A FRIEND once told me his philosophy for living a full life. The key, he confided, is to take at least one major fishing trip a year. "No matter what you do, no matter how busy you are, make a point of going on one good trip," he said. "The years will go by and, before you know it, you'll find yourself with a lifetime's worth of great memories."
I've abided by that advice, and now I, too, have a rich store of angling memories. Adding to them by planning each fresh expedition remains a high point of my year.
Following are some fishing lodges that I keep on my short list. If I can't conjure up some new place to go to in a given year, I book one of these: All are preeminent. No, they're not cheap, but they're worth the price and then some. Why spend a moderate sum and end up with a mediocre adventure when you can spring for a bit more and get the best?
CHICO HOT SPRINGS MONTANA
Last year I stopped for dinner at Chico's famous restaurant, where I had some fine cabernet from the extensive wine list and a steak dinner so huge that I couldn't finish it. I haven't stayed overnight there in a few years, but that's due to change shortly.
An anonymous miner first wrote about these hot springs in a January 1865 diary entry. The main lodge opened in 1900 and quickly became known for its mineral waters, reputed to cure everything from kidney trouble to skin disorders. The springs attract guests to this day.
When I visit Montana, however, I go for the trout fishing, and Chico Hot Springs—located in the Paradise Valley between Livingston and Gardner—offers a lot of it. Want to drift or wade the Yellowstone for browns, rainbows, cutthroats, or brookies? The lodge will arrange a guide if you like, though doing it on your own is easy. You can also head south into Yellowstone Park and fish such renowned waters as the Firehole, Slough Creek, and Yellowstone Lake itself. Southwest lie Hebgen Lake and the Madison River. A northward drive will let you try for trophy browns in the Missouri near Helena. Don't overlook some of the spring creeks right in Paradise Valley, either. There are waiting lists for those, so book early. The lodge can help.
No matter where you fish during the day, at the end of it you'll head back to Chico for a great meal before you toddle off to bed. There is a wide variety of accommodations that range from modern to rustic, quaint to luxurious.
Prices range from $50 to $350 per night, depending on the type of accommodations you choose. Fishing guides, meals, and other services are extra. 800-468-9232; chicohotsprings.com
AREA OPTIONS: Lone Mountain Ranch, Big Sky, Mont.: Gateway to fishing the Gallatin, Lone Mountain boasts dozens of cabins, a main lodge, an Orvis shop, and knowledgeable guides. 800-514-4644; lonemountainranch.com
Yellowstone Park Hotels, Montana: There are nine of them. For my money, I'll take the Old Faithful Inn. Rich in history, it's the epitome of what a national park hotel should be. 307-344-7311; travelyellowstone.com
TREASURE CAY RESORT BAHAMAS
The first glimpse I got of Treasure Cay was from the water. While many anglers travel to the island by plane, I crossed the Gulf Stream in a 24-foot Mako from West Palm Beach. That was an almost 200-mile, eight-hour trip, a memorable experience that I'm not so sure I'd do again. But when you hit the marina at Treasure Cay, you're overwhelmed by its grandeur. It is truly first class, with 150 slips and all the facilities a boater could want. It's also a short walk to the fine hotel. Accommodations, as you'll discover, include standard and deluxe rooms, plus one-, two-, and three-bedroom suites. If you can, get a room looking out over the 3½-mile white-sand beach. It's one of the finest in the Bahamas.
But you don't go all the way to the Abacos to go lie on a beach (at least, I don't). It's the fishing that you want, and what good fishing it can be. My first day there, I hired a bonefish guide and set out for some nearby flats. Under an azure sky, we prowled the thin water, finding innumerable small pods of bones to cast flies to (in my case, mostly pink Crazy Charlies). The fishing was fast, I caught my share of fish (most in the 3- to 5-pound range), and at one point I even had a shot at a permit. My first cast spooked him halfway to Florida.
Offshore, we got into dolphinfish in good numbers, plus some wahoo. Depending on the time of year, marlin, wahoo, and tuna are all available, and nearby reefs will yield snappers, grouper, and the inevitable barracudas.
If you're looking for the ultimate Bahamian getaway, this is the place. The comfortable resort blends with the local community; there's great fishing and easy access to the mainland.
Rates vary depending on the season. When the fishing is prime from March 1 to July 31, a basic two-person bedroom goes for $160 a night, while a deluxe three-bedroom suite that houses up to eight is $380 per night. 800-327-1584; treasurecay.com
AREA OPTIONS: Green Turtle Cay Club and Marina, the Abacos: With 34 rooms and cottages and a locally famous restaurant, Green Turtle's accommodations are first-rate. And so, of course, is the fishing. 866-528-0539; greenturtleclub.com
Pete and Gay's Guest House, the Abacos: Not fancy, but comfortable, with great meals. It's right in town, so you really get the full flavor of the Bahamas. Fishing packages are available. 800-628-1447; angleradventures.com
BEAVERKILL VALLEY INN NEW YORK
Hidden in the folds of New York's Catskill Mountains—birthplace of American flyfishing—is this charming, country-elegant lodge. Located off County Road 54 north of the hamlet of Lew Beach, the 100-year-old Beaverkill Valley Inn has 20 rooms, fine dining, a game room, a Victorian bar, and a sundeck. Two outdoor tennis courts, a casting pond, and more than 30 miles of hiking and skiing trails are available.
Those are all good reasons to stay at the inn, but not the reason. No, you want to stay here because this is the epicenter of blue-ribbon Eastern trout angling. For starters, the lodge boasts exclusive access to a mile of the upper Beaverkill, with its native brookies and wild browns. Plying the river here is an intimate experience—it's maybe 25 yards across. Take a 3- or 4-weight outfit, some No. 16 to 20 Gold Ribbed Hare's Ears, a few Adams dry flies, and a terrestrial or two. The long, deep pool upstream from the lodge, along the rock wall holding up County Road 54, is particularly inviting.
