20 reasons to move: great American sporting towns where you can live your dreams

Some US towns are sportsmen’s paradise, where something is always in season. Idado Falls, ID; Flagstaff, AZ; St Joseph, MO; Tallahasse, FL; and Bangor, Maine top each region, and runners-up are listed. The fishing and hunting are described, and best sporting stores and early breakfasts are listed.
SPORTSMEN HAVE TWO homes–the one where they pay the mortgage, raise kids, and vote and the one where their imagination resides. The first might have good schools and honest cops and maybe even big-leauge sports –but it probably comes up a little short when you want to fish for bass or hunt turkeys. There’s rarely a sweet, clean river close by with a reliable evening hatch. And you’d feel stupid–and probably get arrested–if you put up a tree stand in the old oak at the end of the block.

Then…there is the other place. The one you find yourself thinking about when you’re stuck in traffic. Here, something is always in season, and you don’t have to drive more than 30 minutes to get into something good. There’s land where you can hunt and water where you can float a canoe and cast to rising fish. There are fields aplenty, and if you put a dog out, it’ll point birds. There are people who see the buck in your pickup and cross the street to shake your hand. There is a respect for timehonored sporting traditions. There is a good place to go for breakfast before the sun is up, when you are wearing camouflage and have a duck call hung around your neck. There is an old-fashioned sporting goods store where you can get what you need–everything from the hot new baits to briar-proofs–and talk to the clerk about the big racker that somebody spotted in a cornfield at dusk one day last week. There are a couple of local fishing tournaments–no prize money, of course, but the newspaper will print the results.

For most sportsmen, that place exists only in the imagination. But there are such places, cities where you can live and work and do the things that make life worth living. Cities with real names and ZIP codes. Cities where you can actually live the five you’ve dreamed about. These are a few of the best, by region.

WEST

Idaho Falls, Idaho

MOUNTAIN MAN JOHN Coulter, said to be the first white man to discover the geysers and paint pots of what is now Yellowstone National Park, was through here as early as 1808. By 1862, people pushing west were passing through to use the ferry at Eagle Rock, which was what they called the place until 1891, when it was changed to Idaho Falls. The old homes made of brick and lava rock reflect a distinguished past.

The town sits squarely in the middle of some of the biggest and best sporting country in the world, with a variety of topography that is extraordinary. There’s volcanically formed wilderness that looks like nothing so much as the surface of the moon; desert complete with massive sand dunes; plains; and the sweet, green high mountains. It all adds up to unbounded opportunity for the sportsman. Big country makes you think, inevitably, of big game, and if you live here, you are in driving range of some of the best hunting there is: elk, bears, and mule deer in the high country, whitetails in the lowlands, and antelope in the desert. If you’re lucky enough to draw a tag, you can also hunt bighorn sheep and mountain goats.

The big-game hunting tends to overshadow other sporting opportunities, which are just as good. Waterfowling, for instance, is first rate. In the Market Lake Wildlife Management Area, about a half an hour north of the city, some 500,000 pintails and 200,000 mallards migrated through in a recent season. Numbers like that mean good pothole shooting and jump-shooting on all manner of small ponds, streams, and irrigation ditches across the region.

And let’s not overlook the upland bird shooting. There are sage grouse in the dry country, pheasants in the coulees, sharptails and Huns in the grainfields, and ruffed grouse in the aspens. The satisfactions of a warm day walking behind working dogs under a vast sky with the Grand Tetons perched clearly on the horizon are almost enough to make you forget about, well, anything.

The Snake River flows through town, but for sportsmen the Henry’s Fork and South Fork are the real draws. The Henry’s Fork has the Railroad Ranch and the green drakes and a history of rich fishing. The South Fork is big water, with a deep, fast-moving current that’s full of fat cutthroats. There are also midsize streams and small brushy creeks where you hardly need to cast. You are not far, actually, from that Golden Triangle where Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming meet, which is considered paradise on earth by most serious trout fishermen. You can fish the Madison, Gallatin, Yellowstone, Big Hole, and other fabled streams and imagine that you’ve made it over that last ridge on the path to the Promised Land.

