10 Top Summer Fly Fishing Destinations in the American West

Rob Herrmann admires a great catch.

Wet a fishing line in the West, and oftentimes, it’s with fly fishing in play. Trout, salmon, steelhead, and other popular fishing endeavors are common throughout the western states, and fishing enthusiasts salivate at the thought of tackling some of the premier summer fly fishing destinations in the American West. Here are 10 that fly fishermen and women should consider.

1. Bighorn River (Montana and Wyoming)

The Bighorn River runs through parts of Montana and Wyoming. It’s one of the state’s most famous tailwaters. It holds a lot of brown and rainbow trout. Some might prefer the DIY route and find the fish on their own. For those, campgrounds keep you closer to some of the action. Those who don’t should benefit from plenty of guides and outfitters in the region.

“The Bighorn actually starts on the Wind River Mountain Range,” said Chad Chance, Whitetail Properties land specialist in Wyoming. “Actually, it starts as the Wind River and then changes name into the Bighorn. There are several drift boat access points.”

This destination is popular from early winter to spring. In summertime, it gets a little mossy, but it’s still a great destination, even then.

Of course, the Bighorn keeps running north, eventually dropping into a big lake. For those wanting a guide, there are many options along this river.

“The Wyoming side of the Bighorn doesn’t have a lot of good dry fly fishing,” Chance said. “But the Fort Smith side does, especially later in summer.”

2. Colorado River (Colorado)

Those who head for the Colorado River should expect good chances of catching a huge brown trout. These thrive here, and it sets up quite nicely for fishing success. Of course, have a chance at snagging a brook, cutthroat, and rainbows.

“The Colorado is good for most anglers,” said Rob Herrmann, a Whitetail Properties land specialist in central Colorado. “Any Colorado water is going to be a bit technical, but you can get into the fish with the right tackle, flies, and techniques. Presentation is king. It’s about getting your bugs downstream and believable to the fish.

This is a popular float destination. It also has great wading access, and you can fish on foot. But floating is more popular.

“It’s not a primitive river, so you don’t need a permit to float it,” Hermmann said. “This is why it’s such a popular destination. Plus, you can pretty much fish year-round. It doesn’t freeze up entirely.”

Wading for trout is one of the West's best adventures.

3. Green River (Wyoming and Utah)

Located in Utah and Wyoming, the Green River shouldn’t be overlooked, either. It harbors thriving populations of brown and rainbow trout. Cutthroats are possibilities, too. Campgrounds are nearby for those planning a DIY adventure.

“The Green is set up similar to the Bighorn,” Chance said. “The 100 miles before going into Flaming Gorge is really good for big browns. It’s not uncommon to catch 20- to 21-inch fish, and some guys catch 25- to 27-inch browns.”

Here, there isn’t as much pressure as some destinations. That’s one of the reasons for the bigger fish and better overall experience.

Also, don’t forget Utah’s Flaming Gorge reservoir, which is an impoundment of the Green River. Here, rainbow trout grow quite large, and numbers are solid, too. Brown trout are in the area as well, and shouldn’t be overlooked as a viable reason to give it a try.

“Still part of the Green River system, Flaming Gorge is known for huge lake trout — like 35- to 40-pound fish,” Chance said.

On the Utah side, the Green River is crystal clear. Because of this, it’s more difficult to fish. But you can see fish swimming right by. The scenery is incredible. You might even have a bighorn sheep walk up and down the river next to you.

4. Madison River (Montana)

The Madison River is one of Montana’s pristine waterways. It’s full of heritage, and sports brown and rainbow trout alike. Some are better than 20 inches, which makes for some fun fishing. Additionally, heavy insect populations tend to result in great dry fly tactics. It even has good access for wade fishing.

“The water comes out of west Yellowstone,” Chance said. “It runs to the West. It’s a cool river, and you use a lot of dry flies from June to August. There are a lot of guide companies around there. If you’re a novice, they’ll help you pick up fish pretty quick.”

There’s a lot of fish per mile. It’s known for large fish counts, which improves your odds of catching fish. It’s a great place to catch a haul, and do so easily.

Travel westward to fly-fish along beautiful country landscapes.

5. Missouri River (Montana)

Another Montana treasure, the Missouri River has brown and rainbow trout, too. According to some sources, biologists deem this area with up to 6,000 (or more) fish per mile of waterway. It’s certainly a popular destination for dry flies, but can be a challenging fishery.

“The headwaters of the Missouri starts near Three Forks, Montana,” said Ray Primmer, a Whitetail Properties land specialist in Montana. “This is a hidden gem. Most people focus on the area between Helena and Great Falls.

The area is so good because there are three dams along key stretches, and it keeps the water level and flow of the river constant. The river isn’t roaring, and the trout love it there. This makes it more accessible year-round.

Oftentimes, the fish caught here are larger than other rivers. “You can expect to hook into something 20 inches or bigger quite regularly,” Primmer said. “About 24- to 26-inch fish are possible. Of course, it brings a lot of tourism to the area.”

6. North Platte (Colorado and Wyoming)

The North Platte River in Colorado is known for boulders up and down the river.

But it’s known for big browns, cutthroats, and rainbows, too. Check out the action, and it ought not disappoint.

“The Platte is known worldwide,” Chance said. “It starts in Colorado, runs north into Wyoming (it’s on the continental divide). It goes into Seminole Lake, and where it comes out, which is famous around the world, is called ‘The Miracle Mile.’ It’s about 10 miles of river, and you can wade it or put in a boat. Then, it goes into Pathfinder Lake (a great walleye destination), drops out and goes through a canyon, and goes into another lake called Alcova. When it comes out of Alcova, it goes in behind another dam, which is called Gray Reef. This is still the Platte, and this area is very popular, because you can catch big fish — 25- to 27-inch browns and rainbows. You’ll see a lot of people.

