Fly Fishers' Republic

Western Adventure

February 6, 2013

by Norm Crisp

Western Adventure

For tips on planning a fishing venture in the American West read on…

When most people think of fly fishing the American West, rivers like the Madison, Yellowstone, Colorado, Green and the Big Hole are the first that come to minds. Many anglers from around the world dream of someday fishing them. These rivers’ reputations are well deserved. But keep in mind when you concentrate on such storied waters you miss out on the many smaller and relatively unknown streams that are equally great and sometimes greater fisheries.

Whichever water you do pick, a further question may be, ‘Can I fish the American West on my own?’ Well, of course you can, though how successfully will be down to you. Consider its scale, America is a BIG country. Wyoming alone is about the size of Great Britain. So where do you start? My advice is to pick an area or maybe two, then concentrate on them. From that foundation you can start your planning.

A primary dependency of fly fishing in the West is winter snow fall. In years with a lot of snow, like 2010, make your trip late in the season. In a low snow year like 2012, the fishing is over in most of Wyoming by the end of July. 2013 is going to be a year like last. So, come in late June or early July! Fortunately the US government maintains a network of snow level monitoring sites and you can keep track of snow levels for yourself through their website. [1]

One of the great things about the US is how much public land we have available to us. All our federal lands, with the exception of National Parks, have no entrance fees. Most state lands, except for state parks, also have no entrance fees. Once on public land you can hunt, fish, hike and camp almost any place. There are a few exceptions, such as camping in National Parks, or local short term closures of Forest Service lands for management activities such as logging.

In most western states the private land owners bordering a stream own the stream bed. Ranchers take property ownership and privacy very seriously! You cannot and should not walk along the stream banks or in the water. Montana is an exception. In Montana if you can access a stream at a public point such as a bridge you can walk along the stream bank to fish.

Two western cities, Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah are both major airline hubs and provide good access to and from Europe. Both airports offer connecting flights to smaller regional airports. Car rental is imperative. Rental charges are generally higher in the hub cities than at regional airports – often additional internal flight costs can be saved in reduced car rental fees.

Once you have decided on your destination, dates and transport, it is time to do your homework. There is no substitute for local knowledge. But how do you get it? Think of it as a filtering process. Start with broad sources of information and keep refining you search. Fly fishing magazines always have “destination” pieces. And there have been numerous books written about fly fishing the west, some genuinely useful. Don’t base your trip solely on these however. A few years ago a well known publication ran a piece on the Encampment River, a river I’ve been fishing and guiding for over 25 years. Turned out the author had never fished it and had gotten his information from a local outfitter who didn’t even guide on the Encampment. The piece was spot on about the quality of the fish but completely wrong on the best locations to access the river. Thankfully there was no mention of the Encampment’s tributaries. I still have them and their fish for my clients and myself.

Web sites can give you information as well. My web site lists several of the Wyoming streams I guide on. Do a Google Earth search on a stream listed on a web site and you are starting to refine your fishing locations.

Everyone always stops in the local fly shop to ask about fishing. Remember that most shops also offer guide services. They will give you very basic information but that is about all you will get. They are not going to give you their special place where they take clients. Also realise, guides can tell very quickly if a client is just spending the day “fishing” for our special locations. We take first time clients to good spots but not necessarily the most special ones. That isn’t to say that you should not consider hiring a guide. They can give you a lot of advice on local techniques and help you get a footing.

The single best source of information – other than having a local take you fishing [2] – is the local fisheries management professional. Having been a fisheries biologist I have had firsthand experience with helping visiting fishermen. The management agency works to develop the best fisheries that they can, and they want to share their successes with you. Every National Forest has one or more fisheries biologist on their staff. Many of the smallest units, the District Rangers office, also have a fisheries biologist. If you contact them, either via e-mail or phone before your trip they will gladly make some valuable suggestions. Trying to contact them once summer comes is nearly impossible. They will be doing field work. Similarly the state fish and wildlife agency can provide valuable information. Information the Jackson office of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department provided lead me to a new place to catch Yellowstone Cutthroats and saved me over 150 miles of driving!?

Finally, on arrival and before fishing, remember, each state requires its own fishing permit. They are widely available at most shops and can be purchased online. While all offer season permits, some states offer short term permits as well. This can range from single day to week long permits. A little math will tell you which to buy.

Getting off the beaten path, away from the big name tourist and fly fishing locations will give you a fly fishing experience that will make you want to keep coming back. Of course I would be more than happy to be your guide, but I can also help steer you towards a successful independent trip. Just drop me an email, give me a call (see sidebar) or post an inquiry in comments below.

Further reading:

Flyfisher's Guide to Wyoming, Ken Retallic. Wilderness Adventures Press. Revised edition 2009. ISBN: 1-932098-10-0.

Flyfisher's Guide to Montana, Chuck Robbins. Wilderness Adventures Press, 2008. ISBN: 1-932098-22-4.

Idaho River Maps & Fishing Guide, Greg Thomas & Gary Lewis. Frank Amato Publications, 2010. ISBN-10: 1571884556.


[1] For more detail on interpreting Snotel and USGS data see a post on Norm's blog (ed.)

[2] Online forums can help here, though you should be cautious if you go this route, both in terms of your approach and who and what you trust. I can recall this working for members of the long established Fish n Fly Forums (ed.)


Telephone: 913-645-1994

Website: Stream Side Adventures