By Randy Yagi
Immortalized in fiction like Chris Santella’s “Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die” and films like “A River Runs Through It” fly fishing is one of the world’s most popular methods in the sport of fishing. Also one of the most beautiful and most graceful examples of angling, fly fishing is often described as a true art form, perhaps best exemplified by a lone fisherman wading in knee deep water amid rushing waters and the peaceful silence of a spellbinding forest. For the experienced fly fishing enthusiast, it’s not hard to think of several phenomenal rivers across the country, although coming up with just five might easily provoke a hearty debate. But for beginners new to the sport or for those just curious to know some of the best across America, here are five of America’s best rivers for fly fishing.
Au Sable River, Michigan
Extending more than 135 miles across Northern Michigan, the fabled Au Sable River is widely recognized for hosting one of the finest brown trout fisheries east of the Rocky Mountains. As one of the major tributaries filtering into Lake Huron, the Au Sable River is frequently known as a dry-fly nirvana, with multiple access points across the North, South and Main branches of this celebrated blue-ribbon trout river, particularly the legendary nine-mile stretch known as the Holy Waters. Situated just east of the town of Grayling from the Burton’s Landing to Wakeley Bridge downstream, the Holy Waters is regulated as fly-fishing only, as well as catch-and-release using only artificial flies yet for trophy size brook and brown trout. Other prominent access points include Twin Bridge on the North Branch, Chapel, Mio Roadside Park and Boat Launch and McKinley Bridge on the South Branch. Attracting fishing enthusiasts worldwide, the Au Sable River is also home to several notable fly fishing shops, guide services and outfitters and among the best are Old Au Sable Fly Shop, Ron’s Fly Shop and Gates Au Sable Lodge in Grayling, Streamside in Fairview and Au Sable Angler and Trophy Waters Fly Shop in the community of Mio. In addition to Gates Au Sable Lodge, other recommended places to stay are Old Sable Lodge and Riverview Lodge and Cabins in Grayling, and the cabins, campsites and RV parking within the Huron-Manistee National Forests.
Beaver Kill River
Of the many legendary rivers within the breathtaking Catskill region in New York State known as the birthplace of American dry fly fishing, the Beaver Kill River is unquestionably among the most revered. Indeed, it was on these pristine waters in the 1890s along with the equally renowned Neversink River where American writer Theodore Gordon first fished here in one of first resort destinations in the country. Through his published works, Gordon became known as the “Father of American Fly Fishing” for advancing the popularity of what is now one of America’s favorite pastimes. While the Neversink River is credited for being the precise birthplace of American dry fly fishing, it’s the Beaver Kill that draws the most contemporary attention from seasoned anglers and anxious newcomers, for its abundance of exceptionally big brown trout, in particular in Roscoe, a small town in the Sullivan Catskills that calls itself “Trout Town USA”. Just along the southwestern border of this peaceful hamlet also once named the Best Outdoor Sports Town in New York, is the confluence of the Beaver Kill and the Willowemoc Creek known as Junction Pool, with a commemorative sign nearby that hails it as “one of the most famous pools in angling literature”. About a two-hour drive northwest of New York City, Roscoe is home to many reliable fishing outfitters like the Beaverkill Angler and Trout Town Adventures and Guide Services, as well as popular attractions like the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum. Despite an estimated population of less than 700 residents, Roscoe offers a number of camping and overnight accommodations, such as Roscoe Campsite Park, Russell Brook Campsites, Baxter House and Creekside Bed and Bath and Reynold House Inn and Motel.
San Juan River
Said to be North America’s premiere destination for big trout, the San Juan River is one of the major tributaries of the Colorado River. Traveling very close to the famous Four Corners region of the Southwestern U.S., the San Juan measures approximately 383 miles long and one of its own tributaries, the Animas River, is among a select number of Colorado Gold Medal rivers, capable of producing at least twelve 14 inch or larger trout per acre and 60 pounds of trout per acre. However, the majority of the San Juan River passes through southeastern Utah and more prominently, in northwestern New Mexico, where the fly-fishing for big brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout just below Navajo Dam is world renowned, particularly the Miracle Mile section just over four miles downstream that’s known as one of “North America’s most hallowed fishing waters”. Plenty of camping and RV parking is available along the shores of New Mexico’s second largest lake at Navajo Lake State Park, along with noteworthy fishing lodges like the Rainbow Lodge, Soaring Eagle Lodge, the Octagon Inn and the Orvis-endorsed Fisheads San Juan River Lodge.
The main tributary of the Potomac, the Shenandoah River is one of the premier rivers for smallmouth bass in the eastern U.S. and among the top rated fly-fishing rivers in the country. Stretching more than 55 miles across the Shenandoah Valley with two prominent forks extending approximately 100 miles each, the Shenandoah River features year round fishing with the most productive months beginning in April and running through September. Great fishing action can be enjoyed all along the Shenandoah but particularly on the snakelike South Fork for smallmouth bass, sunfish, rock bass and others, and in Shenandoah National Park for brook trout, in addition to the Rapidan River, commanding the top rated trout stream in the northern section of the national park. Other notable fly fishing spots in the area include Mossy Creek, James River and St. Mary’s River. Not surprisingly, several exceptional outfitters operate within the region, such as Mossy Creek Fly Fishing in the historic city of Harrisonburg, Murray’s Fly Shop in Edinburg and Shenandoah River Outfitters in Luray, which also features cabins, cottages and campsites. Other suggested places to stay include Village Inn in Harrisonburg, Prospect Hill in Louisa, the Country Place in Luray and the cabin rentals or camping at Shenandoah National Park.
Montana and Wyoming are home to such an enormous collection of legendary rivers, one could easily fill a complete list of America’s Top 10 for fly-fishing destinations between these two states positioned in the Western U.S. Take for example iconic rivers like the Blackfoot and Gallatin, among others depicted in the 1992 film “A River Runs Through It”, as well as the fabled rivers in Yellowstone National Park, such as Firehole, Gibbon and the Madison River. But for sheer enormity of fly-fishing options, the Yellowstone River is arguably the premier freestone stream in the country. Extending 692 miles through Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, the Yellowstone River is the only undammed river in the continental U.S. and features a wealth of fishing access points for visiting anglers. Yet to narrow it down to a few, the fishing action for rainbow, brook, brown and cutthroat trout is extraordinary near the city of Billings, the confluence with the Boulder River and through Paradise Valley. In addition to the camping and lodging options within Yellowstone National Park, there are campsites available at places like the Livingston/Paradise Valley KOA, Yellowstone River Campgrounds and Yankee Jim campground north of Gardiner. Lastly, there are a significant number of world-class fishing lodges operating in the area and includes Bighorn River Lodge, Madison River Lodge, Madison Valley Ranch and Firehole Ranch, once named Orvis’ Fly Fishing Lodge of the Year.
Related: Top Fishing Destinations In The U.S.