American Beauty

2/23/2017

Spring 2017

Fly-fishing in the West’s wide-open spaces

For one young man, the timeless art of fly-fishing led to a lifelong passion for the great outdoors.

Years ago, when I was an easily sidetracked college student, I left my native New England for an extended road trip through the Rocky Mountain West. My journey, as I’d told my parents over the preceding months, was to explore the high-desert ecosystems of Colorado and Utah, parlaying all I learned into a self-designed semester’s worth of credit toward the ecology degree I was then pursuing. My father, eyeing the pile of fly rods, waders and assorted fly-fishing tackle that filled the rear third of my car, wondered aloud if this wasn’t in fact just a fishing trip, dressed up to look like something a bit more legitimate. “Don’t worry …” I replied, easing out of the driveway and aiming myself west. “It’s not like I’ll be fishing the whole time.” My father shook his head and looked at me with a mixture of disappointment and envy. It was he, after all, who’d introduced me to the sport years before, never assuming it would derail me from my studies.

Roaring Fork River, Colorado.
Big Thompson River, Colorado.
Cache La Poudre River, Colorado.
Fryingpan River, Roaring Fork Valley, Colorado.

With a farewell honk, I eased my way through the sleepy streets of my youth and onto the interstate, working out of evergreen forests and onto the Midwestern plains. The drive, as I recall, took several days, and I slept in the car in a series of truck stops and roadside pull-offs, eating animal crackers and falling asleep each night to a recorded reading of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It on cassette. Crossing into Colorado for the very first time, I saw the swell of the Rocky Mountains, the first snows of the year having already painted the highest peaks white. There ahead, running hard and cold off the eastern slope of the Continental Divide was the stuff of legend, in the eyes of a small-town, untraveled easterner anyway. Between me and the horizon were the fabled rivers whose names alone were poetry: the Fryingpan, the Cache La Poudre, the Roaring Fork, the Big Thompson … all of them just gurgling through the last days of summer and into autumn, and all of them full to bursting with glittering trout. I turned north out of Denver and smiled a wide smile, knowing full well that there would be little, if any, honest-to-goodness schoolwork accomplished in the next three months. By day’s end, if the fates were willing, I’d be knee deep in cold water, with something of far greater consequence thrumming at the end of my line.

Reid Bryant (author) demonstrates the catch and release method with a prize rainbow trout.
Reid Bryant (author) demonstrates the catch and release method with a prize rainbow trout.

I learned to fly-fish as a small boy, on the freestone streams of New England. My father was my teacher, as he had fished the same waters as a young man. I find it quite wonderful now that my father came to fly-fishing all on his own, learning to cast and tie knots from the pictures in magazines, and bumbling blindly but happily through the summers of his youth. My father was, and remains, one of those guys who honestly loves the act of fishing, and who remains pleasantly surprised when a fish is actually caught. He taught me to appreciate the same; in my early education in fly-fishing I learned far less about actually catching fish and far more about cherishing the nighthawks that swirled at sunset, the crawfish that squirted away in plumes of mud, and the angry beavers that swatted their tails when I passed into unwelcoming water. 

A brook trout just about to take a bite.
A brook trout just about to take a bite. Photo: Dec Hogan / Shutterstock

In the early years, when I did in fact catch fish, they were nearly always the less-loved species: shiners and chubs that were little more than oversized minnows, snaggle-toothed pickerel that I was, and remain, a little afraid to unhook. But I still remember one rainy afternoon when, with my father at my side, I cast a rumpled and well-worn dry fly toward the mouth of a feeder creek on New Hampshire’s Baker River and caught my very first trout. It was a small brook trout, as bright and colorful as a carousel pony, and more precious to me than gold. That the fish had likely been stocked by the state Fish and Game Department only hours before was of no consequence to me, for in catching it I had joined the ranks of the true fly-fishers, the pipe-smoke and wool-plaid and wicker-creel gentlemen whom I saw in the pages of my father’s fishing magazines. In the drizzly afternoon, with my father beside me, I knew that trout and flies and cold-water rivers would forever provide me with a reason to be. All these years later, my love for all three remains as strong as ever.

Mosquito fly being tied to a fishing line.
Mosquito fly being tied to a fishing line. Photo: Lindsay Daniels / Tandem Stills + Motion

On that life-changing trip west, in the first blush of adulthood, I gave in entirely to my passion for fly-fishing. I fell asleep on the hard ground beside rivers, leaving the water only after the nights grew too dark to tie knots. I woke up in the increasingly chilly dawns to make coffee and eat instant oatmeal, looking out over the still-water pools for trout noses that dimpled the surface. I drove in wild circles through Colorado and Utah and learned the swell of the mountains, and also the curious, twisting roads that followed those rivers out of steep gorges and into the flats, where the waters widened, and darkened and became still. And, of course, I caught trout: rainbows and brown trout and brookies, as strong and true as the Rockies themselves, and every bit as lovely. I caught them on flies tied by hand, little bits of feather and fur that often weighed less than a pinch of thistledown. That such beautiful creatures could emerge from such a raw and rugged landscape amazed me to no end.

