Fishing the 6 most popular National Parks

If you are planning a fishing trip to a national park this season, this article is for you.  Many hours of research and many more hours with my line in the water resulted in the creation of this post.

Whenever I visit a national park, I am always amazed at how few people are fishing.  It may be all the other attractions and must see sights. Or maybe people are unsure of the regulations.  Whatever the reason, fishing in our national parks is a treasure ready to be had by the prepared angler.  

One of my bucket list items is to visit all 60 national parks in the United States.  That’s a lot of planning, flying, driving and a whole lot more fishing!  For the sake of time and my sanity, I have chosen to focus on the top 6 most popular parks first.  The crowds are getting bigger so now is the time to find a slice of water to cast your line. 

Here are the 6 most popular national parks and what you need to know for a successful fishing adventure.

1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

This is America’s most visited national park.  The park is shared by the states of Tennessee and North Carolina.  The beauty of the ancient Appalachian mountains is only rivaled by its diversity of plants, wildlife and fishing opportunities.  If you are looking to catch wild trout from isolated streams or have your eye on smallmouth bass,  surely you can find a spot among the 2,900 miles of streams within the park.  Remember, areas with easier access will see the most pressure.

The most difficult part about fishing in the Smoky Mountains is deciding which stream to fish first.  My research yielded the following streams as good bets:

  • Abrams Creek, Tennessee

Located in the western portion of the park, this stream is well known for beautiful rainbows and enough challenge to keep it interesting.  This stream is larger than most and is one of the more popular streams in the park.  For solitude, I would seek harder to reach parts.  I have a hunch that the effort will be worth the reward.

  • Hazel Creek, North Carolina

Generally considered one of the best and most popular trout streams in the park.  The fish found in this stream include brown and rainbow trout.  Smallmouth bass can also be caught but have higher densities in the lower stretches.  Hazel creek is easier to fish than Abrams creek, yet still produces lunkers.

  • Little Pigeon River, Tennessee

Touted as a top trout stream in Tennessee, this river consists of three forks that should provide plenty of places to cast a line.  Smallmouth can be caught as well.

When is the best time of year to fish in the Smoky Mountains

The park is open year-round for fishing and can relinquish fish to determined anglers anytime.  My preference would be to avoid the damp of winter and the humidity of a southern summer.  Spring and fall may provide the best balance of weather and active fish that feed on the ubiquitous aquatic insects.

Do you need a fishing license

A valid Tennessee or North Carolina state fishing license is required.  Either will be valid throughout the park.  You cannot purchase a license in the park.  To purchase a license online, visit the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife or North Carolina Fish and Wildlife website.  

Other important info

It is important to understand park specific rules to avoid problems and fines.  Use or possession of live bait (either bought or found) and liquid scents is prohibited.  The tackle allowed may consist of artificial flies and lures with a single hook.  Barbless hooks are encouraged.

Visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website for specific regulations.  

2. Grand Canyon National Park

If you want to experience what this national gem has to offer, you can’t beat a multi-day raft trip down the Colorado.  There is something special about floating down the wild Colorado River with colorful canyon walls reaching toward the heavens.  From wild rapids to the calm eddies that follow, one thing is certain, you will have an awesome fishing experience.     

The Grand Canyon is a challenging park to fish.  The river winds at the bottom of a mile deep cut in the land and the summer temperatures are brutal.  Visitors descending to the bottom have been injured or perished from the severe heat and demanding terrain.  Always put safety before a catch.

My trip involved seven days of rafting adventure and numerous opportunities to cast my line in the water.  My efforts were rewarded with many beautiful trout and the occasional small bass.  I was told that with some luck, I could catch the famous humpback chub or razor back sucker, both on the endangered species list.  I was not that lucky but still had a blast none the less.  

Rafting down the mighty Colorado is definitely my recommended way to experience the park.  These are memories I will cherish for life.

Phantom Ranch

For those of you who want to taste the Grand Canyon fishing experience without committing the time for rafting through the park, I recommend a hike to Phantom Ranch located in the eastern portion of the park.  The ranch can be accessed via the Bright Angle or South Kaibab trails that depart from the south rim. This stretch of river is considered the best fishing the park offers.  The hike is long and rugged so pack adequate supplies.

When is the best time of year to fish in the Grand Canyon

Fall and winter will offer anglers the best chance to try their luck.

Do you need a fishing license

A valid Arizona state fishing license is required for individuals 10 and older.  You can purchase one in advance online at the Arizona Fish and Wildlife website.  You may also purchase a license in nearby Flagstaff at most sporting goods stores, including Walmart.

