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10 Bucket List Trips for North American Fly Anglers

You don't have to travel the world for great fly fishing. Here's where to wet a fly in the U.S.

10 Bucket List Trips for North American Fly Anglers

It's been a long pandemic, but with travel starting to loosen up, fly anglers are looking forward to experiencing some long rod fights that take them deep into the backing of their fly reels. If you're not quite ready to travel overseas again, don't worry since there’s plenty bucket-list fly fishing opportunities right here in the United States. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

In 2004, author Chris Santella penned the popular book, 50 Places to Fly Fish Before You Die. That was followed by a sequel in 2011, 50 More Places to Fly Fish Before You Die.

Inspired by Santella's written work, San Diego fly angler Conway Bowman used the idea to launch a World Fishing Network television series a few years back that was loosely based on locations found in the first book. In short, it was a 30-minute show filled with fly-fishing dreams.

All of which got me to thinking recently about my own fly-fishing bucket list, especially as the American economy reopens and travel begins to increase again following the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some anglers aren't ready to head overseas anytime soon, there are plenty of "Top 10" bucket-list fly-fishing trips that can happen right here in the United States.

With that in mind—and a nod to Santella's written work and Bowman's WFN TV show—here's my list of fly-fishing adventures that don't require a passport:

1. Florida Keys Mixed Bag

Fly fishing off Islamorada in the Florida Keys. (Shutterstock image)

For the saltwater fly angler, the Florida Keys from Key Largo to Islamorada to Key West are hallowed ground. For starters, there are tarpon, from leaping Everglades juveniles to triple-digit behemoths testing the limits of 12-weight fly rods as they race away, leap skyward and make crashing "holes in the ocean." Then there are big scimitar-tailed permit swimming the flats, maddeningly difficult to catch fish that will only occasionally eat a fly. Add in speedy bonefish that can melt backing off of a fly reel, burly redfish rooting around for crab and shrimp, and huge snook that burst from shadowy hides in the mangroves to smash a fly, and the Florida Keys are nothing less than a salty fly fisher's heaven during the spring, summer and fall.

2. Arkansas' Big Browns

Howard "Rip" Collins caught this former world-record brown trout in the Little Red in 1992. It weighed a whopping 40 pounds, 4 ounces. (Photo courtesy of Gregg Patterson)

Argentina's Tierra del Fuego and the legendary Rio Grande River may get top billing for monster sea-run brown trout, but such a globetrotting flight hasn't been easy or even possible in recent months. Now that the skies are loosening up again, keep in mind that you don't have to head to another continent for a double-digit brown.

Why? Because some of the world's biggest browns swim in northern Arkansas' White, Little Red and Norfork river systems. Need proof of that? Then consider that the late Rip Collins pulled a former world record brown—a 40-pound, 4-ounce fish—from the Little Red in the mid-1990s. While most Razorback State browns aren't that big, tie on a Chad Johnson streamer pattern in the colder months and get ready to hang on. Because a double-digit brown might come calling, without the hemisphere swapping jetlag.

3. Biloxi Marsh Bull Reds

The Biloxi Marsh is teeming with bull reds during the fall. (Shutterstock image)

Not far to the east of New Orleans' French Quarter, some of the year's best big-fish fly-rod opportunities await every October through January as huge bull redfish move into the skinny water of central Gulf Coast haunts like Biloxi Marsh. These fish are brutes—the average fish size can be in the double-digits and some reds can go up to 40 pounds or more—and they'll often hungrily eat a fly. If you book a trip, get ready for parts of your fly reel's backing to see sunshine for the first time in a good long while.

4. Montana Salmon Fly Hatch

Brown trout from the Madison River in Montana, caught on a salmon fly pattern. (Shutterstock image)

Hitting the late June/early July salmon fly hatch just right on a river like Montana's famed Madison River can require a little bit of good old-fashioned luck. But when the timing is good and you hit it just right, it's one of the sport's greatest experiences to see big rainbows and browns slap huge surface flies with total abandon. Bull’s-eye the hatch just once and you'll remember the experience to your dying day … and keep coming back for more.

5. Colorado Caddis Fly Blizzard

The Arkansas River near Canon City, Colo. (Shutterstock image)

Known as the Mother's Day Caddis Hatch, this springtime Colorado blizzard of caddis flies starts around mid-April's Tax Day near Canon City and moves steadily up the Arkansas River toward Salida as May arrives.

