I’ve been lucky to fish in some pretty cool places. Unfortunately, I often only have a few hours to check things off my bucket list.
Though that’s better than not doing it at all, a half-day of fishing an iconic river rarely feels like it hit the spot. It has been nearly 20 years since I last set my feet on Montana soil which seems almost inconceivable given my background.
Then, a few weeks ago, something fell into my lap. It was a work assignment of sorts, but it also entailed one of the most exclusive river floats any stream junky has ever desired.
The Smith River in Montana is essentially the dark side of the moon when it comes to accessibility. Thousands upon thousands apply for permits to drift this wilderness river every year, and only a fraction will be lucky enough to draw the golden ticket.
The fact is, the vast-majority of applicants will die having never seen the deep, dark switchback canyons and boulder strewn plunge pools of the Smith. Thankfully, I will not. Nor will several dozen folks that our party shared the river with this past weekend. Among other places, they came from Wisconsin, Wyoming, Alberta, California, Indiana and of course all over Montana to float the Smith.
The first night we converged on Camp Baker outside of White Sulphur Springs. The weather was terrible, but driving rain, high winds and the specter of snow in the forecast did not abate the festive atmosphere.
There was much merry-making as the permittees pitched tents and poked sputtering campfires. My brother Ryan drove up from Los Angeles, bringing with him bags of groceries from one of the Hollywood Trader Joe’s.
That jar of black currant jam could’ve ended up gracing the vibrant breakfast nook of a Beverly Hills mansion, but I cracked it open in a foggy meadow along the Smith River Monday morning and spread it on artisan wheat bread I toasted on a crusty grill grate. Funny how things work out sometimes.
Our small group disembarked Saturday morning — one raft rowed by Brian Wetmore of Missoula and Mollie Simpkins of Bozeman, while I rowed with Ryan in an overloaded Stealthcraft Superfly 16 drift boat on loan from Eric Stahl.
I had met Eric via text a few days prior as he hopped around the country as an airline captain. I’ve never met the guy before but I’ve spent so much time at his storage unit and in his boat the past week, I feel like we are fishing buddies. I’m sure we’ll break bread soon enough.
My primary mission was to photograph a new fly rod in action and get some “lifestyle” shots for St Croix Rods and Mollie’s brother Jesse who just so happens to be the Director of Marketing at St Croix. My brother would be the model for many of the shots which was right up his alley seeing as he has graced the pages of Vogue Magazine in the past (it was a fancy Mario Testino photo spread with JLo at a seaside Malibu mansion — sorry, I had to mention that little Bro).
Along for good measure, incredibly generous cooperation from Simms Fishing Products, Scientific Anglers, Hatch Outdoors, Buff, FBK Flies and of course my buddy Mike Batke at Stealthcraft (which is where Eric came in).
Mollie drew the permit, but unfortunately Jesse couldn’t make the trip as planned and he asked if anybody at Traditions Media could go (he’s an old friend of Traditions peeps and St Croix is a client).
They didn’t have to ask me twice. Ryan and I would also act as surrogate siblings of sorts for Mollie and I think we did a pretty good job seeing as she’s used to having semi-obnoxious brothers around. We haven’t even worn out our welcome yet. To see what Mollie does when she’s not floating down the river go to www.greateryellowstone.org.
Let me back up a bit. While I was orchestrating this perfect dance of short-notice logistics and planning, I was guiding and hunting turkeys around Michiana. And writing. I have not slept for more than four hours a night in weeks. Honestly, I feel like I’ve been in a car crash. The last thing on Planet Earth I should have signed up for was rowing somebody else’s drift boat down a “boney” river like the Smith in high water.
Did I mention it’s a 59-mile-long float with a drop of 100 feet? Or that it normally takes four or five days? We did it in two and half by the way.
I’ve slept in some pretty crummy situations, but the rock that jabbed me in the ribs Monday night underneath the tent deserves a jackhammer. Or possibly a grenade. The threat of bears and cougars didn’t bother me in the least, sleeping on the ground is another story entirely.
Fishing was practically non-existent and despite the exemplary performance of numerous St. Croix rods we had stuffed into the boat, only a few trout were hooked. I figured this would happen and was prepared to row, row, row the boat like an angry Viking.
It wasn’t any better on the Madison below Ennis Lake a couple days ago when I fought 30 mile-per-hour tail winds with state of the art Pro Lok oars for six miles (hello trick shoulder), so we could prove that no trout were interested in eating during peak snow runoff pouring off the mountains.
The bars and restaurants are so compelling; whiskey at the Murray in Livingston, breakfast at the Stockyard Café in Bozeman — it just doesn’t get any better.
I’m pretty sure I was supposed to live here. I’ve met and hung out with some cool people in my life and Montana is full of them. Thanks for the good times friends old and new, and especially Mollie for your generosity.
The scenery in this part of Montana is absolutely-stunning. It’s difficult to describe in words. Though, I have hundreds of photos unceremoniously stored within a tiny sliver of metal, the Smith River is one of those places you have to see to believe — you have to be there. And I’m sorry to say, the odds are you will never, be there.
Like many glorious works of nature and the hand of divinity, the Smith River is threatened by the greed and unremitting consumption of human society. Google “Smith River Montana” and hit the images tab and you will see that this place should be coddled as a precious child. Check out www.saveoursmith.com for more information.
There are places on this continent that draw us closer to a greater place spiritually. The canyons and rolling mountain meadows of the Smith River is one of those places. It is one of the best of them. I don’t care who you thank for the privilege of bearing witness to such grandeur and perfection, just be sure and thank him/her/it/them. I will forever.
Jay Anglin writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Argus. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.