Other important info

Spinning gear and fly fishing gear may be used.  Artificial lures and flies with single barbless hooks are best for catch and release fishing.

Trout are considered invasive in Bright Angel Creek near Phantom Ranch.  You are encourage to keep and enjoy the trout you catch in this area as part of a native species 

restoration project. 

Visit the Grand Canyon National Park website to learn more.

3.  Zion National Park

Zion is definitely well known for its stunning desert beauty, but for stellar fishing it is not. However, for the diehard fisherman, wetting a line in this amazing park is still a must. 

Let’s not forget, the area outside the park also offers fantastic fishing opportunities in the numerous reservoirs and lakes.

Virgin River Drainage, Zion

Fishing within Zion will inevitably bring you to the Virgin River and its north and east forks.  There are four native species (virgin spinedace, speckled dace, desert sucker and flannelmouth sucker) and five non-native species.  Rainbow trout are the most prolific non-native species.  Cutthroat, brook and brown trout can also be caught.  Channel catfish are also found, though not common.  

Light spin tackle or fly fishing gear are best suited for this river.

If you intend to fish during the spring months, be aware of flash floods and plan accordingly.  The summer and fall months bring the largest crowds.  The riverwalk trail can get quiet congested and may make fishing that stretch difficult among the many swimmers and hikers.  

Finding your own piece of the river may be a challenge, but the early or late hours of the day will yield fewer crowds.

Reservoirs around Zion

Kolob Reservoir

Located in the headwaters of the Virgin River drainage, Kolob offers excellent trout fishing opportunities.  The first month after the ice melts and the month of October have offered the best opportunities to catch cruising trout in shallower waters.  

Navajo Reservoir

The targeted fish in this reservoir is a cross between lake trout and brook trout called a splake.  The sport fishery for splake has improved over the years with added improvements to maintain summer water levels.  Fishing is best during early fall and after the spring melt when fish are feeding aggressively.  Located at over 9,000 feet in elevation, access during the winter months is limited to snowmobiles.  

Shore fishing with spinning gear and basic trout rigs can be very productive.  

When is the best time of year to fish in Zion and the surrounding Reservoirs

As long as snow levels do not limit access, fishing year round is possible with good success.  Each season brings its own challenges.  Flash flooding occurs most commonly in the spring and the hot summers drive fish deep into the reservoirs.  My preference is to fish this region in the fall.  Cooler weather and fewer crowds make it the ideal time to fish.

Do you need a fishing license

A valid Utah state fishing license is required. To purchase a license online visit the Utah Fish and Wildlife website.

Other important info

Visit the Zion National Park website for specific regulations and updates.

4.  Rocky Mountain National Park

High elevation, beauty and huge mountain views make this an awesome place to visit.  Fishing here can be difficult and requires perseverance and sturdy hiking shoes.   

Only 48 of the 156 cold, high altitude lakes have reproducing populations of fish.  Species to be caught include brown, brook, rainbow and three species of cutthroat.  Good research and planning are essential to know which lakes are good prospects for trying your luck.

Generally, you can expect to catch smaller fish within the park due to the difficult winters and cold water.  Stream fish average 6-10 inches and the lakes may produce fish in the 12-16 inch range.  However, smaller fish are a small price to pay for the big views!  

Picking the first spot to cast my fly is the hardest part about planning a trip in this rugged country.  The following lakes and streams are a good start and will give you a nice taste of the rockies.

Glacier Creek

This small creek is accessible from Bear Lake road on the east side of the park.  Draining from Glacier Gorge, most of this stream can be easily navigated without waders.  The fish may not be big but it is a worth while stop on your way to the Bear Lake trailhead.

Mills Lake

From the Bear Lake trailhead, hike 4.5 miles to this small mountain lake.  Once there, enjoy the views and a chance to catch the multiple varieties of fish this lake can offer. 

Dream Lake and the Loch

Both lakes are accessed by an easy hike from the Bear Lake trailhead.  Dry fly fisherman will be especially pleased by the Loch which has numerous coves that are protected from the wind.  Expect to catch greenback cutthroat and brook trout.  A float tube may be worth the effort to reach fish untouched by shore anglers.

Upper Onahu Creek

Across the divide to the west lies a meandering creek that winds through meadows and provides easy access to its banks with only a short hike.  Spend the entire day exploring this long stretch of stream to find your very own spot. Enjoy the solitude and a chance to catch the native Colorado River cutthroat.

