Overlanding (self-reliant adventure travel) has become a popular pursuit in recent years. You may have seen stories, watched videos, or witnessed folks crisscrossing the U.S. and foreign countries in outfitted pickups, Toyota 4Runners, Jeeps, or Range Rovers. For those people, the experience of travel is the reward. The same is true for me, I just like to throw fishing into the mix when I’m on an overland journey.
If you want to try your hand at overland fishing, you don’t need to make many modifications to your truck or SUV (though you certainly can if you have the money). Many overlanders start off with a truck topper and something to sleep on in the truck bed—a small air mattress (or foam pad), pillow, and a blanket or sleeping bag will work. You could also buy a tent and bring it along. Once you have the bare necessities (bring a cooler full of water and food at minimum) you’re ready for adventure.
To fully enjoy an overland fishing trip it’s best to stay away from the crowds—so you’re not trying to catch pressured fish—which is important this summer while coronavirus is still impacting the country. It’s a good way to practice social distancing. You’re not staying in a hotel or fishing with a bunch of people. Bring all the equipment you need from home and avoid potentially bringing the virus to small western towns. Make sure to follow all local and state rules concerning coronavirus when traveling. If you are safe and thoughtful, these remote destinations are ideal spots for having your best fishing of the summer. So if you are considering an overland fishing trip, here are some excellent locales to target across the West.
1. Buck Island Lake (Rubicon Trail, California)
In 1887, when dirt trails and deep ruts made up most of America’s roadways, the powers in place at the time designated the Rubicon Trail a public highway. Originally a native American footpath, today the rock-strewn Rubicon is managed by El Dorado County and is due for a maintenance and revitalization program in the near future. The entire trail length is under the stewardship of the non-profit Rubicon Trail Foundation (RTF).
The Rubicon trailhead at Loon Lake is some 70-miles out of south Lake Tahoe and there is a campground at the trailhead. Along the trail, near Buck Island Lake is a campground run by the RTF and dispersed camping is available throughout the area surrounding the 39-acre lake.
The route can have its obstacles and is rated a 10, most difficult, on the Jeep Jamboree scale. Obstacles notwithstanding, the run to Buck Island Lake can be rewarding for its vistas and overlooks that make this most difficult traverse a showcase of mountain preservation and wonder.
The lake itself can be waded for most of the shoreline with rainbow trout sometimes willing to take a worm or a fly when offered. Whichever method suits your style of fishing, use of barbless hooks will help to build the stocks of trout for anglers in years to come.
Hikes around the lake will take you to views of the surrounding mountains and passes, with the viewpoint at the maintenance station not to be missed.
2. Illinois River (Selma, Oregon)
Redwood Highway, US Highway 199, stretches 80 miles through forested mountains from Grants Pass, Oregon, to Crescent City, California. Running south, the road crosses the Applegate River and further along, just south of Selma, parallels the Illinois River for several miles. At the small town of Selma, a right turn onto Illinois River Road, CR5070-FR 4103, rolls alongside the Illinois for several miles giving access to BLM fire roads along the route.
The river is wild and scenic both in beauty and in designation with rushing waters flowing year-round. Half-pounder steelhead to 20 inches in the fall and bright chrome-colored 20-pound lunkers during the winter run through March can be taken and released. Wild rainbow trout will bite flies throughout the year. Check state regulations before you go.
Stop at the wooden swinging bridge, which crosses the Illinois River midway to Briggs, for spectacular views and to explore the landscape and trails. Be sure to locate the plaque mounted on granite rocks honoring Robinson McCaleb, one of the dedicated souls who worked to preserve the area for future generations.
The Illinois River Road allows easy access by foot to pools, heavy pocket water, and well-worn boulders that offer anglers a prime vantage point to present a fly over riffles and runs. Wading the Illinois can be tricky, and most fishing can be done from banks or boulders. As always, check regulations for the season you plan to explore the Illinois.
3. San Juan River (Navajo Dam, New Mexico)
Over 100 miles above the village of Navajo Dam, the headwaters of the San Juan River, comprised of spring creeks and drainage from the Rio Grande National Forest, flow past Pagosa Springs and along through the Navajo Reservoir. Released from the bottom of Navajo Dam the coming of nutrients and cold water from deep within the lake has been a perfect breeding ground for the sort of insects trout have thrived upon since the structure was erected in 1962.
Rainbow trout were introduced early on and have been holding strong, growing to enormous size and making up an abundant population.
