Montana Fly Fishing 6 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Smith River in Montana

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

January 20, 2017

smith river montana

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The Smith River is one of the most beautiful rivers in all of Montana and provides some of the most superb fly fishing opportunities in the state. This remote stretch of river between the Big Belt and Little Belt Mountains is unique in several ways and allows for a real “getting back to nature” feel unlike many of the more famous and populated river areas in the state.

Beginning near the small ranch town of White Sulphur Springs, the Smith River flows for over 60 miles through canyons, mountains and densely forested areas before meeting its confluence in the Missouri River. Along with the unique feel and the gorgeous scenery, the Smith river is packed full of great opportunities for brown trout of up to 18 inches and rainbows of up to 15 inches.

About Smith River

The one factor that makes this river unique among the other great fly fishing streams of Montana is that it truly is a remote area that local authorities work hard to keep that way. The fishing and water access is tightly restricted and regulated to keep the river naturally beautiful and unpolluted by a large human influence. There are only two main access areas of the river, and permits are required for fishing any area of it.

Anyone looking to fish, boat or float the river must register and obtain a state legislated permit that are limited in number and can only be obtained through an annual random drawing for launch dates.

While this may seem like a big inconvenience to anyone looking for a spur of the moment fishing trip, the system is in place to ensure that the river maintains its natural glory, including its large trout population.

Floating the Smith River

Beginning at the confluence of the North and South Fork Smith River near White Sulphur Springs, the river winds its way through beautiful canyons for over 60 miles. It is flanked by the massive peaks of the Big Belt and Little Belt Mountains on each side and flows through isolated agricultural areas that has almost no resemblance to the busy, modern world. The people of White Sulphur Springs and the surrounding areas are mostly farmers, and the area remains a natural world of wonder that is untouched by large human influence.

Near this confluence, at the upper part of the river lies the only boat launch that provides access to the 60 miles of river that runs through Smith River State Park — the Camp Baker Fishing Access Site.

After flowing through the canyons of Smith River State Park the river enters a greener, more forested area that is full of various local wildlife. The river continues to wind slowly between the trees until leaving the mountains behind and flowing for another 10 miles through open prairie until emptying into the Missouri River near Ulm, Missouri.

Frequently Asked Questions about Floating the Smith River

Montana State Parks maintains a list of frequently asked questions about floating the Smith River.

Q: When is the float season?

A. The float season varies widely depending on snow pack, rainfall and amount and timing of irrigation. The “typical” float season runs from mid April through mid July, with occasional floating opportunities in September and October. A permit and payment of fees is required to float the Smith River year-round.

Q: How long does it take to float the Smith River?

A. The river is 59 river miles from Camp Baker (put-in) to Eden Bridge (take-out). On average, floaters take 4 days to float. A minimum of two nights and three full days should be planned for normal water levels, which is 300+ CFS. Factor in probable river flows, distances you wish to cover each day and the type of experience you are seeking.

Q: Is there a limit to the number of nights we can camp on the Smith River?

A. Yes. During the peak season of May 15 through July 15, floaters are limited to a maximum of 4 nights camping. The four night limit includes nights spent at private cabins and guest ranches. Layover nights (2 or more nights at the same camp) are permitted at mid-canyon boat camps (Two Creek to Upper Parker) however, only one layover night is permitted during the high use season (May 15 – July 15).

Q: Can we camp and fish anywhere on the Smith River?

A. No! Of the 118 miles of shoreline along the river, only 26 miles border public land. There are 27 boat camps with 52 campsites along the river located on National Forest land, FWP land, DNRC state land and leased private land. The boat camps are signed and marked on the Smith River maps, which are distributed at Camp Baker upon registration. Please camp only at the designated boat camps. The Montana Stream Access law allows walking and fishing along the river and tributaries within the ordinary high water mark. You may not walk above the ordinary high water mark that borders private property. As a courtesy to landowners, please refrain from stopping in front of cabins. Camp Baker is available for all Smith River floaters and their families to stay overnight prior to beginning their float.

Q: What special regulations apply to floating the Smith River?

