As soon as the permit results are posted, CrossCurrents is flooded with questions of all kinds about floating the Smith River. Although I’ve only been down this river once, Chris Strainer-owner of CrossCurrents, has floated the Smith since 1999 and is a licensed guide for one of the eight approved Smith River outfitters. CrossCurrents Fly Shop is your Smith River expert.
From ‘what do I float in?,’ ‘what should I bring?,’ ‘what camps should I choose?,’ ‘what flies do I use?,’ to ‘should I bring my kids?’ – we can help make it a trip you want to remember. In this three-part series about self-guided floating the Smith River, I hope to help you gather the necessary information, so you can experience an unforgettable trip of a lifetime on one of the most sought after floats in Montana.
Be Vigilant. It can happen anywhere at anytime to anyone–even on the Smith. And in 2011, it was the first time anyone had died from floating the river.
The biggest hazard with the Smith River is its remoteness; come prepared. Although the Smith River is rated a Class I river, except for a few Class II rapids, and is well know for its’ fly fishing and lazy floating, high flows and debris can make this river treacherous. From 85 degree weather in May to snow in July, lots of big fish on dries to one fish days, log jams, low flows and high flows, bears and a few things in between – the Smith is never boring.
Here’s a question that is asked, ‘How high is too high?’ That really depends on several variables including your watercraft, rowing skills, the time of year, the river skills of the other members of your group and previous experiences floating the Smith. No matter the water level, this is an active river; its twists and turns frequently require you to actively position yourself to take advantage of the best currents and keep off the sharp limestone walls.
Another question that often gets asked is, ‘What flow is too low?’ Keep in mind your drift boat or raft, loaded with camping gear, will not row anything like it does when it’s just you, your buddy and a cooler. If you want to be floating rather than dragging your boat, it is highly advised that floaters use the following guidelines for water flows (at the gauge Smith River below Eagle Creek)
- Drift Boats: 385cfs
- Rafts/Catarafts/Pontoons: 200cfs
- Inflatable Canoe/Kayak: 180cfs
- Ryolex Canoes: 150cfs
View live Smith River streamflow conditions online.
I often get asked, “I got an August 1st date. What do you think the water level will be like then?” Of course, no one can predict the exact water levels for your permit date. Low water and high water years, snowpack, rainfall, ice jams, timing of run off, and irrigation draws makes this river difficult to figure out from year to year. There is only one thing predictable about the Smith River – its’ unpredictability. But, chances are 8/1 will be a no go.
Get Good Gear. If you want to experience a trip that you want to remember fondly, make sure you have the proper gear. As your Smith River experts, CrossCurrents Fly Shop has compiled a Smith River Check List to help you prepare for this float-fishing-camping adventure. Please use this guideline to help think through daily routines reviewing elements that you need to pay close attention too, and seriously plan your journey.
Need a ride down the river? CrossCurrents offers new to one-year old top of the line NRS and AIRE rafts with adjustable NRS frames. Our rafts book quickly for the Smith River, so give us a call sooner than later.
Want to keep your libations frosty on your five-day adventure and safe from bears – take one of our Yeti Coolers. Don’t want to sleep on the ground – take one of our comfortable Roll-A-Cots. Don’t want to buy expensive Dry Bags; we’ve got you covered there too.
In regards to rafts the question most often asked is, ‘How many people and gear per raft?’ We use the following as a guideline:
- a 16’ raft can hold 3-4 people and gear (4 is tight but ok with little kids)
- a 14’ raft can hold 2-3 people and gear
- a 13’ raft can hold 1-2 people and gear
Because we use adjustable NRS frames on all our rafts, a boat can be easily configured to best meet your needs. The most important feature is a comfortable center rower’s seat for guiding your craft down this 59-mile adventure!
