Everyone knows at least one of those fly anglers who just seems to get it. The ones who always catch the most fish, the biggest fish, the most challenging fish, and they always seem to make it look easy. This person may be a local legend who sits at the end of your favorite riverside bar every night, or they may be some quiet cashier parked on a stool at your local fly shop.
The biggest question about these master anglers is: what made them so good? Were they taught to fish by someone even better than they were? Do they have some sort of inherent understanding of fish behavior? Were they perhaps bitten by a radioactive trout or blessed by some unknown angling god and subsequently given superpowers? The possibilities are endless, but it is my belief that, just as the best athletes are driven through a plethora of Division 1 programs, truly good fly anglers are a product of their environment and are influenced and molded by their home waters.
While there are a ton of anglers who can go out and power-slam a ton of trout on heavily stocked rivers, truly good fly anglers are above such tomfoolery. Not to begrudge anglers who do that sort of stuff, because we all like to catch fish, but the fact is that it’s hard to develop any sort of skill without some sort of challenge. Good fly anglers are those who push themselves on the water by pursuing the most challenging fish species in the most difficult of places, adapting and learning from their mistakes, and developing their skills until they become masters of the art.
Now, while expert fly fishermen and women exist in almost every state in the union, some places just seem to have more. Maybe it’s because there’s something in the water (or the beer for that matter) or perhaps it’s because a state’s particular fly fishing culture or distinctly challenging waterways and fish species just forge anglers from lumps of raw iron into well-tempered and razor-sharp steel swords of the fly fishing world. Whatever the reason behind it, it is in these states that we can find some of the best fly anglers in the country.
Not only do the two states share a lot of waterways, but Vermont and New York also share a similar storied history of fly fishing. In the late 19th century, aristocratic anglers from Europe descended upon the waters of the Catskill Mountains of New York and Green Mountains of Vermont and planted the flag of dry fly-obsessed trout culture in the Northeast and helped develop the art of fly fishing into what it is today.
However, what continues to cause these two states to produce expert anglers goes well beyond just their ample trout streams and into the largest body of water the two states share—Lake Champlain. Over the past couple of decades, this massive body of water has become a mecca for fly anglers interested in both the warm water and cold water species that the lake offers and the challenges that can be found in fishing it.
“So, the thing about Lake Champlain to start is that it’s an incredibly dynamic system,” Captain Drew Price said, owner and operator of Master Class Angling guide service on Champlain’s consecrated waters. “It’s not unusual to see six feet of changing water level over a season. That’s just crazy! That fluctuating environment is something you have to deal with and adapt to on a river but when you’re dealing with it on a 120-mile lake, it adds a whole new aspect of challenge to the game.”
Lake Champlain is home to a multitude of fish species, from trout and salmon to bass and pike, to oddballs like bowfin, gar, tench, and even channel catfish, all of which can be caught on the fly. While this may not sound unusual as there are many such lakes that host a diverse assortment of fish species, what makes Champlain unique is that it’s one of the few places in the country where such a collection of fish can be caught in a single day!
“One thing about successful Lake Champlain anglers is that they have to adapt on a daily basis, with water fluctuations, water, wind, etc.” Price said. “However, what makes great anglers around here, is that they learn to adapt to all these different situations and to all these different species. Fly anglers here can be fishing in 12 inches of water for bowfin with floating lines and then 30 mins later be 40 feet down with full sink gear trying to get a lake trout. No other place has such a diverse system that gives you opportunities at so many different species within a couple miles of each other. That’s what makes such great anglers around here, their adaptability.”
Vermont and New York have produced and or helped to shape and influence their own plethora of legendary fly anglers, including Price himself as well as Theodore Gordon, Lee and Joan Wulff, Leigh Perkins, and Tom Rosenbauer.
There is perhaps no other state that has had a bigger influence over fly fishing culture as we know it today than Pennsylvania. Within the state's numerous rippling creeks, bubbling freestones, and rapid strewn rivers, anglers have developed skills that have made them more than capable of fishing any place in the country. While Pennsylvania sits in the center of the hallowed “steelhead alley,” and has some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in the country, it’s in the central and eastern part of the state where the small trout-filled rivers have helped make Pennsylvania a true conveyor belt for skilled and legendary anglers.
“Fly fishing has a certain nobility in central Pennsylvania,” said Eric Richard who has been guiding the waters around southern and central Pennsylvania for over 19 years. “It has a deep history here, where presidents have come to fish and anglers the world over have come to learn about wild trout, but it all goes much deeper than that. In the community of hunters and fishermen around this area, there's a certain notoriety for outdoors folk that comes with being good at what you do. The measure of a man here is found in their ability to hunt and fish, and it sort of creates a bit of competition among these small groups and subcultures that just drives fly anglers to become better.”
