Time Away from Time

Time Away from Time

Angler's Journal

  • By: Greg Thomas

Midway through 2009, I couldn’t complain about the angling year. I started in January chasing sea-run cutthroats around Washington’s Puget Sound, and then migrated north to the Queen Charlotte Islands for steelhead. By April I was throwing Spey on the Skagit River and shortly after, I was doing the same in Oregon on the North Umpqua. Right after that I headed to Maine for landlocked Atlantic salmon. In May I was in southeast Alaska putting the smackdown on more sea-run cutthroats and steelhead, along with some meaty dolly varden.

After Alaska I was settling into a family-focused summer pattern when Robert Eddins, owner of Ro Drift Boats in Montana, said, “Thomas, a friend just bailed out on a Smith River trip. There’s an open seat in my boat and I have all the provisions. All you need to do is be at the shop in Bozeman…in 32 hours.”

Signing onto a Smith River trip isn’t like saying you’ll throw a few casts on the Madison and be back for dinner by six. Choosing to fish the Smith means you’re committing to five days of angling, camping and landscape bliss.

In fact, for many people, Montana’s Smith River represents the Lower 48’s ultimate multi-day trip and the perks extend well beyond excellent trout fishing—without satellite phone service and cell towers and cable hookups and the Web access, you are free from the technological traps of our lives and allowed steady focus on truly important matters. Try that at a bar or ball game or on a Sunday afternoon at home, common places of perceived refuge from the digital spiral.

Over the past 10 years as Blackberries, iPhones and Droids have infiltrated our lives and as cell towers sprout like satellite dishes did in the 1980s (they used to be called Montana’s state flower), the ability to hold a directed train of thought with friends, let alone a meaningful conversation, is almost impossible. Long drives to the water, and bar time afterward, used to be opportunities for bonding and laughter and release from our daily drudgery.

Today, most of us stare at the road ahead and listen to one side of empty conversation, like, “Uh, yea baby, I’ll be home in an hour,” a conversation that occurs one hour after the last conversation that indicated arrival home in two hours.

The Smith begins south of the Castle Mountains near White Sulphur Springs, Montana, which rests about an hour and a half northeast of Helena, equidistant from Great Falls. The float section begins at Camp Baker, where the true freestone river commences its serpentine course between massive, radiant yellowish limestone walls and timbered mountain slopes that harbor mule deer, elk, mountain lions and bear.

In one place a tall Indian’s handprints are seen at the base of a towering rock wall, eight or 10 feet above the water line. And there are remote caves high above the river, I’m told, where more native art is found, ancient pictographs. Far downstream, the river leaves its limestone path and widens between timbered slopes and grassy ranchlands on its way to the main takeout, 60 miles downstream from Camp Baker, at Eden Bridge. The river ends, eventually, 50-some miles downstream at the Missouri River. There are no public takeouts between Camp Baker and Eden Bridge. Once you launch, it’s all-in.

And that is a great thing. The Smith is loaded with brown trout along with some rainbows and native mountain whitefish. Those trout don’t see as much pressure as they would if finning in an easily accessed river, but by the end of the limited-entry float season, which runs from late March through July, when water conditions may get so low that floating isn’t an option, fish get wise meaning plenty of sniffs instead of the irrational strikes that angler’s enjoy in April, May and June. August, typically, is a bust on the Smith because of low water but the flows often rebound in September, when hoppers are abundant. Sage anglers call September and October their favorite time to fish the river.

Throughout the season the Smith offers killer hatches to match, including solid midge, Baetis, skwala stonefly, pale morning dun, brown drake, green drake, golden stonefly, salmonfly and caddis opportunities. Beginning in July, terrestrials draw takes, too. Always, streamers, placed under cut rock walls and behind scads of boulders, trigger strikes from some of the river’s largest fish, browns that stretch to 20 inches or more. A common Smith River brown or rainbow ranges between 12 and 17 inches.

