By Mark D. Williams
I am a lucky guy, and I know it. As an outdoors writer, I fish a lot, all over the West, all through the Rockies. I fish in spring creeks, tailwaters, alpine brooks, high-country lakes, freestone streams, beaver ponds and sometimes even cow pasture ponds.
My wife loves to go on fishing trips with me, and although my 17-year-old daughter likes to fish a lot less than she did a decade ago when she was Daddy’s Little Girl, I can usually find places to keep everyone happy with plenty of fishing when they want and alternatives for when they don’t want to fish. Go figure that they would like to shop, sleep in clean rooms and eat nice meals on these trips. Me? I don’t shop much, except for more fishing gear, can sleep pretty much anywhere, and a hamburger and fries is a good meal to me. Imagine my challenge in fishing where I can fish most all day, keep the kids occupied, and provide the right collaterals to make my spouse happy! You’ll find that the following places – selected by the Williams family – meet such exacting criteria.
My family likes to eat Mexican food and test Montezuma every chance we get, so if our list of restaurants leans in that direction, our palates apologize. We also love rustic cafes with tasty vittles. To wit: The Rabbit Ears Cafe on the west side of Clayton, N.M., is not much to look at, but the food is plentiful and pleasing.
These home bases offer the best array of nearby trout fishing waters combined with amenities for the entire family. I left out many famous trout hotspots because they are not family-conducive and don’t offer much in the way of alternate activities.
I left out some my favorite places – Ely, Nev., Missoula, Mont., Chama, N.M., Buena Vista, Colo., Jackson, Wyo., and Steamboat Springs, Colo. – for no other reason than editorial space. And I didn’t clutter the suggestions with lists of fly shops, guides and outfitters. I looked for a combination of places that offer accommodations that pass muster with my wife and daughter.
I have included a diverse listing of lodging and restaurants for the budget-minded fishing family, with the occasional higher-priced treat of a restaurant thrown in. The same goes with the trout fisheries: I tossed in some big-time trophy trout rivers, a dash of backcountry creeks, a cupful of accessible roadside waters and a pinch of whatever else was left over.
The Rio Grande is the centerpiece here. It’s a huge, powerful river crossing the Colorado border before entering a deep, rugged gorge. This fishery ranks with any in the southern Rockies, holding feisty browns, rainbows and cutthroats.
The Red River is a solid bet for families; if you want to fish the canyon water, where this foamy green stream dumps into the Rio Grande, make sure you and your partners are in good shape. The best angling opportunity lies near the hatchery outside the town of Red River, where you’ll find a kids’-only pond as well.
To reach the canyon sections of the Rio Grande and Red River, go north on Highway 522 to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Area near Questa. Keep heading east on Highway 38 if you want to fish at the hatchery.
The Cimarron River shouldn’t be overlooked. A 29-inch, 9-pound brown trout was caught in its quality water section a couple of years ago. This dry-fly haven is about an hour’s drive east-northeast of Taos. Take Highway 38 east and then north through scenic low-slung mountains that spill into the fishing town of Eagle Nest. Eagle Nest Lake is loaded with rainbow trout, mackinaw and kokanee salmon.
Some fun smaller trout streams to try include Rio Pueblo de Taos, Rio Hondo, Rio Chiquita and Pot Creek.
You’ll pay dearly if you stay near the Plaza. One of the better values is the Kachina Lodge, (505) 758-2275. The town is loaded with bed-and-breakfasts; two of the best for families are the Old Taos Guesthouse, (505) 758-5448, and Casa Benavides, (505) 758-5738. Call the Taos B&B Association, 1-800-821-2437. The Sagebrush Inn, (505) 758-2254, is a good value with lots of charm.
In Taos, we favor the low-key fare at Michael’s Kitchen, oft-mentioned in travel books. Yes, there is usually a line, and, yes, it’s worth it. Fred’s Place is funky, fun and popular. We like the enchiladas and atmosphere. Bent Street Deli and Cafe is a good family casual dining spot where you won’t break the pocketbook for tasty vittles. Try Eske’s Brewpub, (505) 758-1517. Upscale restaurants with our stamp of approval include Lamberts (505) 758-1009, Doc Martin’s, (505) 758-2233, and the Appletree, (505) 758-1900.
Trout fishers will enjoy a selection of fine waters within one or two hour’s drive. Lake San Cristobal is a shining jewel of a natural lake holding large mackinaws, and Blue Mesa Reservoir is big and long beside Highway 50. Alpine lakes dot the landscape, and those in search of wild trout in high country will not have to venture far to find them.
