Before Hell Freezes Over

Before Hell Freezes Over

50 places to get your fly-fishing Jones in 2011.

  • By: Greg Thomas
  • and Jim Butler
  • Photography by: Mark Lance
  • , Jeff Edvalds
  • , Greg Thomas
  • , Barry Beck
  • , Jim Harris
  • , Cathy Beck
  • and Jim Butler
Man holding fish.

We all have one: A list of places we just have to fish sometime. Some we’ve never been to, some deserve a return visit. They’re the places that occupy our daydreams, when we’re stuck in a meeting and wish we were somewhere else, when we’re shoveling the drive after yet another dumping of snow . . . . These are places where the weather’s always good, the tides are in our favor and the fish are on the feed (in those daydreams, anyway). Our lists include familiar waters (perhaps because there’s a certain comfort in that familiarity, but also because the fishing can be terrific) mixed with plenty of exotic locations we may never get to. But we can dream, can’t we?

Note: for some listings we’ve provided Web addresses where you can get more information. The contacts are generally for lodges or outfitters we’re familiar with and confident in, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only outfits that service a particular place or fishery.

Top 25

New Zealand, North Island, South Island… Who Cares?

On my first (and so far only) visit to this land of jaw-dropping browns and rainbows, each day I caught at least one trout that was bigger than any I had ever landed before the trip. I can’t hope to repeat that, but I’d sure like to try.

I particularly recall a morning with guide Tony Allan, fishing an unnamed (to me) small stream on the South Island. I hooked and landed a 16-inch brown on a Pheasant Tail nymph. Tony just frowned and said, “Eh. North American fish.” I’d be willing to tolerate more humiliation for another shot at those enormous trout.;

Campeche, Mexico

Day after day of casting what amounts to bass-bugging gear at 5- to 40-pound tarpon. They boast the heart-stopping leaps of big tarpon with (I’m told) more willingness to take the fly, and without the hours-long commitment of fighting a 100-plus-pounder. Then evenings wandering the old colonial city of Campeche, dining on fine Yucatecan cuisine and slurping various tequila-based concoctions. Where do I sign up?

Madison River, Montana

During the salmonfly hatch. We’ve all heard the stories. How this hatch is your best stateside opportunity to catch a trout in excess of five pounds on a dry fly. How a sock lashed to a hook will work if you time things right. How the fishing makes adults cry.

And those are not always tears of joy. The dream is to meet the head of the hatch (that’s the theory, anyway), and it often doesn’t go as planned. But that’s part of the appeal, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, I want to catch a monster brown on a Rainy’s Cat Puke. But I also want to experience the frustration of chasing the hatch, of roaring up and down Route 287 in frantic search of these bugs, to then repair to Cameron’s Grizzly Bar and console myself with burgers, fries and beer.;;;

Soda Butte Creek, Yellowstone National Park

The lower portion of the stream, above its confluence with the Lamar River, offers classic high-summer dryfly fishing in open meadow surroundings. This is a stream you can easily cast across, and the trout (cutts and some rainbows) aren’t huge, with the typical fish being 12 to 16 inches. But it’s the perfect place to spend a warm afternoon having uncomplicated fishing for willing trout. Just shorts and boots (no need for waders), a box of terrestrials, PMDs and a few other dries, and a sandwich stuffed in a pocket somewhere.

Harker’s Island, Outer Banks, North Carolina

In the fall, if the planets align for you, big false albacore concentrate in substantial schools just a short boat ride from the dock, which is next to the simple, cinder-block motel I stayed in on this quiet island years ago. Maybe 20 minutes after firing up your outboard you can be in the midst of albacore marauding through bait-balls.

On my short trip to Harker’s we stayed in that basic motel, and the food was almost exclusively of the deep-fried variety. By the third day the floor of our room was covered in a mixture of fly-tying materials and empty beer cans. And our arms were sore from hanging on as fish made long, screaming runs. One thing for sure: Tuna, of whatever variety, will remind you why you have backing. What could be better?