The Smith fishes well beginning in April, if weather and water conditions are suitable. Some anglers come back from an early season trip down the Smith with photos showing 18 inches of snow stacked on their coolers. Others, including this author, have endured five straight days of muddy water providing two inches of visibility. To say the fishing is dour in those conditions is an understatement.

But, as in anything, risk and reward are tied together and friends have reported 40-fish days in April, mostly caught on adult skwala stonefly imitations while temperatures crept to the 50s and low-60s and water clarity was set at perfect.

When I fished the Smith one April—yes that April when the river ran mud and we managed about a half-dozen fish in 60 miles (yes, I threw black streamers)—we arrived at the takeout and each of us agreed if we had the time and a permit we would have run the shuttle, put back on the river and repeated the float. I’m a guy who’s addicted to catching fish so that should tell you the merit of the Smith, which reaches beyond fishing.

Of note from that trip was an evening when I couldn’t find my black Lab, Shadow. I called and called for her but she didn’t return, which was really odd. I feared the worst when I decided to check the tents. One of our companions had brought way more gear than he should have and we fumbled with his equipment each day and night. That paraphernalia included a full-size cot. We’d grown to resent his gear, so it was with great pleasure that I discovered Shadow in his tent, on top of his cot and sleeping bag, with her head on his pillow. That she’d swam in the river earlier made things in the world finally right.

May and June are great months to fish the Smith but they also offer iffy conditions because runoff occurs at that time. One day the river may be in perfect shape and the next it might be a muddy torrent.

In that variability is opportunity for those who weren’t lucky enough to draw one of the Smith’s limited-entry permits. (The state only issues so many access permits per year, awarded by drawing; this regulates pressure on the river, and makes for a truly wild experience. Go to fwp.mt.gov/recreation/activities/smithRiver/default.html.) Those who want to fish the Smith can arrive at Camp Baker, where Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks manages and educates floaters, and wait for someone to cancel their trip. It’s first-come first-served in those instances so one man’s lament represents another’s golden opportunity. The only sure way to float the Smith in a given year is to hire an outfitter who receives guaranteed trip dates from the state.

The Smith is a golden opportunity, a unique diversion, allowing anglers to take in fly-fishing at a leisurely pace, where you don’t have to pound the water into a froth because you’re going to get 12 or more hours of fishing a day, if you want it and your friends aren’t opposed to pulling the oars. Given that allotment, it’s easy to set down the rod for a time and watch a beautiful part of the world pass by, something you might not do if you have a single day on some other river and you have to work the following morning at eight.

On the Smith most of the fishing is done while floating. This can be either a bonus or a detriment, depending on how you prefer to fish. Wade-fishing opportunities are restricted to short stops along the way or hiking up or downstream from those designated campsites and working the water at a slow pace. I’m a wade guy, preferring to work a piece of water thoroughly, switching flies and presentations often, until I find that magical combination that discerning trout demand.

With that said, there’s no doubt that fishing from a raft, skiff or driftboat is the way to go when the Smith’s big bugs—those salmonflies, golden stones and grasshoppers—are present. Given a few bugs on the water anglers can cast at a grassy bank on one side with big meaty patterns, then turn quickly to the other and bounce those dries off a towering, 200-foot high limestone wall. On either side the trout are looking for those bugs and the takes can be insane.

But it’s not all fun and games. Floating the Smith without the service of an outfitter means you’re responsible for gathering firewood each day; setting up and breaking down camp; and cooking big meals on propane stoves; washing dishes; loading masses of gear; and pulling on the oars for your fair share of time. In the evening, after all the work is done, family-style meals and campfire time on the banks of the Smith promote reconciliation of our lives left behind.

Or not. When I floated in early June my clan included a rowdy bunch and we spent our time concocting a bevy of drink combinations, building high fires and screaming at the moon. By 2 or 3 a.m. the carnage typically was complete and we’d retreat to our tents for a few hours sleep before rising with cobwebs to hammer big-time breakfasts, break down our camps and get on the river for another 10 hours of floating and fishing before arriving at our next requisite campsite.