* Best Sporting Goods Store: Guns and Gear. A staff of avid hunters to help you.

* Best Early Breakfast: Smitty’s. Sportsmen’s favorite meeting place.

HONORABLE MENTION

* Kalispell, Montana

Located deep in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains in northwestern Montana, Kalispell is not at all as you would think. Whitetails, not mule deer, are the trophy of choice, and the racks here rival any in the nation. Flathead Lake, the largest body of fresh water in the northwest, has excellent lake-trout fishing, but beyond that, the big, abundant bass and pike hold more interest than rainbows or browns but don’t underrate the trout fishing). Black-bear hunting in the mountains is the best in the state, elk hunting is good, if not great, and Merriam’s turkeys are thick in the Flathead Valley. South of town are pheasants, and the waterfowling around the Pablo and Ninepipe national wildlife refuges is outstanding.

* Fort Collins, Colorado

The waterfowling here is, in a word, tremendous, and everything else is almost that good. Located on the front range of the Rockies, just a hop from the Wyoming border in north-central Colorado, Fort Collins is right in the middle of the action. You can go west and north for elk, muleys, and bears; east or north for big whitetails and antelope. In the farmlands there are pheasants and doves, bass and bluegills. Up the Cache la Poudre River canyon, you’ll find wild trout as well as ruffed and blue grouse.

* Portland, Oregon

Of course, there is salmon and steelhead fishing on the Columbia and its tributaries, which run close by this eminently civilized city. As you head east to the Cascades, you’ll find elk and deer, and as you continue, you enter the area’s second world. It seems unlikely, but in this largely arid land there are jewellike oases where trophy trout are found. Chukars abound in the canyon country, and there’s superb waterfowling along the deeply cut Columbia.

SOUTHWEST

Flagstaff, Arizona

SMALL AND WONDERFULLY livable city, Flagstaff cuts against the grain of your perceptions about Arizona. This is not dry desert and cactus country. Flagstaff is at a cool 7,000 feet of elevation, so you can actually survive here in July without full-time air-conditioning. And while you are only a few hour’s drive from Las Vegas, the jackpot around here is in the hills and mountains outside of town–in the San Francisco Mountains just north of the city and on the Kaibab Plateau along the perimeter of the Grand Canyon. This is absolutely prime terrain for the big-game hunter, with a remarkable number of record-book animals having been taken here. Pope and Young Club records show the No. 3 and 7 typical muleys coming from near here as well as the No. 1 and 5 typical elk and the No. 1 and 10 nontypical elk. It’s easy for a bowhunter to stay interested with that kind of evidence. And the Boone and Crockett listings are nearly as impressive.

The big animals come out of the country to the east and north of Flagstaff, above the Grand Canyon and along and above the Mogollon Rim. You hunt the big, high ponderosa forest–the largest anywhere–or scrubby-looking pinon-juniper canyons, waiting for a bugling elk to break the silence.

Down in the lower, drier range and desert lands are pronghorn antelope, with some of the largest racks in the world. No. 1 and 3 in Boone and Crockett were taken in Coconino County, which includes Flagstaff. Not far away, you can find black bears, mountain lions, and javelinas.

Big game is not the end of the story. There is waterfowling in the small lakes and irrigation impoundments and in Stoneman Lake, a natural volcanic caldera. Early pintail and other puddle ducks move through in vast numbers. On the deserts to the south, quail hunting is phenomenal some years, merely great in others. The same holds for doves. In the spring, the turkey hunting will yank you out of bed well before dawn with no complaints.

