Great Fishing in the National Wildlife Refuge System
|Credit: Roger Baker, USFWS
If you want happiness for a day, go fishing, holds a Chinese proverb. Cast your line in a national wildlife refuge, enthusiasts might add, and you can also relish spectacular scenery and glimpse wildlife in its natural setting. Whether you’re trolling for blues in the surf at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, angling for bass from your boat at Tishomingo Refuge in Oklahoma or trout fishing from the river bank at Bear Lake Refuge in Idaho, refuge fishing is sensational.
- Refuge fishing caters to all tastes. An online Guide to Fishing on National Wildlife Refuges is searchable by state, species, region and amenities (such as boat launches and rest facilities). More than 270 of the Refuge System’s 553 refuges are open to fishing; some 7 million anglers visit refuges each year.
- Fishing is a great way to introduce kids to nature — a goal of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative. New to fishing? Some refuges, such as Trinity River Refuge in Texas, offer free instruction during family fishing events for National Fishing and Boating Week.
- Fishing supports the environment. In 2011, taxes paid by anglers and makers of fishing equipment, tackle, and electric outboard motors generated nearly $365 million to restore fishery resources, according to the Wildlife & Sport Fish Restoration Program.
- Resources abound on refuge fishing. The Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation is another rich source of information.
- Fishing is time well spent. Any student of fishing lore knows: The hours spent fishing are not deducted from a person’s allotted life span.
A tip: Get your state fishing license before you go. Regulations are enforced, and a refuge may be miles from a license outlet.
Here are some refuges that are favorite fishing destinations.
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, VA
The refuge, located on Assateague Island, has drawn fishermen for generations. Beach access is easy and the views are magnificent. The refuge is well-known for flounder fishing in the spring.
Catch: bluefish, spotted sea trout, flounder, red drum, croaker, weakfish, spot, blue crab, bluefish, channel bass and black drum
Fishing type: Saltwater. Surf casting (from March to November). Boat fishing.
Amenities: Public rest facilities, public boat launches in town of Chincoteague, nearby boat rentals and bait and tackle shop.
Other things to know: Visitor center is open daily (except Christmas and New Year’s) 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in summer; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year. Refuge is open daily 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. May through September; 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. April and October; and 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. November through March.
Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, MT
Enjoy fishing in a timeless Western setting — a vast and solitary natural landscape that inspired art.
Catch: Smallmouth bass, walleye, sauger, northern pike, paddlefish, catfish, lake trout and Chinook salmon
Fishing type: Freshwater. Fly fishing on the 245,000-acre Fort Peck Reservoir and the Missouri River
Season: Year-round for most fish; paddlefish (spring); Chinook (August and September)
Amenities: Boat launch; canoeing and kayaking; bait & tackle nearby; disabled angler facilities
Other things to know: Fort Peck Interpretive Center is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. May through September; open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. October through April. The refuge is open during daylight hours.
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, WA
Anglers ply the shallow estuary waters for steelhead and Chinook.
Catch: Sea-run cutthroat trout, steelhead, Chinook, Coho and chum salmon and flounder steelhead trout
Fishing type: Boat fishing only, in the Nisqually River and McAllister Creek
Season: Mid-July - mid October — Chinook
Mid September-December — Coho
Mid November-mid March — Chum
Mid August- November — Pink
Mid November-April — Steelhead
Amenities: Closest boat launch is at nearby Luhr Beach; public rest facilities; canoeing and kayaking
Other things to know: Fishing is allowed only in waters that are not part of the sanctuary; see map on refuge website. There is no boat launch on the refuge. Visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The refuge is open daily from sunrise to sunset.
Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, OR
Bald eagles and osprey aren’t alone in liking to fish in the refuge’s freshwater marsh and open waters.
Catch: Rainbow trout
Fishing type: Freshwater fishing from boats and canoes in Upper Klamath Lake and along the 9.5-mile canoe trail that winds through the refuge
Season: Year-round. Water may be ice-covered in mid-winter.
Amenities: Canoe and small boat rentals are available at nearby Rocky Point Resort from late spring through mid fall. Bait & tackle nearby; public rest facilities; boat launch.
Other things to know: The refuge visitor center is at Tule Lake Refuge, almost 50 miles away. For information, see the site for the Klamath Basin Refuge Complex. The refuge is open during daylight hours.
Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, NV
Non-native sport fish, primarily bass and trout, draw anglers. Largemouth bass teem in the bulrush and open water of South Marsh. The best trout fishing is in the man-made Collection Ditch and the settling pond behind the Gallagher State Fish Hatchery. In this pond, one angler caught a 16-pound rainbow trout (a state record) in February 2011.
