smith river montana

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Smith River in Montana

One of the most beautiful rivers in all of Montana also provides some of the most superb fly fishing opportunities in the area. 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.

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?

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

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

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

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

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

Q: Are shuttle services available?

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

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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 wolly 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. 

Top 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
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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.

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About the Author Ken Sperry

Ken is an avid fisherman of 40+ years who loves to explore and find new places to fish. He created DIY Fly Fishing to help you do the same.