When is the best time of year to fish in Rocky Mountain National Park

Expect large crowds most weekends from June through September.  The fishing experience really shines mid fall during the warmest parts of the day.  Fewer visitors, fall foliage and calm weather make for picture perfect conditions.  

Do you need a fishing license

A valid Colorado state fishing license for individuals 16 and older is required.  To purchase online, visit the Colorado Fish and Wildlife website.

Other important info

The park has extensive regulations that are updated and changed frequently to protect the fragile ecosystems and maintain good fisheries.  Be sure to review all rules and check with a ranger for updates prior to fishing.  Some streams and lakes are closed and others are catch and release only.  

For the most up to date information visit the Rocky Mountain National Park website.

5. Yosemite National Park

The soaring granite face of El Capitan rises over Yosemite Valley as one of the most iconic sights in the national park system.  The idea of landing a Merced River trout in the shadow of this behemoth rock is an irresistible treat that should be on every fisherman’s bucket list.  

This park may not be the most popular fishing destination, but that should not keep you from experiencing all Yosemite has to offer.  Even a slow day fishing is a good day with views this stunning.

Merced River

A 10 mile stretch of this river runs though Yosemite Valley.  During peak season expect some fishing competition.  The Yosemite Village stretch of Merced River will receive the bulk of tourist activity.  With some exploring off the beaten path, you can find hidden holes that are out of sight of roads and trails.  The lower 6 miles of this river receives little attention and makes a good jumping off point for your first day of fishing.  

The primary fish to be caught include brown and rainbow trout.  

Lyell Fork

The Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River offers ample scenic views, a chance to spot abundant wild life and many miles of meandering river just asking to be fished.  Open grassy meadows border much of the river and offer an ideal opportunity for fly fishermen. 

Begin your fishing expedition  at the Lyell Canyon trailhead.  A few miles of hiking up the canyon will take you away from the majority of people.  Nearly 9 miles of gorgeous river awaits your cast.

Tenaya Creek

Tenaya Creek winds its way down to the Merced River in a deep canyon between North Dome and Half Dome.  The more popular Merced River claims the attention of most tourists and fishermen in the area, leaving this creek forgotten and under fished.  

For those willing to hike to the upper stretch of stream above Mirror lake, you will be rewarded with rarely visited pools and shaded runs of water that hold fish.  Don’t expect to catch any monsters. However, the trout in this stream are well earned and no less impressive.

When is the best time of year to fish Yosemite

The streams of Yosemite Valley make for great early season fishing before the high elevation snow melts in the heat of summer.  For easy wading in a lazier flowing river, the fall season is great.  

Do you need a fishing license

A California state fishing license is required for all individuals 16 and older.  Licenses can be purchased at the Mountain Shop in Half Dome Village.  You may also purchase online at the California Fish and Wildlife website.

Other important info

Only artificial lures and flies with barbless hooks may be used.  No bait is permitted.  The season for streams, including Mirror Lake on Tenaya Creek, is the last Saturday in April until November 15th.  All other lakes are year-round.  

For the most up to date information on park specific regulations, visit the Yosemite National Park website.

6. Yellowstone National Park

Visiting the world’s first national park is truly a glimpse into ancient landscapes of the past.  The preservation of this great ecosystem is a testament to the foresight of those who set this piece of land aside for generations of people to enjoy and appreciate.  

The mud pots, geysers and colorful thermal pools showcase the power of the super volcano that lies beneath.  The volcanic geology of the Yellowstone caldera is the driving force behind the bountiful biodiversity in the park.  Staggering numbers of wildlife, steaming geyser basins, and numerous river drainages provide the perfect chance to experience world class fishing in a setting of unrivaled beauty.

Yellowstone River

When people think of fishing in Yellowstone, they are likely thinking of the Yellowstone River.  This iconic river provides beautiful scenery and abundant fish. Equally prolific  are the insect hatches and terrestrial bugs such as beetles and grass hoppers.  A prepared angler will want to have a good variety of flies and tackle for matching the hatch.

Attempt up stream of Yellowstone Lake in remote isolation with virtually no competition and less finicky fish, or fish the more easily accessed portions down stream of the lake.  

The down stream portion of Yellowstone River meanders 13 miles between the lake and Upper Falls of Yellowstone canyon.  Flowing through patches of timber and the plains of Hayden Valley, access is easy, as a portion of grand loop road follows along this section of river.  

Fish of decent size can be expected in this section and catching the native Yellowstone cutthroat is possible.  However, fishing early in the season after the July 15th opening is best.  Fishing pressure soon makes these fish tricky to catch.  