Sea of Cortez, Baja, Mexico

My wish here isn’t so much about a place as it is about a fish. I need to catch a dorado in the worst way, and I don’t really care where it happens. Scott Sadil wrote about the Sea of Cortez in the Spring issue of FR&R, about casting for jacks, roosterfish, marlin, dorado and more.

But all I’m really interested in are the dorado, or mahi-mahi. Their changing, neon colors as they smash bait. Their body-length dorsals. Their tendency to take to the air when hooked. The near-vertical foreheads on the males, making them look to me like they’re wearing the helmet from a suit of armor. Give me days on the Sea of Cortez, searching for mats of Sargassum weed or other floating objects, with dorado prey trembling in fear beneath.

South Fork of the Flathead River, Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana

“The Bob” is a pretty remote place, perhaps as remote as it gets in the Lower 48 states, and it shows in the fishing. Sure, you can hike in (it’s a loooooong hike), but the best thing to do is arrange for an outfitted float. And that will require packing in by horse for the first day or so of your trip. A great way to ease into the wilderness.

From there, you float during the day, fishing from the raft and also getting out and wading from time to time. Then, while your guides set up camp at the end of each day, explore the stream on your own. The cutthroat are about as wild as they get, and unsophisticated. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy. The South Fork is astoundingly clear, and you have to approach your wading and your presentations with care. But if you put it all together, the cutts shoot up and smack your fly with enthusiasm.;

Turneffe Atoll, Belize

A memory: Waking up at about six on my last morning at one of the Turneffe Islands’ fine lodges. Looking outside I see my wife, wearing bikini and wading boots, stalking the PhD bonefish on the flat in front of the lodge. I think she’s bitten by this fly-fishing thing.

And here’s my dream: I’d like a couple of weeks to explore the atoll. I’d like to be guided a few days, but most of all I’d like a skiff to myself, a full tank of gas, lunch and drinks, and a GPS unit—with lots of spare batteries. Sure, I’ll check out the flats (this is one of the best places in the world to try for a Grand Slam), but I’ll spend most of my time casting streamers and poppers to the mangrove edges, never really sure what might grab my fly.;

Delaware River, (East Branch, West Branch, mainstem)

Us Eastern anglers generally have to make do with small streams, and often with small trout. I know, I know, there are exceptions. And this fishery is one of those exceptions.

In truth, it’s not quite accurate to term the Delaware a single fishery; each branch (and then the mainstem, after the East and West branches converge near Hancock, New York) is distinct in its own right. But suffice to say that much of it is big water, with big trout. The hatches can be stupendous. In essence, Western-style fishing (whether you’re floating or wading) in the East.;

Bristol Bay region, Alaska

This is a pretty specific wish: I want to spend an extended period on any one of a number of streams here, under the right conditions, fishing only mouse patterns for big rainbows. The thought of two-foot long, resident trout bursting the surface to chomp on a deerhair bug gives me the willies.

Now, there are lots of possibilities (both watersheds and outfitters) for this kind of fishing. Probably every one of the booking agents you’ll find elsewhere in this issue can set you up. But while researching my portion of this list I came across an outfit I just have to pass along. EPIC Angling & Adventure runs a couple of Alaska tent camps in the Bristol Bay region. Their Alaska Wilderness Outpost consists, apparently, of a handful of two-person tents on a small stream full of big rainbows (and salmon, too). And the Web site quotes a client: “The trout fishing was so outstanding that I gave up using anything but the mouse pattern on most days.” Was this written just for me?;

River Test, England

Admit it. You’d like to catch a trout in the birthplace of fly-fishing as we know it. Yeah, sure, the manicured chalkstreams of the southwest of England can seem a little contrived, but the place is dripping with history.

No interest? Well, I’m in. There are plenty of challenging wild trout, and I can easily imagine myself in one of Frederic Halford’s or G.E.M. Skues’ books while I cast away in a tweed jacket and a tie. Where else could I pull that off without getting strange looks?

