I’m starting to think about next year’s fishing trips and wondering where to go. I thought you might benefit from my thought process on how to plan a fly fishing trip.

Fly Fishing Road Trip Map | www.johnkreft.com

This map is one I created back in 2019 to show where we have fished during our Fly Fishing Road Trips. If you’re a regular here at RiverKeeper Flies, you know about my Fly Fishing Road Trip page where I link all our previous trips by river/lake and state. It’s a resource I use all the time to refresh my memory of the time of year and effective flies we used. By my count, we’ve fished over 30 different rivers and lakes during these road trips.

I begin planning our trips based upon experiences from prior trips. Where have we had outstanding fishing and look forward to fishing the water again? The second question is what water have I read about or someone mentioned in our travels where fishing was particularly good?

A few years ago, when we started our fly fishing road trips, I used fly fishing guide books and magazine articles (like American Fly Fishing) for an initial pass on likely places to fish. These sources might have pictures of the river, information on the best times to fish, access points, hatch charts, useful fly patterns, local fly shops and guides, and lodging ideas.

Montana’s Best Fishing Waters from Wilderness Adventures Press is an excellent resource I relied upon early on our trips to Montana. I still carry it today on every road trip.

Those resources were invaluable to narrow the possibilities for the rivers we wanted to explore. I’ve learned to follow fishing reports and weekly blogs from fly shops as another input source. I learn about timing of major hatches and water flow levels. I’ve listed a couple of examples I use:

  • The Fly Fisher’s Place – Sisters, OR – Jeff is regular with updates for fishing reports of local waters around Central Oregon. I’ve found his information to be accurate.
  • Blue Ribbon Flies – West Yellowstone, MT – I look forward to their weekly newsletter all year around. They are my go-to source for fishing the Madison and Yellowstone Park.

Here are a few considerations to think about when planning your next trip.

What type of water do you enjoy fishing? Lakes? Tailwater? Freestone?

We’ve learned the last couple of years the type of water we choose to fish makes a difference. On low snowpack years, freestone river levels are quite low and the potential for “hoot owl” restrictions are high. This is when temperatures get high and can severely impact fish health when stressing while playing them to the net. Lakes can have the same restriction if they are shallow. Our best choice has been tailwaters where cold water is stored behind dams and those colder waters help to mitigate warm water temperatures…but not always. Many rivers in western states were impacted by high temperatures last year. It’s something to keep in the back of your head.

How long a trip are you planning?

Maybe you have a long weekend and can drive 3 – 4 hours to your destination. Have more time? Is it a week or two during the summer? Longer?

For me, we’ve been fortunate to fish a lot around Central Oregon and are looking for other experiences after fishing well-known hatches of Salmonflies, Golden Stones, and Green Drakes. We’ve missed some great local Callibaetis mayfly hatches on East Lake the last two years because our desire to find moving water out-of-state during good hatches.

There’s nothing magic about staying close to home or driving farther to visit fabled waters you’ve read about and fishing a well-known hatch. Just remember, others have read the same article, so be prepared for pressure. It might not be the experience you dreamed about.

Which leads to my next point. Are you chasing hatches or just arriving at the water hoping for the best? I like to do my homework to ensure I make the most of my time.

One method to shorten the learning curve is hiring a guide. A guided trip on new water can be invaluable. Let the guide know you plan to be around a few days and see if they would point to access points on the drift or on a different section of the river where you can walk and wade. In addition, you’ll find what flies they use for the hatches during your time on the water.

If you’ve saved your money and have the time, a lodge/outfitter is the way to go. Always wanted to fish Patagonia, New Zealand, or Alberta? Most of the time, a week staying at a lodge and being with a guide is the way to go. Expensive? Sure. Plan somewhere around $5,500 to $8,000 for a week of fishing, food, and a place to sleep.

Once I have a list of potential water to fish, I start laying together a route.

Contact local fly shops by phone or using their website to refine your search and find out information about their local waters and then stop by when you pass through and spend a little money to say “thanks”. You shouldn’t expect to receive valuable information without helping support these fly shops. Local and timely information from fly shops close to your fishing destination is worth its weight in gold.

The two most important lessons I’ve learned are to fish more/travel less and stay close to the water you intend to fish.

Fish more/travel less

We used to pack too many destinations into each trip and it seemed all we did was drive from one spot to another. Over time, we learned to stay a minimum of 3 nights at each location. Here’s why.

Day 1 is spent traveling. Fishing probably isn’t in the cards because you arrive late and check-in after 4 pm. Unload the rig, get a lay of the land, and it’s time for dinner. The best you can hope for is a little fishing before dark. If your better half doesn’t fish that much, you won’t be fishing then either!

Day 2 is for fishing. Get up early and hit the water. Hopefully, the fish gods smile down at you allow a few fish on the end of your line.

Day 3 check-out time is 11 am. More than likely, you won’t fish before that. You may be able to squeeze a little fishing in, but you must get on the road and arrive at the next stop. How many miles away will that be?

Now you can understand why I suggest the 3 night minimum.

It takes a couple of days for us to figure out access points, hatches, and best times to fish. If you want to shorten the learning curve, hire a guide for every stop (which is fine, but the cost adds up quickly).

