Celebrating North America's Greatest Fisheries
Nov 25, 2020 | 12 minute read
Reading Time: 12 minutes

North America is home to many of the world’s most popular fish. From Snapper to Salmon, Billfish to Bass, you could spend a lifetime seeking out new species and never get bored. And it’s not just the fish that make the continent great. It’s those spots that are so special they draw people from around the world. 

A group on a sportfishing boat in Vancouver Island, bringing in a Salmon in a catch net

Sadly, this has been a bad year to travel. But we shouldn’t forget just how good these places are. We’re celebrating the paradise islands, remote rivers, and historic fishing communities that fill every angler’s dreams. It was a tough task, but we’ve chosen what we think are North America’s greatest fisheries, starting in the south and working up.

Jacó, Costa Rica

A man in a white shirt and cap leaning over the side of a boat to release a Sailfish

Costa Rica literally means “rich coast.” If Jacó is anything to go on, we can only assume it was named by an angler. Everywhere you look, giant fish wait to explode out of the water. Roosterfish roam the river mouths while supersized Snook stalk the shallows. Offshore, you’ll find three species of Marlin and some of the biggest Sailfish on earth.

You’re not short on species here, that’s clear. You’re not short on charters, either, thanks to Jacó and nearby Herradura’s huge charter fleet. Fish in luxury at the exclusive Los Sueños Resort or launch the old-fashioned way – straight off the beach. There’s a boat for every angler with an experienced captain to match.

Ready for the kicker? That’s not even what makes Jacó special. What really sets it apart is the dedication to sustainable fishing, tagging, and safe release. Local crews know their waters are incredible and they intend to keep them that way.

Ambergris Caye, Belize

A female anglers releasing a Bonefish into clear shallow water from a boat, with green vegetation behind

Ambergris Caye is the definition of “wish you were here.” Belize’s largest island is a strip of white sand and lush vegetation, dotted with grass shacks, beach bars, and luxury sailing yachts. None of that has anything to do with why it’s on the list. Instead, we have one word for you: Bonefish.

Ambergris Caye is a pilgrimage site for Bonefishers. The island is surrounded by sandy flats and turtle grass beds that are home to some real monsters. It’s not just Bones, either. Big numbers of Permit and Tarpon make this a true fly-fishing paradise. It’s the perfect place for a Grand Slam.

Flats fishing purists may be surprised with this one. They might have expected Turneffe Atoll or southern Belize’s “Permit Alley” instead. However, Ambergris Caye offers more diverse fishing grounds, all packed full of fish. And thanks to its size, you’re not limited to a thousand-dollar lodge if you want to catch them.

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

A female angler holding a large Wahoo on a sportfishing boat

It’s tough to find bad fishing in the Caribbean. From the Bahamas to Barbados, this string of islands does big fish like it does beautiful beaches. That is to say, really, really well. Competition’s fierce, so what earns Grand Cayman a spot on our list? Simple. Some of the deepest waters in the entire sea: the Cayman Trench.

The Cayman Islands are the tip of a ridge running beside a vast ocean trough. Among anglers, that means giant pelagic predators just a stone’s throw from shore. Marlin and Sailfish are here pretty much year round, joined by huge Wahoo in classic Caribbean style. All this, just a mile or two from shore!

But wait, there’s more. Grand Cayman is also a top-rate flats fishery, home to everything from Bonefish to Barracuda. Throw in a mixed bag of delicious reef species, and you’ve got to wonder why they didn’t call them the Fish Islands.

Cozumel, Mexico

An underwater shot of a spearfisher holding a barracuda he just caught

Mexico’s Riviera Maya is mainly known for its beach resorts and all-night parties. Luckily, Cozumel has mostly escaped the spring break bandwagon. It’s kept a relaxed island vibe, and more importantly, an outstanding selection of fishing grounds.

Cozumel’s northern shore is a land of shallow sand flats full of Bonefish and Permit. The surrounding reefs offer incredible spearfishing (except the south of the island, which is a protected park). Topping things off, a deep ocean valley separates Cozumel from the mainland, funneling Marlin, Sailfish, Wahoo, and more right past town. 

