Tie One On
Fly-fishing and the national parks grew up together in America. While Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden and his 1871 expedition surveyed the land around the Yellowstone River, a renaissance man in Maine, Hiram Leonard, shaped an ash and lancewood rod. Though not the first America had ever seen, Leonard’s fly rod was by far the best. By 1872, bolstered by Hayden’s research and lobbying, Congress was establishing our first public land at Yellowstone National Park, and Leonard was in a Boston sporting goods store buried in orders for his revolutionary six-strip fly rods.
It makes sense, really. The national parks grew out of a philosophy of conservation, appreciation of nature and conscientious impact on wilderness. Fly-fishermen creep lightly upon the riverbank, their lines gently laying down a handmade piece of art. They seek the simple thrill of the rod’s bending and tightening as much as the electric burst of a newly hooked brookie.
Our national parks harbor some of the nation’s best fly-fishing waters, from the world-famous roadside runs and remote high-alpine lakes in Glacier National Park to the dark-pooled mossy creeks of Great Smoky Mountains.
Some parks provide stocked waters while others are restricted to wild-only runs. Park rules vary regarding bait, hooks and limits, so always check nps.gov or call a visitor center for specific requirements before you head out. While anglers usually need a valid state fishing license, park regulations may differ from those outside the park.
With a little research, fly-fishing in the parks can be as simple as this line cast by fly-fisherman and author John Gierach: “I used to like fishing because I thought it had some larger significance. Now I like fishing because it’s the one thing that probably doesn’t.”
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK
Thanks to extensive restoration efforts by park biologists, anglers can now fish for brook trout in park streams for the first time in over 30 years. Grab your lightest rod, and beware of catching streamside rhododendron instead of fish. Fishing allowed during daytime hours. Carry valid TN or NC fishing license. Artificial flies on single hooks only. For stream closures and catch limits check nps.gov/grsm
BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK
The canyon’s 2,500-foot walls rise straight out of the riverbank, where pools swirl with the rise of wild brown and rainbow trout, some weighing six pounds. Plus, the low traffic yields a true wilderness park experience. Catch and release only on rainbows, limits on browns and valid Colorado fishing license required. Artificial flies only; no bait. East Portal Road closed in winter. nps.gov/blca
GLACIER NATIONAL PARK
The majestic, towering peaks feed lakes and rivers that hold Montana-size rainbows, browns and cutthroat. Rivers such as the North Fork Flathead provide some easy access holes, but the lakes are where Glacier holds its best prize—the threatened native bull trout (catch and release only). No license or permit required to fish within park, but stop by a visitor center or ranger station for regulations. nps.gov/glac
THE NEW RIVER GORGE NATIONAL RIVER
The river’s deep pockets of eroded sandstone layers are home to black bass and golden, rainbow, brook and brown trout. Tributaries like Meadow, Glade, Mill and Dunloup offer the best chances at trout. For black bass, try the 53 miles that flow through the park corridor. WVA fishing license required. Limits and restrictions vary by river section so check nps.gov/neri
OZARKS NATIONAL SCENIC RIVERWAYS
They say the Ozarks grows trees and rocks. It also pulses with spring-fed rivers. The Ozark National Scenic Riverways protects 34 miles of the Jacks Fork and 101 miles of the Current River in northwest Missouri. While the entire river corridors teem with far more perfect pools than anglers, the Current River's upper eight miles hold the best honey holes. Take one of three access points between Montauk Springs and Cedar Grove and bring some slow-moving flies for winter/early spring waters: caddis, olives, sculpins, midges. Missouri fishing license required. For details, restrictions and trout limits visit nps.gov/ozar
DRY TORTUGAS NATIONAL PARK
Fly-fishing isn’t all mountain vistas and cold water. Dry Tortugas National Park means tropical fly-fishing just a ferry ride away from the house of the old fisherman himself, Ernest Hemingway. Seven islands surrounded by coral reefs, shoals and warm, emerald water comprise the 100-square-mile park. The park prohibits commercial fishing, so you and your flies have the sailfish, wahoo, mackerel, African pompano, barracuda and tuna all to yourself. It’s a good idea to check the weather beforehand. There are prohibited areas and catch restrictions. Check with the visitor center or online at nps.gov/drto for details.
CURECANTI NATIONAL RECREATION AREA
Old-growth cottonwoods might be the only spectators along the meandering stretch of Gunnison River as it slows to enter Curecanti's Blue Mesa Reservoir, a short drive west of Gunnison, CO. Kokanee salmon, more abundant here than in any other US fishery, could be heading upstream to spawn in fall. Brown, rainbow, and brook trout move throughout the reservoirs and especially in tributary creeks. Find the best luck just below the dams or above Blue Mesa. Colorado state fishing license required and all state regulations apply within the park. For more on Curecanti visit nps.gov/cure.