Smith River Report
February 27, 2018
Montana’s Smith River is an undammed “freestone” stream and gets many of the hatches trout rivers are famous for, including many species of caddisflies, stoneflies and mayflies. Fishing on the Smith, for the most part, starts in spring and usually ends in October. So we’ll cover the flies you’ll need on the Smith during spring, summer and fall.
It’s important to note that the beauty of fly-fishing is finding your own way, so these are just suggestions based on our experiences fishing the Smith. Feel free to tie your own flies and fish whatever you like—sometimes you just get a feeling and choose a fly by with a sixth sense and it pans out. I’ve been surprised in that way many times on the Smith. That said, if you are doing some research for your next trip to Montana and, hopefully, the Smith River, this will get you started.
Spring Flies for the Smith (March, April, and May)
Starting in March and April the Smith River gets a nice hatch of blue-wing olive mayflies and skwala stoneflies. For the mayfly hatches you probably don’t need much more than a size-16-18 Purple Haze, which is a killer mayfly pattern for Montana and beyond. However, it is always a fine idea to bring some more realistic blue-wing olive patterns, in case the fish want a specific match. More importantly, on the Smith, for whatever reason, the fish seem to prefer bigger flies. Or, at least, it doesn’t seem to be a problem if we use flies that are a little larger than the naturals. So, don’t be afraid to go up a size if you aren’t having success.
The Smith is one of several Montana rivers that gets a nice skwala stonefly hatch. These medium-size stoneflies are the first big meal of the season for trout and they go out of their way to pluck these off the surface. The hatch is often difficult to time, but be assured the trout know the bug and will look for it during spring. Because of that you don’t even need an exact stonefly match—the Smith’s rainbow and brown trout, which average about 15 inches and range north of the 20-inch mark, will eat a Chubby Chernobyl all season long. A specific adult skwala pattern is good to have with you in case the fish get picky and you time the hatch perfectly. Otherwise, the Chubby in smaller sizes, meaning size 8 and 10, especially in the royal coloration is a good choice.
You’ll want to fish nymphs under the surface during spring, too. Bring size 12 and 14 Prince Nymphs, Pat’s Rubberlegs, and Crust nymphs to mimic the skwala and blue-wing activity. You may also see some golden stone and salmonfly activity during spring on the Smith, so it makes sense to have some larger Pats Rubberlegs in a variety of sizes and colors. Some local favorites to match stoneflies include the Crazy Goof and the Bitch Creek Nymph.
Spring is a great time to fish streamers on the Smith, and if you are looking for a mega-brown trout these are the flies to use—the JJ Special, Smoke n Mirrors, Coffee’s Sparkle Minnow, Sculpzilla, and Kreelex, are all winners. The Smith has many aggressive currents along its endless miles of limestone cliffs. And even though the Smith isn’t considered to be a large river, a sink tip helps you get your streamers down quickly. Swinging flies is also a great idea on the Smith, and for this we recommend the Polar Minnow, Montana Intruder, Mini Montana Intruder, Stinging Smolt, and the Bald Eagle.
A great fly that bridges the gap between stonefly, baitfish, and crayfish this time of year is the Zuddler, and It can be fished under an indicator or on the swing.
In late spring, meaning the end of April and May, the snowmelt creates runoff conditions and reduces water clarity. That doesn’t mean the fishing is bad. It just means you can’t fish the river the same way as when it runs clear. In low-visibility conditions try nymphing the very edges of the water with a “hopper/dropper” setup. Use a Chubby Chernobyl as the dry fly and tie a San Juan Worm about 18 inches off the back of the Chubby. When the Chubby goes down, set the hook.
You’ll also encounter spring caddis hatches on the Smith, especially in the evening hours. To match caddis you’ll want to bring a selection of Elk Hair Caddis, which are big, float well, and are easy to see. The Party On Top Caddis and the Hot Mess Caddis are great flies, too, and you can fish them 18 to 24 inches behind the Elk Hair. Those flies work well in tandem and you’ll find that the fish notice the first fly but most often eat the trailing fly.
Summer (June, July, August)
To float the Smith during summer requires a limited-entry permit and the application period ends in February. Floating the Smith is a unique experience, as you take four or five days to wander downstream by day, camp at night, and fish nearly 60 miles of spectacular Montana scenery between the put in at Camp Baker and the takeout at Eden Bridge.