Sound like fun? You haven’t hear Cozumel’s trump card: You can fish every one of these spots in a single day. Hit the flats at sunrise, then speed offshore on a local panga. Round things off with an hour on the reef and head home with some delicious fish for dinner. What more could you want?

Los Cabos, Mexico

Two men holding a large Striped Marlin on a charter boat in Cabo San Lucas

Perched on the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, Los Cabos is probably the best Billfishing spot on earth. Cabo San Lucas draws most of the attention, thanks in no small part to its world-famous Bisbee’s fishing tournament. However, nearby San Jose Del Cabo also blows most places clear out of the water.

What makes it so good? How does six species of Billfish sound? Blue, Black, and Striped Marlin all spend most of the year here, joined by Sailfish, Swordfish, and the occasional Spearfish to keep things interesting. Oh, and there’s also Tuna, Wahoo, Dorado, and giant pelagic Sharks, which is nice.

The cool thing about Los Cabos is the sheer number of spots you can fish. Seamounts and ocean trenches scar the sea floor, giving you a dozen options within a few miles of land. Even casting from the beach can yield Roosterfish and Sierra Mackerel. You really can’t go wrong.

Florida Keys, FL

Two smiling anglers sitting on a boat with a large Snook in their hands and mangroves in the background

Of course the Keys are on the list. It’s a string of islands draped off the bottom of Florida, splitting the Gulf and the Caribbean with a scattering of sand and reef. Not that we have to tell you this. The Florida Keys are probably the most famous fishery on earth. Safe to say, they live up to the hype.

It’s tough to know what to cover first. Do we start with the maze of mangroves around Islamorada? The virgin flats off Key West? Maybe we should talk about the near-vertical drop offs and endless spot reefs to the south. Heck, even the bridge fishing here deserves its own article. And that’s kind of the point.

There’s no one thing that makes the Keys special. Everything about them is special. Bonefish, Swordfish, Snapper, Snook – there’s something for everyone, with a specialist guide to match. If you can only fish one place in your life, this has got to be it.

Emerald Coast, FL

A family posing with their catch of Red Snapper and King Mackerel at the dock in Destin, Florida

The Keys are a tough act to follow, but if anywhere can do it, it’s the Emerald Coast. This corner of the Florida Panhandle is home to some of the Gulf’s top fishing spots: Panama City, Destin, Pensacola, Orange Beach (yes, it’s across the state line, but it’s too good to leave out). These are the heavyweights of America’s family fishing scene.

The Emerald Coast excels at family fishing trips. Every year, thousands of parents hit the water in search of tasty fish and great memories with the kids. There are plenty of both to be had. Red Snapper are the star of the show, but Redfish, Kingfish, and Grouper all put on an unforgettable performance. 

The Emerald Coast is also home to dozens of fishing tournaments, from kid-friendly events like the Destin Fishing Rodeo to serious sportfishing like the Orange Beach Billfish Classic. That last one shows the area’s worst-kept secret: it’s also a great place to target deep sea species like Tuna and Marlin!

Lake Fork, TX

A smiling middle-aged fisherman in a cap sitting on a boat, holding a big Largemouth Bass

Freshwater anglers, we haven’t forgotten you. In fact, we’re starting with North America’s most iconic catch: Largemouth Bass. These hard-fighting lake lovers are an American icon. They’ve been exported all over the planet by fishing enthusiasts. Ask any of them where the best fish live, they’ll say Lake Fork.

A few things come together to make Lake Fork such an outstanding Bass fishery. There are the fish themselves, stocked from Florida but now well and truly at home in Texas. There are the careful efforts of the wildlife service, limiting the number and size of fish you can keep.

And of course, there’s the habitat and the structure within the lake. Lake Fork is rich in hydrilla and full of points and bridge pilings, all of which are ideal for big Bass. Brush piles are also added around the lake, making five star hotels for lunker Largemouth. No wonder this is the top stop on most Bass tournament circuits!

Orange County, CA

A male angler holding a Yellowtail Amberjack on a boat near Catalina Island, one of North America's greatest fisheries

On an average year, 50 million people visit Orange County. It’s not hard to see why. Between the theme parks and beautiful beaches, there’s something for everyone in this SoCal paradise. For us, it’s all about the kelp beds, seamounts, and offshore islands.