About the third day of our trip the revelry lost its luster for me, partly due to age and a past lived in the fast lane. Basically, I don’t come back as quickly as I used to and I’m beginning to see that there are too few days left to waste on recovery. That doesn’t mean I’ll be sipping soda or tea anytime soon, but my fellow campmates, all younger, far outdistanced me in the latter stages of our trip. Each night I’d try to sneak away from the fire early only to receive a condemning verbal barrage.

Eventually, I’d make it to my tent, which allowed me to rise relatively early the following day. I’d grab a rod and wander up or downstream as the others slept, silent with my thoughts, running nymphs through choice riffles and runs while watching Canada geese on the banks and bald and golden eagles soar overhead.

I have a tendency to dwell on the negative, look past the present and too far into the future, and I caught myself working into that rut. What could be done to solve the issues at home, I wondered? How much is enough for a quality life? I wished I’d brought two particular books with me, one being The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen and the other being Buddhism Plain & Simple. I haven’t signed on to any particular religion or sect but there are words in each of those books that I address frequently. One passage, written by Yang Chu, a fourth century Chinese philosopher, says, “We move through the world in a narrow groove, preoccupied with the petty things we see and hear, brooding over our prejudices, passing by the joys of life without even knowing that we have missed anything. Never for a moment do we taste the heady wine of freedom. We are as truly imprisoned as if we lay at the bottom of a dungeon, heaped with chains.”

Recalling that, I peered at the bright canyon walls and the permanent blue sky. I breathed the dense, earthy air and stripped line from the reel. I studied the brown trout rising to brown drake spinners in an eddy created by ancient fallen rock. Here it was, Chu’s warning and his suggestion wrapped into a foamy, swirling pool on the Smith. When I got back to camp, Eddins asked how I’d done and I said, “Well.” Then he handed me a plate of bacon and eggs, and a beer, which tasted particularly sweet.

For me, fly-fishing provides one of only two escapes (basketball being the other) where my head becomes so focused on the task at hand that nothing of the past or future matters. It’s the challenge of each cast, delivered in total concentration, as well as it can be performed, that soothes. It didn’t hurt my state of mind to have the trout really turn on during the latter stages of our trip.

It seemed like solid browns rested behind every rock and though they mostly refused our dry flies, for reasons beyond my interpretation, they pounded the streamers silly. One particular fish hammered my streamer, took off upstream and jumped a couple feet in the air. On its decline it smacked into our friend’s raft, a good laugh for all, minus the trout of course.

On the fifth day we got up early, spent an hour loading the boats and paddled hard for Eden Bridge. By noon we were there and our shuttles had been performed accordingly. While the Smith is a great fishing river and big tallies can be had on almost every trip, it’s the float and the camping and the plethora of time on the water that separates it, I believe, from other western adventures. Somewhere on the Smith, away from all the cell-phone and e-mail mania, most of us get to a point where we realize why we’re there and it’s not always about the fish. It just takes time to realize that.



Big Sky Expeditions
Gary Stocker
3180 Dredge Drive, Suite A
Helena, MT 59602
Phone: (406) 442-2630

Blackfoot River Outfitters
John Herzer
4555 Mallard Way
Missoula, MT 59808
Phone: (406) 543-6528

High Plains Drifter
Mike Hillygus
P.O. Box 516
Missoula, MT 59806
Phone: (406) 721-2703

Montana Flyfishing Connection
Joe Sowerby
P.O. Box 17701
Missoula, MT 59808
Phone: (406) 370-2868

Lewis & Clark Expeditions
Mike Geary
P.O. Box 970
Helena, MT 59624
Phone: (406) 449-4632

Blast & Cast Outfitters
Todd France
P.O. Box 824
Ennis, MT 59729
E-mail: [email protected]
Phone: (406) 682-4420

Greg Thomas is this magazine’s managing editor. He lives in Ennis, Montana.