Some of the most innovative fly patterns and trout fishing techniques have come from the Keystone State and it has also produced some of the most infamous fly anglers in the country—including Ed Shank, Bob Clouser, George Harvey, and living legend Joe Humphreys. Richard believes that it is the state’s culture of love for the sport of fly fishing and a desire to share it and not a desire to become famous that has made them so.
“The best angler in Pennsylvania is probably someone no one has ever heard of or will ever hear of who has no desire to be known,” Richard told MeatEater. “And that kind of makes it cool, there’s just so many great anglers here that you’ve never heard of, and they’re not driven to be known. What drives them to be good is a personal relationship to the art of fly fishing and to the trout themselves.”
Michigan has tens of thousands of miles of quality trout waters with substantial insect hatches and possesses some of the best Great Lake’s steelhead and salmon rivers in the country. It also has top-quality warm water fisheries for bass, pike, and especially muskie, a variety that makes anglers from the state some of the best fly fishermen on the planet.
“In Michigan, we don’t have the number of trout that western states do, but what we do have is size,” said longtime Michigan guide Tommy Lynch of The Fish Whisperer guide service in Baldwin, Michigan. “We have bigger fish, so you don’t have to sort through as many small trout to catch a true monster. On the east side of the state, there’s the fabled hatches on the Au Sable and the Upper Manistee, and we have a brook trout fishery in the UP that is 100% wild and native. Plus, we have a year-round trout and steelhead fishery and just a massive warmwater scene as we’re surrounded by four freshwater oceans. The place is just a target-rich environment.”
Lynch believes that the reason so many great fly anglers come from Michigan is because of the challenge that the different waterways present.
“You have to have some skills and some spunk to get on the fish here because no one is going to help you,” Lynch told MeatEater. “We have a lot of woods which makes for a lot of structure in the water and not a lot of room to cast and that means everything’s tight here and the fish are a lot more reclusive. We have to wait for our windows, and we have to notice those windows. It forges better anglers from having to know and take openings. It makes for better casters and line-workers, all with that hunt-and-seek mentality and understanding of how and where to target the fish. In order to capitalize here, you have to be perfect.”
Over the years, this desire to be perfect has helped Michigan produce some of the best fly anglers in the fishing world, including Charles F. Adams, Arnold Gingrich, Bob Linsenman, and Kelly Galloup.
While there are a lot of fly fishing destinations in the southern US, no other state has had more influence on the sport of fly fishing nor has produced more skilled anglers than Florida. The Sunshine State has become the true hub of saltwater fly fishing offering fly anglers chances at almost every saltwater species out there from bonefish and tarpon to redfish, snook, and barracuda. While this variety has helped Florida become some of the most diverse and popular fly fishing destinations in the country, the fly anglers there still have to earn their fish.
“Fly fishing in Florida takes some serious skills,” said Captain Brian Jill, owner of Lost Coast Anglers guide service in Tampa Bay.
“To sight fish and catch spooky fish on the flats, fly anglers here have to overcome a multitude of variables which has developed some incredibly talented anglers who are able to adapt to a variety of conditions. Some of these variables that can complicate matters are natural and some are manmade. Strong winds will oftentimes blow out your favorite spots or alter the tides drastically in the bays and backcountry, while cloudy skies and glare can kill your visibility. Knowing where to go when and how to still have a chance with difficult conditions can be a day saver.”
Aside from the saltwater opportunities, Florida is also home to a wide variety of freshwater opportunities as well. Across the state, there are dozens of different trophy bass lakes including Lake Okeechobee, which is considered to be the premier big lake in the US. Aside from the bass, Florida also has introduced exotic species such as peacock bass, snakehead, and even arapaima, the largest freshwater fish on the planet. Yet even when pursuing these fish anglers still encounter problems that have to be overcome.
“There are manmade factors we are faced with, such as, poor water quality causing severe algae blooms and fish kills, coastal development, heavy fishing pressure, boat and jet ski traffic, and bad etiquette from other fishermen,” Jill told MeatEater. “All of this limits the areas we can fish and ends up compounding the problems. There’s no doubt in my mind that navigating our way through all of these obstacles has made us all better fly anglers.”
Florida has a veritable who’s who lineup of infamous and legendary fly anglers who have either grown up in or developed their skill in the state. Most notable among these include Lefty Kreh, Steve Huff, Jose Wejebe, and Flip Pallot.
The Treasure State has created an entire fly fishing industry around the fantastic wild trout fishing found in the nearly 170,000 miles of rivers, streams, and spring creeks, across the state. This has helped Montana evolve from a seemingly barren yet beautiful wasteland fit only for cattle and cowboys to the absolute hub of fly fishing culture that it is today.