Roaring Fork of the Colorado, September

I remember a day of casting from a driftboat, banging the banks with streamers for pre-spawn browns. The trout were aggressive, as is their wont at this time of year. The Roaring Fork, in keeping with its name, rips right along, and the idea was to hit pockets right against the bank as we shot by in the driftboat. Two or three strips, then hit the next pocket. Fish would materialize in what appeared to be three inches of water, pouncing on our Buggers and leeches. Now, the scenery was magnificent, but I saw almost none of it; absolute focus was required, so for most of the day I watched a six-foot strip of landscape parade past: three feet of water, and three feet of bank. In a sense, it was some of the most athletic fishing I’ve done, and I’d sign on again in a minute.

The Marquesas, Florida Keys

Twenty-five miles west of the tourist hurly-burly of Key West are the remote Marquesas Keys, a handful of small islands surrounding Mooney Harbor. The Marquesas, a part of the Key West Wildlife Refuge, make this list as much because of the place as for the fish that live there. And the fish are there.

But I can’t describe this special environment with anywhere near the elegance as did Jeffrey Cardenas in his fine, small book, Marquesa: A Time & Place With Fish. Although it was published as a limited edition, and is now out of print, it can be found. Get yourself a copy. When you read it, and about the islands’ tarpon, bonefish, permit, birds and more, you’ll know.

Lake Okeechobee, Florida

Yes, you’re right, we are talking about the land of the logo-emblazoned jumpsuit. But the lake is a largemouth bass factory, and this is the place to go if you have to catch a bass that needs Weight Watchers. The habitat is simply astounding. Most of the guides don’t specialize in fly-fishing, but all you really need is someone who can put you on the water, and who can find you fish on or near the surface. The rest is up to you. Oh, son.

Spednic Lake, Maine

I’d like to spend a soft June afternoon on this lake on the New Brunswick border, casting poppers to refrigerator-size rocks, waiting for an angry smallmouth to come shooting up through the water column and crash my fly. They are the fish of my childhood, and I’ve never found a better place to chase them than Spednic. For smallmouth on top, give me the last two weeks in June. But I’ll have to fight my habit of continually twitching my bug; these fish like a popper that’s sitting still, that they can ponder for a while before striking. In any case, there’s nothing wrong with days filled with fish of two pounds and up.

Yukon Territory, Canada

Toothy, nasty northern pike on deerhair bugs. Big pike, cutting wakes across the shallows of innumerable lakes, as my bug tries to flee, screaming at the top of its lungs (OK, I’m doing the hollering). We’re way up north here and there’s a short growing season; mix the need to fatten up fast with a mean disposition (the pike, not me), and you get real action.

At the same time, I’ve tried to forget my first trip here. The water was at record (high) levels, and the weather steadily deteriorated over the week to the point where it snowed most of the last day (this was in July). Needless to say, pike on top were not the order of the day. But I’m willing to give the Yukon the chance to redeem itself.

Yellowstone River, Paradise Valley, Montana

Simply put, this is the classic Western float; it practically defines the Western fly-fishing experience. Big, brawling river, aspens along the banks, mountains in the background, a McKenzie driftboat underneath you. Oh, right: And big browns and rainbows. You’ve got to do this once, and the Paradise Valley stretch is the one I’d go for.

Smith River, Montana

This is another of those back-in-time floats, traveling 60 river miles on water with restricted access (you’ve either got a permit issued by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, or you’re with an outfitter who has one). And it’s another of those trips where it’s the totality of the experience, not just the yee-hah fish hookups. Meadows and forest, high limestone cliffs, solitude, willing browns and rainbows.;

The Montauk Blitz

Tough winds and choppy water off the east end of Long Island in fall. Maybe rough enough to be unfishable. But also loads of false albacore, blues and big striped bass in the shadow of the Montauk Lighthouse.

Pacific Coast, Costa Rica

I’ll admit that I don’t have to land a sailfish the way I absolutely have to do some of the other things on this list. But the thought of a sailfish lighting up as it slashes at a teaser, of plopping my fly down in front of that fish as my guide rips the teaser out of the water, of the sailfish grabbing and greyhoun- ding away as my reel begs for mercy. . . . You get the picture. And I’m getting more enthusiastic about this all the time.

