With 55 miles of rivers and two lakes, the Bar Z offers variety, from classic freestone with nonstop dry fly action, to sight casting on the flats of shallow lake shorelines (more on those below). But the upper Smith River accounts for most of the water on the ranch, and is what sets the Bar Z apart. In this section of river, the Smith winds its way through lush pasture in slow, deep bends, forming countless cutbanks stuffed with big, colorful brown trout.
UPPER SMITH RIVER
The Crow Indian word “bar-zee” roughly translates as “brown-trout-long-as-my-arm.” OK, that is completely made up, but if native speakers still roamed the upper Smith River country it would be spot-on. The upper Smith is loaded with trophy browns. The consistent quality of the fish here is even more impressive given the modest size of the river. All the fishing on the Bar Z is walk and wade since the upper Smith and its tributaries are too small to float in a drift boat. It seems impossible that a stream this size produces so many fish over twenty inches, and even a few that hit the thirty inch mark.
Obviously, it is not your typical trout stream. The upper Smith produces so many monster browns because the mix of food sources is quite different than most western trout streams. But, different food sources also means that the fish behavior is different, which in turn dictates a different fly selection and fishing style than on a “typical” trout stream. This is something that all anglers considering a trip to the Bar Z should understand.
Most of the upper Smith slowly meanders through relatively flat, lush prairie — in character very much like a spring creek. The low gradient means that the river bottom is generally gravel and sand, rather than the rocks and boulders of a typical freestone. It is a great habitat for menu items like crayfish, terrestrials, baitfish, worms, tadpoles, leeches, and mice. These tend to be big mouthfuls, and they sustain a trout population distribution that skews heavily towards large fish.
Of course there are also aquatic insects on the upper Smith, notably the callibaetis mayfly, but these bugs seem to feed the smaller browns and brook trout. The big fish focus on big meals. This means that the larger fish tend to be opportunistic rather than selective feeders, and may move more readily for a large fly than a small one. So, for instance, streamer fishing tends to be productive all season long, and late summer provides good action on big terrestrials like hoppers. Hatches and traditional dry fly action are somewhat less reliable on the upper Smith.
Plenty of rivers have big fish, but catching them can be another story. Waters that produce numbers of trophy trout tend to get all the angling attention, which in turn educates the fish — especially the bigger, older specimens. The Bar Z is truly unique in this regard. The lodge only takes around 100 anglers during a season more than 4 months long, and spreads them out over 55 miles of river and two lakes. This translates into each stretch of river, on average, only getting fished a handful of times per year.
This lack of pressure shows in the cooperative fish behavior. The big browns on the Bar Z eat. For instance, they aggressively chase and devour streamers. The smallish size and slow flow of the upper Smith makes it most effective to cast upstream and strip streamers down. This leads to many large browns charging downstream after a streamer to eat it close to the angler — a very visual game.
So, what makes the upper Smith River on the Bar Z great is one part natural habitat that grows huge browns, and an equal part lack of pressure that keeps the trout acting like trout, unmolested by man. If you love brown trout and intimate, walk & wade trout streams, you will love the upper Smith River.
NORTH AND SOUTH FORKS OF THE SMITH RIVER
The Smith River’s two main tributaries, the North and South Forks, meet on the ranch. For miles above the confluence, they continue to slowly coil through flat prairie with sweeping bends forming one cut bank after another. These sections of the North and South Forks are therefore extensions of the Smith, with the same character, fish diet, and fishing style. As tributaries, they are slightly smaller than the main Smith — but the fish in them are just as big.
Upstream, the North Fork is dammed to form a lake at the point where the long, relatively flat pasture section begins to climb into foothills. Above the lake, the gradient is slightly steeper so the North Fork loses the characteristics of the upper Smith and takes on more qualities of a freestone. Too cold for browns, it is filled with rainbows and brook trout.
This section of the North Fork is a fairly small stream. Some sections braid through willows and are too tight to fish, but when combined in a single channel the North Fork forms plenty of classic pools and riffles that all hold fish. Even at its size, it produces fish up to 20 inches regularly. Aquatic insects are the staple for the fish. Therefore, fishing dries, a dry/dropper setup, or terrestrials in late summer is the norm. This section of the North Fork adds variety to the Bar Z’s menu, providing species diversity and a more surface oriented fishing style when compared to the Smith.
While the Smith is the Bar Z’s crown jewel, the home water at the lodge is Sheep Creek. The lodge is nestled on a hill overlooking a lush valley floor that Sheep Creek meanders through. About a mile below the lodge, Sheep Creek drops out of the meadow and into a long canyon section. It eventually joins the Smith at Smith River State Park (the put-in for the famous sixty mile Smith River Canyon float).
The canyon section of Sheep Creek is a classic Rocky Mountain freestone. Its energetic flow is a great contrast to the slowly snaking Smith River. Sheep Creep holds a few big browns, but mostly rainbows and brook trout, as well as native westslope cutthroat. On average, the fish are smaller than on the Smith, but they are seemingly behind every rock. Because the Bar Z has so much other water, Sheep Creek barely gets fished. The number of fish and lack of pressure make for unbelievable fishing, simply using attractor dries. 100 fish days are possible for those inclined to go for numbers.
Sheep Creek is the perfect river for anyone new to fly fishing — particularly kids. They are sure to have not only success, but constant action. This is a place that can really shorten the fly fishing learning curve. Countless times in a day on Sheep Creek, an angler will practice reading the water, presenting the fly, making drifts, setting the hook, managing line, fighting, landing, and releasing fish. He or she can make every mistake in the book and still catch fish. Before long, many of the small, overlooked details of fly fishing start to become second nature on a river like this.
But don’t get us wrong — Sheep Creek is not only a river for beginners. Sometimes experienced fishermen need a change of pace or palate cleanser after trophy hunting on the Smith for several days. These anglers will love the therapeutic, zen-like state resulting from trout rising to almost every well-placed fly, set to the rhythm of a cascading mountain freestone.
The Bar Z has two private lakes that are each around ten acres. One of them was just stocked with westslope cutthroat. We have high hopes that in a few years, this will be the go-to spot to catch the area’s native trout.
The other lake is spring-fed, which translates into prolific hatches, healthy trout and consistent fishing. Depending on the day and time, a variety of tactics and flies can work here for the resident rainbows, browns, and brook trout. But what makes this lake special is a long, shallow shoreline where it is possible to sight-cast to cruising fish for hours on end. It can be a challenge to coax these fish in the shallows to eat one artificial fly among thousands of the real thing, but it would be boring if it were easy right?