Smith River: The Great American Family Float Trip

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The Smith River in central Montana is arguably the most scenic, family-friendly, and productive fishery for a multi-day float trip in the lower 48.

The family and I have run the Smith River a couple of times with other families, while utilizing a local outfitter to haul gear, stage camps, and cook the meals.  This allows us to focus our time and attention on fishing, swimming, and exploring the river in our own rafts.

Joe Souerby is my outfitter of choice.  Not only is he a good friend, but he also runs one of the finest and tightest outfitting operations on the river.  In general, private groups have to apply months in advance to obtain start dates on the river, and even at that there are no guarantees.  Working with Joe, who has a certain number of start dates under his permit, makes planning more flexible, and more guaranteed.  On our last Smith float we used one of Joe’s start dates, and planned our schedule accordingly.  The group consisted of Justin Ray and family, Brian Grossenbacher and family, Craig __ and family, Lance Gleason of 406 Productions, and my great friend and mate from Panama, Juan Spragge.

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TRIP TIPS

  • Planning : Apply months in advance for groups
  • Lodging  : Camping w/ Outfitter
  • Food : Riverside grilling
  • Guide :  Joe Souerby

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Day 1 was slow to start,

as we all met at the launch point, organized our gear, and packed our rafts.  Heidi and the girls and I were all in one boat, and even though Heidi is an experienced oarsman, this was her opportunity to fish.  I was determined to spend much of my time behind the oars.

Our previous Smith trip was incredibly productive.  We caught fish from start to finish, and I was hoping this trip would be similar.  My hopes were rewarded: right from the start we were catching fish on dry flies.

Brown and Rainbow trout, gin clear water, family and friends, 5 days on the river laying out ahead… life just doesn’t get much better.  We all met at camp the first night, and everybody was talking about the great dry fly fishing we’d all had.

[pull_quote_center]Brown and Rainbow trout, gin clear water, family and friends, 5 days on the river laying out ahead… life just doesn’t get much better.[/pull_quote_center]

Small stoneflies and spruce moths had been the ticket.  This was one of Juan’s first days dry-fly fishing.  LG had given him the bow of the boat, and he had caught 56 fish.  Not a bad showing, for a bluewater guy.

Smith River 11

In camp, the cook tent was already set up;

we could smell dinner cooking while we were setting up our tents.  As a group we assembled around the fire with cocktails in hand, as the kids wandered off to catch frogs, snakes and crawdads in the river.  They circled back when the dinner call went out, and we filled our bellies, and stumbled back to our tents to sleep in the crisp Montana air, in preparation for our second day on the river.

I was so excited to get back on the river the next morning for some more incredible dry fly fishing that I had my girls up with the sun, packing our tents.

As I was loading the raft,

spruce moths were all over the river. It was clear that this was going to be another great day. Selective sight-casting to rising trout and blind casting into structure, seams or back eddies, all proved productive.  Day 2, the character of the river changed a little bit. We started seeing the canyon walls that the Smith River is known for. Every hour or two we would take a break from fishing to do a little swimming, or hike up to see petroglyphs on the canyon walls.

[pull_quote_left]Selective sight-casting to rising trout and blind casting into structure, seams or back eddies, all proved productive.[/pull_quote_left]

We filled our water bottles from springs seeping out of the rocks, embracing every bit of this place. I just love this kind of life.  I also love a day when, by afternoon, you cannot remember how many fish you caught.

Smith River 09

Some might not agree with what I expose my family to.

Some might say that taking a 2 yr-old and a 5 yr-old on a 5-day float trip is crazy.  But this is our life, and this is what we do.  I made a little tarp tent for my daughter Payton for when she needed to take a nap in the middle of the day.  Haley played with the snakes and other critters she c=found along the way.  And Momma cast her way down the river, catching all the fish she could. I take all safety precautions, I am confident in my river rafting abilities, and I am driven forward by the fact that

in taking adventures, Heidi and I are creating memories for our kids that will last forever.

The morning of the 3rd day

I put Juan in the boat with me and sent Heidi in the boat with LG.  My girls absolutely love Juan and always enjoy having him nearby.  I was really impressed to see how much his fly-fishing skills had developed in just a couple short days.  He was clearly having the time of his life.  Keep in mind this is a guy who is normally leadering 300-500lb Black Marlin for me.  But just like me, he loves all fishing, and revels in catching 14-18”trout.  I can still remember specific runs and pools where we caught multiple fish, with Juan laughing and the girls cheering.  I will never forget the sight of Payton with her cup of hot chocolate and her foamy, chocolaty lips early one morning while waiting for breakfast.  Now that I am a father those are the moments that I cherish as much as any.

[pull_quote_center]Keep in mind this is a guy who is normally leadering 300-500lb Black Marlin for me.  But just like me, he loves all fishing, and revels in catching 14-18” trout.[/pull_quote_center]

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After having a great first half of the day with Juan I got Momma back in the boat for the afternoon.  The fishing just didn’t let up.  In previous years, we caught most of our fish on streamers, and the majority of them were brown trout.  On this trip, the dry fly fishing was so good we did not put on a streamer, and the majority of the fish were rainbows.

[pull_quote_right]On this trip, the dry fly fishing was so good we did not put on a streamer, and the majority of the fish were rainbows.[/pull_quote_right]

By the end of the day, when we pulled into camp, I cannot tell you how nice it was to be floating with an outfitter who took care of all the little details.   That’s not to say that we do not do a lot of camping on our own, but with 17 of us, logistics would have been troublesome.  We had another great evening in camp with excellent food, good company, and the laughter of children.  Heidi and I made a thorough check of the tents before going to bed at night, because the girls made it a standard practice to let some of their favorite snakes loose in the sleeping bags.  Thank goodness they were none in our tent that night, though I imagine that Brian was less than happy when he found them in his tent instead.

smith river float17

The next morning at breakfast it was decided that we were going to do a crawfish boil on our final night,

so we all had a task of catching as many crawdads as we could over the course of the day.  We just happened to be the first ones on the river that morning, and the spruce flies were as thick as we had yet seen them.  Every other cast we had a fish coming to the fly.  I really enjoy watching my wife fish.  It is almost as good as fishing myself.  She picked off one good fish after another as we made our way down the river.  We all met for lunch on one of the gravel bars, and figured we had close to 100 crawdads already.  There was more swimming and more talk of the great fishing.  Juan did not even take a break for lunch.  He was out wading in the river casting to rising fish.

Our last camp on the Smith took us to my favorite campsite on the river.  There were huge Pine trees arching overhead, and our tents were scattered far enough apart that it felt like we were alone.  The moon was so bright we didn’t need lights.  There were magnificent moon shadows.  This was what camping is all about.  The crawfish boil was a huge success, and made a glorious appetizer to our last night on the river.  We enjoyed yet another great meal prepared by the excellent staff, who has accompanied us on our journey.

Waking up my final morning is always tough, with the realization that the experience is almost over.  It is trips like this that I wish would never end.  By mid-morning, we started to leave the magnificent canyon walls that had been with us the past few days, as we emerged into farmland.  The character of the river was definitely changing.  The fishing was not quite as good as it had been, but we were still catching fish in all the prime locations.  Our goal was to be at the boat ramp by mid afternoon.  There is a lot of unpacking and re-packing, as we all prepared to go our separate ways.

The memory of this great family float trip will have to last until I am able to return to the Smith River again.