What happens when you draw a permit to float a beloved river and the weather forecast looks like Juneau in February? Go fishing, of course.
It is always some season here in Montana – ski season, hunting season, kayak season, backpacking season, etc. Mid-April, however, is sort of odd as the ski resorts shut down and winter-only activities start to fade to the background in favor of other fun things to do. Thankfully, it is always fishing season on a lot of rivers in Montana. So when a group of us procured a permit to float our beloved Smith River in mid-April, it actually fell at a great time for a fishing trip. So the planning began.
The Smith River is a unique beast. Winding its way north from Montana ranchlands, the river travels through a vast and dramatic canyon section, only to then return to its ranchlands roots as it heads towards its confluence with the Missouri River. It is a 60 mile trip. No way out but down. No cell service. Loaded with trout. A paradise of sorts.
So 8 of us plan for weeks for this trip. Hourly checks on the flows (the streamflow can get too low to float in the spring) and the projected weather forecasts. Multiple sources projected different conditions for the trip. Two sources suggested a mixed bag of mid-30s to mid-40s for the high with about 1/2 inch of precipitation on 3 of the days. One source, however, indicated a much more sinister forecast of a high near freezing each day, but still with little precipitation.
At the launch, the skies cleared, the sun shone and it really felt like a magical trip with great friends, tons of fishing, plenty of beverages and beautiful scenery. However, as can often happen in the Northern Rockies, the weather decided to do what it does best as the first day progressed. So, for the remainder of the trip, it chose to completely smash all forecast estimates by settling in with highs near 32, northern winds of 15 mph, and snow of about 4-6 inches per day. It was like living for four days in a snow globe.
There are two options when confronted with prolonged existence in terrible weather. You can either obsess about being cold and snowy or wet. Or, you can embrace the weather as part of the experience. Thankfully, this group cared only about the latter. The dramatic cliff walls of the Smith River looked more rugged with snow, the water cleared dramatically (and dropped making our exit challenging!) and the fireside chats became much more vivid (and important for drying out). And, when outfitted with about every piece of Simms layering and outerwear offered (at one point one of us was 6-layers deep) we did have a fighting chance.
At the end of the trip, much of the satisfaction was centered on survival. And that we had lived with Mother Nature and were not conquered by her. That we caught a bunch of fish and told great stories and realized that weather doesn’t have to own what you do. And as we packed up for the long drive back to Bozeman, the talk returned to another river trip. Would we want to put in for another permit next year? No doubt.
Some great photos compliments of Ryan Thompson from Swift Current Media.