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Travel: Fishing in National Parks

Cast Away Your Troubles! We’re fishing in National Parks.

National parks are slices of nature and history preserved from development. That means fish, wildlife, and birds. While you can’t trap bear, elk, or eagles, you can catch fish. Often there are catch-and-release rules (according to the exact species, size, and location), but sometimes you’re free to tote your catch back to camp for a scrumptious campfire dinner. Either way, casting into a river or lake is a transformative experience, a way to communicate with the natural landscape in a series of quiet whispers, followed by the exciting pulse of adrenaline when your line gets struck.

Below are a few of the best parks to enter that relationship. But first, a few details that apply to all parks. Some allow fishing all year, but many kick off fishing season in late May and shut it down in early November. Some have great ice fishing (we’ll cover those next fall). Each park has its own fishing regulations and license requirements—the best bet is to either check the park’s website or swing by the visitor center upon arrival.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming 

Yellowstone

This banner national park has been protected since 1886 (first by the U.S. Army, then as a national park), so it is one of the most pristine places in the country. You can expect meandering rivers, majestic peaks, meadows blanketed with wild flowers—and, oh yes, the fishing is awesome. The Yellowstone River is a bucket-list item for anglers, but there are dozens of rivers, lakes, and streams, each with their own classic vibe. The park is home to 13 native fish; native cutthroat are the most prized species, but you’ll find plenty of rainbow and brown trout. Just know that you’ll be competing with grizzly bear, bald eagles, otter, and osprey for your catch. The park is a leader in non-toxic fishing tackle (lead-free), and there’s a new barbless hook rule to reduce handling time and injury to fish in heavily fished waters.

Great Smoky National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

The serene southern beauty of the Great Smokies is the stuff wars were fought over. This was the coveted country of westward expansion, and the stomping grounds of Daniel Boone. Plus it’s home to some of the best-kept secret fishing holes in the country. While there are generally a few streams that are off-limits (Lynn Camp Prong is closed upstream of its confluence with Thunderhead Prong), there are more than 2,000 miles of streams with brook, rainbow and brown trout, and smallmouth bass to be had, and no limit on rock bass. The park is known for its brook trout fishing; it wasn’t allowed from 1976 to 2006, but now the fish are plentiful. One rule to follow? Bait fishing is not permitted, as it can introduce non-native aquatic organisms that harm the native fish.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado 

RockyMountain

While there are many easy-to-reach riverbanks and lakes in this expansive park, a short day hike takes you away from the crowds to blissfully quiet holes where chances are, only curious moose and elk will be there to witness your expert cast. You’ll find four major species of trout—brook, brown, rainbow, and cutthroat; prizes include the native greenback cutthroat and Colorado River cutthroat. The variety of options is fairly amazing, from the big lake fishing and catch-and-release fly-fishing to ice fishing. You’ll need a Colorado fishing license, but the good news is that kids 15 and younger fish for free. You can only use artificial lures; lead sinkers are discouraged. There are literally dozens of lakes, with some notable catch-and-release meccas like the Big Thompson River. The first weekend in June is free, with no license required.

Acadia National Park, Maine

This part of the country, namely Mount Desert Island, is home to some of the best fresh and saltwater fishing in the world. You can fish from April through September, and there’s ice fishing from January through March. You’ll need a Maine fishing license (if you are 16 or older) but no license is required for ocean fishing. Seal Cove Pond is famous for its alewives, chain pickerel, and yellow perch; head to Long Pond for landlocked salmon and smallmouth bass, and Half Moon Pond for brook trout. In July and August, you’ll have the best luck for trout and salmon in the cool, deep ponds and lakes. You’ll have better luck if you bring down-rigger gear for the hot summer weather.

Biscayne National Park, Florida 

Biscayne

No list of fishing spots in national parks is complete without Biscayne, located just a long cast from downtown Miami. The majority of the park’s 173,000 acres are covered by water. The colorful coral reefs are abundant with fish, so there’s fly-fishing, angling, and spear fishing galore. There are hundreds of types of fish to look for, from the small big-eye anchovies to great barracudas. You can take a free fisheries awareness class that teaches you specifics about fish identification, technique, and, of course, regulations. You’ll need a Florida State Recreational Saltwater Fishing License and plenty of sunscreen.

Olympic National Park, Washington

Hanging out here is like being in another world. The Roosevelt Elk are monstrously large and ferns reminiscent of a strange planet in Star Trek. Even the fishing seems bigger than life. In addition to fantastic salt and freshwater fishing, you can also troll for a variety of shellfish along the coast. You don’t need a license to fish here, unless you are going for salmon or steelhead from the Pacific Ocean shoreline. There are hundreds of lakes, streams, and rivers in the park, where one of the most beautiful regions is the Soleduck area with its own iconic hot springs for soaking after a long day of casting. With 37 native species of fish, there are five species of northwest salmon (chinook, chum, coho, pink, and sockeye) as well as steelhead (an anadromous variety of rainbow trout that splits its time between salt and fresh water and gets up to 30 pounds!). Steelies should be more plentiful with the removal of the dams on the Elwha River; the biggest dam removal project in North America has allowed the Elwha River to flow freely from its headwaters in the Olympic Mountains to the Strait of Juan de Fuca for the first time in 100 years.

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