New Orleans, Louisiana

This one’s about redfish, jazz and po’ boys, and not necessarily in that order (or maybe it’s a dead heat). Days of tailings reds and nights of Cajun treats and syncopated rhythms sound pretty good to me.

Lake El Salto, Mexico

Just once I need to fish this lake, where—reportedly—a largemouth in double digits is not that rare a feat (more likely on conventional gear than fly tackle, to be sure). The man-made impoundment is relatively new, and its creation led to the flooding of, among other things, a few small villages and some cemeteries. The spookiness of casting to exposed headstones is part of the appeal. Can’t help it.

Los Roques, Venezuela

I like bonefish (see Andros Island; Turneffe Atoll), but I also like variety. So generally I’d prefer not to do a trip that’s all about bones. But in the case of this Venezuelan national park, the largest marine park in the Caribbean, I’ll make an exception.

The reason is the wading: Nearly all the fishing here is done on foot, and that’s the way I like it (call me a snob, but I positively dislike casting to a bonefish from a boat). And there are still tarpon, permit, jacks, snook and more, in case I need a distraction.

Andros Island, Bahamas

Wading the edge of a flat here with a guide some time back, I spotted a good fish coming our way. I told myself, That’s a small shark. It got closer. That’s a small shark. Closer still. My guide said, “That’s a bonefish.” It turned away before getting into casting range. I want to see that fish again.;

Rio Ñirehuao, Chile

I am absolutely crazy about fishing hoppers and other terrestrials for trout. I claim it’s because I’m cunning. When pressed, I’ll admit that I’m not an outstanding hatch-matcher.

I believe I have found my nirvana. Reports are the Rio Ñirehuao holds up to 9,000 browns per river mile, they’re big, and they positively chow down on hoppers. Even the lodge on the river, El Saltamontes (about 55 miles northeast of Coyhaique), is named after grasshoppers. That’s all I need to know.

Top 25

Dean River, British Columbia

If the Dean River truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I’m seriously bummed. That’s because I visited the Dean last summer and had 13 chrome-bright, sea-lice-riddled steelhead to the beach in three days. By the end of the trip our six-person group had landed 77 steelhead out of 128 hooked, all under mostly blue skies and towering coastal mountains. Basically, I’m spoiled for life and if I don’t get another shot at the Dean I’ll always regret it. Want to get spoiled?;

Marathon, Florida

In May and June the Florida Keys get a strange hatch of aquatic worms and the tarpon go crazy eating these things. When I interviewed a palolo worm expert he said those creatures may contain some sort of pheromone or other element that makes tarpon act drunk. For me to land a large tarpon, it would have to be inebriated. Bring on those worms.;


Why Panama if I’m not into billfish? Because I’d love to catch some of those monster roosterfish roaming the inshore and I’d also like to dredge for cubera snapper and grouper, and bang up some bluefin trevally while I’m at it. Have you seen bluefin trevally? Gorgeous. Each evening I’d like to eat some mahi or yellowfin tuna brought in by the offshore boats. Sounds like a good time to me.

Vancouver Island, sea-run cutthroat

This fish rarely exceeds three or four pounds and the world record is somewhere in the high single digits, but they fight as well as steelhead and wandering the lonely Northwest beaches for this beautiful trout is a blast. There are rumors about places on Vancouver Island where six- to seven-pound cutthroats can be found. That’s where I want to be, at least once in my life.

Muskie Country, Hayward, Wisconsin

I’m headed to musky country this summer to knock another fish, hopefully, off my hit list. What’s wrong with casting at a toothy predator with a taste for rodents and small dogs? I don’t need a 40-pounder, and I’d be happy to get a musky of any size—but why not shoot big? Muskie are the fish of a thousand casts, the experts say, and Hayward is the muskellunge epicenter. Might as well throw my thousand casts there. If you watch Brad Bohen’s new musky hunting video, Zero 2 Hero, you’ll want to be there, too.

Coral Sea, Australia

Coral trout, giant trevally, wicked dogtooth tuna, red bass and maybe a sailfish, marlin or wahoo if you’re lucky. Ah, let’s not kid ourselves—it’s all about those GT’s haunting the reefs. Now, if we could figure out how to land one.