A 2 1/2-hour drive puts you at Lake Powell, where the largemouth, walleye, and striper fishing is first-rate and still improving, or you can stop just short of there and fish below the Glen Canyon Dam at Lee’s Ferry for trophy rainbows. This is the West where people will drive a hundred miles for a good burger, so a couple of hours for phenomenal fishing is no big deal.

* Best Sporting Goods Store: Andy’s, since 1924.

* Best Early Breakfast: Mike and Rhonda’s.

HONORABLE MENTION

* Chama, New Mexico

The elk hunting is legendary in these parts, and mule deer are numerous. But the bear hunting may be the area’s best-kept secret. Black bears in several color phases grow fat and happy eating acorns off the prolific oak brush. Merriam’s turkeys are plentiful and uneducated, and the fishing is good in the Navajo and other rivers. The famous rainbow fishing of the San Juan is less than two hours away.

* Jasper, Texas

Largemouth-bass fishing in the Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend reservoirs is arguably the best in the world, with limits of four-pounders not even a conversation starter. Duck and goose hunting south and west of here is similarly world-class, doves are thick, and the woodcock shooting is fantastic, though no one seems to hunt them. Deer hunting is good, and the striper, crappie, bluegill, and catfishing outstanding. Moreover, Jasper is only a couple hours’ drive from Gulf of Mexico gamefishing.

* Paso Robles, California

The year-round, two-a-day-limit wildboar hunting in the barley fields may be unsurpassed, and the valley quail and dove hunting can be to the for. The coastal blacktail-deer hunting is good, too. Four nearby reservoirs provide excellent fishing for largemouths, stripers, and white bass, and the Pacific is only 15 miles away.

MIDWEST

St. Joseph, Missouri

THIS LITTLE CITY IN THE northwest comer of the Show Me State was once the richest city, per capita, in the U.S. because here was where the train tracks stopped. The old grandeur is still evident in the formidable brick homes and downtown buildings. The prosperity is gone, but the sense of history and of being somehow special remains. This was once the jumping off point for the Pony Express, and it’s the place where Jesse James met his doom. It is also some kind of hog heaven for sportsmen.

St. Joe is located on the banks of the Missouri River where it makes a large bend. The river is of interest to the sportsman chiefly for the rich soil it has deposited over the area, making it wonderfully productive farmland and, thus, hunting land. The topography, however, is not as flat as nearby Nebraska and Iowa. The rolling hill country around St. Joe makes for farms that are broken up by woodlots and stream bottoms. The woods provide cover and the fields provide food for a population of exceptionally large whitetail deer. Some of the nation’s biggest bucks were taken within a short distance of St. Joe, and there are still plenty more where they came from. The rifle season is short, but there are both bowhunting and muzzleloader seasons, and the terrain is hospitable to primitive-weapons hunting–the funnels and breaks can keep things close if you do your scouting.

The farming practices also produce excellent quail habitat. Kansas, which is just across the river, is one of the top three or four quail states in the union, and birds can be found in fields not too far from St. Joe. The bobwhite hunting here has always been as good as it gets but has, in recent years, been made even better by the Conservation Reserve Program. And the land has not all been leased, so you can still knock on doors and get a farmer’s permission to hunt.

One of the secrets for quail hunting in these parts is Fort Riley, Kan., which is about 90 minutes from St. Joe. The Army will let you hunt there as long as you don’t interfere with artillery practice, lid the birds are abundant. You don’t have to drive quite that far to be in good pheasant country, which can be found in neighboring farmland and just. across the Iowa and Nebraska lines, where the cornfields are flush with birds. And 30 minutes north is the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, one of the country’s first wildlife refuges. It is spread over several thousand acres on an oxbow lake along the Missouri River. In the morning during waterfowl season, when the ducks and geese (chiefly snow geese) rise in the dark, it sounds like a stadium after someone scores the winning touchdown. The ducks leave the refuge for the cornfields and sloughs, and the hunting is all a waterfowler could ask.

