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Yosemite National Park You Know It Has Great Fishing Right?
Yosemite National Park you know it has great fishing right. Most people visit Yosemite National Park to see iconic landmarks like El Capitan. But the park is also home to two wild rivers with some of California’s best fishing for native rainbows and predatory brown trout.
With all of the tinkering of man, the biggest majority of the rivers in California have become highly altered ecosystems.
Since the time of the California gold rush in the mid-1800s, almost every one of California’s major rivers has been damned diverted levied or otherwise altered in some way.
Once a river is damned the natural dynamics are completely and permanently changed. Yet there are a few drainages that are still pristine in their headwaters.
We like to call these watersheds last California. These are the rivers above the dams, the rivers that were never dredged for gold, and still, flow out of intact old-growth forests and high Sierra meadows.
They haven’t been overrun by nonnative vegetation or choked out by poor water quality resulting in an unnatural algae bloom. In these places, the snowmelt and spring water still run freely and still rise and fall with the seasons.
California’s Yosemite National Park is home to two such rivers, The Upper Tuolumne and the Upper Merced. No matter how pristine these upper rivers seem to be, one shiny golden non-native fish from the gold rush era remains. Most people call them Brown Trout.
Euro Immigrants Called Brown Trout:
Brown trout are immigrants to California. Their ancestors were brought here by some early European explorers for a food source and also as a sport for anglers.
These fish are highly adaptable and thanks to their immense allure for anglers, they have now set up shop in the Coldwater ecosystem in all corners of the globe.
Some of them have adapted to running to the ocean and then returning to rivers like steelhead and salmon. In the state of California, they exhibit similar behaviors in lakes and reservoirs
You might argue that brown trout are a very prolific and successful species on this planet. This is due to the sheer numbers of places they have been transplanted to on every continent.
When it comes to invasive Coldwater fish they are second only to the rainbow trout which are an export product of the state of California.
California has sent McCloud River and Eagle Lake rainbow trout around the world and in return, they got both Loch Leven and German brown trout. The one thing that is for sure is they are here to stay.
Because they are not native to the Yosemite ecosystem the Park service looks at the brown trout as pests. For some, they are the best part of the park.
Brown trout are a favorite and they have distinct colors and exotic markings. There is no other fish that I know of that displays such a variety of colors and patterns in one species.
I am a believer in the native trout but I’m also a realist in some cases there is no going back. Brown trout have been part of California’s ecosystem for well over 100 years and they have become an important game fish.
They contribute greatly to the States, economy and motivate people to become more involved in the conservation through different organizations like Cal trout.
At Cal Trout, they advocate for both California’s anglers and for the native trout, salmon and steelhead.
Cal-Trout’s Sierra headwaters initiative protects the remaining populations of the wild and native trout and expands those populations back into historic ranges where ever possible.
This effort sometimes calls for calling the invasive trout like Brooke and Brown trout and even some rainbows in places where they were not originally present.
They do this where they are competitive for habitat or hybridize with native cutthroat trout. Another one of their initiatives is to protect and enhance California’s blue-ribbon waters like the MacLeod and the Truckee River.
In this case of Yosemite, some agencies and some individuals have suggested trying to eradicate the noninvasive trout from the park.
This would be a losing battle in places like the Cologne and the Merced because they are both large river systems connected to large reservoirs on the lower ends.
They are also connected to dozens of high country lakes in their headwaters. So it would almost be impossible to fully eradicate the brown trout.
They coexist with the native rainbow trout and in some ways, they have adapted to occupy a different niche in the ecosystem.
The coastal rainbow trout are only one of California’s distinctive native salmonid species and they have naturally expanding populations.
They are in zero danger of becoming an endangered or extinct species at any time soon. If the populations inside of the park ever do become stressed it would most likely not be due to competition with the brown trout.
The changing climate, massive wildfires, and extended droughts have by far the greatest impact to native trout.
The Rainbow Trout:
I say if you can’t beat them you might as well catch them. If you want to catch a lot of trout in the Yosemite area you should target rainbows back into the small streams at higher elevations where you’ll probably find lots of them.
Rainbows are by far more prolific than the brown trout in both the Merced and the Tuolumne rivers. They say rainbows usually outnumber browns by volume of about 10 to 1.