Litza and Kharlovka rivers, Russia

I’ve fished the Ponoi and enjoyed it. However, if I’m mustering the energy and time for Russia I’m finding a way to throw Spey on the Litza or the Kharlovka or, best yet, both. Thirty-pounders. Forty-pounders. Chrome bright. Dinners of giant Barrents Sea king crab. Helicopters be damned, it’s time to tie some tube flies.;

Sandy River, Alaska

The question here is whether to fish this remote Alaska Peninsula stream during summer for king salmon or fall for steelhead. Either way you’ll get battered by the weather and you’ll need to keep a shotgun slung around your shoulder if you don’t want to end up like Treadwell. No matter the risks, kings that average 20 to 40 pounds and steelhead that range to 42 inches more than compensate for the hassle.;

Tanzania, Africa

I list this one because three friends, including Jim Klug at Yellowdog Fly Fishing Adventures, described the thrills of carrying a fly rod through the dark continent. Klug says, if you can avoid the hippopotamus, giant crocodiles and venomous snakes (fast ones!) you’ll tie into tigerfish that rip meat off other fishes and tear through your fly tackle.

Bighorn River, Montana

I used to make an annual trip here in the middle of winter, and I’ve thrown in the heat of summer, too. Rainbows and browns in big numbers and, depending on the year, great size. Think little nymphs and dries to picky fish—the total trout challenge. Or, just tie on a streamer and wreak havoc.

Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia

Officially, this is Haida Gwaii, remote islands located off the far northern British Columbia coast. It’s also a land of steelhead on rainforest streams where you may not see another angler for days, if not an entire week. Just as rewarding is the coastal First Nations art—masks, statues, jewelry and, of course, totems. In addition, the area is ripe for living off the land; you can collect and dine on Dungeness crab, scallops, razor clams, octopus, halibut, salmon and Sitka blacktail deer. To fish the Yakoun River for chrome-bright steelhead that stretch toward 20 or even 30 pounds is a lifetime trip.;

Arctic char, Northern Canada

Doesn’t matter if you’re headed to Cambridge Bay in Nunavut or Nunavit, Quebec—in either place you’ll toss flies at Arctic char that range to 20 pounds. Late in the season, you’ll land fish the color of fiery pumpkins as migrating caribou waltz by the front door of your lodge.;;

Chiang Mai, Thailand

You don’t have to travel through India and bear those brutal roads to throw for mahseer, a moody fish that grows to large size, swims in free-flowing rivers, and eats like a trout. A new operation, Chiang Mai Fishing, holds exclusive leases on the only two fly-fishing-only rivers in Thailand, and they offer overnight trips where the “big” mahseer swim.

Ugashik Narrows, Alaska

In Europe, grayling are considered almost the equal of trout and salmon, but U.S. anglers consider grayling second-class citizens. That changes if you head to Ugashik Narrows, on the Alaska Peninsula, where anglers have landed eight of Alaska’s 10 largest grayling. These fish are brutes, dark colored with those exotic, sail-like dorsal fins. To cast here for grayling offers the possibility of catching a world-record fish. If that happens, snap a quick photo and let that grayling go—it’s all catch-and-release. Interested?;

Sea of Cortez, Baja, Mexico

You can cast from a panga here and stomp some serious fish, but the whole running down the beach thing, casting at cruisers (see video, Running Down The Man by Travis Rummel), is what intrigues me. Everyone wants to hook a roosterfish, for good reason, but the amberjack, pompano and pargo are equally enticing. Almost booked a trip this winter. I’ll wait for the winds to die and head for the sand.;;

Smithers, British Columbia

I don’t need to catch a world-record steelhead and I don’t, necessarily, have to fish the Kispiox or Sustut rivers, but this is where the giants come from, and autumn in and around the town of Smithers is when lots of dreams come true. High-voltage Northwest scenery, plus grizzly bears, moose and steelhead. Throw in two-handed rods and the chance to catch a 20-pounder and I’m all-in.;

Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

Back in 1997, photographer Brian O’Keefe called Bikini “the last of the best salt-water fishing in the world.” Shortly after his trip to Bikini all guided operations ceased. It’s safe to say that O’Keefe’s 1990s-era pronouncement still holds true. But how to get there and fish? Basically, you can’t—the place is pretty much off-limits right now. But when someone makes a fishing investment at Bikini, anglers should find a wonderland—dogtooth tuna, dorado, bonefish, skipjack, snapper, bluefin trevally, yellowfin trevally, swallowtails and long-nosed emperors included. Part of the fascination for me is to see where all the nuclear testing went on and to visit the place where the glorious, glorious two-piece got its name.