Rainbow Trout.
Brook Trout.
Yellow wildflowers bloom, Colorado.
Yellow wildflowers bloom, Colorado. Photo: Dean Fikar / Shutterstock

Over those months, I became captivated both by trout and by the wild new places they invited me into. With a sense of purpose, I entered a landscape that was crystal clear and bigger than any I had ever known, and with a fly rod in hand I felt it come to life. As my father taught me all those years before, by default more than anything, I never lost sight of the bits and pieces that swirled all around the catching of trout: wildflower meadows and hot coffee at sunrise and the sound of an angry beaver expressing his disapproval. These days, as I encourage my two daughters in early adventures upon rivers of their own, I can only hope that, in fishing, they will find something just as magical.

Fly-fishing in the National Parks

America’s national park system offers the adventurous fly angler a miraculous diversity of game fishing opportunities. Though each park has slightly different sport fishing regulations, angling opportunities abound for park visitors and are widely encouraged. What follows is an overview of the spectrum of fly-fishing to be found within the parks, but the list is by no means exhaustive; travel, explore and fish to your heart’s content … there will no doubt be a new angling adventure around every corner.

1. Yellowstone National Park

Perhaps none of the U.S. national parks embodies as iconic a fly-fishing resource as Yellowstone. With nearly 100 lakes, 1,000 distinct trout streams and 2,600 miles of moving water within its borders, Yellowstone is a trout angler’s paradise. The crown jewel of this fishery is the endemic Yellowstone cutthroat trout, the only trout species native to the park. That said, fly anglers can also target wild, stream-bred rainbow, brown and brook trout, as well as sizeable lake trout at certain times of year in Yellowstone Lake. Dry flies, nymphs and streamers all work well in park waters and an abundance of wild trout make for steady action.

Everglades National Park, Florida.
Everglades National Park, Florida. Photo: Henry Gilbey / Alamy Stock Photo

2. Everglades National Park

Everglades National Park is an ecological wonder that covers 1.5 million acres of estuarine wetland on Florida’s south coast. Encompassing freshwater and saltwater bodies, as well as brackish mangrove rivers, the Everglades boast an unrivaled diversity of fly-fishing prospects. Accessed nearly entirely by boat, fly fishers can target record-class tarpon, snook and redfish on heavy tackle, as well as Florida largemouth bass and panfish farther inland. Numerous guide services operate within the park and daily fly-fishing specific charters are plenty. Anglers will appreciate the remarkable wildlife viewing with alligators, manatees, dolphins and countless bird species a regular sight.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee. Photo: Daniel Dempster Photography /Alamy Stock Photo

3. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park protects some of the last, finest and wild trout habitats in all of the eastern U.S. With 300 trout streams and 750 productive miles of trout water in North Carolina and Tennessee, the Smoky Mountains are home to a lovely native population of Appalachian brook trout. Though rarely large, these are the endemic trout of these waters, and they persist alongside wild populations of brown and rainbow trout. A small cadre of dedicated Smoky Mountains anglers also target the occasional massive brown trout. These leviathans lurk in the shadowy corners of the Tennessee waters and are wildly outsized for the streams they live in. Clear water can make Smoky Mountains fly-fishing a bit technical, but dry flies and nymphs do the trick when presented delicately.

4. Voyageurs National Park

Stillwater fly-fishers will be awed by the angling resource found in Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park. Prized game fish species such as northern pike, muskie, large and smallmouth bass and walleye abound in the park’s waters, and all species are readily taken either from shore or boat (canoes are ideal). When targeting the larger, more aggressive species of pike and muskie, heavyweight tackle is a must, as well as wire leaders or bite guards. Voyageurs is a canoe camper’s dream come true, and the canoe angler could literally spend a lifetime in these northern waters enjoying astounding solitude and incredible fishing.

5. Dry Tortugas National Park

Though accessible only by boat, the adventurous saltwater fly angler might be well advised to explore the Dry Tortugas with rod in hand. Dry Tortugas National Park is a small collection of islands lying approximately 70 miles off Key West, Florida. This marine ecosystem consists of sand flats, reefs and deep blue water and affords remarkable year-round fly-fishing. Prize bonefish and permit frequent the flats, though deeper water on the reefs can reward the angler with jacks, cobia, small tuna, barracuda and innumerable reef species. As the waters within the Dry Tortugas are closed to commercial fishing and access is something of a challenge, the dedicated angler can have this incredible fishery nearly to him or herself. Sightseeing tours of the abandoned Fort Jefferson are a regular occurrence.

Underwater view of a brown trout.
Underwater view of a brown trout. Photo: Matt Jones Photography / Tandem Stills + Motion