The big, frothy water of the lower Lake Fork of the Gunnison courses through steep canyons but with plenty of marked public access. Here you’ll find fat browns and rainbows in long riffles and deep pools. The family-friendly upper Lake Fork also harbors nice fish. Lake Fork flows through the hamlet of Lake City where cabins run $45 to $100 per day.
Cebolla and Powderhorn creeks are ideal for families and beginners. They are small but prolific, ri
ch with insects, perfect for dry-fly fishing, loaded with browns and brookies and lots of feeder creeks. Anyone with a rod is guaranteed to catch fish.
The Rio Grande here is much more inviting than downstream in New Mexico. Except for the early season when the river is up, the Rio Grande can easily be waded. Anglers do well working riffles and around boulders with dry flies and dropper nymphs. The lower stretches can be accessed off Highway 149 while the upper reaches are west of Creede, where Thirty Mile and Road Canyon reservoirs impound the river.
Near Gunnison, small creeks are in high supply. Ohio, Tomichi, Saguache and Los PiÃ±os creeks are all worth a day’s trip. If you are a highly skilled fly-fisher, you’ll want to tackle the monsters of Taylor River right below the reservoir.
All three small Colorado communities have fishing in town and within minutes out of town.
There are few top-dog digs in these towns but these tiny towns do offer adequate motels, inns and especially cabins. We recommend: the modest but comfortable Town Square Cabins, (970) 944-2236, in Lake City; the historic Creede Hotel, (719) 658-2608, in Creede; and the Mary Lawrence Inn B&B, (970) 641-3343 in Gunnison.
Can’t beat the pizza and banter at Poker Alice’s in Lake City, and you won’t find a better or more authentic milkshake than at the San Juan Soda Company on Lake City’s town square. In Creede, try the Mucker’s Bucket for scrambled eggs, biscuits, gravy and strong coffee. In Gunnison, the Gold Creek Inn, (970) 641-2086, offers gourmet fare but is often crowded; the Sidewalk Café, (970) 641-4130, has giant pancakes.
West is a curious mix of ratty fishing cabins, world-class fishing lodges and everything in between. My wife and daughter like to spend time in the candy store in town, the kind with old-fashioned candy in bins lined along the wall. Take in a feature at the IMAX. Watch grizzly bears in an outdoor viewing area at the Grizzly Discovery Center.
Don’t get too hung up fishing on this trip, not with all the natural wonders in the area. Marvel at the geysers and the buffalo, elk and, if you’re lucky, grizzlies. Allot time in the morning and evening to wet a line but leave plenty of time for sightseeing.
The town has grocery stores and gas stations but you’re not going to like the prices. You will like your options of where to cast a Royal Wulff. Gardiner is another fishing town similar to West, located at the northern entrance to the park.
There may not be another place on earth with as many nearby world-class trout rivers and lakes as West Yellowstone. In the park, you have to pay a small fee to get in but you sure get bang for your buck. The toughest part of fishing out of West is paralysis by analysis – too many options.
How about the fabled rivers and lakes in Yellowstone National Park like the Firehole, Gibbon, Gallatin, Madison, Slough Creek and the mighty Yellowstone. The park has a hundred lakes to splash around in. If you need smaller waters, take the kids to Obsidian, Panther and Indian creeks and the upper Gibbon. Remember to stay close to the wife and children because wildlife can sneak up on you in a hurry.
Outside of the park and within minutes of West are the lower Madison River, Quake and Hebgen lakes, Henrys Fork of the Snake River, and Henry’s Lake.
If you have masochistic tendencies, stay in the park. If you want a little more quiet and less traffic, stay in West. For moderately priced, comfortable cabins, try Sleepy Hollow Cabins, (406) 646-7707, or Westwood Cabins, (406) 646-7713. The Traveler’s Lodge, (406) 646-9561, is moderately priced. In Gardiner, you can stay fancy at the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, 1-800-548-3392, or you can keep greenbacks in your pocket at the Murray Hotel, (406) 222-6500. For info, phone the West Yellowstone Visitors Information Center, (406) 646-7701, or the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce, (406) 848-7971.
The Rustler’s Roost, (406) 646-7622, has good eats and a varied menu. Three Bear Restaurant, (406) 646-7811, serves family-style hearty meals. In Gardiner, the kids will enjoy the hot subs at the Pickle Barrel, (406) 222-5469.
