December 15, 2019
By Ross Purnell
Whether I'm at a fishing lodge, a boat ramp parking lot, a riverside campfire, or an airport terminal in a far-flung foreign nation, when I meet fellow fly fishers for the first time, they invariably get around to asking, "Where is the best trout fishing in the world?"
As the editor of Fly Fisherman magazine, I have had the opportunity to fly fish in nearly all of America's trout states, Canada, and every continent except Antarctica (and I've caught trout dang close to there!). It makes sense when a traveling angler goes fishing for information we all do it, because it's one of the best ways to shorten our learning curve.
It's a common question, but I always hesitate before I give my reply because the word "best" is so incredibly subjective. What do you mean by "the best?"
Is that number of fish caught, pounds of fish caught, or merely the top size? For you, is this strictly a numbers game? If so, "the best" fishing is likely in a pond filled with pellet-fed triploid rainbow trout.
Or is the best fly fishing for you the most challenging? I've had days on the Henry's Fork and the Letort where I've had my ass handed to me ... but I wouldn't exactly describe it as "the best." The real answer has to be somewhere in the middle where the fishing is exciting, visually appealing, and a high level of competency is adequately rewarded with the kind of trout you'll remember on your deathbed.
It also helps if you're in a place where you and your companions can get some solitude. I've done my share of combat fishing behind shopping malls, under freeway overpasses, and even had to que up in a line of floatplanes in Alaska, but while these experiences have their time and place — and a special kind of charm — the best places are always a little more off the beaten path.
Kamchatka has the best trout fishing on planet Earth, but only if you enjoy watching giant rainbows destroy your mouse pattern in a hundred different ways. I guess that's not for everyone. If you want to be stealthy and fool around with 14-foot leaders and tiny nymphs, it's probably not the place for you.
When I fished in Kamchatka I floated the Two Yurt River with The Best of Kamchatka, and we had days where I landed 50 rainbows per day between 19 and 23 inches, and that's seriously underselling the fishing because for every trout landed, there were likely two other heart-stopping and violent mouse attacks that didn't result in a hookup. It seemed the native rainbow trout were conspiring to kill as many mice as possible, but less intent on actually swallowing them. The result was a week of high-flying surface attacks that really made you appreciate the spectacle of nature. For the complete story, see "Kamchatka: Unpolluted, indiluted, coast-to-coast wilderness trout fishing, click here.
And it's not like I just had one lucky week of exceptional fishing. I'm in close and constant contact with writers, photographers, and professional guides who fish top Kamchatka rivers like the Ozernaya, Zhuponova, Sedanka, and the Savan. (These last three rivers are booked exclusively by theflyshop.com.) The fishing is consistently excellent through the season because these rivers are mostly spring-fed, the habitat is in pristine condition, and they are absolutely loaded with rainbows, grayling, char and salmon. It's like Alaska was 200 years ago.
The only downsides are that it's a little uncivilized (true wilderness), and there's very little sight-fishing. This bring me to my next choice:
2. New Zealand
It was a hard choice to position this island paradise in second place because it contains far and away the most beautiful locations I've ever trout fished. The volcanic North Island has remote streams in a lush, temperate rainforest. The South Island was pushed up from the ocean floor by plate tectonics, and the snow-capped peaks of the West Coast provided spectacular backdrops for small, clear streams with ridiculously large trout.
The best fishing in New Zealand is remote locations you can hike or helicopter to (don't expect good fishing near the road). You can backpack and take advantage of New Zealand's extensive hut system and live on $10 a day, or you can return each night to a world-class lodge, or 5-star hotels and restaurants. Quite the opposite of Kamchatka, New Zealand likely has the best combination of civilization and wild trout fishing on the planet. It's the best place to go as a couple because there's so much to see and do there. The winery tours and tastings alone are worth the visit, and if you've got the time and a good pair of legs, it's the best DIY trout stream fishing anywhere.
The fishing is fascinating, visual, and highly technical. The trout aren't normally picky about what fly they'll accept; you don't have to use a #22 Trico on 6X tippet like you do on some "technical" U.S. tailwaters. But because of the nature of many of the streams and the large, experienced trout, you do have to be extremely stealthy with your wading and your casting. The trout feed very well if they are undisturbed, but if they sense your presence with just a small unnatural ripple in the water, a misstep on the cobbles, or just a glimpse of fly line overhead, they are gone.
