July Fishing on the Smith River

July weather, streamflows, and summary

Because the Smith River is fished primarily from boats on a multi-day floating and camping trip, the ability to float and fish the Smith River in July is entirely dependent on streamflows. The Smith River is a freestone river, so flows for July fluctuate from year to year. Anglers can count on the fact flows will drop throughout the month of July. Because of this, if a Smith River fly fishing trip is going to occur, the best chances for it happening are in the first two weeks of July, with the best odds for sooner in the fortnight than later. 

Generally speaking, the fishing can be good in this window even if it is a low water year, but fishing may shut off early as you move into the second week of July. On a good water year, early July fishing can be fantastic as the higher flows help to keep water temps at a comfortable level for trout. Hatches of Pale Morning Duns (PMDs) and caddis are strong at times, hatches of tricos can occur, and the potential for very good terrestrial fishing exists. 

Even if the fishing action in early July can be a little less than consistent, the weather is not. Early July sees average daily high air temperatures in the high 70 degrees F while by month’s end the average daily high temperatures rise to almost 83 degrees F. Measurable precipitation is only likely to fall on less than five days throughout the month. 

Because nearly all fishing trips on the Smith River require multiple overnight stays—the main access points are 60 miles apart and anglers must apply for a permit to float and camp on the river. Any fly- fishing trip on the Smith River requires careful planning and a thorough understanding of river conditions and weather patterns. 

The Smith River is the only river in Montana that requires a permit for all outfitted guests and private users. There are only a few outfitters that are permitted to operate on the Smith River. Private users can apply for launch via a lottery system operated by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. For launches in July, anglers must apply in February. Information can be found online at Montana’s Smith River State Park.   

Most anglers spend no less than three and not more than five nights on the river. To ensure safety and enjoyment, proper planning is crucial. This includes the following: having the necessary gear, knowing how to prep and prepare meals, some rowing experience, and a knowledge of individual group dynamics. These things are crucial to getting the most out of a Smith River fly fishing trip.

July fishing: what to expect

July on the Smith is definitely hit or miss when it comes to fishing and floating the Smith. In most years, early July sees flows at a level conducive to floating and fishing, but as the days tick away the flows drop and water temps rise, creating less than ideal conditions. In a high snowpack year, the river may be floatable all summer and good fishing can extend into late July and even August. On average water years, by mid-July the river often drops to levels too low to effectively float (at least to float and enjoy it) and requires extensive dragging of boats.

July fly fishing on the Smith River is very different from June. If June sees the Smith River come into shape and will stay that way for most of the month, July means the Smith River starts in prime shape and slowly changes to less than ideal by month’s end. 

Hatches of PMDs and caddis are often strong in early July. By month’s end, tricos and terrestrials dominate the dry fly charts. But because the Smith River is home to a variety of stonefly, mayfly, and caddis species, these nymphs are active subsurface in the height of summer. Despite the river’s healthy population of aquatic insects, water temperatures in late July often rise to undesirable levels for actively feeding trout. 

If water temperatures stay in the low 60 degrees F look for hatches of PMDs, caddis, spruce moths, and tricos. A few late hatching stoneflies may occur, but they will be seen early in the morning. Terrestrials may be abundant as well. 

For PMDs choose mayfly dries or emergers in sizes 12 through 16. For PMD nymphs choose beadhead Pheasant Tails in size 12 through 16. For caddis, choose dry flies in sizes 12 through 18 and nymphs in sizes 12 through 18 as well. Most caddis adults will be tan or olive in color. For the few spruce moths that may hatch, choose light or tan dry flies in sizes 14 or 16. 

Because water temps in the low 60 degrees F coupled with bright sunshine are the norm on the Smith River in July, a two-fly subsurface nymph rig is always a good choice.  

Streamer anglers may still find a few aggressive trout in July, particularly in the lowlight conditions of early morning or late evening. Choose olive, black, or black/brown sparsely dressed patterns in sizes 4 through 8. A black or olive conehead Sculpzilla is a guide-favorite for mid/late June. 

Where to find July trout on the Smith River

Caddis, stonefly, and mayfly nymphs are active on the Smith River in July. Stoneflies will most likely be done hatching, so caddis, Pale Morning Duns (PMDs), and spruce moths may cause trout to be on the feed. If this occurs, look for trout throughout all possible feeding lies—near bankside structure, seam lines between slow and fast water, currents flowing along the limestone canyon walls, shallow flats, riffle corners, and the heads of deep pools. 

Even in the deep canyon of the Smith River, bright sunlight can penetrate into the water. When the sun becomes high in the sky and sunlight shines into the water, trout will move back to safer and cooler holding lies, occasionally moving to feed on a nymph floating by in the current. These trout can be found in classic subsurface lies: deeper water near shallow water, behind or in front of structure, or any place that provides cover from predators or bright sunlight. 

Important July hatches

The possibility of great days of dry fly fishing on the Smith River are greater in early July than later in the month. Because stoneflies are primarily done hatching by July, caddis and PMDs make up the bulk of July hatches on the Smith River. 

A variety of caddis species ranging in size from 10 to 20 live in the Smith River and hatch throughout the month, occurring at various times throughout the day. 

PMD hatches typically begin mid-morning and last for several hours. Insects range in sizes from 12 to 18, with most being size 16. As a mayfly, it is important to understand trout may feed on emerging PMDs and not exclusively on fully hatched adults. 

Terrestrials—insects that live the entirety of their life on land—provide a large portion of a Smith River trout’s diet in late July. Spruce moths, grasshoppers, crickets, ants, beetles, spiders, and any other land-dwelling insect that may inadvertently find its way onto the surface will be targeted by trout as well. 

Trico mayflies hatch in July on the Smith River as well. These small mayflies—sizes 18 through 22—hatch in the early morning hours. Trout rarely feed on trico nymphs but will often rise to adults floating on the surface or “spent” adults—insects that have mated and are now dead. 

Smith River fly box for July

Stonefly nymphs in brown and black in sizes 8 through 10

PMD dry flies size 14 to 18

PMD emergers size 14 to 18

PMD nymphs size 14 to 18

Caddis pupae size 12 to 16

Caddis CDC emergers size 12 to 16

Caddis dry flies with dark grey, black or brown bodies in size 12 to 16; 

Sculpin patterns in sizes 2 to 6

Streamers in olive, black or brown in sizes 2 to 6

Grasshoppers in sizes 6 to 10.

Trico mayfly adults and spinners in sizes 18 through 22