Golden Dorado, Bolivia

I kind of think “leishmaniasis” is a pretty name. Now, as far as its being a very serious parasitic condition, um, I’m with you—I don’t want it. But that’s the chance you may take when fishing Bolivia, the newest hottest angling travel destination, where gigantic golden dorado are found. Clear water, small streams and sight fishing for these beasts is reported as one of fly-fishing’s biggest kicks. Just watch out for the bite of the sand fly.

Sun Valley, Idaho

Spent six good years of my life here. Love the late-May/early-June Brown Drake hatch; crushed browns and rainbows on PMDs; dragged them out of Sullivan Slough during excellent Baetis and Callibaetis hatches, too. But Silver Creek during the late-summer Trico spinnerfall, with pods of trout slurping on the surface, is dryfly nirvana in a most beautiful setting. Adding attraction is the killer dining and nightlife to be found in Ketchum.;;


Living in Montana, it’s difficult to think about traveling for trout. But the winters aren’t getting any easier here and I know the boys who’ve scoured Patagonia and they can lead me or you to some enormous brook, brown and rainbow trout, minus the crowds you might find on the Madison, Beaverhead and Bighorn rivers. It’s a long way to go, but how can’t you get excited about big fish and a culture that pretty much survives on steak.;

Deschutes River, Oregon

I’ve fished this river during fall, but not before some brutally cold weather sank its teeth into central Oregon. I want to go back and fish the remote, lower canyon stretches during mid-summer when the worry isn’t freezing fingers, but whether I’m about to step on a rattlesnake. Give me a two-hand stick and a week here and I’ll swim skaters during all waking hours. There are bigger fish to be had in the Northwest, but the Deschutes and its high-desert scenery really intrigue.;

Big Hole River, Montana

This is where the fly-fishing bug really started for me. It’s where I went on my first float trip with the Skubitz family out of Butte. It’s where my father, Fred, and I have enjoyed some of our best days astream. But he and I have never hit it perfect. I’d like to float this with Fred during the salmonfly hatch, or during the equally productive golden stonefly emergence, and really bang some good heads. Then I’d like to head to the Wise River Club with him and down a couple Moscow mules.;;

Smallmouth Bass, Eastern Washington

I grew up in Washington, so you could make the case that this is a homespun bias. The thing is, eastern Washington is a warmwater fly fisher’s paradise, with big smallmouth bass to be had in the Yakima, Columbia, Snake and Grande Ronde rivers. And, if you find time away from those bronzebacks, you can throw for carp, largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill and even walleye. Oh yeah, I should mention an extra bonus of tiger muskie, which swim in several lakes and stretch to 30 pounds.;;;

King Mackerel, Florida Keys

Different fish. Way off the mainstream radar. I don’t know a thing about them really, other than they jump high, eat fish and have lots of teeth. What’s not to like? Got turned onto these things when the photographer Tosh Brown sent some images my way. Insane hops. Better than Jordan. These things are built to kill and one of the best aspects about fishing, in my mind, is to hold and look closely at a new fish. Got to get one of these in my hands.

Rea-run Brown Trout, Tierra Del Fuego, argentina

All you have to do is look at Dec Hogan’s article in this issue and you’ll know why the southern tip of South America is such a draw. I love the Spey rod, and brown trout, and I’m used to the wind in Montana’s Madison Valley, so this is a sure bet for me. Just once, I’d like to get a 20-pound brown, and I love the wide-open, barren and lonely country found in Tierra del Fuego.;

Honorable Mention
Sure, we'd like to get to these 19 places too.