Menu

Montana Trout Unlimited

Floating

Background

Responding to landowner concerns about impacts caused by recreational floating, the Montana Legislature passed the Smith River Management Act in 1989. The bill authorized Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to manage floating along 61 miles of the popular waterway between Camp Baker and Eden Bridge. Most of the land along this remarkably scenic canyon landscape is privately owned. Float trips generally take 3-5 days. The river along this reach has been a popular floating destination for generations of Montanans. The bill resulted in FWP creating the only limited-entry permit system for floating a Montana river.

Smith-River-Fly-Fisherman

Frequently Asked Questions about Floating and Managing the Smith River

How do you get a permit to float the Smith River?

Floaters need to apply to the Parks Division of FWP between early January and February 20 in order to be placed in a lottery for a float date that year. Applicants can apply only once. Each application must be accompanied by a nonrefundable $10 fee. Details on restrictions and how to apply can be found at http://stateparks.mt.gov/smith-river under the “Permits” tab.

Who manages the Smith River?

The Parks Division under the Parks Board at FWP manages recreational use on the river. The agency’s fishery and wildlife divisions manage fish and wildlife under the eye of the FWP Commission. A citizen’s advisory council makes recommendations on recreational management. (See a list of council members at http://stateparks.mt.gov/smith-river under the “Smith River Advisory Council” tab). Click here to view Montana State Parks’ Biennial Smith River Rule.

Isn’t the Smith River a state park?

At the urging of the Parks Division, FWP has designated the permitted float-section of the Smith River a defacto state park. But in practicality it is a virtual state park. All of the land along the river is privately owned, or, owned by the U.S. Forest Service, or, it is a trust-land tract managed by the Montana Dept. of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). The bed of the river, like all navigable rivers in Montana, is owned by the State and managed in trust by DNRC. The Camp Baker launch site and Eden Bridge take-out are formal FWP fishing access sites, purchased, in part, using federal dollars for that explicit purpose. Designated campsites along the river are leased by FWP from landowners, or owned by the Forest Service or DNRC.

When is the best time to float?           

The high-use season is May 15 to July 15. Increasingly, more people float in April and the first half of May. Low flows usually limit floating after mid-July.

How many people can float the Smith each year?

No more than nine parties can launch per day, including commercial outfitters. Party size is limited to 15 people.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Are there additional costs for floating?

Besides the nonrefundable application fee, successful applicants must pay at the launch site for every floater in their party. Residents between 6-12 years of age must pay $15; residents 13 and older and must pay $25. The cost per non-resident floater 13 years of age and older is $60. Landowners along the Smith are each allowed 6 trips a year outside of the reach associated with their property. There is no fee, unless their party includes a guest or non-immediate family member. The fee is $7.50. Outfitters pay $200/trip. Outfitted staff pay $25/trip, and clients are $100/trip.

Where does the revenue from float fees go?

Most of the revenue collected from Smith River applicants and users goes to the general budget of the Parks Division. It does not have to be spent on Smith River management. A small portion must be dedicated to the Smith River Corridor Enhancement Account, which is dedicated to preserving, protecting and restoring the natural values of the Smith River. This can include acquisition of conservation easements to protect open-space, leasing water rights for improving streamflows, protecting riparian habitat in spawning tributaries, or investing in projects that reduce polluted runoff from reaching the river. The Parks Division collects around $250K a year from Smith River fees.

What are the odds of Montanans getting a permit to float the Smith River?

Not good, and getting increasingly worse. The odds percentage of getting a permit in the lottery during the high-use season is now in the single digits. Promotion of floating the Smith has increased significantly in recent years. The Parks Division issues press releases and generates news stories every winter urging floaters to apply for a permit. Stories emerge more frequently in out-of-state publications, resulting in increased non-resident applications. In 2015, nearly 8000 applicants sought permits.

Are there other ways to float the Smith River, besides applying through the general lottery?

Yes, each year Parks issues a “Super Permit” to float the Smith. The permit is awarded through a lottery. Prospective floaters can send in an unlimited number at $5 each to the Parks Division. Otherwise, floaters can go with a commercial outfitter. Outfitters are allotted a small number of the overall launches during the high-use season. Most rates for a 5-day float generally run around $4,000 per person plus tip (go here http://stateparks.mt.gov/smith-river and click the “Authorized Smith River Outfitters” tab to find an outfitter). It is also possible to obtain a permit by contacting the Parks Division about cancellations. The odds of getting a cancelled permit during good conditions during the high-use season are increased if floaters don’t need much lead time before launching.

Is anything new in store for Smith River management?

The Smith River River Advisory Council reviews proposals from the Parks Division to increase development at Camp Baker and Eden Bridge. Parks Division staff have proposed a range of developments in recent years, ranging from creating a full-blown campground at Camp Baker, to paving portions of both sites to accommodate facilities for camp hosts. In recent years, FWP wardens have had to kill black bears that were frequenting camps along the Smith, the result of a lack of education among floaters on proper food storage. Beginning in 2016 floaters will be required to have bear-proof food storage containers on the Smith in the future. Though bearproof containers might very well be necessary for certain camps, acquiring them could mean Montanans of limited means, which once comprised most of the use on the river, might not be able to afford floating the Smith. Montana TU proposed a more affordable approach, including parks staff installing bear-proof boxes at camps where bears are known to frequent, and complimenting them with permanent poles with pulley systems for hanging food and garbage. The parks board rejected these ideas, opting instead to require all floaters to have expensive, certified bear-proof containers, or, to store food at camps in hot wire corrals.

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Photo by Matt Mendelsohn