Top Ten Fly Fishing Colleges


F

or some, it’s the roar of the crowd in the Big House—100,000 strong, all bellowing for the maize-and-blue.

For others, it’s the irresistible attraction of the opposite sex. They claim Ole Miss’s campus-wide speed limit is 18 miles per hour because that was Archie Manning’s number. But one look at the co-eds strolling the pathways and you’ll know the real reason. And then again there is actual academic achievement (it turns out that this often-overlooked factor has some bearing on future employment, if you’re into that kind of thing). Whatever your main motivation, there’s no denying that choosing a college is a heavy decision.


College fly fishing: housing optional.

For fly fishermen, of course, picking your future alma mater (or influencing the choice of your children) is mostly about the old real estate adage: “location, location, location!” If you could work a few quality football games, maybe a festive soiree, and an education into the mix, so much the better. We’ve chosen our top 10 colleges based solely on their fly-fishing strengths (but they’ve all got a lot more going for them, too).

#10

Colorado State University

Location: Fort Collins, Colorado
Best Nearby Fishery: Rocky Mountains National Park
Key Species: Cutthroat trout
Cost (annual): $20,000 to $37,000
Pro Tip: New Belgium Brewery offers special brews direct from the factory if you bring your own growler. Need we say more?

Fort Collins is uniquely situated on the Front Range and provides access to a huge range of fishing opportunities—from the high-mountain brookie ponds and cutthroat streams an hour’s drive up into Rocky Mountain National Park, to the stiff winds and backing-searing rainbows of the Grey Reef on the North Platte three hours away over the Wyoming line. Its location allows you to catch the Mother’s Day caddis hatch on the Arkansas River—also just three hours from campus. CSU has one of the best veterinary programs in the country, while Fort Collins is consistently ranked among the best places to live—and start a business—anywhere. If sheer diversity isn’t tempting enough, you can also join Trout Unlimited and assist in the recovery of the greenback cutthroat—Colorado’s state fish, now known only in a few stretches of water in Rocky Mountain National Park.

#9

Pennsylvania State University

Location: State College, Pennsylvania
Best Nearby Fishery: Spring Creek
Key Species: Rainbow trout
Cost: $20,000 to $40,000
Pro Tip: One of the first universities to offer a fly-fishing course for credit (way back in the 1930s); today’s “Kinesiology 004” will put you in contact with an impressive angling legacy (not to mention some actual trout). For more advanced anglers, Penn State even offers a competition casting course.

Penn State sits amidst some of the best limestone in the eastern United States, which means practically every local river is prime big-trout habitat. Spring Creek wells up from the ground only five miles from campus and its waters are home to one of the highest-density populations of wild brown trout in the US. The entire stream is catch-and-release, and is currently enjoying one of its healthiest periods in years.

Launching near Arkansas State University

#8

Arkansas State University—Mountain Home

Location: Mountain Home, Arkansas
Best Nearby Fishery: White River
Key Species: Brown trout
Cost: $5,000 to $7,000
Pro Tip: KT’s Barbecue Smokehouse, in Gassville, on the banks of the White River, boasts some of the only smoked hamburgers on sale anywhere. But get there early: They sell out by lunch time.

Our least-expensive selection, ASU-Mountain Home provides an important option in tough economic times. With a surprisingly gorgeous campus in a laid-back town, you might almost forget that you’re only minutes away from—likely—the next world-record brown trout, swimming somewhere in the White or Norfork rivers (two of the last three world records came from the White River system). Pack for cold weather—the best fishing is October through February, when the “shad kill” coming through Bull Shoals Dam results in 10-pounders rising to surface feed on Alaska-style flesh flies.

#7

San Diego State University

Location: San Diego, California
Best Nearby Fishery: Pacific Ocean
Key Species: Mako shark
Cost: $16,000 to $36,000
Pro Tip: There aren’t many places where you can wet a line in the morning and watch a Major League Baseball game in the afternoon, but San Diego—whose Padres play in Petco Park, a mere stone’s throw from the water—is one of them.