Rainbows will vary in range from size 8 to 20 inches but that’s just a starting point for the Yosemite brown trout that can run up to 30 inches.
The brown trout are the main predator fish in these waters. If there is a 25 inch brown in a pool all the other fish that are 12 inches in length live a life of fear. Large brown trout feed differently than small rainbows.
Once they reach a certain size their diets switch from mainly eating bugs to targeting larger food sources. Things like, other fish that include rainbows, crayfish, and even mice, birds and even snakes, lizards or salamanders.
For this reason, they are much more spread out in the river system and typically require larger pools with depth and structure. This is where they can hide and wait for the next meal to come from.
These big Brown’s feed primarily at night and they are a rainbow trout’s worst nightmare. If you want to catch the brown trout you need to adapt your techniques and also change your attitude. You should prepare to suffer through some disappointment.
If your plan is to target large brown trout you will often leave the water skunked. But if you can dedicate yourself to catching one trout every once in a while then the brown trout might be the game for you.
The Upper Tuolumne River:
The Upper Tuolumne River is widely considered to have the best fishing in the park. But you have to hike a minimum of 5 to 7 miles to get in the big fish. Very few people fish this remote stretch of river.
There are lots of feisty rainbow trout and the fish are eager to eat a fly. Fishing season in the park is open for standard trout season in California but you should plan your trip well after the spring runoff.
This is because the river is often too high and dangerous to fish around the season opener. Highway 120 and all the trails close in the fall after the first snows.
This river starts as snowmelt from the peaks that are near Tioga Pass. There are several places where you can park along the highway and easily access the river with a short walk from the road.
The Tuolumne River is shallow and meanders through the big sweeping meadows. There are some nice undercuts and some fallen trees along with other structure that will hold fish.
The fish are mostly smaller, but they are lots of fun with a four weight rod and a dry fly. The water is low and clear in the summer months and being stealthy is a must when fishing in these higher elevations.
From Tuolumne Meadows, the river quickly drops down into a deep gorge nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, and eventually into the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that is near the west boundary of the park.
There is a trail that follows over 12 miles of the river until it breaks off at Pate Valley and heads back up to camp White Wolf. The last three or 4 miles of the cascading River descends through the wilderness on very faint game trails until the flow softens in the flat waters of Hetch Hetchy reservoir.
Altogether it’s about a 32-mile loop if you make the full hike from Tuolumne Meadows to White Wolf. You will need a wilderness permit to camp overnight along the trail.
You need to plan on at least four days and three nights to complete the entire loop. This is especially true if you plan to stop and fish all of the amazingly clear and deep pools that are along the river.
Trout were not originally native to the upper sections of the Tuolumne River but for more than hundred years there have been rainbows Brown’s rookies and even Golden trout that have been stocked throughout Yosemite.
The National Park Service stopped planting fish in the Tuolumne in 1991 so all of the trout there are now wild, self- sustaining populations.
There are a series of larger waterfalls along the upper Tuolumne River near the top end of the Grand Canyon.
These include the iconic water wheel falls near Glen Aulin Camp. In high water wind gusts can carry enormous water spray back up to the top of the falls, a cyclic waterwheel that gives the falls an appropriate name.
Later in the summer, the smooth granite plunge pools form natural waterslides for swimmers. In this area, the fish are somewhat isolated and they tend to be smaller.
Farther down near the Pate Valley, the gradient eases off and there’s good connectivity between the pools and runs for larger fish can hunt and wander.
If you plan on targeting trophy trout you should focus your efforts on the lower sections of the river. The quickest way to this section is to hike in from White Wolf Camp.
It is 8 miles to the river from there and a 4500-foot elevation drop. It’s a leg burner walking out, but the scenery is spectacular and you’re into prime water as soon as you reach the river.
There are lots of great campsites that allow you to make day trips up and down the river and leave your heavy overnight pack behind. The water in the lower canyon is a series of runs riffles and some deep pools.
In the summer the majority of the fish are in the runs, the riffles where a standard hopper dropper rig on a 9 foot five weight rod works just fine. The fish don’t see much pressure so basic dry fly attractor patterns like stimulators, hoppers, flying ants and humpy’s work well.
For nymphs try a Poxyback Golden Stone, Beadhead Pheasant Tail or Mercer’s Micro May. Most trout here are 8 to 15-inch rainbow trout but the Browns may be lurking in the nearby depths and shadows.