Nearly all of the fishing for large trout is visual — the guide spots the trout from a vantage point, and your casting needs to be on point. There aren't many trout on these mountains streams so you don't get many chances. My best day ever on the North Island was at Poronui Lodge with guide Dave Wood on a remote mountain stream on Mauri land. The stream hadn't been fished in three months. We walked 3 or 4 miles of stream from our drop-off to our pickup location and saw 13 rainbow trout. I landed 12 of them. I had a similar high point on the South Island with guide Ed Halson. He had his eye on one big brown trout we hoped to catch, and we did. It was 10+ pounds. We saw four other trout that day, and caught them all, bringing our total to 5 fish. Halson said it was his best day ever on that stream. I tell you this not to brag, but to help set realistic expectations. In Kamchatka a five-fish day is a horrible disappointment, in New Zealand where you are hunting/stalking single fish, you're there for the esthetics and the quality of the experience.
3. Rio Grande, Argentina
I lumped Kamchatka and New Zealand into two huge geographic regions as because within them, there are so many fine rivers of comparable quality that it's hard to pick out just one river. However, in Argentina there is one river that's obviously exceptional. The Rio Grande on the island of Tierra del Fuego is no ordinary trout stream. Sheep ranchers in the late 1930s stocked German brown trout in tributaries of the Rio Grande, but they never dreamed that some of them might make it to the ocean to feed, and that many decades later, it would develop into the world's finest river for sea-run brown trout. When Outdoor Life writer Joe Brooks first visited the river in the 1950s, he wrote of catching two of these sea-runs, one was 18 pounds which at the time was unheard of.
The Rio Grande is one of those rare special streams that seems to get better as time goes on. The run is now estimated to be as large as 70,000 trout, and most of them are in 102 named pools and three large estancias in January, February, and early March. On a typical day of fishing, you and your partner will have an entire section of river with many pools all to yourself, and you'll each hook three to six fish ranging from 12 to 20 pounds. Most of those fish will come at first and last light, leaving plenty of time in the afternoon for wine, roast mutton, and napping. Not bad for an average day.
Brown trout of 30 pounds or more are caught from the Rio Grande every single season, and that's the reason people travel thousands of miles to fish here and why the Rio Grande is #3 on this list. Brown trout are forever tied up with the genesis of fly fishing, and they are our ambassadors to the world. No other river has such consistently excellent fishing for brown trout of this size. For more information, contact The Fly Shop at Redding California. They have been fishing there and booking this river for many decades and have a vast amount of up-to-date knowledge.
There is great fishing through all of our Rocky Mountain states but one thing separates Montana from all others: Article IX, section 3 of the 1972 Montana Constitution gives the streambeds in that state to the public for recreational use. In 1984 the Montana Supreme Court in Montana Coalition for Stream Access, Inc. v. Curran reaffirmed the law. While fly fishers in other states like Utah and Colorado are fighting valiantly for their own public access (and should be applauded) the fact remains that Montana has the better public access to more miles of quality trout streams that any other state. With a wide range of opportunities from floatable tailwaters (the Missouri, Bighorn, Beaverhead), large free-flowing trout streams (the Yellowstone), spring creeks, mountain streams, and highly structured streams like Rock Creek, the Madison, or the Big Hole, it's easy to see that Montana is head and shoulders above any other state in the lower 48 states.
Of course, Alaska has no need of a similar provision, because most trout streams there are already located on public lands. Yes, the fishing is excellent in Alaska — and it needs to be protected from developments like Pebble Mine. But if you're going that far, for that type of experience, you may as well go to Kamchatka (see #1). It's only four hours from Alaska, and there are far fewer people.
5. Home Waters
While fishing famous waters like the Yellowstone or Madison warms the soul, and big fish anywhere are always thrilling, the truth is that "the best" trout stream is the one you know well. It's your home water, the stream where you know each stone and bend, where you can anticipate the hatches by the bloom of flowers along the pathway, and where each pool holds memories of fish lost or landed and old fishing friends.
No amount of and exploration can ever replace or replicate that level of intimacy. It's like your first true love . . . there can be no other to replace it. The whole point of exploring is to experience that feeling of discovery — that same felling of discovery you felt when you truly "figured" out your home waters. And while you might find bigger and better trout in your journeys, you may never repeat that feeling you had when you first truly "knew" a place and knew it well.
Caveat: I didn't list any lakes in this ranking, merely because I prefer rivers over lakes. Like I said, it's subjective. If lakes were included, I probably would have listed Jurassic lake in Argentina. What happens there is ridiculous. Also, it seems odd that I included sea-run brown trout on this list, but I didn't include sea-run rainbow trout. Steelhead are in fact my favorite species to fish for, but weren't mentioned merely because I can't think of them as trout. To me, they are so much more than that. The fish on the Rio Grande have a similar life cycle and you catch them in similar ways, but when I catch them I can't help but think, "Damn! That's a nice trout."