Drive south from the inn and an array of fishing opportunities opens up. Check out the covered-bridge stretch of river near the state campground; the Willowemoc, both up- and downstream from the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum (845-439-4810; cffcm.net) in Livingston Manor; or the main Beaverkill, which links up with the Willow at Junction Pool in Roscoe. An hour's drive west on State Highway 17, you'll find the East and West Branches of the Delaware as well as its main stem. Head east on 17 and you'll hit the Neversink, where Theodore Gordon spent his days casting dries for native browns.
No matter where you roam during the day, the inn's staff will have a wonderful dinner waiting for you upon your return. With beef mignon, seared salmon, grilled tuna, and duck breast in tangerine sauce all on the menu, you won't lack for mouthwatering choices.
Rates vary from $225 to $325 per night during fishing season, depending on the package you choose. 845-439-4844; beaverkillvalleyinn.com
AREA OPTIONS: Tennanah Lake Golf and Tennis Club, Roscoe, N.Y.: This family-style resort is close to the Beaverkill and Willowemoc but also offers golf, tennis, and other activities. 607-498-5000; tennanah.com
West Branch Angler and Resort, Deposit, N.Y.: With guest cabins, a restaurant, a fly shop, and licensed guides with drift boats, the West Branch Angler puts you on the Delaware, one of the finest trout rivers in the East. 800-201-2557; westbranchangler.com
CHEECA LODGE FLORIDA
You might miss Cheeca's entrance if you're not paying attention. Cruising south on the Overseas Highway across Islamorada, you could drive right by the gates. And that would be too bad, because Cheeca is a special place.
If you do make that left-hand turn, you'll find yourself among blooming flowers, palm trees, six tennis courts, swimming pools with hot tubs, a nine-hole golf course, and a 1,200-foot-long stretch of white-sand beach fronting the Atlantic. It's 27 acres of tropical paradise.
The lodge itself—rated Four Diamonds by AAA—has 200 rooms, with ocean and garden views, including balconies; well-appointed villas; and two restaurants, both top-tier.
Still, the best part of Cheeca is its location, in the hub of the Keys' fishing activity. Hire a guide and head onto the flats for bonefish that average 3 to 4 pounds but can go up to 10. If flyfishing isn't your thing, how about some night angling for tarpon as they migrate through the cuts by the bridges? The best time for that is early spring, when you'll also want to try for bones and permit, not to mention backcountry snook and redfish. On the Atlantic side, dolphin, bluefin tuna, and amberjack arrive later in spring, with offshore blue marlin a possibility through June. After that, it's snappers and grouper into fall, when both flats and offshore action picks up once again. Sailfishing gets hot when the cooler weather starts to move in.
Aside from the angling—which the Cheeca concierge can arrange for you—you can enjoy golf, tennis, sunbathing, a spa, diving and snorkeling, and sightseeing in Key West. Or just lie by the pool and read a book.
Rates vary depending on type of accommodations and season. Generally, figure you'll pay anywhere from $300 to $1,000 per night. 305-664-4651; cheeca.com
AREA OPTIONS: Bud N' Mary's, Islamorada, Fla.: With world-class access to backcountry, flats, and offshore fishing, Bud N' Mary's offers motel-like rooms and efficiency apartments. A houseboat and a beach house are also available. 800-742-7945; budnmarys.com
Hawk's Cay Resort, Duck Key, Fla.: With 60 acres and guest rooms and villas capable of accommodating up to 2,000, Hawk's Cay—like Cheeca—is surrounded by the Keys' finest fishing. 800-432-2242; hawkscay.com
RAINBOW BAY RESORT ALASKA
Sited in the hamlet of Pedro Bay, a postcard-scenic cove at the northern end of Lake Iliamna on the Alaska Peninsula, Rainbow Bay Resort has an established reputation as a premier lodge. Owners Jerry and Karen Pippen have been in the business since 1984, and they know exactly how to do things right.
The log lodge itself embodies rustic luxury. With five bedrooms, a comfortable living room (including high-definition TV), a bar, a gathering area, an adjoining dining room, and a porch overlooking the bay, this spot is so comfortable, you'll never want to leave. But leave you must, daily, as there is fishing to be done.
As I discovered last June, Rainbow Bay features every type of angling on offer in Alaska. My 21-year-old son, James, and I decided to cast for northern pike (up to 10 pounds) in a nearby lake our first day; we jetboated up an Iliamna tributary the next and floated back down, catching char and rainbows. Our third day we rafted another river, catching more than 50 grayling on fly rods. Finally, we flew southwest to the Nushagak River, where we caught king salmon by back-trolling Wiggle Warts and Flatfish. The lodge keeps a tent camp on the river if you want to overnight there.
Later in the season, the four other species of Pacific salmon make their appearance. Halibut angling on the Gulf of Alaska is yet another option.
Rainbow Bay takes up to 10 guests for one-week stays. The price, $6,250 for a week, includes round-trip airfare from Anchorage to the lodge, food and lodging, guided fishing trips, daily fly-outs, and fishing gear if you need it. 907-850-2234; rbrlodge.com
AREA OPTIONS: Copper River Lodge: On the eastern shore of Lake Iliamna, Copper River is a small lodge that caters to just six people a week. This undiscovered jewel sits amid some of the best fishing around. 888-294-0624; copperriverlodge.com
Crystal Creek Lodge: It's brand-new, comfortable, and well run, with great dining. Plus, it's on the Naknek (a 45-minute flight from Iliamna), a top river for trout and salmon. 907-357-3153; alaskaonthefly.com