While there are more amenities in nearby Show Low or Springerville, we prefer Greer for its location in the heart of the White Mountains. It is surrounded by low-slung, green-forested mountains, not buildings or people. The rivers are small but the size of the trout will astound you. The lakes are intimate, plentiful and bountiful, some holding trout as big as (gulp) 15 pounds. Trout anglers can entice salmonids on the Little Colorado, Black, White and Blue rivers and toss flies and lures on rainbow-rich Horseshoe-Cienega, Earl Park and A-1 lakes. Catching the Apache trout and admiring its beauty and rarity are excellent reasons to visit here.
Greer is an excellent home base to fish a couple of rivers and a lake or two each day. Make sure to fish both in the national forest and on the Apache Reservation. Apache trout are a lovely, fighting fish, well worth your angling attention.
None of the streams are big, and for families with young children, this is a good thing. The Little Colorado is a small clear river ideal for casting with a small rod and teaching neophytes how to trout fish. The river crosses Highway 373 on your way to Greer from Eagar.
The North Fork of the White River offers the finest stream fishing in the White Mountains. Combine a morning angling for Apache trout in the North Fork with an afternoon lounging on the banks of Horseshoe Lake. You can access the North Fork from Horseshoe Lake off of Highway 260 or from Highways 73 and 473.
It is difficult to get reservations at the stylistic Red Setter Inn Bed and Breakfast, (520) 735-7441, which was once showcased in a national magazine. Two other ideal choices are Snowy Mountain Inn, (520) 735-7576, which has new, clean cabins, and an old favorite, scenic Greer Lodge, (520) 735-7515. An isolated, true-to-heart angler’s choice is Hawley Lake Lodge, 12 miles off Route 260. It is set on a great fishing lake, with cabins and motel rooms overlooking the lake.
Bring your own food. Time to make casseroles, roast pork or grill burgers. Snowy Mountain Inn has some interesting gourmet epicurean options, but if you prefer eating out, you’ll n
eed to drive to Show Low, Pinetop, Alpine or Springerville.
Sandpoint is surrounded by Idaho’s largest lake on one side and a lazy river on the other. The family can fish in the morning, swim in the afternoon, and take a leisurely cruise in the evening on Lake Pend Oreille. About 10 miles northwest of town, at the Schweitzer Mountain Resort, summer activities include biking, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. The area is loaded with things to do for the active family: river rafting, wine tasting at Pend Oreille Winery, horseback riding or attending the annual Timberfest. The town has a deserved reputation as a fine arts location, chockfull of arts and music festivals throughout the warm months
The Green Monarchs ring the shores of Lake Pend Oreille like sentinels standing a timeless vigil. Pend Oreille lies just to the southeast of Priest Lake and is Idaho’s deepest (1,250 feet) and largest lake (43 miles long, 6 miles wide). Trolling is the mainstay of fishing for trout here, but in this case, the targets are huge rainbow trout of the Kamloops strain. They grow big, up to 37 pounds, and are known for their athleticism. You and yours can also catch bull trout (still legal here), kokanee salmon, largemouth bass and bluegill among the 14 kinds of game fish here.
Priest Lake to the northwest of Sandpoint off of Highway 57 produced the state-record mackinaw in 1971, a monster weighing over 57 pounds. Anglers today report average catches of 20-pounders.
The top rivers in the area include Pack, Priest, Moyie, Kootenai and Clark Fork. The Pend Oreille River produces some big rainbows as it snakes along to the Washington border. The Moyie River is one of my favorites because of its primeval setting and blue ribbon angling for wild trout.
Stay in remote lodging in the wild on the big lake with its breathtaking views, amongst the charm and amenities of Sandpoint, or at the ski resort. On the lake, try the charming Midas Inn Bed and Breakfast, (208) 263-6074. In Sandpoint, stay at the affordable Monarch West Lodge, (208) 263-2111. At the ski resort, the Green Gables at Schweitzer, 1-800-831-8830, is luxurious and has amazing views. For information, call the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-800-2106.
Sandpoint dining runs the gamut from sandwiches to elegant. Eichardt’s, (208) 263-4005), a charming pub and grill in downtown Sandpoint, is a must-visit. Joel’s Mexican Food, (208) 265-8991, and Jalapeno’s, (208) 263-2995, are good choices for Mexican, and the family will scarf down the specialty pizzas at Second Avenue Pizza, (208) 263-9321.
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