During summer, golden stoneflies, salmonflies and caddis are the main attractions. Nothing changes from spring—I would recommend the same flies as above, fished in the same fashion. However, you’ll need more caddis for summer evenings, so bring a box full of them. During the day, the dry-fly fishing will be done with Stimulators, Chubby Chernobyl’s, J-Slams, and other patterns that match stoneflies. Don’t worry if you don’t see a lot of stoneflies flying around—these fish will eat them anyway.
June is a great time for streamer fishing on the Smith. Runoff can be an issue this month and your dry flies might go unnoticed in the large flows. But the streamer doesn’t—if you are having trouble finding fish at any time of the day, tie on a streamer and go for Mr. Big.
Later in the summer, between the end of June through August, hoppers, brown drake mayflies and spruce moths join the show. Fishing hoppers is a sure bet, as the fish key on them. There are a lot of great hopper patterns, but if I was going to recommend one it would be the Morrish Hopper. That pattern always gets it done on the Smith.
Spruce moths aren’t well known and many anglers are unprepared to match what might be the best thing to ever happen to them. I know that the spruce moth hatch might be the best thing that’s ever happened to me while fishing. That’s because these bugs really get the trout going and, at times, the water is littered with these moths. If that happens while you are floating the river, it will be an epic experience. Every fish in the river may key on them. To match the spruce moth, which comes off in the mornings, just as the temperature warms, try a size-12 tan Elk Hair Caddis.
While floating the Smith during summer you may see brown drakes in the evening hours, especially right at dark. This can be an amazing thing as thee drakes bounce together, like a crowd at a hip-hop concert. If you see bugs doing that along the banks of the Smith during the late evenings, tie on a size 10 or 12 Purple Haze. The Haze works great during this situation. Another good drake imitation is Enrico Puglisi’s brown drake. Carry a few of those on your trip and you’ll be happy.
When things are slow on the surface, don’t hesitate to nymph. Pat’s Rubberlegs, Prince Nymphs, Crust Nymphs, San Juan Worms, and other general nymphs should work.
Fall (September, October)
Access can be difficult at this time of year because the Smith’s water level is usually too low for drift boats and larger rafts. If you have access via a private landowner or plan to fish an accessible section of the river, you’ll find willing fish and know that fall is a great time to fish the Smith. In September the daytime temperature can be hot and hoppers continue to draw fish to the top. Throughout September and October the fish continue to eat big flies, like Stimulators, Chubby Chernobyl’s and J-Slams. This is probably because by the end of September and the beginning of October the river gets a great October Caddis hatch, which is an oversized caddis with an orange body. An orange-body Stimulator in size 8-12 matches this bug nicely. A smaller sized orange/rust-colored Chubby Chernobyl also works. There are also plenty of good patterns specifically designed to replicate the October Caddis hatch, so choose your favorites and know that the fish will be looking for this bug.
Fall, of course, is a great time to fish streamers on the Smith. As the water temperature cools and the brown trout feel an urge to spawn they become super aggressive. All the streamers mentioned earlier work well. For whatever reason, the Smith River fish are really keen to the color yellow. Or maybe that’s just in my head, so take it for what it’s worth. However, I recommend being loaded with the JJ Special, Smoke n Mirrors, and Yellow Yummy. It’s also a good idea to go big this time of year. Try the Galloup’s Sex Dungeon, Galloup’s Peanut Envy, the Drunk and Disorderly, among other patterns. Fall is also a great time to swing flies and it would be hard to beat the Montana Intruder or Mini Montana Intruder to do just that.
There are hundreds of patterns that work well on the Smith. These just give you an idea of what works on the Smith. But, we’re confident—follow our lead and you will have what you need for a successful trip (at least in the fly selection department). The timing of these hatches shifts from year-to year based on any variety of factors, but we’ve given you a general reference so you know what to expect. It is best to look a bit ahead and a little behind to make sure you are covered for your trip.
The last tip is to make sure you buy enough flies for your float down the Smith. I know that sounds like we are trying to sell more flies—and full disclosure, we absolutely are trying to do that—but the Smith is rocky and you will be floating by cliffs and overhanging trees and losing flies often. We want this trip to be a lifetime experience and it may not be if you run out of the pattern the trout want. Remember, you may be on the water for five days with no way to get more flies if you run out.
When I fish the Smith I try to have four to six flies for each of my favorite streamer patterns; I carry six to 10 flies for each of my favorite dry flies; and I carry 12 to 24 flies for each of my favorite nymphs patterns—you will lose nymphs on the bottom rocks so this is why I go big.
Hopefully you now have a good barometer of what to expect while floating Montana’s wonderful Smith River, along with the right flies to match the hatch. If you hit this river right, when a good hatch comes off, and you are prepared with the right flies, you’ll never forget the experience.