By Corey Fisher
For the last few months, USGS Daily Stream Flow Conditions and NRCS Montana Snotel have been my two most frequented websites. Not Facebook, not Twitter, not www.new.tu.org. Nope, I’ve been in search of hard data, the kind of government funded, scientific, real time statistics that could help me predict one very important number: the cubic feet per second that the Smith River would be flowing on June 22nd. This year, after 8 years of applying, I had finally drawn a coveted Smith River permit for the fourth Saturday in June, and I guess you could say I’ve been pretty excited about it.
The Smith River begins in the Big and Little Belt Mountains of central Montana and in a state renowned for its wealth of trout streams, the Smith is the only river regulated on a permit system; no permit, no float. It’s also one of only a handful of rivers that are well suited for a multi-day river trip, with a 60 mile stretch of river from put in to take out that features a canyon section with thousand foot cliffs towering over the river, picturesque campsites and five days of getting away from it all.
But the Smith is a fickle and notoriously hard to predict. June 22nd one year could mean a blown out river full of mud, trees and the occasion dead cow. The next year it might be unfloatable due to low water. The best you can do is apply for a launch date that seems about right and hope for the best. You’re lucky enough just to score a permit, but the real gamble is getting the right flow - under 500 cfs and dropping, but if it drops below 250 you better like dragging rafts...
Which is why I became so obsessed with snow pack and runoff. Eight years of applying and months of planning hinged on a bunch of data that I am thoroughly unqualified to interpret, but that didn’t stop me from trying. And it didn’t stop me from convincing family members to take vacation and fly out to join me on the trip. Luckily, the flows were on our side.
There were golden stones, caddis, PMD spinner falls, brown drakes and even a cicada hatch. Our campsites were dotted with stunningly gorgeous wildflowers and greens hills contrasting rusty cliffs and cerulean blue skies. My family was perpetually awed and justifiably missed a lot of strikes while gawking at the scenery.
It was five days to catch up and catch fish. We talked, laughed and drank a bunch of beer. We ate when we were hungry, slept when we were tired, rolled out of sleeping bags when rested, fished when they were rising, and leaned back when they weren’t. Life was good and our days passed drifting along at the perfect flow, just like USGS said we would.
Corey Fisher lives in Missoula, MT with his wife Cheryl, a dog named Blue. When not in the mountains hunting elk or casting flies to trout, he works to ensure that energy development is balanced with needs of fish, wildlife and hunters and anglers in the West.