The OC Coast is lined with giant kelp forests holding Calico Bass, Halibut, and White Seabass. Offshore, the floor plummets down underwater canyons and soars skyward in giant seamounts. These are ideal hunting grounds for Bluefin Tuna and Sharks. Then there are the islands, home to huge schools of Yellowtail and every other species mentioned so far.

That’s a lot of fish, but how to reach them? Well, you can fight Calicos right off the rocks, or kayak out into the kelp. Head to the massive marinas in Newport Beach or Dana Point, and you’ll find dozens of skilled captains waiting to take you out. There’s something for everyone – that’s what makes Orange County great.

Outer Banks, NC

A happy angler holding a Bluefin Tuna caught out of Hatteras, NC

The Outer Banks are a world away from the glitz of Orange County. This is a land where life revolves around the bounty of the sea. A string of fishing villages thrown out into the Atlantic, surrounded by salt marsh and open ocean. Unsurprisingly, the bite here is unbeatable.

Your biggest choice when fishing in OBX is “inside or out.” No, we don’t mean your dinner reservation, although you’ll find a feast either way. We’re talking about chasing tailing Trout and Drum in the backcountry, or wrestling giant Tuna and Marlin offshore. Don’t feel like either? Catch trophy Striped Bass right off the beach instead.

The Outer Banks are a true all-American fishery. Skilled guides from generations-old fishing communities take families out for the trip of a lifetime. Kids and old-timers cast in the surf for an evening meal or a personal best. Sportfishing fanatics take part in tournaments out of Hatteras or Wanchese. It’s all here, just take your pick.

Lake St. Clair, MI/ON

Two men holding a large Musky fish on a boat, with water in the background

The freshwater bite really cranks up a gear as we move north. Lake St. Clair is a perfect example of this. Sandwiched between Lake Ontario and Lake Huron, flanked by the Detroit skyline, this Great-Lake-in-miniature holds a huge mix of freshwater favorites.

Lake St. Clair is famous for its incredible numbers of Smallmouth Bass, Musky, and Walleye – the big three in these parts. The Smallmouth bite is especially good, with 2 or even 3 lb fish hitting the scales in spring and summer. Don’t pack your rods away in winter, though. This is a year-round fishing hotspot with a twist.

Climb aboard a charter in the summer. Cozy up in an ice hut in winter. Either way, you can expect a cooler full of tasty Walleye and Sauger, with your fair share of Musky and Pike to keep up a sweat. St. Clair may not officially be a Great Lake, but it sure is an awesome one!

Thousand Islands, ON/NY

A man and a woman holding Smallmouth Bass, with water in the background

At face value, the Thousand Islands and Lake St. Clair are pretty similar fisheries. Both straddle the US-Canadian border. Both hold an all-star mix of freshwater game fish. And of course, both offer world-class angling for amateurs and ardent anglers alike.

In most places, that would already be enough. However, this sprawling archipelago has some tricks up its sleeve that really set it apart. For one, this is the start of the mighty St. Lawrence, so expect strong water flow and interesting eddies around the rocks. The endless islands are also ideal for kayak fishing, with so many spots that you never struggle for fishing space.

Then there are the fish themselves. This is the meeting point of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, so expect plenty of Salmon and some massive Musky. They’re joined by Pike, Walleye, and super-sized Smallmouth that make for awesome tournament fishing. You won’t get bored, that’s for sure.

Prince Edward Island

Two fishermen bringing a giant Bluefin Tuna alongside the boat in order to release it

Hidden in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on the blustery North Atlantic coast, Canada’s smallest province is easy to overlook. Make a note of it. Circle it on the map with a big red pen if you need to. Every sea angler worth their salt should aspire to visit Prince Edward Island. Why? Tuna. Giant Bluefin Tuna.

PEI is the summertime home of the world’s biggest Bluefin. Thousand-pound fish are a genuine possibility on every trip, and they start showing up just a mile from land. The center of the action is North Lake, a town made famous by its all-release Tuna tournament. And that’s what really makes the island shine: fishing here is almost exclusively catch-and-release.

