The Best Fishing Towns in America
Wet a line in the most productive towns in the country.
The Hub of Colorado Fishing
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better combination of gold-medal water, blue-sky climate, and stunning canyonscapes anywhere in the world besides Glenwood Springs. It’s the geographic center of the best flyfishing in the state: The Roaring Fork and Colorado Rivers merge right in town, and the Eagle River, the Frying Pan, and the Gunnison are easy day trips. In any season (even the dead of winter), there’s always at least one world-class flyfishing option.
Glenwood is far enough downstream from the la-la world of Aspen to keep things relatively affordable, and with 300 sunny days a year, natural hot springs, and more trout-laden rivers and lakes than you can count, Glenwood is soothing to the angler’s soul.
Mountain Home, AR
The Big-Fish, Easy-Living Town
Nestled in the scenic Ozarks, Mountain Home is consistently rated one of the best places to retire to in the country. It’s affordable, beautiful, safe, and laid-back. Taxes are low, and the fishing is off the charts. Norfork Lake and Bull Shoals Lake teem with largemouths, as well as stripers and walleyes. The kicker, however, is that you can also catch big trout with flies in the White or Norfork (North Fork) Rivers.
It’s fair to say that these tailwaters––part of a 170-mile network of coldwater streams––are some of the world’s best trout fisheries. The Norfork served up the former world-record brown trout (38 pounds 9 ounces) in 1988; the White has stretches that hold hundreds of 5-plus-pound brown trout per mile. Obviously, with fish like that, Mountain Home’s reputation is well understood by serious anglers. But the area isn’t overcrowded, overpriced, or overdeveloped.
Traverse City, MI
A Freshwater Wonderland
Between May and October, there is no consistently better place to be fishing in America than Traverse City, Mich. Diversity is the key: Lake Michi-gan with salmon and steelhead; Grand Traverse Bay with some of the best smallmouth pockets and carp flats in America; and more rivers and natural lakes filled with trout, bass, and panfish than you can begin to touch in one season.
The calendar in Traverse City is honest-spectacular yellow birches in the falls, frosty white winters, damp misty springs, and radiant blue-green summers. The true outdoor aficionado finds solace (and opportunity) in every month here, be it fishing, hunting, cross-country skiing, or hiking. It’s an affordable, yet polished, place to be. And the hometown culture is still a classic slice of Rockwell-esque Americana.
Montana’s Fly Capital
It’s a coin toss between Missoula and Bozeman for the title of best fly fishing town in Montana, but because of its proximity to Yellowstone National Park, Bozeman wins by a nose. Since 1970, Bozeman has blossomed from a sleepy railroad and college town into a western-chic hotspot for tele-commuters, artists, entrepreneurs-and fish junkies. But behind every new storefront veneer, that gritty cowboy culture is alive.
You don’t have to spend millions to buy up a chunk of river because the state’s stream-access law allows you to wade within the high-water mark on most streams.
The Town Where Everybody Fishes
In Wisconsin, they might as well staple fishing licenses to birth certificates. It seems everybody here was born to fish. Minocqua is a quaint little cabin community, the kind of place where you fish all day, and sit on the porch at night to watch the sun set over the lake. Fishing-wise, there is much to keep you busy: trout in the creeks, and just about every species you can think of in the 70-odd vicinity lakes. The underrated smallmouth bass fishery probably should rank among the top five in the country.
Of course, fishing is a prominent part of the North Woods culture, as are beer, cheese, and Green Bay Packers football. It’s fair to say that living in Minocqua year-round is a commitment to being “out there” from the time the leaves drop until the snow melts (you’re a solid five hours from Milwaukee, and four from Madison). But if you like water and the wild outdoors, you wouldn’t want it any other way.
The Way Florida Used to Be
Once a major shipping port, Apalachicola is now a center of commercial oyster and shrimp production, as well as a recreational fishing hotspot. With Apalachicola Bay and St. George Sound sheltered by St. George Island, kayak fishing is a growing trend. There are lots of light-tackle species to chase, including sea-trout, redfish, and sheepshead.
In summertime, tarpon move into the bays. Head inland and you’re in prime bass and panfish habitat within minutes. What makes “Apalach” really special is its lack of snowbirds and the absence of high-rises, golf resorts, and choked highways.
The Original Fishing Town
For over 300 years, Nantucket has been wed to the sea, first as a colonial whaling port, now as one of New England’s premier vacation destinations. But if you are serious about your fishing, you’ll find a lot to keep you busy. For striped bass, prime time for sight–fishing with flies is early June, around Madaket Harbor, or even inside Nantucket Harbor.
Surf-casting the south shore in the fall often provides the best shot at large cows. False albacore frequent Great Point in August and September, and bluefish can be had off the beach almost anywhere, from April to November.
The In-Place for the Outdoors Crowd
Bend barely fits the “town” criteria because its population has boomed to over 75,000 in recent years. Of course, that’s because people have discovered what a cool place it is. For anglers, there are tons of possibilities. The main waterway is the Deschutes River, which has three distinct sections, each with its own seasons and characteristics: The upper river is a sleeper brown trout haven; the middle section, a productive rainbow river until the dead heat of summer; the lower Deschutes, by Warm Springs, the classic steelhead fishery.