But good as all that is, what most sportsmen think about when they hear the word Missouri is turkeys. Magnificent, big Eastern-strain gobblers. And there are plenty of them. Twenty-five-pounders are taken routinely–and 30-pounders are not uncommon–in the edge country five minutes from the city limits. One sportsman told me about seeing a gobbler roosted in a tree in downtown St. Joe. “I didn’t fool with him, though,” he said, “because I’d already limited.”

The fishing is almost as good as the hunting. Smithville Reservoir is a large impoundment that holds big bass and is only 20 minutes away. Milner Lake is good for walleyes. There are endless numbers of farm ponds full of bass and bluegills, and if big game is your dish, the river produces catfish in the 80-pound range.

This St. Joe package wouldn’t be worth nearly as much, however, if not for the mood and attitude of the people. This is an exceedingly sportsman-friendly environment. Hunting and fishing is an integral part of life, and folks here can’t imagine it any other way.

* Best Sporting Goods Store: Hatfield’s. For everything from bass boats to duck calls, since 1920.

* Best Early Breakfast: Forest City Diner on the edge of Squaw Creek. Opens at 3 a.m. during hunting season.

HONORABLE MENTION

* Grayling, Michigan

Home of Bear Archery, this pleasant little town sits in the middle of some of the best whitetail and grouse country anywhere. The famous Au Sable River, which flows through town is one the premier trout streams in Michigan–or anywhere else. In summer, the giant hexagenia mayflies hatch, and at night you can hear the feeding frenzy. To the west, in the Pere Marquette and Manistee rivers, the steelheading and trout fishing are some of the best in the Midwest. If you’re after big water, lakes Michigan and Huron are about equidistant. Go to Lake Michigan’s Port Manistee for browns, or head to Huron for salmon. Just to the east is Fairview, the state’s turkey capital, and just northeast of town resides Michigan’s only wild, and huntable, elk herd.

* Pierre, South Dakota

This small city sitting in the middle of the state on the edge of Lake Oahe and the Missouri River is likely the walleye capital of the nation. The goose hunting is phenomenal, the fields outside of town are full of pheasants, and for the big-game hunter, there are whitetails and mule deer, both of trophy caliber.

* Tahlequah, Oklahoma

Jimmy Houston has a store just outside of town, so that ought to tell you something about the bass fishing in the big impoundments around this small city east of Tulsa. Befitting the home of the Cherokee nation, there is good deer hunting, good waterfowling, and outstanding turkey shooting along the wooded edge country of the rolling hills. Not far away, the quail hunting rivals any in the country.

EAST

Bangor, Maine

THIS IS A TOUGH, GRITTY PLACE that still shows its roots in timber, shipbuilding, and textiles. Here is where the tall trees ended up as masts and ship’s timbers. Now, like so many New England towns, Bangor has moved into the world of high tech and big malls, but probably the most famous fishing hole in the world lies inside its city limits. Traditionally, the first Atlantic salmon of the year that is pulled from this pool on the Penobscot is flown to the White House and presented to the President. By midcentury, there were no salmon in the river, but over the last couple of decades they have returned–though in much lower numbers–and anglers are once again fishing a rotation through the pool and, now and then, hooking up with the finest gamefish in the world.

Although Bangor holds one of the country’s strongest outdoor traditions, if the Penobscot salmon were all the area had to offer, it would be of minor interest to the sportsman. But there is more, much more, to Bangor.

The opportunities are more abundant and diverse here dim in any other city east of the Mississippi. Within easy driving range, you can hunt everything from moose–which have become plentiful enough to bring on a lottery-type season–to woodcocks, which can be found in the aspens and alders in the early fall. As for big game, there are moose and whitetail deer, which grow to tremendous size (dressed animals routinely weigh more than 250 pounds). Deer hunting in the vast timberlands above Bangor is as challenging and satisfying as it gets. You frequently hunt in deep snow, and it is so easy to get lost in the big woods that you’ll want to be sure of your map and compass skills…or carry a GPS.

