A Guide to Fishing in National Parks

Published on 05/15/2023 · 8 min readFishing Expert Christian Nelson shares his tips for fishing in a national park to help you take advantage of this amazing experience.
Christian Nelson, Fishing Expert
By Fishing Expert Christian Nelson

Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

National parks offer an experience that I believe every angler should try, for several reasons. Whether you’re looking for scenic and beautiful views, quiet solitude while fishing a mountain stream, or just want to catch a ton of fish, there’s a national park that offers your ideal setting for a day on the water. In a sense, national parks make dreams possible. The first time I fished in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee was unforgettable. I had only dreamed of fishing a stream for rainbow trout and looking out over the mountains, and it met every expectation and then some. In my opinion, national parks give the feeling of what fishing should be. It’s just you and nature, and every national park allows an entirely different and unique kind of fishing experience.

Getting Started

Dry Tortugas National Park. Photo by Christopher Oslen

To get started exploring a national park and hooking some awesome fish, first, you need to find a national park that’s right for you! As far as fishing goes, some national parks are better than others, but all of them are centered around conservation and maintaining a sustainable and quality fishery to allow future generations the opportunity to fish for prized native species. This could look like anything, from fishing the small streams of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for native brook trout and wild brown trout or smallmouth bass to fishing the reefs of Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida for trophy in-shore species like tarpon and everything in between. The best place to start though, in my opinion, is a national park that is somewhat local. I’d like to fish Yellowstone Lake in the Yellowstone National Park as much as anyone else, but there are tons of well-managed fisheries in national parks all around us!

A lot of your more local and smaller parks will actually be state parks, so I would start by going to your state’s outdoor resources website and looking for a map or list of state parks. From there, you should be able to narrow down on one that piques your interest while being relatively close to home. National parks tend to be a good bit larger than state parks, and often cross state lines. Fishing local state parks is a great way to learn how to be successful in national parks in the long run as well. Learning how to find productive fishing in a lesser-known state park is an experience that will help you a lot later down the road when you’re trying to find and isolate productive water in a larger national park!

All state and national parks have varying fishing regulations and different laws on what is and is not permitted. Check to see what you need, and make sure to grab any applicable fishing licenses or fishing permits that you’ll need to fish. I would pay special attention to laws on bait and tackle, as in some areas even a single barbed hook can land you a hefty fine. Parks like this take management and conservation very seriously, so make sure you have a valid fishing license and a clear understanding of what is and is not allowed in your park!

Finding Success on the Water

Grand Tetons National Park. Photo by Nate Foong

Depending on how you go about fishing, national parks can be either the worst or best day of fishing of your life. Over the years I’ve fished a lot of public water in state and national park settings, and there are a few tips that I believe make a huge impact on your chances of success.

The first and most important tip that I can give you is to get off the beaten path. National and state parks routinely experience fairly heavy amounts of fishing pressure. When fishing these parks, I would immediately rule out fishing any easily accessible piece of water. I would avoid fishing any water near publicly available docks, pavilions, boat launches, or even water that offers parking within anything less than a few hundred yards. These spots are being fished very heavily by tourists, and they don’t offer near the same quality of fishing as a less accessible area. I like to focus on areas that require at minimum an hour of walking to reach. Tourists, families, and kids aren’t touching these spots, and it’s because of that fact that these spots offer the most promise. Often you’ll find these spots fairly untouched and in good condition, as the only anglers fishing these areas are dedicated fishermen who respect the area. There are tons of great fishing opportunities with many parks offering countless acres of land and many miles of streams, as well as lakes, so removing easily accessible water from your search can greatly help in narrowing down a productive area. If you want a really unforgettable trip, you just have to get off the beaten path and do a little exploring!

Beyond doing some bushwacking to find a remote honey hole, the next meaningful piece of advice I can give is to be outgoing and inquisitive. Whether it be a guy working at a local fly shop or just a park ranger, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself and ask questions! A lot of times it can be difficult at first to find success in a new area, so ask someone who knows. Visitor centers or ranger stations for these parks can also be great places to ask some questions, so stop by and don’t be shy. As a general observation, most people will talk about something they like for as long as you’ll listen. Just having these conversations with locals and listening can lead to you finding a spot that’s not on the maps, or even just a meaningful tip on what lure is catching fish right now. This can give great insight on things like whether bait, artificial lures, or an artificial fly is the way to go. When I’m exploring and fishing unfamiliar places, I treat everyone I speak to as if they know a secret that could make a difference in the success of my trip. By having this mindset, you’ll soon notice how quickly you can pick up some great leads for where, when, and how to get on some fish!

Along the same lines, really pay attention and try to understand anything you notice while fishing. In my opinion, fishing in a new place comes down to finding a pattern that is catching fish and repeating it. It may be something subtle, like noticing that you’ve caught all your fish on a slow retrieve. Whatever the case is, finding and sticking to a successful pattern will go a long way toward building your confidence as an angler, and you’ll become much more comfortable fishing in that environment. This is information you can apply later too. As an example, if you have had success catching cutthroat trout somewhere before, you will be much more confident in your ability to catch cutthroats somewhere else in the future.

Putting It All Together

Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Steven Cordes

All of these tips will help you find success more consistently in state and national parks, but practicing them in unison is a formula for a great day on the water. Find a nearby park and spend time planning your trip, and really focus on applying the principles above. Try and eliminate what you think will be unproductive water before you even go fishing. Make an effort to talk to people you encounter, and pay attention to what you see on the water.

The biggest mistake I see anglers make when visiting national parks is that they fish with results in mind. I think we all kind of create a dream in our heads about how a day will go, an ideal scenario, and when we don’t meet our expectations it can be really disheartening. If you spend time focusing on the methods though, you’ll find you will be much more successful on the water. Beyond this, you’ll also be making the most of your time on the water by knowing that regardless of the outcome of the trip, you did all you could do to have a good trip.

Fishing isn’t called catching for a reason, nothing is guaranteed. Every time you go out isn’t going to be the best day of fishing of your life, but eventually one of them will be. When I was younger I lived near a state lake, and I fished it over a dozen times and caught nothing, but that 13th trip was worth the work I put into understanding that lake, and I never got skunked there again. Being persistent is key, so stick with it!

As an angler, national parks are a reliable way to find some great places to fish. Whether it's big or small, these parks are centered on the idea of preserving nature and ensuring that you as an angler can enjoy those natural resources. This makes for an exciting sunrise, some beautiful sunsets, and some great days on the water all around. All that’s left to do is get out there and catch some fish!

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