Best Fly Fishing in the Western U.S.

A Subjective Look at Some of the Best Fly Fishing Destinations Out West

A fall brown trout caught on Rock Creek outside of Missoula, Montana.
A fall brown trout caught on Rock Creek outside of Missoula, Montana. Brian Milne

This is by no means THE list of the best fly fishing waters out there, rather a collection of some of my favorites in the Western U.S., where I’ve fly fished the most over the years. Now I haven’t been lucky enough to fish every blue ribbon fishery out West, but here are the some of my favorite fly fishing towns out West.

I’ll get out to the others over the next few months, and years, and will be sure to report back on those as well.

Lake Tahoe

There are so many crystal clear waters to fish near the Nevada-California state border, it’s tough to know where to start. Truckee River, for example, weaves past a number of reservoirs, including Martis Creek Lake, Prosser Creek, Boca, and Stampede reservoirs, allowing for some great diversity. But the feeder creeks are where the best fly fishing for trout remains. But you’re going to have to hike in to find the best ones.

Missoula, Montana

Does it get any better than fly fishing the Bitterroot, Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers. Yeah, try nearby Rock Creek, which is where the locals go for some of the best brown trout fishing in Big Sky Country. Not that you could go wrong with any of the above waters. Missoulians are definitely spoiled … for nine months out of the year.

Bozeman, Montana

Not that the folks down in Bozeman aren’t equally spoiled, wit the gorgeous Gallatin River running right through town. The Gallatin offers some of the best driftboat fishing around. And if the main stem of the Gallatin doesn’t float your boat, there’s always the East Gallatin. If it’s good enough for the President, it’s gotta be good enough for the rest of us fly fishers.

Lewiston, Idaho

I listed Lewiston, but nearby Moscow, Idaho, and Pullman, Washington, should also be mentioned. The Clearwater River near Lewiston, Idaho, is one of the state’s best steelhead rivers, holding double-digit steelies that fight like steers. Then there’s the equally impressive Snake River, which offers amazing fishing in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

Spend some time in Idaho and fish all of the big-name waters it has to offer. The Henrys Fork of the Snake, located in northeast Idaho, is another one you can’t miss, as classic a dry fly fishery as you’ll find. The Snake River stretches some 50 miles along highways 20 and 191 en route to Yellowstone National Park, which makes a great last leg of any fishing trip.

Kernville, Calif.

Well, the whole Western Sierra Nevada is awesome, but the Kern River deserves to be singled out and offers a small piece of Montana on the West Coast. Hard to believe this extremely diverse fishery is located only a half hour outside of Bakersfield. But if you want the really big fish, head up to the main stem above Lake Isabella and Kernville.

Yosemite, Calif.

Another impressive fishery in Central California is the Merced River, which rolls through Yosemite and offers beautiful wild brown trout all the way up to the Half Dome Trail area. While the fishing inside the park isn’t considered blue ribbon, the views certainly are, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more scenic place to cast a line. Outside the park boundary down by El Portal offers some of the best brown trout fly fishing the state has to offer.

Lone Pine, Calif.

I don’t get up to the East Sierra Nevada as much as I should, but when I do I always make a point to stop in Lone Pine and head up to the Cottonwood Lakes area to catch the state fish, the golden trout. Further north, the Bishop area offers some of the best fishing in the West, so make sure you complete the trip and get up to Bishop while you’re out there.

Ogden, Utah

With the Weber and Ogden Rivers bookending the town, you can’t go wrong in Odgen, which offers everything from salmon to tiger trout. The only tough decision is getting there. If you fly into Salt Lake City, it’s tough not to head south to fish rivers like the Provo River. So why not make a week of it and hit all of the above. Definitely worth staying over a few more nights.

Flagstaff, Arizona

Like Yosemite’s Merced River, Oak Creek near Flagstaff also runs through some beautiful surroundings in the red rock country of Sedona – which is one of the most overlooked fisheries in the Southwest. I had a ton of success on the creek during my one fishing trip to Flagstaff in the fall. Just be prepared for the high altitude. That hike down to the creek can be a grueling one in that oxygen-thin air, but it’s well worth the effort.

Redding, Calif.

A top 10 list wouldn’t be complete without Redding. But instead of focusing on just the Redding area, I like to branch out to nearby waters like the American River, which offers some of the best fly fishing (and rafting) in Northern California. But you might want to avoid this river in the middle of the summer when yellow rafts appear to be the pattern of choice along the surface.

Glenwood Springs, Colo.

No favorite fly fishing list would be complete without mentioning Colorado. And how lucky is Glenwood Springs, which has the Colorado River, Roaring Fork, Crystal River, Fryingpan River, Snowmass Creek, Maroon Creek, Castle Creek and Lincoln Creek all within casting distance? Not that I need a big-name river or a well-known trout town. I’ve had as much fun searching for dinks on Colorado’s St. Vrain, a favorite of fly fishing author John Grierach. And any river that’s cherished by Gierach is a fine fishery in my eyes.

Bend, Ore.

Like Colorado, trying to single out a few fisheries in Oregon is like trying to pick a single scoop of ice cream at 31 flavors. Picking just one is impossible. But if you had to go with just one, the Deschutes River tastes pretty darn good. And it offers one of the most colorful trout in the Pacific Northwest – the redband trout, a native strain of rainbow trout also known as “redsides” for their crimson-colored sides that looked as if they’ve been painted with watercolors.

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