Upland bird shooting in Maine means grouse and woodcocks. The big migratory flights of woodcocks begin in October, when weather pushes the birds down from Canada. On a clear, cold morning when the flight birds are coming through, the ground in your best cover will be covered with a chalk of splashings, and your dog might go off point to fetch a bird and point again before he has had a chance to make the retrieve. It can–and does–get that good.

Ruffed grouse are resident and more solitary. They are arguably the most challenging of all the upland species and all the more so in the thick tangles of Maine. You might find a dozen birds, never make a mistake on any of them, and still not get a shot. Then again, you may get lucky and take a limit on the edge of an old orchard.

There are puddle ducks on the beaver ponds and marshes, and sea ducks, particularly eiders, on the coast, and the weather in Maine will generally keep them flying.

There are scads of trout and landlocked salmon, and for some reason, the natives favor these species over the more abundant smallmouth bass. You can catch bluefish and stripers on the coast, and on your way back to the marina you may stop at a dozen or so of your lobster pots and easily find enough to feed a dinner party of 12. In the dead of winter, you can fish through the ice, and in the fall there is a season on black bear. Not long after that, the salmon will return to the river, and you can stay in town and fish. With a little luck you might catch the fish that will get you invited to dinner at the White House.

* Best Sporting Goods Store: Van Raymond Outfitters. Loads of firearms and accessories, and fine flyfishing tackle.

* Best Early Breakfast: Dysart’s Truck Stop. Home-cooked grub at reasonable prices and open 24 hours.

HONORABLE MENTION

* State College, Pennsylvania

A genial little university town in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains, where whitetail-deer hunting is not just life or death, as they say, but actually a lot more important than that. It is also good smallgame and grouse country and rich with turkeys. The town is surrounded by state forests, so there’s always a place to go. The Susquehanna River, to the east, is famous for smallmouths, and Raystown Lake, straight south, is loaded with huge stripers. And some fine trout streams are but a short drive away.

* Ithaca, New York

This is a midsize city in the eastern end of the Finger Lakes. You can troll for 40 miles without taking a turn and catch trout, bass, walleyes, and pike. When you feel inclined, you cm travel north to the Lake Ontario tributaries for steelhead, salmon, and double-digit browns. In the good years the goose hunting is spectacular. The whitetail deer are big and plentiful, and the grouse and turkey hunting excellent.

* Chestertown, Maryland

The Eastern Shore of Maryland is justly famous for its waterfowling, but there is much more for the sportsman in the country outside this historic village. Stripers (excuse me, rockfish), blues, and weakfish are abundant in Chesapeake Bay, of course. Plus there’s fine quail and whitetail hunting, and to the south, in Dorchester County, the best-kept big-game secret in the country–sika deer, originally an import, but now prolific wild residents of the swamps and hardwood bottoms. Chestertown might also be the sporting clays capital of the world.

SOUTHEAST

Tallahassee, Florida

TALLAHASSEE IS THE CAPITAL OF Florida, but you wouldn’t know it to look at it. This small city has almost nothing in common with Miami or Disney World or Tampa. It exists in another time and geographic place. Its mood is more old South than Sun Belt, closer to Alabama and Georgia than Orlando or Palm Beach. Live oaks draped with Spanish moss are more common than palm trees and bougainvillea. Some of the formidable brick buddings with white columns were standing before the Civil War, when the city was part o the Cotton South. This is the heart of the Panhandle, that long stretch of land that runs from Pensacola to the Big Bend. There are more pine trees here than people, and the beach is not sealed off behind a wall of high-rise condominiums.

