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Rich with lore, the allure of cold-water trout fishing transcends the mere hunter-gatherer drive for animal protein. Inspiring everything from fiction like Richard Brautigan's classic Trout Fishing in America, to folk rock by the Arkansas indie band by the same name, the sport also spurs on a sort of hunt for the holy grail among a certain class of anglers. John Ross, author of Trout Unlimited's Guide to America's 100 Best Trout Streams (Lyons Press, May 2005, www.globepequot.com), has made as many as four or five trips a month in his elusive search for the optimal spot to cast his line. "For me, the best place to fly fish is wherever I'm going next," says Ross, Virginia council chairman of Trout Unlimited, an Arlington-based national organization devoted to the conservation of cold, clean rivers and streams, ultimately in support of healthy trout populations.

With catches peaking in the spring and fall, just in time to coincide with shoulder-season travel rates, trout fishing makes for an optimal destination sport. Throughout the continental United States, prime catches are to be had right now and in the upcoming two or three weeks--before stream temperatures start rising, in tandem with summer airfares and hotel prices. Ross and Trout Unlimited helped us compile a list of some of the nation's best spots to reel one in, along with the best budget lodgings.

Like Ross's book, this selection reflects a poll of Trout Unlimited members, who ranked their favorite rivers in terms of aesthetic appeal, the quality of the surrounding wildlife, and the water's accessibility to the general public. Ross couches his recommendations, however, in the following caveat: "What's best is so subjective, depending on your level of skill and patience, your taste, and your objectives. It really depends on what you're after. For me, catching and eating a fifteen-pound fish doesn't compare with the thrill of catching a brook trout as bright as wildflowers, only to throw it back into the water."

With that said, we present some of Trout Unlimited's favorites -- organized by region. All these destinations are best reached by car, so Ross suggests investigating fly-drive packages to the following flight destinations, for the lowest fares.

Midwest

Trout Unlimited was founded on the banks of the Midwest's Au Sable River, in Michigan's northern lower peninsula, in 1959. Ross says, "Drift the tannin-dark currents in a classic Au Sable riverboat, casting dry flies to red-spotted browns as long as your forearm." He recommends spending the night in Grayling, at Gates Au Sable Lodge (tel. 989/348-8462; www.gateslodge.com). "For 35 years, it has served anglers coming to fish TU's home stream," he says. Best flight destination: Detroit, Michigan

Southwest

The Frying Pan River, northwest of central Colorado, is a tail water that flows year round, rife with rainbows, browns, cutthroats, and brookies. Ross says the spot draws "everybody from skiers to policy wonks from the nearby Aspen Institute think tank." For budget lodgings, he recommends "bedding down in Basalt, home of the excellent shop Frying Pan Anglers," at the Shenandoah Inn (tel. 800/804-5520; www.shenandoahinn.com). Best flight destination: Denver, Colorado.

Northwest

The Deschutes River, in central and north central Oregon, "saws its way through a layered landscape of basalt and beds of volcanic ash, which takes on subtle hues of khaki and rose depending on the play of sun and cloud. The river carries marvelous steelhead, salmon, and native rainbow trout that locals call redsides," Ross says. Maupin, Oregon, half-way down the 100-mile river, is home to excellent fly shops and fishing lodges like The Oasis Resort (tel. 541/395-2611; www.deschutesriveroasis.com). Best flight destination: Portland, Oregon.

"Think of Henry's Fork, in Idaho, as three rivers in one," Ross says. "Chattering through Box Canyon, Henry's Fork opens into the glassy flows of Harriman Ranch State Park, before starting its brawling descent though boulder-strewn runs toward Mesa Falls." The river is a great dry fly fishery, known for its hefty wild rainbow trout. Ross says high-quality fly shops and charming motor lodges line the highway through the hamlets of Last Chance and Island Park (tel. 208/558-7755; www.islandparkchamber.org), drawing anglers from around the world. Best flight destination: Jackson, Wyoming or Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Northeast

In the Catskill Mountains, in south central New York, the Beaverkill River is "fly-fishing's most storied stream," Ross says. "The Beaverkill drew legendary angling authors such as Sparse Grey Hackle, Ray Bergman, and Corey Ford from New York City, which is two and a half hours southeast." Ross recommends fishing beneath the covered bridge or downstream in the pools that are teeming with brown trout. Nearby Roscoe, New York -- a.k.a. Trout Town USA -- has an abundance of fly shops and affordable motels (www.roscoeny.com/accommodations). Best flight destination: Newark, New Jersey.

South

In the Texas Hill Country, Ross highly recommends the Guadalupe River. "In summer, the laughter of rafters and tubers floating down the Guadalupe's cold, jade-green currents echoes through this canyon, but from November through April anglers silently pursue rainbows of three pounds-plus in this, the southern-most of America's 100 best trout streams," he says. "Hang your waders at the Gruene Mansion Inn (tel. 830/629-2641; www.gruenemansioninn.com), eat a steak, then amble over to Gruene Hall, the oldest dance hall in the Lone Star State." Best flight destination: San Antonio or Austin, Texas.

Package Deals

Beyond Trout Unlimited's list, we also found a package near the Gallatin River, which is widely considered one of the nation's best sites for trout and served as the backdrop for A River Runs Through It. Between Big Sky, Montana, and Yellowstone National Park, 320 Guest Ranch (tel. 800/243-0320; www.320ranch.com) is offering a special weekend angler's package for $550 a person. The price includes two nights lodgings, daily continental breakfast and dinner, a half-day hiking and fishing expedition, a boat fishing trip, and all equipment, licensing, and fees. Big Sky's 320 Guest Ranch dates back to 1898, and is located within feet of the Gallatin River, amid mountains, pines, and sage. Accommodations take the form of cabins, log homes, and a mountain chalet; many units have wood-burning fireplaces. The ranch also offers fly-fishing lessons, for anglers of various skill levels, for $15 to $25 a person.

In Litchfield, Connecticut, the Interlaken Inn (tel. 800/222-2909; www.interlakeninn.com) is also promoting a fly fishing package, called "Fly Fishing 101." The special includes two days of trout fishing instruction, two nights of accommodations, daily breakfast and lunch, and equipment for $329 a person. Certified casting instructor Rob Nicholas will teach for a full day then oversee a half-day of fishing on the river. The price doesn't include fishing licenses or waders.