While the flyfishing in Montana is truly fantastic, the state also presents its own set of challenges. The plethora of waterways vary from tiny freestone streams to massive tailwater rivers, all have their own specific trout with their own specific habits. What’s more, is that the fisheries of Montana are open all year round and when this is combined with their popularity it means that the trout within these waters are heavily pressured, making them extremely difficult to catch. Yet it is these challenges that have helped shaped the fly anglers of Montana into some of the most prolifically skilled fishermen and women in the country.
“Nothing has tempered my fly fishing skills personally and professionally as moving back to Montana,” said Kara Trip, owner and head guide of Damsel Fly Fishing in Belgrade, Montana. “I’ve been fortunate enough to either guide or host trips in all the “Disney Land” fishing destinations around the world. Kamchatka, Patagonia, Alaska, but no other place “will hone your hook” quite like trying to master the diverse fisheries of Southwest Montana.”
Anglers fishing Montana regularly have to be able to adapt their strategies on an almost hourly basis. The rivers are full of hatches that can suddenly dissipate and vanish in a few moments only giving anglers small windows of opportunity for dry fly fishing before having to switch to nymphs and streamers. Additionally, all of Montana is under the thumb of the mountain weather which can change and fluctuate enormously, 40-degree temperature changes are not unusual for the region, and rain and snow showers can come out of absolutely nowhere.
“To fish Montana well, an angler needs to arrive humble and be willing to put in some work,” said Tripp. “While there are some occasional fantastic days where you can do no wrong, for the most part, fishing Montana means making perfect casts, being quick at tying knots, and being willing to almost constantly change your strategy throughout the day. No other place develops an angler’s skills quite like Montana because no other place forces anglers into learning how to become both well-rounded and technical anglers. Other fly fishing destinations around the world will spoil you. Montana will make you into a fly angler.”
Over the years, Montana has produced or help to develop some of the most skilled and influential anglers in history. It continues to do so today, with anglers like Norman Maclean, Bud Lilly, Dan Bailey, Joe Brooks, and Thomas McGuane all making Montana their home.
Though these states all have some excellent trout fishing and ocean fishing opportunities, the real reason that California, Oregon, and Washington have developed and produced such skilled anglers comes down to one thing—winter steelhead. These three states on the Pacific coast are some of the last bastions of steelhead which many consider the most challenging species of fish to catch on a fly in North America.
Steelhead are ocean-dwelling rainbow trout that return to the rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest to spawn. When they do return, they live off of their body fat accumulated during their time in the ocean and so they have no need to feed. The winter run fish are notorious for absolutely refusing any fly that comes in their direction, which is why catching one on the fly is considered to be the ultimate testament to a fly angler's patience and skill.
“Winter steelhead are an intrinsically difficult fish to catch because they’re not typically eating, so we have to figure out ways to make them eat our flies,” said Oregon fly fishing guide Chris Gerono. “If the fish are hungry and eating then they won’t leave the ocean. Additionally, the water is cold, and their metabolisms are so slow that they aren’t very willing to move for a fly. In the winter you can have a difficult time getting them to move two feet from their holding spot to take a fly. Steelhead rivers are also hard to figure out. The fish lay in different places, and they’re spread out, and therein lies the challenge. You’ve only got 4 months to fish to them and unless you’re skilled enough, you can draw a blank and then you have another 8 months of tying flies and planning your next attack.”
Yet through dedication and an understanding of the sport, there are many West Coast anglers that actually catch winter steelhead on a regular basis. Yet this often takes long years of practice and development of skills that few other fly anglers on earth can possess.
“The only consistent success I’ve found in winter steelhead fishing has been discovered through time on the water,” fly fishing guide David Force said. Every year Force spends his entire winter traveling up and down the West Coast in search of and learning about steelhead.
“It takes so many hours and days to discover each secret a river holds and years to condense those bits into actionable information. Remembering where you found a fish, and under what conditions, gives you the opportunity to repeat that scenario. Every change in water depth or clarity demands a different fly or sink tip. You have to learn to cast accurately and consistently from a hundred positions, all while enduring hundreds of hours of wet, cold, and treacherous conditions. You have to love being there and love solving the puzzle and in my opinion, that love and dedication makes winter steelheaders some of the most skilled fly anglers on the planet.”
California, Oregon, and Washington all have their share of famous fly anglers who cut their teeth in the winter steelhead realm including Bill Schaadt, Lani Waller, Ed Ward, and Dylan Tomine.
In the end, it probably doesn’t really matter which states have the best fly anglers. As previously mentioned, there are great fly anglers in nearly every state, but what does matter is that we follow the example set by the great fly anglers of the world. These folks have a dedication and love for the sport of fly fishing and do their best to protect the waterways of their respective states and preserve them for future generations to enjoy. As fly anglers, we have a responsibility to pass on our knowledge and skills and to speak out about injustices and environmental hazards that threaten our way of life to help ensure that every state continues to have great fishing and great fly anglers.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.