An Angler’s Guide: 7 Elite Destinations Where You’ll Catch More than Fish
Tony Capecchi 10.10.17
Funny thing about a fishing trip: It’s about a lot more than fishing. The best trips deliver on intangibles — a sense of adventure, an up-close-and-personal wildlife encounter, a meal so ridiculously good you can taste it for months.
I love to travel as much as I love to fish, so I cast a wide net with my fishing adventures. The diversity of my trips also varies based on the distinct differences of my three primary travel partners.
My dad boards planes that only land on lakes, and he won’t go anywhere other than Canada; all he wants to do is catch fish and eat fish. (Yes, my dad is a wise man.) My wife teases that her version of camping is staying in a hotel that costs under $100; she casts three times a year — at most — yet her favorite trip was to a fly-fishing ranch in the mountains (side note: they served bacon-wrapped shrimp). My son, age 3, wants to play with water all day, expects a cookie reward for the first fish of the day, and is delighted when sunfish go “flippy floppy.” It’s impossible to catch fish fast enough to keep up with his sincere question every 5 seconds: “Do you need another worm, Daddy?”
Their diverse preferences coupled with my personal drive to seek as many awe-inspiring travel/fishing experiences as possible have led me to a wide array of elite destinations across North America. Here’s the best of them. Epic adventures await at these best-in-class destinations, and excellent fishing is only part of the story.
Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge, Manitoba, Canada
The Scoop: A second-generation family run fly-in with pro-staff guides, gourmet dining and beautiful handcrafted cabins in the midst of a pristine boreal forest. Manitoba’s second-deepest lake is one of its best multi-species fisheries; walleyes are abundant (20-25 inchers are common) and guests also have excellent odds at trophy pike and lake trout. Aikens’ shore lunches are legendary.
Best Thing You’ll Catch Besides Fish: Five-star service in a boreal forest. Upon arrival, the entire staff shakes your hand at the dock to welcome you; at departure, half the goodbyes become hugs. In between, whatever you want is exactly what you’ll get (Aikens even flies in certain wines, snacks or cigars to cater to your preference). It’s all part of the Aikens Experience.
“My favorite part of this whole thing is doing something special for a guest and seeing their reaction,” said Aikens co-owner Julie Turenne, who has orchestrated scavenger hunts for kids, arranged surprise candle-light dinners on the beach, and even became certified to officially administer a wedding at Aikens. “I live and breathe this. I pride myself on doing those extra things.”
Cragun’s Resort and Hotel on Gull Lake, Brainerd, Minnesota
The Scoop: The iconic 70-year-old resort on one of Minnesota’s best walleye lakes has grown to legendary status (and size) by staying true to its mom-and-pop beginnings. Second-generation owner Dutch Cragun started in the family business in 1947; his childhood job then was running the bait and tackle shop.
“Dutch and Irma have always prided themselves on being a family run resort and have instilled in all employees the desire to provide excellent service and make guests feel a part of the Cragun’s family,” said resort manager Nancy Krasean.
After new construction, up to 1,000 guests per night can enjoy the resort’s five on-site restaurants, indoor and outdoor pools, abundant water and winter sports, an award-winning golf course, a groomed bike trail and staff-supervised events including horse-drawn wagon rides and pontoon boat outings. And, of course, don’t forget Minnesota’s famous walleye fishing.
Accommodations range from pool-side hotel rooms to lake-side cabins to brand-new seven-bed, seven-bath villas overlooking Gull Lake.
Best Thing You’ll Catch Besides Fish: Minnesota’s finest beach. Our cabin’s deck walked out to the beach, where my son spent hour after hour swimming, building sand castles, fishing from the dock, swinging on the beach playground and roasting marshmallows in our fire pit.
The Home Ranch, Clark, Colorado
The Scoop: Luxury, working dude ranch in Colorado’s Elk River Valley with farm-to-table dining, hiking, horseback riding and a robust youth program to introduce kids to the quintessential Old West experience. Knowledgeable, Orvis-endorsed guides put guests on brook, rainbow and cutthroat trout on either the Elk or Yampa River. A stocked pond provides action and builds confidence for even novice anglers.
Best Thing You’ll Catch Besides Fish: I’m tempted to say the dining experience (I’ve never been anywhere with better food; the bacon-wrapped shrimp was topped by seared Maine diver scallops), but I’ll go with the horseback riding. Simply put, this is heaven for horse lovers.