Up stream of Yellowstone Lake will provide you with a completely different fishing opportunity.  Many miles of backcountry hiking are required to reach this isolated stretch.  Your effort will be rewarded with abundant, fish filled portions of river that are nearly guaranteed to be devoid of other fisherman.  

Whatever section of Yellowstone River you choose, be sure to familiarize yourself with the regulations.  Several segments are closed to fishing and specific species rules are enforced.

Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone Lake is the largest lake in the park and the largest body of fresh water above 7,000 feet in North America.  Fishing pressure in the lake is low since most anglers are drawn to other quality streams nearby. 

Over one hundred miles of shoreline accessed by road or trail offer ample opportunity for shore anglers to catch cruising cutthroat that feed on the shallow water insect hatches.  

A kayak or boat provides great access to areas otherwise untouched by the shore angler.  Trolling for the non-native lake trout can be exciting. Some truly monstrous fish are waiting to be caught.  Park regulations require all lake trout to be kept or killed in an effort to protect the native cutthroat.

Lewis channel

Between Lewis Lake and Shoshone Lake runs the crystal clear waters of Lewis Channel.  Deep pools and gentle rapids offer great fishing opportunities for those willing to hike in Yellowstone’s back country.

Begin your adventure on the Lewis River Channel/ Dogshead trailhead near Lewis Lake.  This is a 10.8 mile loop trail that travels along the channel giving you access to nearly the entire stretch of water.  

Large lake trout and brown trout can be caught through out the year, but are most prolific in the fall during their spawning season.  

The Lewis Channel is within the non-native trout tolerance area. 

Madison, Gibbon and Firehole Rivers

In the northwest region of the park there flows a collection of rivers with astounding fishing diversity and amazingly unique features that are found nowhere else in the world.  

These rivers flow through some of the most geologically active lands in the park, lending to above average temperatures for streams at these elevations.  The elevated temperatures allow for nutrient rich waters and early season fishing access at the end of May when the park’s general season opens.  However, river temperatures get too warm in the summer and may be closed to fishing to protect the fish.  Always ask for updates at the ranger station.

Fish size varies, and of the three rivers, the Gibbon River produces the smallest fish (10 inches on average).  Expect to catch brook, brown and rainbow trout.  All three rivers are fly fishing only and offer opportunities for all skill levels. 

Fishing pressure is high, but hiking a mile or more from the easy access points will weed out most anglers who have less time and inclination to work hard for isolated stretches of water.  

Definitely devote some time to this region.  These fishing experiences truly provide a special view of the park.

When is the best time of year to fish in Yellowstone National Park

The park’s general season runs from the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend through the first Saturday in November.  Expect crowds all throughout the season.  The quality of fishing may depend on the insect hatches that are most prolific in the spring and early summer, as well as the spawning season for different drainages which usually occurs in the fall.  

However, anytime that fishing is open in Yellowstone is a good time to fish.

Do you need a fishing license

A Wyoming state fishing license is not required to fish within the national park. 

Yellowstone has its own fishing permit that is required for individuals 16 or older.  Kids 15 and under can get a free mandatory fishing permit.  3 day ($18), 7 day ($25) or all season ($40) permits can be purchased at many locations within the park, including fly shops, visitor centers and ranger stations.

Other important info

The regulations for fishing in Yellowstone National Park are complex and can vary often depending on changes to the parks ecosystem.  Being up to date on the regulations posted online and checking for updates at nearby visitor centers or ranger stations is critical to avoid fishing violations.  

Visit the Yellowstone National Park website to find the most up to date information and a printable fishing brochure with specific rules for each region of the park.  

Live bait is strictly prohibited and only artificial lures and flies may be used.  Barbless hooks are mandatory.

If bringing a boat or kayak to the park, a permit and boat inspection are required before using in park waters.  For more specific information about permit fees and boating regulations, visit the Yellowstone National Park boating webpage. 

The most important thing to be aware of when fishing in Yellowstone is the wildlife.  Wildlife is well dispersed and abundant.  Bison, bears and elk are commonly seen and encountered.  Being vigilant while fishing is a must for safety.  Carry bear spray and never approach wildlife.  Catching a fish is never worth the risk.


The National park system provides a wonderful opportunity to explore some of the most diverse and pristine natural environments that still exist.  Whether you are an avid angler with trophy fish already under your belt or a beginner picking up a pole for the first time, fishing in the grandeur of America’s National Parks is a worthwhile pursuit that will give you memories for a lifetime.