By California standards, SDSU is a relative deal when it comes to cost of tuition. You’ll also be in a hotbed of fly-fishing innovation. Very few new fisheries have opened up in the past two decades, but California mako shark (thanks in large part to TV personality and guide Conway Bowman) is one of them. With the ability to melt the core out of an undeserving reel, on a blistering half-mile run punctuated by tarpon-like jumps, this would be one hell of a cool fish to catch . . . even if he couldn’t eat you. If sharks aren’t your thing, nearby Dixon Lake is on the top of every largemouth bass angler’s world-record watch list. Wouldn’t it be nice to win your fame and fortune with a fly rod?

#6

University of Miami

Location: Miami, Florida
Best Nearby Fishery: Everglades/ Florida Keys
Key Species: Bonefish, tarpon, permit
Cost: $60,000
Pro Tip: Miami International Airport is the jumping-off point for most trips to both the Caribbean and South America. Even though you’ll be in the land of sun and sand, you’re also closer to Patagonia than anywhere else in the US.

Miami: Land of sandy beaches, Cuban sandwiches, and a once-mighty football powerhouse. Oh yeah, and it’s surrounded by the best flats fishing in the world. Now, the Keys are not the place to try your hand at saltwater fly-fishing for the first time. However, there are plenty of opportunities to hone your skills on other species before approaching boss-level Keys permit. Everglades National Park begins right outside town and boasts miles of marsh fishing for baby tarpon, redfish, snook and even bonefish. Try a kayak, or spring for an inexpensive motorized Gheenoe (charge your buddies for their front-deck time and help offset that boat payment).


Hunting native trout in the Appalachians, near UT

#5

University of Tennessee

Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Best Nearby Fishery: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Key Species: Brook trout
Cost: $17,000 to $35,000
Pro Tip: During football games, the “Volunteer Navy” tailgates on a variety of boats in a flotilla behind Neyland Stadium, making for a prime carp-fishing-while-tailgating opportunity.

UT is an hour from gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains National Park (best accessed through nearby Townsend, Tennessee, which also boasts a great fly shop). Spend your falls rooting on the Vols and your springs searching out rhododendron-tangled “blue line” creeks for the elusive, but native, nine- to 12-inch trophy southern Appalachian brook trout. If 2-weights and 3,000-foot climbs aren’t your thing, the nearby Clinch and South Holston rivers host strong caddis and Sulphur hatches, and plenty of browns up to 10 pounds. Local musical venues lean toward the banjo and steel guitar, but there’s no denying the talent on display in Knoxville’s Old City on a Friday night.


The marsh in Grand Isle, two hours from campus.

#4

Tulane University

Location: New Orleans, Louisiana
Best Nearby Fishery: Hopedale Marsh
Key Species: Redfish
Cost: $60,000
Pro Tip: Tulane’s law school is one of the few in the country to teach Civil (as opposed to Common) Law, a relic of the Napoleonic Code unique to Louisiana in the US, but common in other parts of the world.

New Orleans. More words have been written about the town since Hurricane Katrina hit, in 2005, than possibly in its entire history up to then. One of the best party towns on earth, the city also boasts great musical and culinary traditions and a burgeoning arts culture. Best of all, the nearby Hopedale Marsh (not to mention Venice, Grand Isle, Houma or any number of other locations) has arguably the greatest red drum fishery on earth. Start your morning at 5 o’clock with beignets and café au lait, hammer the marsh through the sunrise hours and be home in time for redfish po’boys and Bourbon Street festivities. Plan to bring a kayak you can stand up in, and learn how to tie those spoon flies. The fishing do be good!

#3

Boise State University

Location: Boise, Idaho
Best Nearby Fishery: Snake River
Key Species: Cutthroat trout, steelhead
Cost: $19,000 to $31,000
Pro Tip: Arguably the strongest football school in the Mountain West, Boise State has built a national reputation for winning—and for hanging on to its coaches. It is a sure-bet candidate for a berth in the years after 2014, when the NCAA goes to a football playoff format.