One downside of the Platte is a lot of private land borders. You have to be careful of where you drop anchor. “They have it marked pretty well,” Chance said. “They put signs on the sides of the river, with green or red signs. But you do have to be able to row, and row all day. You’re not allowed to touch the ground in the red areas.”

Floating is a fun method for catching trout.

7. Rio Grande River (Colorado)

The Rio Grande River, located in Colorado, is an excellent fishery. “It trickles out of the mountain in Colorado,” said Robert Brooks, a fishing guide and Whitetail Properties broker in southwestern Colorado. “The river is largely a float river. Most of us guiding here are doing so out of drift boats. It’s a tough river to wade. A boat is the most effective way to fish it.”

This is a brown-trout-heavy river. Expect a lot of fish in that 14- to 16-inch class. You might also find some rainbows, and native Rio Grande cutthroats.

In summer, the fishing is incredible, largely due to the hatches occurring here. The per-mile fish counts are very high, too. You can even chase hatches up and down the river, which is best from early June through late July. Once August arrives, it’s hot, and more difficult to catch trout.

Those who fish the Rio Grande River might tack on two others to the trip. The San Juan River is also close by, and it’s New Mexico’s fly-fishing pride and joy. It’s world-renowned for sight fishing for big rainbows. This destination also comprises the Navajo Dam tailwaters, so it can be fished most months of the year. Find both browns and rainbows along these waters. The Animas is nearby, too. It also offers great fishing.

8. Snake River (Wyoming)

The Snake River starts in Yellowstone, writhes its way around Wyoming, and passes through parts of Idaho. Find several full-service fly-fishing shops to service this area, which only adds to the local fly-fishing culture. It’s close to Jackson Hole, which is a popular tourist attraction itself.

Here, a lot of fly fishermen use rafts and drift boats, because it’s not behind a dam — it’s natural. It has some rocks and sticks in it. “One cool thing about the Snake, in Jackson, in August? They have a one-fly fishing tournament,” Chance said. “You only get one fly all day. A lot of well-known people come into town for it.”

Once this river drops into Idaho, people refer to it as the South Fork of the Snake. Here, you’ll find a lot of browns, cutthroats, and rainbows. However, they try to limit rainbow populations, so they put on tournaments to reduce numbers.

“They’ll shock and tag rainbows there, and if you catch a rainbow, and turn it into a game warden, they’ll scan it,” Chance said. “Some fish are worth $10, and some are worth $200. These are money fish.”

Overall, this waterway fishes great throughout the year, but the bugs change depending on air and water temperature.

Each fly-fishing destination offers different species, fish sizes, and more.

9. Taylor River (Colorado)

The Taylor River starts close to Almont, Colorado. “The Taylor is largely rainbow trout heavy,” Brooks said. “It’s a wade-angler-friendly river. It’s seldomly floated.”

Here, you see most major hatches. The further up-canyon you go, the better the rainbow fishing gets. In some areas, you might even find 26- to 30-inch rainbow trout.

“A lot of it is sight fishing, because of the water clarity being so clear,” Brooks said. “Because it’s a tailwater, the fishery is regulated by a dam, and you can fish it more months out of the year. It’s really fished year-round.”

This river is also close to the Gunnison, which is another popular destination. Gunnison is a very float-friendly river. “It’s a great place if you want to float down 10 miles of river with a guide and maybe try to catch that legendary hatch and catch some brown trout,” Brooks said.

10. Yellowstone River (Montana)

The Yellowstone River in Montana is the longest free-flowing river in the Lower 48. Those who plan a serious trip might cover 10-20 miles (or more) of river each day. There are plenty of opportunities to find fly-fishing success.

“The Yellowstone River is synonymous with Montana,” Primmer said. “It’s ultimately one of most renowned fisheries in the state, purely because of its name. It offers great trout fishing. It is seasonally dependent on flows — there are fewer dams on that river. But it’s amazing, and obviously a long river that traverses the state. Some stretches are better than others, and it has a lot of feeder tributaries. Those are great places to catch trout spawning.

Additional Popular Fly-Fishing Fisheries to Consider

There are many rivers in the American West that harbor good fly fishing. In fact, there are too many to count here. But in addition to the 10 covered, consider these options, too:

  • Animas River (Colorado)
  • Beaverhead River (Montana)
  • Blue River (Colorado)
  • Deschutes River (Oregon)
  • Flathead River (Montana)
  • Fryingpan River (Colorado)
  • Jefferson River (Montana)
  • New Fork (Wyoming)
  • Rock Creek (Montana)
  • Salmon River (Idaho)
  • San Juan (New Mexico)
  • White River (Colorado)

Turnkey Lodges with Great Adventures

Some fly fishermen might not want the added element of planning their own fishing trip. Furthermore, they might want a guide to help with the fishing, or an outfitter to make camp the best it can be. Regardless, consider a proven destination. The following certainly provide access to great fishing spots.

If these aren’t of interest, check out some of the top outfitters and guides recommended by Orvis.

Great Add-On Gear for Fly-Fishing

Fly-fishing gear aside, certain add-on items can make that adventure even sweeter. Consider the following when hitting the water in search of big western trout.

Let’s Go Fishing

All things considered, trip plans are up to you, the fly-fishing extraordinaire. Find the right destination(s) and begin planning. Make that dream fly fishing trip come true by learning the top summer fly fishing destinations in the American West.

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