Backcountry Fly Fishing: Tips, Techniques, and Gear You Need to Know

Backcountry fly fishing is the way fly fishing is meant to be. Well, in my eyes anyway. The backcountry always involves a journey into the unknown, an adventure.

When you hike into wild places off the beaten path to find small streams and high alpine lakes that have barely been fished. You’re going to experience something very different from your local easily accessible river or lake.

Backcountry fish are more willing to eat flies, backcountry lakes are some of the most beautiful you can find, the pocket water of backcountry streams can hold some dam big trout too.

You’re likely to see some of the best landscapes and wildlife that wild trout fishing has to offer.

Backcountry fishing isn’t easy though as it usually involves some serious effort to get to. It requires planning, looking at maps, camping out and possible issues like altitude sickness or bears are things to be wary of.

It’s a wild adventure that I’m here to help you go on as we discuss the great backcountry fly fishing spots in the US and how to fish them safely.

Planning Your Backcountry Fly Fishing Trip

Here are some of our highest recommendations on places to visit if you’re looking to get into back country fly fishing.

The Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area

The Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area

Just downstream of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado lies some of the best and hardest-to-access backcountry fly fishing you can get your hands on. Getting into the Gunnison Gorge requires a serious 4×4 to one of three tails after which it’s a long hike to get to the river but what you’ll find there will be worth the effort.

The Gunnison Gorge is home to stunning landscapes and some of the most picturesque trout fishing anyone could hope for, plus the fish in the Gunnison Gorge are huge and anglers know that a 20-inch plus rainbow or brown is very possible there.

The river is shallow enough to wade but for an easier access option, you can book a multiple-day float trip with outfitters who bring in all their supplies with donkeys.

Golden Trout Wilderness

Golden Trout Wilderness

The Golden Trout Wilderness has the best backcountry fly fishing for golden trout in the entire USA. It’s just two hours inland from LA and it sits inside the Sequoia National Forests at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains just next to the Kern Plateau.

The Golden Trout Wilderness area is stunning to hike around and is home to some stunning alpine lakes and the north and south forks of the kern river, all of which hold the most beautiful trout on the planet in my eyes, golden trout.

Golden trout are a sub-species of rainbow trout and one of the places they can only be found is in California which is another thing that makes fly fishing in this wilderness area so appealing. All the fishing is catch and release and you’ll need to get a permit from the forest service to fly fish there and stay overnight.

Since this area is so close to civilization and easy to access, you can explore it on a day trip but it’s worth staying overnight if you want to explore the miles of river you’ll probably have to yourself.

Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness

Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness

The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness area is huge and spans over 2 million acres and is a dream spot for backcountry anglers. There is enough space to explore this wilderness for years with miles and miles of streams, rivers, and remote lakes for you to get enough backcountry fishing done to last a lifetime.

You’ll find this backcountry wilderness in Idaho and it’s full of amazing landscapes such as the salmon river canyon which is actually deeper than the grand canyon.

A dream trip for every trout angler is to float down the middle fork of the Salmon River where you can find huge trout lurking in its deep pools. The extensive trails around this wilderness also mean you can really get off the beaten path to remote lakes and streams with fish over 20 inches that haven’t seen an angler before in their lives.

The Wind River Mountain Range

The Wind River Mountain Range

The Wind River Range is a 400,000-acre area of wilderness that sits inside the Bridger Wilderness Area of western Wyoming and is an amazing place for backcountry fishing.

This area never used to have trout in it and they were stocked way back in the early 1900s and have grown to be wild over the course of 100 years. Today, the Wind River Range is home to 4 species of trout including wild rainbows, brook trout, golden trout, and cutthroat trout that are spread across over one thousand lakes and thousands of streams.

As you walk into this backcountry dream on the 6oo or so miles of trails the fish seem to just get bigger and bigger, especially the brook trout.

The Upper Raven Fork

The Upper Raven Fork

Another backcountry spot that is famous for its big brook trout is the Upper Raven Fork stream in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

The Upper Rave Fork Stream was actually closed for over 25 years to help bring the healthy population of brook trout back and it worked with anglers experiencing some of the best brookie fishing the USA has to offer. But the Upper Rave Fork is just one of the best places for trout fishing in North Carolina.

Access to this delightful stream requires a lot of hiking and you’re not going to manage this adventure on a day trip so it’s best to pack your pack with a tent and a few day’s worth of food before heading deep into the wilderness.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park also has about another 700 miles of streams and every stream under 3000ft in altitude has had a rainbow and brown trout stocked in it, so doing some fishing on a day trip in the national park is very possible too.

Essential Gear for Backcountry Fly Fishing

What fishing gear will you need for the backcountry

Most trips into the backcountry involve fishing small streams and lakes which means you don’t need anything too heavy and a 3 weight fly rod will do the job just fine. All the fishing will be done on a floating line and you’ll need a good selection of dry flies and nymphs to get the job done.

The dry fly fishing in the backcountry can be out of this world especially during summer and late summer as the cool temperatures of these high altitude fisheries often mean better hatches than you’d find lower down.

You should also consider bringing a 5wt fly rod with you if you know there are some big fish to target like in the Gunnison Gorge.

Techniques for Backcountry Fly Fishing

Trout in the backcountry haven’t seen many anglers and they also live in gin-clear waters and are thus quite spooky.

You should fish a long leader of around 12-15 feet and since the fish aren’t too big a lot of the time, dropping down to a 6x or 7x tippet will have you catching more fish, especially when fishing a micro dry fly.

If you’re nymphing, try to use a natural-looking indicator or no indicator at all if the trout are being spooky as a blob of orange is certainly going to send their alarm bells ringing.

Which fly patterns work best for the backcountry?

Which fly patterns work best for the backcountry

The trout in the backcountry are opportunistic as there is less food in high altitudes for them to eat. When it comes to dries you’ll want a few attractor patterns like a stimulator, Chubby Chernobyl and hoppers do well too.

When there is a hatch, chances are it’ll be a small fly and get patterns to have include parachute Adams, blue winged olive, and elk hair caddis in sizes 14 – 18.

The nymphs to have with you are also pretty generic and your box should have some prince nymph, copper john, hare’s ears, and pheasant tail nymph. Be sure to have all these in sizes from 12-18 and in different weights from unweighted to tungsten.

Do you need a permit to fish in the backcountry?

In most cases you do need a permit, be sure to check with the forest service or national parks service before you go fishing.

How fit do you need to be for backcountry fishing?

You need to be quite fit for backcountry fishing, especially if you’re in the north or going into high-altitude areas where it’s particularly cold.

You can find training plans online that will help you get ready for altitude and if you’re unfit, it’s worth starting out with long fishing days walking the rivers closer to home to build up your fitness first.

What other gear will I need to go into the backcountry?

What other gear will I need to go into the backcountry

When packing for a multiple-day backcountry trip the key is staying warm and dry. You should have cold-weather gear and rain gear with you that is perfect for trout fishing in the rain, along with enough food and water to ensure your body gets the supplies it needs.

One tip for not carrying water as it’s heavy is investing in a water filter cap that allows you to drink water safely from the streams you’re fishing in.

Photo of author

Jamie Melvin

Growing up fly fishing on trout streams in Kenya and the UK, Jamie has traveled the world in search of fly fishing nirvana. From his time managing bonefish lodges in the Bahamas and running fishing safaris in East Africa, all the way to guiding on the flats of Seychelles, there aren't many species or environments he hasn't experienced firsthand.

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