Floaters take a gamble when they get a permit for the Smith River, where the flows are notoriously fickle.
But anglers have one ace in the hole if their launch coincides with high, muddy water.
“A lot of people don’t even try to fish when the river is muddy and that’s a mistake,” said the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks river ranger patrolling the Smith last week.
“This river can fish better than other rivers in these conditions. It’s different that way.”
While a group of Spokane anglers kept a hopeful eye out for signs of fish rising to yellow Sallies or golden stoneflies on the surface, they cast weighted flies into the high, brown water against the banks as they drifted downstream.
One angler soon caught a 19-inch brown trout on a cone-head-weighted olive-black Woolly Bugger, but it was one of only a few fish caught that day.
With only a couple of inches of visibility in the water, weighted stonefly nymphs drifted under an indicator worked fairly well. A Bitch Creek Nymph, with its white rubber legs, was particularly effective.
The Smith River has been managed as a wild trout fishery since 1974 when the stocking of trout was discontinued.
Rainbow and brown trout are the dominant trout species, although rainbows appear to have been hardest hit by whirling disease and a decade of drought. The entire fisherie is still recovering from the massive late-winter ice jam that burst, flooded and scoured the river in 1997.
The upper reaches of the float section surveyed in 2007 averaged about 290 rainbows and 255 brown trout per river mile. That signaled a decline for rainbows of more than 45 percent from the long-term average while brown trout were down only 21 percent.
Previously, there had been about five rainbows for every three brown trout.
Trout thin out in the lower reaches near Deep Creek to less than half the population found upstream. Brown trout dominate this lower stretch, which becomes more open with warmer water.
Only non-motorized craft are allowed on the Smith. Rafts are the vessel of choice for most anglers. Canoes are the second most popular floating craft, although inflatable kayaks might be the best choice when nature turns off the spigot and flows dip below 210 cfs during summer and fall.
Drift boats generally begin to have trouble at river flows below 350 cfs, rafts below 250 cfs and canoes below 150 cfs.
Montana’s Stream Access law allows walking and fishing along the Smith River, however, it must take place within the ordinary high water mark along private land.
Of the 118 miles of shoreline along the river, only 26 miles are on public land.