The rational part of my brain tries hard to ignore and accept jetskiers ripping across the lake at Mach 5 and wakeboard boats blaring music audible from miles away. I participated in and enjoyed both as a younger man and understand, at least in theory, that our public waters are intended for multiple uses.
The solitude-seeking fisherman in me sometimes has a difficult time keeping the angry thoughts at bay. The noise, the chop, the potential danger, all serve to raise my blood pressure and distract me from the task at hand—catching fish.
Sometimes that’s just the way of the world if you want to fish big, popular lakes, but in those situations my mind always seems to wander toward adventures and locales where I can hear myself think. If you too grow frustrated with crowded waterbodies, here are a few suggestions to help find some elbow room and some badass backcountry fisheries this summer.
Go Overnight Boat ramps are the biggest vector for frustration and conflict in any given day of boating. Any day buttressed by a busy launch point will be colored by the events that occur there. The car-accessible campgrounds around the ramp are rarely any better. That’s why I try, anytime my group’s time allows, to haul camp equipment in my powerboat, canoe, or raft.
Boat camping provides numerous advantages, not the least of which being bonfires on a beach under the stars. Going overnight can put you away from the crowds and right on the money. There are few pleasures finer than fishing the best water until dark then waking up to hit it again at first light. You can even fish in your sleep by setting rods, limblines, or trotlines for catfish and their ilk.
If you’re floating or running a river, overnight trips open up longer reaches, providing access to less-pressured holes. Always make sure to pack your extra clothes, bedding, electronics, and food in dry bags or dry boxes and bring a good line and anchor to secure your watercraft.
Paddle Backwaters Even the most churned-up party lakes have their river mouths and shallow arms and weedy back bays where the mosquito whine and wake of ski boats can’t hurt you. Lesser sloughs, canals, creeks, marshes, and ponds proliferate across the continent as well. How do you know there aren’t big bass, pike, or trout there until you’ve had a look?
Human-powered watercraft are enormously beneficial for escaping the rat race and getting back into skinny waters by yourself. I love my Old Town Topwater PDL fishing kayak for these purposes because the pedal-powered propellor allows me to cast as I move down a shoreline hands-free. Canoes are a great option for hauling two folks and extra equipment, and even a paddleboard will open up areas you might never have noticed from the big boat.
Hike a Lake, Wade a Creek One of the most basic elements of my hunting and fishing strategy is based on one simple truth: You lose 75% of the competition with each mile you get away from the road. There are more backcountry or mountain lakes and creeks within three hours of my house in Montana than I could hope to hike in a lifetime, and the same could be said of many areas of the Western U.S., Great Lakes region, Alaska, Appalachia, and New England. Many have great trails right to the water—but the best ones don’t.
The hardest part about picking a lake or creek to explore can often be choosing between so many options. Many states publish stocking reports and species info for waterbodies they manage, even way up in the hills, and you can easily extrapolate that insight to smaller waters connected to ones that are listed. With enough time, you can also make a hit list and try to check off as many as you can in the warm months.
A popular pastime in the Southeast is called “blue lining”—exploring those little blue squiggly lines on the map, whether or not the creek has a name, to see if the water might contain native brook trout, smallmouth bass, or whatever else may be lurking below. Many states allow stream access below the normal high-water mark if you can get into a stream at a bridge, but you can check out this handy resource on individual water access laws that I helped build at Backcountry Hunters & Anglers a few years ago to find out what’s legal where you are.
Run Whitewater Perhaps the surest way to add excitement to a fishing trip is to work some rapids into the itinerary. For beginners, a couple Class II splashers can be enough to hoot and holler a bit without much in the way of consequences. For those already experienced with their raft, drift boat, canoe, or kayak, a class III or IV provides a new challenge and access to fishing spots that the less adventurous among us will never see.
Whitewater requires additional planning and situational awareness but can be well worth the effort. Do your research beforehand using websites, books, and conversations with local boating or fishing businesses and never try to run anything you’re not comfortable with. You should always pull over to scout your line for any stretch that appears sketchy before you put yourself and others in danger. Portage if you have to. Always bring and wear PFDs, good river shoes, a knife, and helmet for anything serious. You also want to make sure your vessel has a throw rope bag and a good stern line for lining through rapids or pulling yourself or others off a rock.
Don’t ever feel stuck with the crowds this summer if you’re more interested in catching a fish fry than a buzz. A little planning and creativity can put you out of sight and into your own little backcountry fishing paradise.