Going back 30 years, PEI was all about its commercial fleet. However, faced with collapsing fish stocks worldwide, quotas were reduced again and again, down to just one fish per boat each year. Captains were instead trained to maximize survival at all costs, and a legendary sport fishery was born.

Missoula, MT

A bearded angler kneeling in a river to release a Brown Trout

It should come as a surprise to absolutely no-one that Montana is on our list. The state is home to half a dozen of the top US Trout rivers. Some of its most untouched nature. We could easily have listed all of Montana among North America’s greatest fisheries. But why Missoula?

Quite simply, the sheer variety of waters here make it the perfect place for a fly fishing adventure. To the east, the Clark Fork and Blackfoot meet in a rush of icy runoff. Looking west, the Bitterroot also merges in a maze of meltwater streams. Every one of these blue ribbon rivers is full of Brown, Rainbow, and Cutthroat Trout. It’s a fly angler’s paradise.

Fly fishing is tiring stuff. At the end of a long day’s fishing, you need a place to rest and unwind. Missoula is just the ticket: a relaxed student town, known for its arts, parks, and downtown watersports. Sound too good to be true? Head there and decide for yourself!

Vancouver Island, BC

A charter boat in Vancouver Island, one of North America's greatest fisheries, with one angler throwing a crab pot into the water

Vancouver Island is a bucket list destination for all types of people. Hikers flock to its forests, while photographers revel in its rocky seascapes. Nature lovers fly in for the bears and the whales. Anglers? Well, we’ve got more than a few reasons to visit.

Let’s start with the big one: Salmon. BC is home to no less than five species of Salmon, most notably big “Tyee” Chinook. You also have Halibut and Lingcod in the depths, along with tasty Crab to round things off. And that’s just the ocean. The island’s rivers also host a great Rainbow Trout bite.

Now, Salmon fishing has been a hot topic in BC for a while. Decreasing stocks and ever-stricter regulations have put the squeeze on the area. But that’s no reason to ignore it. Vancouver Island is a fishery well worth celebrating, with some big Tyees and plenty more besides. We hope anglers can continue to enjoy it for generations to come.

Cold Lake, AB

a woman holding a lake trout on Cold Lake Alberta

Whoever named Cold Lake wasn’t beating around the bush. This large, deep-water lake in northeastern Alberta spends much of its life under a thick layer of snow – as does the city of the same name. However, if you think that makes them inhospitable, think again.

Cold Lake is a favorite of Albertan ice fishers, with plenty of visitors from Saskatchewan and beyond. More importantly, the fish seem more than happy to live here. Lake Trout can reach 20 pounds or more. The Pike bite is just as brilliant. Throw in Whitefish, Burbot, Perch, and Sauger, and you have a great all-rounder that’s well worth stepping onto the ice for.

“So it’s just good for ice fishing?” Not at all! In summer, boaters launch out of the city marina, while shore anglers cast from the marina wall and kayakers explore secluded bays. Cold Lake may be best when it’s cold, but it’s not half bad when it’s hot, either.

Bristol Bay, AK

A man and a woman releasing a large Rainbow Trout while wading in a large river

Have you ever just wanted to escape it all? To visit a place with no roads, no fences, just true, wild nature? The place you’re dreaming of is called Bristol Bay. This vast expanse of wetland is home to only a few thousand people. You can fly for miles and not see a house. It’s not empty, though. In fact, it’s a bustling heartland for tens of millions of fish.

Bristol Bay is the world’s biggest Salmon fishery. Over 50 million Sockeye return here to breed each year, not to mention all four other species of Pacific Salmon. The Trout numbers are admittedly lower, but they still beat most places by at good couple of zeroes.

It’s not just a numbers game, mind you. These are wild fish, not hatchery stocks or transplanted replacements. Where else could you find something like this? Simple, nowhere. There’s nowhere like it on the planet. This is a fishery worth celebrating, worth protecting, and the perfect place to round off our list.

These are our picks for North America’s greatest fisheries, but what are yours? Have you fished any of the places on our list? Drop us your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below – we’re always looking for new waters!

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