Fishing? You can have a bow seat and a stern seat; or you can opt to have just a bow seat so gear can be placed in the rear. Just floating? You can opt to have just a center rower’s seat, and place a dry box or super cooler in the bow and stern for the kids to sit or lay on while moving down river. Some groups designate one raft as the “gear boat.” The job of the gear boat is to take the entire group’s camping gear down river. Every group dynamic is unique and has special needs; CrossCurrents Fly Shop can help configure your raft to offer you the most comfortable ride down river.
Besides rafts, CrossCurrents also rents inflatable canoes, kayaks, SUPS and personal pontoons. On my trip down the Smith the end of June in 2012, I floated in my hard-side open-cockpit kayak by Jackson Kayak. Several times during my float I would have to take everything of my craft to empty the water that splashed inside because I took the wet-line. Inflatable self-bailing kayaks and canoes don’t have this problem!
Although I really enjoyed the experience kayaking the Smith River, I was rather glad that I was traveling with a commercially outfitted trip that had two gear boats helping to carry my camping gear down river.
Young Floaters. Several variables including the child’s temperament in the great outdoors, the time of year, the river skills of the other members of your group and previous experiences floating the Smith should be taken into consideration to determine ‘How young is too young for floating the Smith?’
It could be beautifully sunny and warm the day you launch and then be snowing sideways for the next three days. Can you handle your child being utterly miserable cooped up on a raft for 6-9 hours? As a mother of three, I can tell you that when your kid’s not happy, ain’t nobody gonna be happy. If this type of adventuring is new to you and your child, make sure you try it when you can be better assured of the best possible weather scenario.
When my family and I journey down river on multi-day floats, my kids love to paddle themselves in their own watercraft. My choice for them is a self-bailing inflatable kayak because they are relatively easy to paddle and they float.
And, if they decide they’d rather not paddle through certain sections or want to just hang out in the raft, inflatables are easy to deflate and inflate again or to pony behind a raft. If your child has never paddled their own watercraft do not make this trip their first experience. Kids often learn most quickly through hands on experience. I highly advise taking them on a local pond or lake before adventuring on moving water. A good resource for teaching your kids how to paddle is “Paddling with Kids” by Bruce Lessels and Karen Blom. Even if they’re not commanding their own boat, kids should be completely self-sufficient with wet exits and self-rescues before attempting the Smith River.
Remember, Montana State Law requires children under 12 to wear a PFD (personal flotation device) at all times on while the boat is in motion and there must be a wearable PFD for every person on the boat. Here’s some interesting information about flotation: Most adults wearing a bathing suit weight 10-12 lbs in the water. The more muscle you have or more clothes you wear, the more flotation you will need. Higher flotation in a PFD will bring you to the surface faster and floats you higher in the water. Don’t skimp on safety! Get the best PFD you can afford. If you feel the slightest bit uncomfortable on a section of river, don’t be too proud or maucho to wear your PFD. This is classic self-rescue water and you can’t rescue yourself, your gear or others if you’re drifting along the bottom of the river.
Self-shuttle or not. This often stumps a lot of people, ‘How do I get my vehicle from where we launch (Put-in) to where we will end our river trip (Take-out)?’ After paddling, setting up camp, tearing down camp, and packing rafts for 5 days, I highly suggest hiring a private shuttle service to run your vehicle from the Put-in (Camp Baker) to the Take-out (Eden Bridge). At this time, CrossCurrents Fly Shop does not offer shuttle services on the Smith River. The two companies we recommend for shuttles are Smith River Shuttle operated by Jody and Caroline Cox and Charlie’s Think Wild Shuttle Service operated by Charles Meeks. It is such a relief to have a vehicle waiting to take me home at the end of my river journey. Money spent on a shuttle is extremely worth it!
About Safety. All outdoor activities have inherent risk, and this blog post is designed as a general guide, not a substitute for experience. The author and CrossCurrents, Inc. do not take responsibility for the use of the materials or methods described in this article. By following any of the procedures described within, you do so at your own risk.
This blog post was created with one purpose in mind: to help people have an unforgettable experience on the Smith River. Read the final installment of this series for self-guided floating the Smith River. If you missed reading the first post for this series, you may read it here.