While the hatch gets top billing on this Colorado stream, there are also other rivers across the West where this blizzard of bugs occurs. Get out in front of the suffocating caddis hatch with a box of pupa, egg layer and adult caddis fly patterns and you might grow tired of catching rainbow and brown trout gorging themselves on the fluttering bugs.

6. Proud as a Florida Peacock

They aren't as big as they get in Brazil, but the peacock bass in southeastern Florida's canals are plenty big for a North American bucket list fly fishing experience. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

One reason I’m excited about the return of the annual ICAST Fishing Trade Show this July in Florida is the chance to revisit the fish-rich canals near Miami and Fort Lauderdale. In fact, it’s become something of a post-ICAST tradition between yours truly, my boss Jeff Phillips, and Capt. Patrick Smith of Swamp to Sea Guide Service.


While the butterfly peacocks planted there years ago (to help control exotic aquarium fish dumped into the vast canal system) rarely approach even half the size of their Brazilian cousins in the Amazon, who cares? You might not land a 20-pound giant that will land you on the cover of our sister publication, Fly Fisherman magazine, but you'll stay stateside and still have a shot at catching one of the prettiest, hardest fighting piscatorial critters that the Creator ever made.

7. Alaska's Silver Mines

Alaska is loaded with riches, especially of the silver kind in the late summer and early fall as silver salmon rush up rivers to spawn and keep the species going another year. Here, Charles Allen, owner and CEO of the Knives of Alaska and DiamondBlade Knives cutlery companies, shows off a good Tsiu River silver salmon that fell for the fly that he had cast. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

Alaska means salmon, from the big king-salmon runs beginning in late spring to the pink and sockeye runs of mid-summer. But for my money, give me the silver salmon — or Coho salmon — runs that begin in July and continue through September in rivers like the Kenai, the Cooper and the Tsiu to name a few. A good silver will go 8 to 10 pounds, sometimes more, a size that is more than enough to take fly anglers well into their backings.

8. Montauk Stripers

If you find yourself looking at the Montauk Lighthouse on the end of Long Island this fall, you had better have a fly rod in your hand. Why is that? Because visiting this New York coastal hotspot is one of fly fishing’s bucket list experiences right here in North America. (Shutterstock image)

It's a wild scene with crying seagulls, the steady Atlantic Ocean breeze, crashing waves, a picturesque lighthouse...and millions of baitfish fleeing as big schools of striped bass feed aggressively on their annual autumn run down the Eastern Seaboard. While the autumn striper run down the Atlantic coastline isn't as fabled as it once was, it's still worth a visit to New England in the fall. And bull's-eye just one September or October striper blitz at Montauk Point on the eastern end of New York's Long Island and you'll have an angling memory you'll never forget.

9. Wisconsin Muskies

Muskies are one of North America’s apex predators in freshwater. Known as a fish that takes a 1,000 casts or more to catch—even in hotspots like Wisconsin—they are challenging to catch on a fly rod for sure. But if you persevere and actually land one, it’s a bucket list fly fishing experience that you’ll never forget. (Shutterstock image)

They're among the biggest and baddest tackle-busting freshwater predators that swim, approaching 50 inches or more in length. Muskies—or muskellunge as they are officially known—are hard to catch with any sort of tackle, even in the species' ground-zero waters of Wisconsin. But with a reputation of being a ghostly fish that takes a 1,000 casts to catch, having one of these giant predators suddenly flash out of the gloom below might be the pinnacle of freshwater fly fishing. So, don't forget to figure eight your big streamer when it gets back to the boat because you never know what's lurking below.

10. Bedeviling Texas Bass

The Devil's River flows into Lake Amistad. (Photo courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife)

The Devil's River is a surprisingly scenic oasis deep in the heart of arid southwestern Texas, one that seems more at home for scorpions, rattlesnakes and prickly pear cactus. But thanks to its cool turquoise waters flowing south into Lake Amistad, the Devil's River is also plenty fish-friendly, thanks to its mix of plunge pools, riffles, rocks, and beds of aquatic vegetation. While this is a rugged trip and then some, the payoff is a picturesque Lone Star State fishing hole that is home to unpressured largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, sunfish, carp and gar. It's a difficult to access area surrounded by private ranches, but the promise of two or three days of unparalleled fly-fishing action makes this a rough and tumble adventure that is well worth the effort.

So, there you have it, 10 bucket-list trips for the North American fly fisherman, the kind of saltwater and freshwater fly-rodding spots that someone ought to write a book about.

Or maybe even film a TV show.

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