Figure 13 - Merced_Below_Gorge

Figure 13 - Merced_Below_GorgeGuest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, Fly Fisher & Author, FreeFlight Publishing

Yosemite Valley itself, handiwork of the noble Merced River, is a feast for any senses to which one might be a slave. To get one’s head around the impossibility of the monstrous stone walls, and to try to imagine what a cupful of water must think when it comes quite unexpectedly to the brink of a three thousand foot freefall, can leave one at a loss to describe or understand. And few visitors give thought to the equally enrapturing world beneath the waterline; but a fly fisherman’s mind goes immediately to that image.

Most of Yosemite Park’s visitors never see anything beyond the graded-trail vantage points of the valley floor. Many of them haven’t a good clue how to appreciate the wild; some drive in for an afternoon and then buzz off to other must-glimpse destinations on their list, while others make reservations for several nights of a weekend, but after the first night comes and goes they check out and leave, claiming they’ve seen the basics and there’s “nothing to do.”  They head back to the big city and hit the clubs. But have no fear; none of these folks are going to impact a fly fisherman’s pristine experience in the least. Just go where there is no gift shop, then go forty yards past that, and you’re in another world.

Figure 14 - Merced_GorgeSo as for where to fish within the park, find a little solitude…which is about as hard to find as a needle in a stack of needles. Try the miles of gorgeous forested freestone stretches of the Merced below Swinging Bridge (which by the way is sturdy wood these days and doesn’t swing a lick), as there are very few tourists who ever make it down that far. Try the stretches along the magnificent meadows that flank El Capitan, or below. If you have good boots and agility, try above the Happy Isles Nature Center beyond the bicycle trails, plying the pockets between massive (though often slippery) boulders with light lines, short thin leaders, dappling techniques  and little nymphs or soft hackles or dry flies. Anywhere around Happy Isles is freestone water, although fish may be just a little smaller here, as the river hasn’t yet crossed large meadows filled with summer grasshoppers and other fattening goodies. Remember, size doesn’t matter; fool them, give them a grin and a wink, put them back to ponder your magnificence.

Anywhere that requires some scrambling to access, and any water that’s out of easy sight, can be good…as most people won’t know it exists. (The “five-minute rule” says if you walk that long from any road or bike path you’ll be alone.) And the snake-like Tuolumne River up in Tuolumne Meadows, and surrounding high lakes and creeks, are excellent wilderness destinations that warrant entire trips to be built around them.

Figure 15 - High_Merced_FreestoneMost sections of the Merced in the valley look terrific in their way. Near the river bend by the old Ahwahnee Hotel looks a little less promising than other stretches from my perspective, but that’s largely because there’s a bit more silt and wood and leaves. I could be wrong…but anyway one doesn’t have to stroll very far upstream to get back into riffles and stones. Again, it can depend on season and water levels, and local guides can sharpen and update these impressions.

Were I to find myself on the Merced in the Valley at dawn or of an evening, I believe I’d have a light rod in hand (2-wt to 4-wt, although 5 works too), and a floating line with a delicate taper, and a long leader and 7x tippet. I’d try a few go-to nymphs like Pheasant Tail, Hare’s Ear, ZugBug, little black stonefly nymphs…and I’d keep the sizes down, as this is the mountains after all. Cased caddis patterns and olive green caddis worm nymphs are always a good choice. (Caddis larvae seem to be vain critters here, if perhaps a little ignorant financially; they often make their cases out of sparkly pyrite–fools’ gold–in Yosemite streams. Some guys call them “Christmas Tree Caddis.” If you find one, don’t assume you can retire, but stake your claim on that section of stream nonetheless.)

I’d never hesitate to use dries here, as these streams are all of mostly wadeable depth, and fish key in on terrestrial and airborne food sources and are willing to rise. Numerous and often quite abundant species of mayflies, caddis, and stoneflies hatch seasonally. (Try dark-colored caddis adult patterns, Elk Hair or other.) There are PMD hatches all summer long too. Giant stonefly and salmon fly patterns can work in season. Some anglers include little BWO dries in their repertoire. Guides can sharpen that advice, as can books and websites.

Figure 16 - Wind Water StoneIt is said that autumn is a terrific time to cast a dry fly in the valley…and in the higher lakes and streams, where that rule runs all summer long. Good fall flies include ant imitations (both red and black), late season hoppers, smaller mosquito imitations (including Adams), black and Griffith’s gnats and tiny Double Badgers (a pattern not found in many American fly boxes), Royal Wulff and Royal Coachman, and others. Drift them with skill. Sizes as big as #12 can sometimes work…but experiment. High mountain fish know that winter comes early; they can be decisive when it’s just around the corner. Dry fly fishing is a very visual experience…and feasts for the eyes, after all, are what this wondrous place is all about.

One of the two best things about living in California is Yosemite Valley. The other is dreaming about Yosemite Valley. But actually we can all do that.

Note from J. Stockard: Be sure read parts One, Two and Three of this series on Yosemite.

1 Comment

  1. Re: and to try to imagine what a cupful of water must think when it comes quite unexpectedly to the brink of a three thousand foot freefall, can leave one at a loss to describe or understand

    Gravity is a powerful force of nature that water and ice cannot resist. Only the trout can go against the force.

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