Catch: Rainbow, brook, cutthroat and brown trout as well as largemouth bass
Fishing type: Freshwater; boat fishing (except January 1 – June 14, when no boats are permitted; non-motorized boats and boats with battery-powered electric motors are permitted June 15-July 31; non-motorized boats and boats propelled by gas motors 10 hp or less are permitted August 1-December 31) Areas of the Collection Ditch open for fishing may be fished with artificial lures only. Chumming and the use of live bait (including fish, crayfish, and amphibians) are prohibited. It is unlawful to clean or fillet fish within the boundaries of the refuge.
Season: Year-round in all areas except as posted.
Amenities: Boat launch; public rest facilities; canoeing and kayaking; Disabled angler facilities such as wheel chair platforms and pads.
Other things to know: Visitor center is open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. The refuge is open from one hour before sunrise until two hours after sunset. Access to the refuge is via 30 to 35 miles of dirt/gravel road.
Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge, OK
The refuge’s Cumberland Pool and the Washita River offer good fishing.
Catch: Smallmouth bass, striped bass, white bass, crappie, sunfish, and channel, flathead and blue catfish.
Fishing type: Freshwater road-and-reel fishing in several ponds, creeks and the Washita River
Season: March 1 – September 30
Amenities: Boat launch; bait & tackle nearby; public rest facilities; disabled angler facilities such as floating boat dock with accessible ramp and seating.
Other things to know: Visitor center is open weekdays 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The refuge is open during daylight hours.
Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge, MN
Northern pike bite hard in the spring and fall, attracting anglers.
Catch: Northern pike, yellow perch, crappie, bullhead and bighead buffalo
Fishing type: Freshwater fishing from shore, non-motorized boats or boats with electric motors; ice fishing on Mandy Lake
Season: Year-round, following state seasons and regulations
Amenities: Bait & tackle nearby; public rest facilities; boat launch; canoeing and kayaking; accessible fishing pier
Other things to know: Visitor center is open weekdays 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The refuge is open during daylight hours.
Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, MN
City dwellers like to fish, too. In the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, they needn’t go far to do so. Just 50 miles northwest , they can drop their lines in designated parts of the St. Francis River on the refuge.
Catch: Northern pike, carp, occasional smallmouth bass, sunfish and yellow perch.
Fishing type: Freshwater fishing from non-motorized canoes or shore
Season: Consult Minnesota State Fishing Regulations for seasons and cache limits.
Amenities: Bait & tackle nearby; public rest facilities; boat launch: canoeing and kayaking
Other things to know: Headquarters is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Visitor center is open 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. The refuge is open during daylight hours.
Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, CA
When the traffic and the bustle wears on them, city-dwellers can escape to an accessible fishing pier that juts into San Francisco Bay.
Catch: Striped bass, sculpin, leopard shark, surf perch, croaker, halibut, sturgeon and crabs
Fishing type: Saltwater fishing from designated shore areas and one fishing pier and in the bay from boats
Amenities: Public rest facilities; information center near fishing pier
Other things to know: Visitor center is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday - Sunday; closed on federal holidays. Refuge is open 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily November to March, and 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. April to October. Anglers who fish from Dumbarton pier don’t need a fishing license.
Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, AK
The Kenai River holds the world record for king and red salmon taken by rod and reel. Anglers line the banks from June through August to vie for red salmon weighing up to eight pounds.
Catch: Silver, pink, king and red salmon; rainbow trout; arctic char; Dolly Varden, lake trout, steelhead, kokanee and grayling.
Fishing type: Bank fishing with rod and reel in lakes, major rivers and streams
Season: Year-round, except for some salmon
Amenities: Public rest facilities, boat launches, campgrounds, hiking trails
Others things to know: Airboats and off-road vehicles are prohibited. Kayaking, canoeing and power boating are permitted. Boating restrictions apply. The visitor center is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends. The refuge is open year-round.
Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, FL
The refuge’s 12 offshore islands are surrounded by shallow water, mud flats and oyster bars that teem with saltwater fish.
Catch: Spotted sea trout, redfish, mullet, summer only: Spanish mackerel and tarpon.
Fishing type: Saltwater. Boat fishing
Season: Year-round, except within 300 feet of Seahorse Key, closed to fishing March 1 – June 30.
Amenities: Bait & tackle nearby; public rest facilities; boat launch; kayaking; Visitor Contact Station at the Lower Suwannee NWR on Hwy 347
Other things to know: Visitor Contact Station (at Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge) is open weekdays 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., except on federal holidays.