Montana Fly Fishing
Paddling the Smith River

Smith River

The Smith River : Paddling & Rafting

Float Party on the Smith River
Photo Use Guidelines

Except during high water, the upper stretch of the Smith River, between its origin and Camp Baker Access Site, is generally not possible. For the floater who must put in on this section, it is advised to put in at the Smith River Access Site and float down the nine miles to Camp Baker. Depending on river levels, this trip can take several hours to an entire day.

From Camp Baker downstream to Eden Bridge Access Site is where the vast majority of floats occur. However, the Smith River is alone among other Montana Rivers, in that all parties wishing to float the Smith River need a permit. A drawing for the permit is held each February, with a limit of 9 float parties allowed to put in on the river on any given day. As a result, while access to the Smith River is difficult, the regulations moderate fishing pressure and allow for very long floats in relative solitude. Visit this page on the Montana FWP site for detailed information about permitting and fees.

Additionally, the flows of the Smith River are erratic, to say the least, and fluctuate greatly from year to year. Low flows, so low that floating is not possible, can occur at virtually any time, depending on the whims of Mother Nature and irrigation demands. Moreover, during high water or after heavy rains, the Smith River will run murky and turbid, severely limiting fishing possibilities, although it makes floating much easier. As a result, planning the best time to visit the Smith River can be sort of a crapshoot, especially since it has to be planned months in advance due to the permitting requirement.

Smith River just above Eden Bridge
Photo Use Guidelines

Broadly speaking, the best time to float the Smith River is in June, although it is by no means guaranteed. Usually by June the high water due to spring run off has subsided to some extent, allowing the river to begin to clear. However, a heavy mountain snow pack or a cold spring that leads to late run-off can turn the Smith River into a raging torrent well into June, a time when the Smith River normally starts to run low.

Planning a trip on the Smith River for May or July is also a possibility. However, the flows in May can be anything from a trickle during a cold spring to a raging, muddy maelstrom during the height of spring run-off, which in a normal year generally occurs in May. Come July, run-off has significantly subsided, pretty much guaranteeing a clear river unless heavy rains occur. However, due to irrigation demands and the lack of run-off, the Smith River frequently becomes difficult to float in July.

During August, the Smith River is generally not floatable. The dry summers of the region combined with the end of run-off and heavy irrigation demands frequently draw down the Smith River to levels well below which are floatable.

Smith River at Eden Bridge Fishing Access Site
Photo Use Guidelines

Fall can present unique opportunities for floaters. With some luck, the river level has increased from late-July and August's level due to lessening irrigation demand and fall rains. Far fewer people will also be found on the river during this time, although the fly fishing is usually not as good.

Finally, April can also be an intriguing month to float the Smith River. However, any floaters in April can run into anything from warm sunshine to snowstorms. The river is likely to be either quite low if a cold spring occurs, or will be increasing almost daily to due spring-run off. However, for a floater willing to chance the elements in April, solitude is much more likely to be found, as use in April is way down compared to May-July.

As one can see, picking the time to arrive on the Smith River is a difficult if not impossible proposition. As a result, an angler is best advised to choose a date that works for them, hoping that Mother Nature cooperates during the time of their float trip. And finally, even if water conditions aren't ideal for fishing, a float down the Smith River is still time well spent.

When floating the stretch of river between Camp Baker and Eden Bridge, floaters will encounter several float thru gates, an occasional log jam, some riffles and one small Class II rapid. Generally, the Smith River can be done by most anyone in a canoe, inflatable kayak or inflatable raft, although the twisty nature of the river requires a floater to be alert at all times.

Before floating the Smith River, it is also important to consider the type of boat that will be used. The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department have established recommended minimum flow levels for different types of boats. It is highly advised that floaters follow these guidelines; otherwise they may find themselves dragging their boat behind them instead of floating in it. These levels are as follows:

  • Drift Boats: 350cfs
  • Rafts: 250cfs
  • Canoes: 150cfs

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has also created an excellent float map of the entire Smith River, showing designated camp sites as well as the locations of float-thru gates. See Smith River Float Map.

Below Eden Bridge, the Smith River is generally floatable even during low water. However, the current is quite slow and the fishing becomes poor. Few people vist this stretch, making for a great float for those seeking solitude.

River Miles

Origin at North and South Forks: 125
Highway 139 Bridge: 120
Fort Logan Bridge: 98
Smith River Fishing Access Site: 91.6
Camp Baker Fishing Access Site: 81.7
Eden Bridge Fishing Access Site: 22.4
Truly Take-Out Fishing Access Site: 9.5
Highway 330 Bridge Access: 3.5
Confluence with Missouri River: 0

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