From the dam down about five miles, and especially the top 3.75-miles which form the “Quality Water” section, New Mexico Game and Fish has special regulations. Be sure to be up on all the regs for the area. Year-round hatches of midges make this the go-to fly pattern to be presented throughout the system. A drag-free drift and careful attention to the current hatch to be matched can result in 15 to 20-fish days. Almost unmanageably long leaders under fuzzy white strike indicators can be daunting in the afternoon winds that tend to rise up most days.
Finding fish is easiest with some local knowledge and the San Juan is a perfect representation of a river that keeps its secrets well. Call the Float N Fish Fly Shop and ask owners, Ray and Wanda Johnston, fourth generation locals. Ask them about “The Braids” so you get a real taste of the river.
Getting to the area takes travelers along high desert roads and highways and away from larger towns like Durango, Colorado. Simply turn east onto Navajo Dam Road (NM173) from NE Aztec Blvd., right across from the Dollar General store in the community of Aztec, New Mexico.
The village of Navajo Dam is some 20 miles up NM173 and has fly shops, guide services, and a few eateries. Lodges, inns, and pads for RV camping can be accessed within the small town.
Just before entering Navajo Dam, CR 4280 breaks left and travels high along the northern shoreline of the San Juan River. This “road less traveled” gives plenty of dirt road access to the river’s edge, most of it is fishable and the route leads along to well within the “Quality Water” zone.
Dispersed camping is simply a matter of finding a road that suits you, then heading up and away from the river. Navajo Lake State Park has seven improved campgrounds, with Cottonwood Campground being off CR 4280.
4. Illipah Creek Reservoir (Ely, Nevada)
A very long time ago renowned poet and philosopher, William Wordsworth wrote, “A lake carries you into recesses of feeling otherwise impenetrable.”
Romantic notions such as this begin to fill the head and heart when taking in the beauty of northern Nevada around the White Pine County region in the shadow of Mount Hamilton, which soars to an altitude of 10,750 feet at its summit.
A short four hours north of the burning desert and high energy streets of Las Vegas, lakes, streams and rivers, all loaded with every manor of fish, can be found at every turn.
Exiting the I-15 while headed north towards Salt Lake City, the turn off sets up the rest of the drive as US93 rolls out and then up onto higher ground. Making a left at E-T Fresh Jerky in Hiko/Crystal Springs, the drive up NV318 helps to peel away the layers. A quick jog to the right along US6 just 4.4 miles, and then left onto the road to Giroux Wash Reservoir completes the run.
Most all the waters (except Giroux Wash and White Sage Wash and a few others; check local info) are teeming with fish. The two reservoirs and Holt Creek and Holt Camp Creek are all very promising. These fish are far less particular than most and will take a fly, grub, worm, or properly presented spinner bait. Both reservoirs have rainbow and brown trout in significant numbers. Call Sportsworld in Ely for a local’s point of view.
Illipah Creek Reservoir is a bit higher in elevation and further off the path than Giroux Wash Reservoir. Follow dirt roads to campsites, wash or reservoir alike, to find which appeals to your senses most.
Illipah is a small but unique spot with camping adjacent and ghost towns nearby. The high desert setting can be heartwarming in its desolation and the views will impress travelers new to desert explorations.
5. Boulder Mountain (Escalante, Utah)
At 11,000 feet elevation, the peak at Boulder Mountain provides views of the desert and canyons below. The heavily-forested trails lead to over 80 lakes and almost all hold trophy brook trout and the uniquely colored tiger trout.
Around the base of the mountain, highway UT12 provides easy access to many smaller roads leading to trailheads as well as to the many campgrounds in the immediate area. Off road, four-wheel tracks leading to trailheads are too numerous to detail but can be accessed from along UT12 in many locations around the mountain.
A grassroots effort by local authorities and stakeholders is bringing back the trophy trout that were ubiquitous, but in recent years had diminished in numbers. A resulting brochure produced by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources outlines their efforts and the results in action today.
Today, waters like Deer Creek Lake and Moosman Lake on the south slope, hold more and larger trout, including some of the Colorado cutthroat trout, along with the brookies and tiger trout the area is known for.
On the north slope Blind Lake offers not only the trifecta, but grayling, and a hybrid splake (brookie and lake trout) as well.
Guides, gear, and grub are all available in Escalante with several lodges and inns in town as well. Whether you fish flies, bait, or spinners, a call to Utah Canyon Outdoors to ask a few questions will help to put things on track. Or, call The Quiet Fly Fisher on the north slope, in Loa, Utah, for information on fishing that side of the mountain.