Area lakes are some of the country’s best for trout, and river fishing for smallmouths is also possible. Non-angling diversions in this high-desert climate include golf, skiing in winter, whitewater rafting, and sensational upland bird hunting to the east. Elevation is 3,600 feet, which is not a major issue, and there are cultural events aplenty. Bend is still a relatively affordable place to live, although the increase in residents means that’s changing, seemingly by the month.
The Bass Fishing Mecca
If ever there were a classic “bass town,” Guntersville is it. It sits on a peninsula in northern Alabama, surrounded by its namesake, 69,000-acre Lake Guntersville. A regular stop for many professional bass tournaments (with 950 miles of shoreline), Lake Guntersville is to bass fishing what Augusta National is to golf: steeped in Old South tradition, picturesque, and uniquely challenging, yet rewarding. It can get hot in the summer, but the climate is pretty mild, and falls are colorful.
Guntersville was ranked among the 100 Best Places to Live in America by -Relocate_America._com in 2002, thanks to its excellent schools, artsy culture, and relative proximity to major cities like Nashville (150 miles to the north), Atlanta (160 miles east), and Birmingham (70 miles southwest).
Morehead City, NC
A Perfect Blend of Fresh and Salt
I asked a Redfish Cup veteran where he might retire, and it took him about two seconds to answer: “Morehead City, N.C.” Hard to argue the choice. For starters, some of the biggest redfish in the world roll around the ocean surf here in the fall. Offshore, you can catch dolphin, tuna, even marlin. Inshore fishing for reds, seatrout, and other species is fairly consistent in most seasons.
As soon as you head inland, you’re smack dab in prime bass country. There’s certainly a tourist ebb and flow that impacts the lifestyle here, but it’s hard to find a better all-year-and-all-season environment with this much diversity and appeal.
The Town that Popularized Fly Fishing
Any serious connoisseur of fly fishing and Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It understands that the Missoula and the surrounding area was the inspiration behind the modern fly fishing movement. The allure, of course, starts with the big, wild, and majestic rivers here: the Clark Fork which runs through town, the Bitterroot, the Big Blackfoot, and Rock Creek are all a short drive away. This classy community is home to the University of Montana and a regional headquarters for the U.S. Forest Service, as well as a budding group of retail and specialty businesses all focused on the great outdoors.
Aside from fishing, the hunting, hiking, mountain biking, and skiing options to be found here are all world-class. The climate is much milder and more comfortable than one might expect. If you’re one of those who actually lives the outdoor lifestyle, as opposed to talking about it, you owe yourself at least a visit to Missoula. Odds are, you’ll hear an inner voice prodding you to turn that visit into something more.
The Gateway to the Boundary Waters
Along those lines of “every person who loves the outdoors should at least visit this place once in their life,” Ely is the gateway to one of the most pristine water and wilderness regions in the world: the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Granted. Most of the man-made attractions in the community cater to a seasonal tourist trade, but it’s never hard to tap into the north woods lifestyle, from gathering blueberries in summer to snowshoeing in the winter.
The real beauty here is how easy it is to get off the beaten path. If you find yourself reflecting on your youth, imagining bygone fishing trips with your grandfather, check out Ely, because the sights, sounds (like loons on the pond), and experiences are almost exactly the same now as they were back then. Fishing-wise, the sky is (almost literally) the limit, as Ely is surrounded by rivers and lakes that offer opportunities to chase everything from smallmouth bass to walleye.
A High-Desert Angling Community
If you associate Arizona with cactus and cowboys more than fishing, you’re certainly not alone. But then again, you might not have ever been to Page. Situated in the high desert of northern Arizona, Page is the stepping-off point to Lake Powell, an elaborate maze of flooded canyons that comprises the second largest man-made lake in America. The town owes its existence to the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam that formed the lake (it wasn’t officially incorporated as a town until 1975), and now involves a healthy tourist trade catering to house boaters, desert naturalists, and anglers.
Fishing on Lake Powell is tricky, with lake depths ranging to 500 feet and a variety of fish species from striped, largemouth, and smallmouth bass to walleye. But fishing the lake is only half the attraction. Below Glen Canyon Dam at Lees Ferry, the Colorado River is known as one of the most technically challenging fisheries for rainbow trout in the West.
The Flyfishing Hot Spot
There are few natural phenomena as beautiful as the sunset over the Tetons. The sunrise over the Tetons is one of them. And so it is that Driggs, a quaint town on the Idaho side of the Teton divide is one of the most beautiful fishing landmarks in the country. As with many river-born towns in the west, Driggs is a flyfishing hotspot. But its close association with a working agricultural economy, as well as other outdoor diversions like skiing, hiking, hunting, and mountain biking. It’s also far enough away from the hubbub of Jackson, Wyo., to keep things a little more down to earth.
As for the fishing, with rivers like the Teton, the South Fork, and the Henry’s Fork of the Snake all within easy range, this region is about as challenging, and ultimately rewarding, as it gets. Sure, the vacationers and “twice-a-year” fly fishers pour through every summer. But the local crowd is comprised of hard-core anglers. You cannot help but learn by osmosis when you spend appreciable time fishing in and around Driggs.