Casual riders (like my wife and me) enjoy incredibly scenic and easy trail rides with picnic lunches along the way, while serious equestrians receive expert training with daily horsemanship clinics. Guests get to ride the same horse for their entire stay, and consequently get attached — you hear repeat guests speak lovingly about “their” horse.
Inn at the Forks, Winnipeg, Manitoba
The Scoop: This boutique hotel in downtown Winnipeg is the place to stay if you’re fishing the legendary Red River. Besides housing Manitoba’s uniquely colored “greenback” walleye, the Red River is arguably North America’s best channel catfish destination. Action is fast, furious and exhausting. After spending a day hauling in numerous trophy catfish (as I did with my father this July), you’ll appreciate a massage at the hotel’s newly renovated Riverstone Spa. Dinner at SMITH restaurant is also a highlight.
Best Thing You’ll Catch Besides Fish: Immersion in the Canadian culture, simultaneously old and new. The Forks is a convergence of cultures with Aboriginal, French Canadian and Manitoba influences bringing the best aspects of art, music, dining and nightlife. Strolling down the Riverwalk, you’ll find outstanding street music and the interesting and inspirational Civil Rights Museum. My dad and I also enjoyed a much-too-quick morning at nearby Assiniboine Park; its lush gardens, miniature railway, outdoor theater, sculpture garden, miles of forested trails and 200 animal species — headlined by the Journey to Churchill polar bear exhibit — can entertain for hours or days.
Dunton Hot Springs, Dunton, Colorado
The Scoop: This exclusive resort nestled in the San Juan Mountains of the Colorado Rockies features a dozen of the town’s original 19th century log homes, painstakingly transformed into luxury cabins. Anglers can fly fish 8 miles of private water on the Dolores River, which originates at over 11,000 feet and holds cutthroat, rainbow and brooks, mostly 15 to 25 inches.
Best Thing You’ll Catch Besides Fish: Extreme luxury in extreme wilderness beauty. The resort boasts five natural mineral hot springs that have been curing body and soul for centuries; the all-inclusive dining is sublime.
“It is hard to find another ghost town turned luxury resort in the Colorado Rockies where you can explore strenuous hikes, or fish trout on the 8 miles of private water of the West Fork of the Dolores River, and end your day with fine cocktails and delicious meals,” said Ed Rossi, executive vice president of Dunton Life. “With all activities being on-site, one of our guests could be fishing while their partner could have a massage or decide to go on a horseback ride. There’s something for everyone.”
Arrowwood Lodge at Brainerd Lakes, Brainerd, Minnesota
The Scoop: Arrowwood lies in the heart of Brainerd, the quintessential Minnesota north woods town with countless lakes, rivers, hiking trails and a seemingly endless list of outdoor recreation activities. It’s a fitting site for In-Fisherman headquarters. Arrowwood perfectly combines modern hotel conveniences (on-site restaurants, reception/meeting spaces and an arcade room) with rustic charm (its vast display of animal mounts would make Cabela’s proud).
Best Thing You’ll Catch Besides Fish: Paul Bunyan Indoor Waterpark. 30,000 square feet of fun, with a zero-depth entry pool, lazy river, log walk and slides — both toddler-sized and adult-sized, four-story slides.
“Arrowwood Lodge is a great getaway for kids of all ages,” said Karolyn McCarte, director of sales at Arrowwood. “Splash and play in the Paul Bunyan Indoor Waterpark; partake in games at the Gold Mine arcade; or get outside and play — our outdoor recreation includes a bonfire pit, children’s playset, sand volleyball court, zipline, lawn games and horseshoe pits.”
Vermejo Park Ranch, Colfax County, New Mexico
The Scoop: Purchased by Ted Turner 21 years ago, Vermejo Park Ranch spans over 585,000 acres and offers endless outdoor activities. Guests can fish 16 different glacial lakes and 30 miles of streams to fish new water each day, ranging from high-country lakes to the iconic southwest setting of the Vermejo River. Hunters flock here as well, as the land is home to large herds of elk, deer, pronghorns and bison, along with black bears, mountain lions, and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
Ted Turner’s 25,000-square-foot private residence on the ranch, originally built in 1909, recently underwent a $4.5M renovation and is now available for guests to stay at during their visit.
Best Thing You’ll Catch Besides Fish: A week in the life of a big-time rancher (minus all the work). Feel like mountain biking? Bird watching? Discovering new heights with an epic four-peak, 5-day trekking tour? The world is your oyster. You can do it all, or you can spend your days sitting on the deck, watching wildlife on the horizon until dinner beckons.