56 miles long and will take two-three days at the very minimum. I personally prefer to float the river in five days, allowing for roughly ten-mile floats every day, and plenty of time to fish, take in the views, and get the full experience. 

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What kind of experience can I expect on the Smith River?

Floating Montana’s Smith River will give you an appreciation for wild places and the fish and wildlife that inhabit them. It’s important to be a steward of the land while on your float and practice “leave no trace” policies when cleaning up camp, disposing of trash, and disposing of human waste. Each campsite has its own designated latrine within a short walking distance of camp. While fishing can be an incredibly fun and exciting aspect of floating the Smith River, it’s also about so much more than that. The views, river, and camaraderie of the trip have always been some of my favorite aspects of the Smith River, and good fishing is just icing on the cake. Montana’s Smith River is currently in the crosshairs of a large proposed copper mine that if approved, would be located just above the headwaters of the precious river, landscape, and ecosystem. I would encourage anyone who has floated the Smith River to share their experience with others, and oppose this mining project while advocating for this incredible resource. Rain or shine, your trip down the Smith River will be a memory and experience that you will cherish for years to come. 

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In Conclusion
Montana’s Smith River has provided me with some of the greatest outdoor experiences of my life in the three times that I’ve been lucky enough to float it, and I would encourage anyone and everyone to see it for themselves. Put in for a permit, cross your fingers, knock on wood, and you just might draw!


This article was written by flylords contributor Calvin Connor – check out his work on IG!
The article and trip were made possible by the generous support of Hatch Adventures – Give them a shout if you are planning your Smith River trip!

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