A. The Smith River is managed as part of the Montana State Parks system. Fees and rules for Smith River State Park and river corridor are established under the authority of the Smith River Management Act and the Smith River Biennial Rule. State Park public use regulations also apply to such activities as littering, restrictions on pets, fires, firearms and fireworks and disorderly conduct. See the Smith River webpage for additional information on regulations.

Q: What kind of boats can be used on the Smith River?

A. The Smith River is a non-motorized river. Rafts are used by about 75% of floaters; canoes by 10% and the remaining 15% of boats on the Smith River are other types of craft such as drift boats and kayaks. Hard sided drift boats are particularly difficult during low water conditions.

Q: Are shuttle services available?

A. Yes. Several shuttle services can move your vehicle from Camp Baker to Eden Bridge.

Smith River Boat Camps

To float the Smith River State Park typically requires 4 days.  There There are 27 boat camps with 52 campsites along the river located on National Forest land, FWP land, DNRC state land and leased private land.

Montana State Parks provides a map of the public and private boat camps along the Smith River.  Shown on the map are river miles from Camp Baker, the only boat launch, to Eden Bridge, the only take-out point some 60 miles down river.

smith river map

Best Place to Wade Fish the Smith River

Nine miles upstream from Camp Baker, you will find the Smith River Access Site which is probably the easiest point of entry for wade fisherman.

Rainbow, brown and brook trout can all be found along the entire river, but this access point has some of the better spots for catching them. There are several deep holes and pools where the browns can be found in large numbers. They can also be found scattered around the undercut banks and around obstructions like logjams and downed trees.

Smith River Map and Fishing Access Sites

Map of fishing access spots on the Smith River in Montana

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Time to Fish the Smith River

Although the weather is not always ideal, April provides excellent fishing along the Smith River. Several hatches occur all through the spring, lasting all the way into mid-June, and provide for excellent nymph fishing.

Typically, the best time to float the Smith River is in June. Usually by June the high water of spring run-off has subsided and the river has begun to clear. However, a heavy mountain snowpack or a cold spring that leads to late run-off can turn the Smith River into a raging torrent well into June.

Summer brings great conditions for dry fishing, particularly if you are hoping to catch rainbow trout. From July up until September, terrestrials will become a very important part of the trout’s diet. Although it may be possible to catch some fish toward the middle of Autumn, April through September will certainly provide the best opportunities.

Smith River Stream Flows

Montana State Parks recommends minimum flows for different types of watercraft. Drift boats generally begin to have trouble at river flows below 350 CFS, rafts below 250 CFS and canoes below 150 CFS.

USGS

Smith River Fishing Tips

Obviously this will depend largely upon what time of year you are fishing but there are a few things that should work routinely. Large streamers or woolly buggers are great for fishing undercut banks and deep pools. Hoppers are ideal for the southern parts of the river, especially along the parts of the banks that are bushy or grassy. Some highly recommended flies are listed below. 

Best Flies for Smith River

Dry Flies

  • Chubby Chernobyl (Tan, Orange, Purple), Size #6 – 10
  • Royal Wulff, Size #14-10

Nymphs

  • Beadhead San Juan Worm (Red, Pink, Purple), Size #8 – 12
  • Beahead Prince Nymph, Size #8 – 14 

Streamers

  • Sparkle Minnow, Size #4 – 6
  • Conehead Wolly Buggers (Tan, Olive, Black), Size #4 – 8

Need flies? 

The Fly Crate offers a great selection of dry flies, nymphs and streamers that will catch fish just about anywhere.  Premium, high quality, hand-tied flies at a great price!

fly fishing flies from The Fly Crate

The Fly Crate Commits 2% of Sales to Aid Disabled Veterans

Gear Recommendations

A 9-foot 5-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the Smith River. For larger nymphs and streamers a 9-foot 6-wt with a sink tip fly line makes life easier. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 6X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Because of its natural qualities and the hard work of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Smith River continues to be one of the greatest fishing spots in the West and a sure-fire bucket list item for any serious angler.

Once a permit has been obtained and all the proper arrangements have been made, you can enjoy some of the best fishing that Montana has to offer along with amazing scenery that you will remember for the rest of your life.

Looking for more places to fish in Montana? Check out our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Montana