The sportsman’s opportunities are absurdly abundant. If you get in a boat on one of the slow, tannin-stained rivers that flow out of the limestone bedrock through the low cypress-and-gum bottomlands–the Ochlockonee, for instance–you can fish for bass and bream and then, as you get closer to the Gulf and the stream turns brackish, switch over to redfish and speckled trout. And when the river empties out into Apalachee Bay, you might find yourself into big-water fish like cobia, king mackerel, and tarpon. All in just a few miles. It is a remarkably rich and fertile ecosystem, made more so by the recent commercial-fishing-net ban. The bait is back and so are the big, predatory fish. The saltwater fishing alone would make this an attractive area for any sportsman. You could spend a long time on the flats and the grass beds casting to redfish and trout before you got tired of it. But the freshwater opportunities are, if anything, better.

There are large impoundments like Talquin and Seminole within easy driving range of Tallahassee. They both hold big bass. And in the spring, you can catch long stringers of crappies and hand-size bedding bluegill. The Apalachicola River has superb fishing, and the whole area is peppered with small ponds that hold fish. There are miles and miles of small, tea-colored rivers and creeks that look the way they did when Andrew Jackson was fighting Indians in these swamps. You can lose yourself, literally, on these streams. If you five in Tallahassee, you don’t ever have to miss a day’s fishing.

Of course, some days you might prefer to hunt. No problem. There is first-class deer and turkey hunting in the half-million acre Apalachicola National Forest, the borders of which touch the city. There are, by recent estimates, 10,000 deer (including some of the state’s largest), 2,000 turkeys, and about 200 bears living there. If you include bowhunting and muzzleloading, it seems like the deer season goes on forever. But it actually lasts only about five months. And about the time it ends, the dogwoods begin to bloom and spring gobbler season opens, so you keep rising early and going back into the woods. Then you lay off for awhile, do some bass fishing, and rest up for th early season dove hunting, which starts Sept. 1, when it is so hot you still hunt in short sleeves. When it comes to bobwhite quad, the Florida Panhandle has the best hunting in the state–some of the finest in the country, for that matter–and the season runs from November to March.

Somewhere in there, you have to get in a little waterfowling. Standing in one of the remote cypress-and-gum swamps at dusk with the wood ducks piling in, you could be excused for thinking you are shooting a dove field, not a duck swamp, given the volume and pace of action. So the bigger lakes, especially Miccosukee north of the city, have excellent ring-neck duck shooting.

After all that, there are still snipe to shoot and a lot of wild boars. And if you get bored, you can put in for a permit to hunt alligators. This is the Florida, in short, that still looks a lot like paradise.

* Best Sporting Goods Store: Kevin’s. Just off I-I0, this place has it all.

* Best Early Breakfast: Village Inn on 27N. Best coffee in town and all you can eat for $3.39.

HONORABLE MENTION

* Knoxville, Tennessee

This is a vibrant little university town in the heart of Tennessee Valley Authority lake country. You can fish for bass, crappies, and walleyes in such places as Watts Bar and Tellico or, in the 14-mile Clinch River tailwater, go for rainbows and browns (the state-record 28 1/2-pounder was taken here). Cherokee National Forest has 650,000 acres of excellent turkey, deer, bear, and boar habitat, and you can always find a batch of squirrels. The grouse hunting here is the best in the state, and there’s great gunning for ducks and geese.

* Lake Charles, Louisiana

The sporting mix here is as rich and savory as Creole gumbo. In the same day, you can cast to redfish and speckled trout, bass and bluegills, wahoo and cobia and also go after some ducks on Calcasieu Lake or back up in one of the myriad bayous. On dry land, there are whitetails and woodcocks and legendary waterfowling around Sabine Wildlife Refuge. And the natives know how to cook it all with style.

* Greenville, South Carolina

This small but busy city in the western corner of the state is close to the mountains for stream-trout fishing, Lake Keowee for big trout, lakes Richard Russell and Hartwell for bass. There is excellent deer and turkey hunting in Sumter National Forest. The state runs public-access dove fields, where the shooting is fast and furious. South Carolina’s’ white-tail season is the nation’s longest, running from August to January, with a two-deer daily limit.

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