With the Boise River flowing literally through campus, your biggest fishing bottleneck will be the time it takes to pull up your waders. Despite being a state away from the Pacific Ocean, Boise gets a steelhead run, albeit of hatchery fish. In addition, wild—and sometimes large—brown trout and native redband rainbows are river-resident year ’round, meaning even in the coldest months you can wet a line. And of course the warm winds of April and May triggers massive hatches on all area rivers, including the South and Middle forks of the Boise and the Owyhee… right after final exams.

#2

University of Oregon

Location: Eugene, Oregon
Best Nearby Fishery: Willamette River
Key Species: Steelhead
Cost: $25,000 to $50,000
Pro Tip: Also known as “Nike U”; Oregon alumnus and Nike president Phil Knight has poured millions into both academic and athletic programs at the school. Oregon is now a perennial national championship contender in football. As a consequence, your wardrobe might include garments in “highlighter yellow,” perfect for safety while night fishing.

With the Willamette River running right through town, Oregon is one of the few universities with a healthy native steelhead run (winter fish pass through from late December through early May). The nearby Clackamas also has a strengthening steelhead run, including options for native winter-run steelhead that could ruin your academic career. Prospective students should pack a two-hand rod, plenty of warm underwear, and the brooding, fish-or-die attitude necessary for all successful steelhead anglers.

#1a

The University of Montana

Location: Missoula, Montana
Best Nearby Fishery: Bitterroot, Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers
Key Species: Native cutthroat and bull trout
Cost: $14,000 to $39,000
Pro Tip: Western Montana is a banana belt; Missoulians are already hucking Skwala stones when MSU students are still chipping ice from their guides and matching midges with tiny Brassies.

Everyone knows Missoula, which is the setting in A River Runs Through It and the motherland of fly-fishing as known to the general public. The knock some Missoulians have on Bozeman (though some might call it snobbery) is that its best fisheries are tailwaters full of non-native rainbows and bruiser browns. Meanwhile western Montanans enjoy the rivers as, they say, God intended, sliding dry flies over lies populated by native westslope cutthroat and big bull trout that range up to 15 pounds and take the same streamers that anglers cast for cutthroats and a host of rainbows and browns. And, if UM students need a dose of tailwater fish, they can drive three hours or less to fish Bozeman’s home streams. Of course, MSU students can reciprocate. That’s why it’s really a tossup between these two schools. What it may come down to in the end is whether you’re going into the sciences or if you want to join Missoula’s long list of literary icons. By all accounts, that’s a nice problem to have.


The Southwest Montana angler’s biggest problem is deciding which world-class river to fish.

#1

Montana State University

Location: Bozeman, Montana
Best Nearby Fishery: Madison River
Key Species: Rainbow trout, brown trout
Cost: $19,000 to $32,000
Pro Tip: The quintessential mountain town, Bozeman is home to Simms Fishing Products, the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, Sitka Gear, and Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures, along with a fly shop on every corner.

Although the nearest quality fishery (the Gallatin) is right out Bozeman’s back door, world-famous rivers like the Madison, Yellowstone, Beaverhead, Jefferson, Big Hole and Henry’s Fork are all within reach for an easy day trip.

If longer expeditions are your thing (or you have an aversion to drift boats), Yellowstone National Park is less than two hours away, with literally hundreds of miles of fishable water. Want to run hoppers down a cut bank? Hike in to Slough Creek. Fancy trying to fool a rising 22-inch rainbow on 6X tippet? The Railroad Ranch on the Henry’s Fork is for you.

Home to multiple fly shops and guide services, Bozeman is a great place for a hard worker to make a few bucks in summer, the better to afford next season’s gear. Its downtown would be the envy of Norman Rockwell, except that he might not approve of the Montana Ale Works brewpub right on Main Street.

Start your Saturdays before dawn at Main Street Over Easy—a candidate for best breakfast in America—then hitch up your driftboat and try to beat the guide caravan to the “Fifty Mile Riffle” at Lyons Bridge on the Madison. And while the winters might be daunting, you can catch a bus from campus and be snowboarding Bridger Bowl in 20 minutes.

 

This article originally ran in the 2013 Angling Adventures issue of Fly Rod & Reel magazine.

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