The last time I fished the Canyon, a friend hooked a 10 inch rainbow on a dry fly. He was bringing it across the pool when an enormous brown snatched the rainbow sideways in his jaws just like a junkyard dog gnawing on a bone.
The rod bent over and after a few violent handshakes, the rainbow popped out of the Brown’s mouth.
The brown hovered around and made a couple of more swipes at the trout as it darted toward the safety of the shadows.
It just about jumped into our hands to get away. I quickly tied on a big streamer, but couldn’t get the big Brown to come back.
We had to hike out that afternoon, but if I had more time, I was given that big fish another try later that evening.
If you plan on targeting the larger Brown’s in these deep pools you will need to bring a stout five or six weight rod and use sinking tip line with some big, heavy streamers.
The Brown’s needed a victim so I tie heavy sculpin and the red side minnow patterns on jig style hooks with lead eyes for these waters.
During the summer, the best fishing for large trout is in the early morning or late evening. Plan your strategy so you can camp at one of the best looking pools to take advantage of these prime fishing hours.
If you are feeling adventurous enough to chase the parks biggest trout you can hike down to the Tuolumne to where it flows into Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
Once you cut off from the main trail at Pate Valley, you have to bushwhack down the river using a series of bear trails and boulder hopping. This is not for the faint of heart and is only recommended for experienced hikers.
About 3 miles down from the main trail which is a mile above the lake there is a steep cascade in the river and a huge boulder garden. This is the result of an ancient rock slide. The boulders range from the size of a car to the size of houses.
I’ve only made it all the way to the back the lake once. We made the trek in the late fall. The fishing was good for big Brown’s in the river and also in the reservoir itself.
On more than a few occasions, we have cast a streamer out into the clear water of the lake. Then have two or three fish rush it from different directions and fight to eat at first. It made for some incredible visual fishing in the very clear water.
The Merced River:
The Merced River is a much more assessable option for big trout in Yosemite. The Merced flows to the heart of the iconic Yosemite Valley before descending into a steep boulder-filled canyon.
This is heading down Highway 140 to the west boundary of the park in the town of El Portal. From there it winds its way down to the McClure Reservoir.
The headwaters of the Merced River create some of the most iconic and most photographed waterfalls in the world. These include upper and lower Yosemite Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Nevada Falls, and Vernal Falls.
The tributaries that form the main river flow are unobstructed wilderness rivers that run cold clear and clean with a natural flow. That means the river is extremely high during the spring runoff and low and clear by the end of the summer.
The upper river and its tributaries flow completely through the wilderness of the park. They have some of the cleanest water and least disturbed aquatic habitat in the state.
The valley hasn’t been commercially logged in over a century and it was never dredged for gold so still has the old growth trees.
Because there’s little development along the river, no engineering has been done to the riverbanks to protect human infrastructure and thus the river is left to naturally migrate to the soft sediments of the valley floor.
As it cuts its way through new channels, it eats the sand and rocks away from the roots of trees. Many of these trees fall into the river. Remember big wood provides some of the best aquatic habitats for a multitude of species including trout.
Mother Merced and the Yosemite Valley see tens of thousands of visitors a year, but very few of those people, come specifically to fish.
There is no trout stocking in the park, so it is completely a wild trout fishery with catch and release regulations on all rainbows. Due to the nature of the pristine habitat, there is a fairly good distribution of wild trout.
Every spot that looks like it should be holding a fish usually is. The fishing is good at times but is not easy. To target larger fish, focus your efforts on the main river from roughly Half Dome Village to the park entrance along Highway 140.
If you get up into the smaller tributaries, you’ll find only some smaller wild rainbow.
Yosemite Valley sits at just under 4000 feet elevation, so you really feel the seasons there. Spring, summer, fall, and winter are distinctly different in the Valley and fly fishers need to adapt to the seasons.
The river can be very dangerous to fish in the spring and early summer when the runoff is high. Use extreme caution in these conditions.
The Merced claims lives every year. The flows are deceivingly strong, the water is cold, there are lots of strainers in the river, and if you take a swim in waders it can be difficult to get back to shore.
Summer produces heavy crowds of tourists, lower flows, and warming water temperatures. In the hot summer months, focus your fishing in the morning and evening when the sun is off the water and the temperatures are cooler.
