Get Hooked on Fishing on Public Lands and Waters

Fishing is a favorite outdoor pastime for many people. Alone or with friends and family, fishing can be a fun and relaxing opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. In 2020, over 55 million people fished at least once, many of them on public lands and waters. From the calm of fly fishing in a Montana stream to the thrill of sportfishing in the Gulf of Mexico, fishing is a great way to support conservation and inspire your next outdoor adventure story.

Whether you’re an experienced angler or you're about to go fishing for the first time, check out our tips on what you need to know when you try to hook the big one.


Fly fishing on the Lower Crooked Wild and Scenic River in Oregon. Photo by Greg Shine, Bureau of Land Management.

How anglers support conservation

Fishing isn’t just about the thrill of the catch, it’s also about appreciating the outdoors. Buying a fishing license and fishing gear directly supports conservation. In 2020 alone, fishing license sales generated more than $752 million across the country. The money is used to fund species and habitat restoration, habitat protection, research, education and public access for fishing and boating. 

It’s easy to be a responsible angler. The phrase “catch and release” has become common in the angler's vocabulary, and for good reason. Studies on trout streams and largemouth bass lakes have demonstrated that catch and release can be a sound method for maintaining quality fisheries. Several national wildlife refuges mandate catch and release for some game fish to protect the stock and to assure an adequate breeding population of that particular species. 

While catch and release is often the responsible and lawful thing to do (depending on your state-regulated catch limits and seasons), there are times when it may be better to keep what you catch, particularly if you find a non-native or invasive species on the end of your line. Aquatic nuisances like invasive carp can wreak economic and environmental havoc, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the species in your favorite fishing spots. It’s also important to help prevent the spread of invasive species by always cleaning, draining, and drying your boat, gear, and shoes before leaving the water, and never dump live fish or bait from one body of water into another.

You can learn more about how fish populations are managed by visiting a hatchery. The National Fish Hatchery System raises and stocks over 98 million fish every year to support recreational fishing, Tribal subsistence fisheries, and the recovery and restoration of imperiled species. These facilities study fish species and propagate and release them in large numbers. Producing fish is an irreplaceable tool in managing or restoring fisheries, whether they are imperiled or game fish species. Hatcheries complement habitat conservation.  

Two large brown fish with red spots swim in a shallow river.
Cutthroat trout swimming in a river in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Photo by Jay Fleming, National Park Service.

What you’ll need for fishing

The style of fishing and what you’re trying to catch determines the type of gear you need. Freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing, ice fishing and fly fishing each require different equipment and bait, but at its simplest, you can go fishing with just a rod, line, hook and bait. For many anglers, their first memory of fishing involves tying a line to a cane pole and putting a wriggling worm or a piece of corn on a hook. Learn more about fishing basics or check out these tips for new anglers.

Once you’re hooked, fishing can become a serious passion. Many people invest in high-tech gadgets, specialty tackle and even boats. It’s up to you to find the level of commitment you’re willing to make.

One thing every angler needs is a state license. Buying a fishing license is quick, easy and directly contributes toward conservation efforts. In most states, you can purchase licenses online, by phone or at retail establishments.

You should also bring a good hat, sunscreen, insect repellant, fresh water and a first aid kit for just about any fishing trip. If you’re fishing from a boat, don’t forget your personal flotation device (PFD)/life vest.


A young angler holds up bait at a fishing event. Photo by Stephanie Raine, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Where to fish on America’s public lands

No matter where you are, you’re probably not far from a good fishing spot. From mighty rivers winding through remote wilderness to lakes and ponds in the shadows of skyscrapers, anglers will find a way to fish. Public lands like national wildlife refuges, national lakeshores, national seashores, public beaches and wild and scenic rivers offer excellent fishing and gorgeous scenery.

At Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, you can stand on a sandy beach and cast into the surf, hoping to pull in a striped bass. There are few things more peaceful than watching your bobber float on the calm waters of Mandalay National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, waiting on a bream to take the bait. If you’re looking for epic landscapes and salmon, you should try Salmon Wild and Scenic River in Alaska or Rogue Wild and Scenic River in Oregon.

One of the best places for largemouth bass is the Bureau of Reclamation’s New Melones Lake in California. From Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota to Missisquoi National Wildlife Refuge in Vermont, ice fishing is a fun winter pastime. Anglers can float through a wilderness canyon in Colorado’s Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area while casting for trophy brown trout. For an amazing adventure and rainbow trout, do some fly fishing in the Firehole River at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, where geysers steam along the riverbanks.

These are just a few examples of the stunning places you can cast a line. In total, there are 270 national parks managed by the National Park Service, 296 national wildlife refuges and 21 national fish hatcheries under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and 245 million acres of land with over 130,000 miles of fishable rivers and streams managed by the Bureau of Land Management — not to mention most of the nation’s 208 wild and scenic rivers that have outstanding fishing opportunities. The Bureau of Reclamation also provides over 450 boat launch ramps at its 338 reservoirs to help you get to your favorite fishing spots.

Wherever you take your rod, please remember to obey the law and stay off private land unless you have permission.

A man holds a fishing rod on a riverbank with a snow capped mountain in the background.
Fishing on the Delta Wild and Scenic River in Alaska. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

What you can (try to) catch

Looking for the best way to catch a catfish, land a lake trout, or snag a smallmouth? Whether you are a beginning angler wondering about walleye or teaching your kids to fish for crappie, here’s a roundup of some of our favorite fishing tips from the experts who raise them.

Your location determines what kind of fish you’re likely to catch. It helps to learn how to identify common fish species so you can pick the right bait and follow regulations, including size limits, bag limits and any special rules and warnings. 

In the South, freshwater lakes are home to bass, catfish, sunfish, crappie and gar. Westerners relax to the rhythm of fly fishing — hoping to catch trout, grayling and pike. Ice fishing during winters in the North and Great lakes can bring in bluegill, perch and walleye. Fishermen in Alaska brag about their salmon and halibut. Saltwater fishing gives you a chance to land a big fish like marlin, tuna and swordfish. These species, and many more, offer different challenges and require different skills. Sometimes even the most talented angler doesn’t get a bite, which is a great excuse to go fishing again.


Ice fishing at the Genoa National Fish Hatchery in Wisconsin. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Most of the fun of fishing is spending time with friends and family and sharing your latest fishing yarn. If you need some inspiration, check out these fish stories.