The finest places to cast depend on your goals. Look no further than these great fly-fishing rivers.
No single river can keep a true fisherman happy. There has to be variety, challenge, and hungry fish. Here are six stretches of water to get you thinking of your next trip.
Best for: A Weekend Trip
Driftless Area, Wisconsin
A paradise for dry-fly purists, 35,000 acres of trout streams—about 65 of them—course through Driftless, just a two-hour drive from Madison (three hours from Minneapolis, Green Bay, and Milwaukee). Trout in this western Wisconsin farmland average eight to 12 inches, but the occasional 17-inch brown means you can pull some real whales out of the limestone creeks. But you’ll have to be crafty: The super-clear water and tight quarters make for challenging casting (plan on executing roll casts, steeple casts, and bow-and-arrow placements), but an accurately dropped fly generally elicits a rowdy bite. Overnight in the artsy hilltop town of Viroqua, where fly shop Driftless Angler rents a two-bedroom apartment above the store ($80 per night).
Best for: A Weeklong Epic
Kenai River, Alaska
It’s easy to argue that Alaska’s most heavily fished river is overexposed, but the Kenai at its best is hard to beat. Anglers here cast for four species of salmon (king, sockeye, pink, and silver), Dolly Varden, and rainbow trout known to hit the 20-pound mark. Late July, during the peak of the king salmon run, is when anglers can expect to catch all six species. Riddle’s Fishing Lodge on the lower Kenai can coordinate your quest. If you’re targeting just rainbow trout, head for the Upper Kenai in late August or September, when that species feeds most voraciously. Mystic Waters guides Fred Telleen and Stacy Corbin can hook you up.
Best for: A Family Reunion
Harmel’s Ranch Resort, Taylor River, Colorado
Some of you want to fish. The rest of the family gets bored by false-casting all day. See: Harmel’s, which makes everyone happy. For restless kin, this riverside dude ranch offers horseback riding, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and campfire s’mores sessions beneath the stars. For you, there’s about a mile-long stretch of the Taylor River chockablock with big rainbows just steps from the ranch’s 37 guest cabins. You might even coax the young’uns to hook their first trout. Or head 14 miles upstream to the “Hog Trough” below Taylor Dam, where trout gorge themselves on abundant Mysis shrimp and achieve record-setting dimensions (the longest rainbow ever caught in Colorado was landed here and measured 40.25 inches).
Best for: A Day Trip from the City
East Fork San Gabriel River, California
Trout fishing near water-starved Los Angeles? Yup. Just 40 miles east of Universal Studios, the East Fork of the San Gabriel River remains cold enough to sustain a population of wild trout. Twelve-inchers rank as large specimens, and six- to eight-inch fish are common. But every hookup feels like a trophy because these fish aren’t easily fooled. Use 6x tippet to tie on a size 18-22 midge, humpback, or nymph, and deploy your best stalking techniques. Pack a seven- or eight-foot rod and head to the East Fork Trailhead at Coyote Flat, then hike north along the East Fork Trail. The best fishing begins three miles from the trailhead and continues for two upstream miles to the bridge (an impressive 120-foot-high arch now located within the Sheep Mountain Wilderness).
Best for: Going Remote
Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, Alaska
Many river guides use code names for their favorite holes so their clients and other anglers can’t find their way back. Not so at Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, reached via a 45-minute flight west from Anchorage. Guides here aren’t worried about location poaching because these waters are heli-in only. Tordrillo choppers you to rivers and streams so remote that their fish have seen few fishermen. That includes five species of Pacific salmon, Arctic char, grayling, and rainbow trout. Go in August to fish the full spectrum, or book a June “Cast and Carve” trip that combines fishing for 40-pound king salmon with heli-skiing on Tordrillo corn snow.
Best for: An Uncommon Catch
Volcano Creek, Golden Trout Wilderness, California
Gorgeous and elusive, California’s diminutive, native golden trout have long been on anglers’ bucket lists because they’re stunning to behold—a gemlike blend of yellow and red. To reach the best source of California goldens, anglers should hike eight miles west from Cottonwood Pass trailhead to Big Whitney Meadow and the headwaters of aptly named Golden Trout Creek. The trail hugs the creek for some 2.5 miles, linking grass-lined fishing holes and meandering beneath sculpted Sierra peaks. Make this area your base camp, or continue nine miles farther through a rocky gorge to Little Whitney Meadow—a pristine, high-alpine paradise that few anglers ever see. Pack a few stimulators (a Parachute Adams or Royal Wulff often work well) and some basic nymphs (such as pheasant tails and copper johns).