Fly fishing takes you to some of the world’s most ostentatious displays of grandeur, like Montana’s Big Hole River.
A few years ago, I sat in a canoe with my buddy Mike. We were in the middle of a high-mountain lake stuffing sandwiches down so we could get back to fishing. It was July and the callibaetis hatch had brook trout eating with the same innocent enthusiasm usually reserved for cutthroat.
As I went to grab my rod, Mike sighed and said, “Damn, isn’t this gorgeous?”
I looked up expecting to see another big brookie in his hands. Instead, Mike leaned back in the canoe and drank in the scenery. We were alone on a small lake surrounded by thick pines and aspen stands. Huge granite cliffs jutted hundreds of feet in the air to the south, and rolling hills of green stretched north.
The view was beautiful in a humbling way. I hadn’t bothered to take in the scenery before – or during – that day’s fishing. Since then, I’ve made it a priority to stop and look around once in a while. Fly fishing takes you to some of the world’s most ostentatious displays of grandeur. It’s a shame to miss it because you’re staring at the water for eight hours.
I recommend floating these rivers before you die. They’re great fishing destinations, but they’re more than that. They’re oases of the spectacular beauty that defines fly fishing. I reckon fewer people would fly fish if it all took place in canals and stagnant ponds.
I’ve floated some of these rivers, and some I’ve yet to visit. But each on this list walks the walk as a fishing destination and a great place to kick back, watch the sunset, and appreciate how lucky you are to live this life.
The Lowe River flows through Alaska’s Keystone Canyon and ends at the Port of Valdez. In addition to offering some of the most beautiful scenery the country has to offer, this river boasts exceptional dolly varden fishing.
The Lowe flows down through Keystone Canyon, which is half the reason I’d suggest floating it. This canyon ends at the Port of Valdez (another incredible spot in Alaska), and the Lowe offers great dolly varden fishing. The upper reaches are almost always turbulent thanks to the steep gradient of Keystone Canyon. But a guide or other outfitter can help you navigate the tricky water.
Near where the Lowe dumps into Prince William Sound, the river braids and becomes an ideal place to launch a boat or raft, and drift and anchor as you fish your way through the dolly varden that return in the fall.
I fished the Lowe for a few hours while in Valdez in late June. The fishing was almost pointless – the water was up, full of glacial runoff, and no fish had returned to the river yet – but the scenery was more than enough to satisfy me. This entire part of Alaska is so gorgeous it’s got me thinking about ways to move there permanently.
Kamchatka is poised to become either the new Patagonia or a more expensive version of Alaska. Either way, fly fishing is still in its infancy in this remote corner of the world, and if you can get there soon, you have to go. Rainbow trout eat mice on this river like most fish here in the U.S. eat caddis.
Getting to the Savan requires a flight to the airport just outside of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Usually you’re flying in from Moscow, but Vladivostok and Khabarovsk are starting points, too.
Once in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, you’re in the second-largest city in the world that’s unreachable by road. So you’ll need a helicopter to get to the Savan River, where you’ll use boats to get around this massive spring-fed system.
It’s possible that Kamchatka is one of the few true wild places left. The Savan flows through landscapes that look like Alaska, save for the surrounding active volcanoes.
The Yellowstone River is the longest free-flowing, undammed river in the Lower 48.
Big Sky Country rarely disappoints, and if I had to pick just one river to fish in Montana it’d be the Yellowstone.
Other rivers offer bigger fish – the Missouri, for one – but the Yellowstone gets the spot here because it’s the longest free-flowing, undammed river in the Lower 48. Where most other rivers in the West turn into reservoirs at some point, the Yellowstone follows the course it did when the first explorers this far west laid eyes on it.
The Paradise Valley section of the Yellowstone is particularly striking, with Emigrant Peak looming overhead. Really, though, there’s not a bad spot on the entire river.
I’ve never gotten into steelheading, but I have a few fishing buddies who live for this type of fishing. If steelhead are your favorite and you don’t mind catching hordes of other native trout, the Lower Deschutes River is your place. It’s one of the few rivers in America left with a decent steelhead return – and this one’s in the summer.
The scenery is quintessential southern Oregon, and a float below Pelton Dam puts you on 50 miles of water that’s home to about 3,500 wild trout per mile.
Not bad for a major tributary to the Columbia River – and one that runs through a few towns on its way to the ocean.
Writer Spencer Durrant took this photo while fly fishing the Missouri River. Rivers like this are on oasis of the spectacular beauty that defines fly fishing.
Any angler east of the Mississippi has likely fished the Delaware, but it’s a place that deserves the attention of us Western anglers, too. The entire river system provides access to about 70 miles of unpolluted, undeveloped river. For the East Coast, that’s nothing short of a miracle.
The fishing isn’t like what you get out West, but it’s still phenomenal. Big browns are taken regularly, and it’s turning into a great nighttime mouse fishery.
I fished this for the first time this year, and the entire time I couldn’t help but wonder why I hadn’t fished it sooner. It’s not like I haven’t passed it often enough on my way to other rivers.
The Big Hole is unique because it flows through ever-changing scenery, and the river changes along with it. The upper reaches are wide open mountain valleys full of elk, moose, and thick pines. Lower, the pines give way to cedar and aspens, and the river gathers itself from its braids and starts plunging down to the town of Wisdom, Montana.
It’s a popular river, for good reason. Big fish are common throughout the Big Hole, but I think it’s the scenery that draws anglers back more than anything else.
Idaho’s Salmon River stretches through the Salmon River Canyons and pairs remote, rugged terrain with the potential for bull trout and resident steelhead along the way.
The Salmon is a fickle fishery and one that’s kicked my ass a time or two. But it’s one of the most impressive rivers in the world, particularly the stretch through the Salmon River Canyons. Only the Snake River’s Hells Canyon boasts cliffs with more vertical relief than those in the Salmon River Canyons – and both canyons have more vertical relief than the Grand Canyon.
Steelhead fishing is usually predictable here, as far as steelhead can be. A mix of hatchery and wild steelhead make up the population, in addition to the chinook and sockeye salmon that run throughout the year. If you want a challenging river – with the potential for bull trout and resident steelhead along the way – paired with floating through some of the most remote, rugged terrain in the world, then the Salmon is your river.
These rivers just scratch the surface of the must-visit places in this world, but for fly fishermen I’d have a hard time naming other rivers that are as practical and spectacular to float. So what are you waiting for? The adventure starts here.
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