The Texas Bass Hub
To be perfectly honest, we have two fundamental reasons for putting Jasper on the list: Sam Rayburn Reservoir and Toledo Bend Reservoir. These are two of the premier largemouth bass waters in the world, let alone Texas, and from Jasper you can easily hit one or the other in a day trip. Add B.A. Steinhagen Lake to the mix, and there are plenty of solid angling diversions to fill your days here.
As for “Big Sam,” 15 miles north of town, the year-round fishing for largemouth bass in heavily vegetated areas and flooded timber attracts a variety of competitions and day-trippers. But the crappie fishing here is often underrated, though it certainly offers some of the best action in East Texas. Toledo Bend, on the Louisiana border, is another perennial stopping point for pro bass tours. If you have an itch to hitch up to a bass boat and explore big water for bucketmouths, it’s a good idea to consider starting from here.
The Multi-Species Southern Municipality
Eastern Oklahoma is one of the most diverse fishing regions in America. Around the town of Tahlequah, you’ll find what you’d expect: prime largemouth bass fishing lakes (like Tenkiller to the south, and Gibson to the northwest), as well as some pleasant surprises, like trout fishing, and exceptional smallmouth bass fishing in the Illinois River. Add catfish, white bass, striped bass, crappie, and carp into the mix, and you get the picture.
Lake Tenkiller is a gem. Its waters are remarkably clear, and its 130-mile shoreline is picturesque. Tahlequah is a friendly place, capital of the Cherokee Nation, home to Northeastern State University and a strong outdoors-connected community. The town bills itself as being in the heart of Oklahoma’s “Green Country” and it’s hard to argue against the natural beauty and relatively mild climate. Whether you’re thinking about sinking new roots, or just passing through, it’s worth checking out.
A Saltwater Paradise
With a population of just over 12,000, Beaufort is about as classic small-town South as it gets. Situated in the heart of the “Sea Islands,” the town caters to a steady volume of tourists. There’s always some sort of festival taking place (bring your appetite if you come during the softshell crab season in April, or shrimp season in fall). But there’s also an authentic local culture that has flourished in connection to the ocean, rivers, and marshes for generations.
Fishing-wise, you couldn’t expect to cover all the flats and inshore options for redfish, seatrout, and even tarpon at certain times of the year, in one lifetime. A short boat ride past Fripp Inlet puts you in a bluewater realm of dolphin, marlin, and more. And, like in Morehead City, North Carolina, a short drive inland points you right toward some ideal bass fishing on rivers, lakes and ponds. Aside from the fishing, there’s golf, boating, birding, and plenty of historic diversions.
The Bass Lake Town
Drought effects notwithstanding, Lake Eufaula, on the Alabama-Georgia border, is still known throughout the South as the “Bass Fishing Capital of the World.” True, the 45,181-acre lake is a far cry today from what it once was in terms of producing big (10-pound) bass. But it is still full of 5-pound largemouths, as well as sunfish, crappies, catfish, and hybrid bass. And Eufaula is a “graduate school” lake as far as honing in different baits and techniques is concerned.
The town of Eufaula, Alabama, has a population just under 15,000. Located in the heart of cotton and peanut country, Eufaula benefits from a healthy tourist trade mostly attributable to the lake, and the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, but also to the town’s rich historic traditions and landmarks. And hunters know that some of the best whitetail hunting in Alabama can be found on state land, right here in Barbour County.
Cali’s Trout Capital
Surrounded on three sides by millions of open wilderness acres, Redding, in the Shasta-Cascade region of northern California, is the fly fishing mecca of the Golden State. Serious fly anglers rate some of the waters in this area (like the trout-laden Lower Sacramento River, the technically challenging Hat Creek, and the steelhead magnet Trinity River) right up there with other western icons like the Colorado, the Yellowstone, or the Snake.
Some of the best fly fishing guides in the world call Redding home base. If fly fishing isn’t your thing, there’s plenty of deep water fishing action to be had on conventional tackle on nearby Shasta Lake for brown and rainbow trout. The beauty of this part of the country is that you can be up in the cool mountains, or down in the warm valley within minutes. The seasons are mild, and the overall town atmosphere, while maintaining some California-tourism flair, is ultimately quite genuine.
The Town Built on Striper Fishing
At the eastern end of Long Island, the Atlantic Ocean currents create a virtual highway for some of the most prolific fish migrations (tuna, striped bass, bluefish, and others) found anywhere in North America. Not surprisingly, anglers have been drawn to Montauk for hundreds of years for that very reason. Mind you, surviving the choked human highways on summer weekends is a battle, and the cost of living here is far from cheap, but the fishing action never disappoints.
Of course, the signature event is the fall striper blitz, when football field-sized schools of bass crash bait on the ocean surface in a frenzy, usually in October. But the locals will tell you the big cows run on the herring in November and sight fishing is best in June. Whether you enjoy surf-casting, fly fishing, or bluewater fishing for large sharks or bluefin tuna, it seems there is a place and a season for everything in Montauk.