Stay as close as you can to the waters you plan to fish.

I listened to my own advice on this point and we purchased our RAM Promaster a few years ago, so now we try to camp close to the water we plan to fish.

Van at Ennis Lake | www.johnkreft.com

If you don’t own an RV, I highly recommend finding places to stay that are close to waters you plan to fish. That doesn’t always happen as many waters are remote and that means driving miles to the river. Before the van, I looked for accommodations which have kitchens. We find it cheaper in the long run to cook our own meals and it allowed us to control the food we eat. Many times we fish until dark and all the restaurants are closed anyway.

As an example, we’ve stayed along the Madison River at Kelly Galloup’s Slide Inn and Jim Slattery’s Campfire Lodge. Kelly has guides available or use a shop in West Yellowstone like Blue Ribbon Flies. You can decide how many days of guides work for you versus fishing on your own.

Guided vs. self-guided trip 

This is the next question you need to answer. Guides are a very effective method of learning a new river. They almost always get you into fish. If you decide to hire a guide, let them know what you expect. Many start out the day with nymphs under strike indicators. If that isn’t how you want to fish, it could be a long day.

I fish a lot and like to figure things out on my own…and most of the time, I’m successful with that strategy. But I’ve done my homework and asked the local fly shop for information when I arrive (and spend a few dollars as a way to say “thanks”). It’s a Zen thing for me. I can fish or observe my surroundings and perhaps take a few pictures of the scenery. It adds to my total experience.

As I mentioned above, you can always do both. Hire a guide for the first day and plan to fish on your own the remaining time of your trip.

The least expensive trip is to be your own guide. But you need to be prepared. Here’s a few tips to improve your success.

1. Every day of fishing will be different than the previous day, even if you fish the same water.

I’ve experienced this on my home waters as well. I head back to the water after a great day of fishing only to find no rising fish. Weather’s the same. Water level’s the same. Flies I fish are the same. But the fish decide something is different and they don’t cooperate.

One solution may be to fish at a different time of day. Perhaps mayfly spinners are falling early in the morning or late in the day. Maybe caddis are emerging at dusk. The key is to be flexible. Be observant. Hopefully, the river will speak to you and tell you what’s going on.

2. Adjust your fly fishing for changing water levels and temperature.

In the height of summer, water levels may drop quickly and be different from the previous day, which means fish aren’t in the same spots. Low water can be an issue when fishing freestone rivers. It also has a higher likelihood for states to implement “hoot owl” restrictions. “Hoot owl” restrictions are a good thing because it protects fish. Warm water temperatures are the reason for these restrictions because the fish exert so much energy fighting, they have a tough time recovering and swimming away. That’s why you’ll hear to stop fishing when water temperatures get to 70 degrees.

If these restrictions are in place, you’ll have to decide if you continue to fish the water planned within the allowable time restrictions or move on and try to find another river to fish. That’s what I call “plan B”.

3. Whenever possible, the first stop you should make in a new location is the local fly shop.

You’ll be able to find local access spots, current hatches and flies to match the hatch, and times when fishing might be best. And always…ALWAYS… spend some money to say “thanks”. Even if you don’t need anything. If you are a fly tyer, buy some hooks. Purchase a new leader or two or buy a few flies even if you don’t need them. Maybe they will have some local patterns you don’t have. But spend some money to say “thanks” for the information you receive.

4. Pace yourself!

If you plan on multiple days of fishing, your casting arm might not be used to fishing that long. That might mean not fishing 12 hours/day during July when daylight hours are at their longest.

Our strategy is to fish early in the morning and late in the afternoon until dark. We found fishing the best at these times and we didn’t have to battle crowds as much. Sure, others were fishing, but staying close to the river allowed quick arrival at the river and we were able to fish wherever we wanted. I remember leaving $3 Bridge on the Madison between 11 and noon when several fly fishers were just arriving. We had already fished 4 to 5 hours and headed back to rest, eat, and get ready for the afternoon and evening fishing. By the time we returned to the river, many fly fishers were gone. It was time to eat or they had to get back to their non-fishing family.

5. Be prepared to adjust your terminal tackle. 

In my home waters, I fish a long leader with 6X tippet. On most of the waters of our fly fishing road trip, I found this was much too light. We settled on 4X for most of our fishing. This is a question you can ask the local fly shop. You might find the fish are not leader shy at all. Always use the strongest leader possible to effectively land fish.

6. Always be open to “plan B”. 

In spite of all your research, low or high water conditions can really mess up your fishing plans. I’ve already discussed low water, but what happens when a large weather system passes through and blows out the water for a few days? Be open to try other waters nearby or move to the next river earlier than planned. This might not be possible if you’ve made accommodations in advance, but it’s something to consider.

7. Carry bear spray!

Much of the waters we fish are located in bear country. Need I say more? Be safe and carry bear spray.

I hope this information helps you plan your own successful fly fishing road trip!

Enjoy…go fish, stay safe!

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  1. Thanks John… a lot of us travel vicariously along with you and Karen. Your tips and experience is much appreciated.

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