Article By: Cody Ling @kai_yo_tay
Montana has a long history of mining hard metals. Butte, specifically, has been called “The Richest Hill On Earth” and has been the epicenter of mining in the Treasure State. Although mining has been an economic crutch for Montana, the reality is that it can result in harsh environmental impacts. Right now, Montanans are fighting a battle against Tintina and Sandfire, two foreign mining firms that are proposing a copper mine at the headwaters of our famed Smith River.
The Smith River is Montana’s own mini Grand Canyon. It runs 59 miles through towering limestone walls. It is the only river in Montana that requires a permit to float through its wild landscape. Each February, thousands of people apply for a chance to float this beautiful river. People will travel across the globe for the opportunity to float the Smith, and some folks will apply all their lives and never draw a permit.
This year I was lucky enough to have been invited to do five days and four nights down the Smith between June 8-13th. A good buddy of mine drew a permit which allows you to bring up to 15 people. When I received the invite I could not have been more stoked. In the seven years that I have lived in Montana, it has been a dream of mine to fish and float down the Smith. Our group included 14 people, all dudes. I was the youngest on the trip at 27 years old and we had a pair of guys who were in their 60’s. I only knew about six people going into it, which actually made for the perfect Smith River experience.
The Smith River has so much to offer its floaters. It has everything from breath-taking scenery, incredible wildlife, ancient pictographs, beautiful campsites, fun hikes, and my favorite, world class fishing. It is mainly a brown trout and rainbow trout fishery with some whitefish as well. We had 5 days straight of an all you could fish buffet while battling through snow, hail, rain, and sunshine. Yes your read that right, snow in June. Welcome to Montana.
We had a late run-off this year from an abnormally cold spring. Unfortunately that meant that we were floating through fairly off colored water but the fish did not seem to mind. Thankfully the flows were on their way down which is usually good for fishing. I went hoping to do some headhunting with dries but the dirty water kept the fish subsurface even with a bountiful hatch of Blue Wing Olives we saw. On the Smith, the limestone walls jutt straight out of the river and the trout really seem to fancy hanging right against them. The first couple days we stuck to bobber doggin and doing our best to drift our flies right along the edge of the walls. We mainly fished brown Wooly Buggers with a large dark stonefly trailed behind it. This produced LOTS of fish, to the point where it got a little old.
That is when I decided it was time to start targeting the trout who were hungry for a steak dinner. I pulled out my Douglas 9’ 7wt Sky and tied on the biggest and blackest Sex Dungeon I had in my box. My buddy looked up at me from the rowers seat and said “you’re going to throw that?!” I replied with a confident “Does a one legged duck swim in circles?” The Smith is not a river known for having good luck on very large streamers. It did not take long before we figured out for ourselves that some fish there DO in fact love large streamers. I spent the rest of the trip chucking and ducking and was able to produce some respectable trout. Including a 22 inch brown trout on our last day.
If you find yourself on the Smith and the fishing is not good, that is okay, because the Smith is about so much more than fishing alone. It is about being in one of our nation’s most beautiful wilderness areas with family, friends, and sometimes even strangers. We spent our evenings making meals that even Emril would have given a thumbs up to. Anyone who has spent multiple days on a river or in the backcountry knows how pleasing a delicious meal is in that kind of environment. We also passed the time playing 7v7 wiffle ball at our campsites which turned out to be very competitive. There are also lots of hikes along the way. Needless to say, you do not get bored.
If you ever find yourself with the opportunity to float the Smith River, drop everything, and go! You will not regret it. If you are interested in learning more about the Smith River, the proposed mines, or how you can do your part to help prevent it from happening, follow the links I have included below. As always, tight lines everyone!