In the fall, the flows get very low and clear and the fish can be very spooky. The river is closed during the winter, so there is no need to worry about tromping through the snow with your waders on.
When you think of fishing the Merced in Yosemite you should think of it of it as two distinctly different sections.
You have the slow meandering waters of Yosemite Valley, but directly below where you cross the river as you enter the lower end of the valley on Highway 140.
The character of the river completely changes as it drops into a tight boulder filled canyon characterized by pocket water and a few deep pools.
The Valley water is open and slow. Fishing there typically requires longer casts and a stealthy approach. There are lots of long runs with a perfect current for drifting dry flies.
Don’t be afraid to try big attractor patterns Iike hoppers, beetles, and flying ants, and don’t be surprised if you end up matching the mayfly or caddis hatches.
I’ve seen awesome hatches of Baetis and mayflies, Brown Drakes, and lots of midges. During midge hatches, I will often tie on a size 14 Quigley Hackle Stacker mayfly in gray or pink or a good old number 18 Parachute Adams.
Fishing With Streamers:
When targeting larger trout, streamers, are one of the most effective flies. Look for big fish habitat, and focus your attention on those areas.
Large fish will not just be sitting out in plain view or cruising in the shallows where you can easily see them. Remember big Brown’s like places where they can hide under something and then ambush their prey from the shadows.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they will always be in the deep water. Look for areas where there is a big boulder in the river that breaks up the current.
Brown’s in this River also gravitate towards submerged trees. Big wood breaks up the current, creates deep scour spots, and provides places for big trout to tuck up and hide.
Luckily there are tons of fallen trees in the river throughout the valley. Brown trout markings are perfect camouflage for the shadows on the dark colors of submerged trees. Big wood also provides lots of habitat for bugs and is a great cover for bait fish.
The Merced has sculpin, reside minnows, and lots of California suckers, which are a favorite food for big brown trout. Crayfish also tend to favor that woody habitat and Brown’s will likely key on them, especially in late summer when they are molting and become soft.
Undercut banks are also great hiding spots for large trout and the naturally winding river in Yosemite Valley as lots of them.
If you’re approaching the river from the steep side, make sure to drop your fly along in the undercuts before approaching the water and potentially spooking trout could be sitting right into the bank.
The Valley is also home to lots of rodents, including a huge population of field mice. The tall grass and steep dirt drop-offs lead right up to the banks of the river in many places.
You can bet lots of mice, voles, and gophers meet their fate in the Merced. Don’t overlook the mouse pattern in the right situation.
For streamer fishing in the valley, try out a six weight single-hand rod or a four weight switch rod. Switch rods can be great for some of the areas where there are lots of trees around the river, and few areas to back cast.
In situations where there’s current, even slow current, I use a heavy sinking tip line. The short but heavy head helps your fly get down, but you will still be able to mend your floating running line to control the speed of the fly.
When targeting big Brown’s, retrieve the fly in short jerky stripping motions, then let us swing naturally across the current like you would for steelhead.
These large predatory trout are aggressive and can cover a lot of water very quickly, so it is important to get their attention and force them to make a decision quickly.
Remember most of their main food sources swim, and some swim very quickly. Try to imitate an injured baitfish, which would twitch, and twitch, and twitch and then stop, twitch, twitch, twitch and then stop.
Fishing With Nymphs
If nymphing is your thing, you might want to try the bouldery pocket water along Highway 140 in the West end of the Valley.
There are lots of places you can pull off of the highway and easily access some great pocket water. The water is swift in this area and the rocks can be slick so be careful when wading.
I don’t recommend spiked waiting boots, as carbide points will not provide good traction on the slick, hard granite. Aluminum surfaces stick best to the granite here. Be careful of foot traps, and use a wading staff at all times.
Because the water is swifter and the boulders are bigger at the west end of the valley, you can typically get much closer to where the fish are holding, which makes tight line nymphing a great option.
Standard indicator nymphing also works well, don’t be afraid to add a split shot, take off indicator and let your nymphs drift deeper into some of the bigger, darker holes.
Watch the tip of your floating line for strikes. Try Poxyback Golden Stones, Squirrel Tails, big Hares ear Nymphs, Bead Head Pheasant Tails, Micro Mays, and Baetis patterns for droppers.
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