Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fishing the High Country

One of many fine pools
Fishing was not high on my list of things to do while in Yosemite. I am much more interested in just plain gawking at beautiful things as well as the photographic possibilities. But I am a fly fisherman and they do have water here (the waterfalls were the tip off) so I called Jimmie Morales of Sierra Fly Fishing a few months ago to line up a day on the water.

The water is high this year. As Tom C. and others have observed snow packs were multiples of normal and have been slow to run off. As a tourist to Yosemite, that's great news. The waterfalls that are normally shadows of their early Spring selves are still running at a good clip. Of course, most of those waterfalls flow into the Merced so it's also running at a good clip.

When I'm fishing with the boys I'm more interested in good fishing than I am in what some would refer to as quality fishing. We don't need big fish, we just need enough fish to keep things interesting. Those were the instructions I gave to Jimmie and he found some good water to fish.

To say that I'm unfamiliar with the topography here would be a wild understatement. Sure I see the river in the valley and its structure is much like the many rivers you and I have fished but everything else is a jumbled puzzle of familiar objects constructed in unfamiliar ways. A nice meadow stream or a tumbling freestone water that you'd expect to go on for miles doesn't. It takes a turn and abruptly tumbles down a long, impassible chute or plunges over a cliff.

That said once you find water to fish you generally find the fish. The streams at altitude are not very fertile and the growing season for trout is short. So you find that most of the trout run lean. But they're there. I've watched several streams over the past few days and I can't recall one that didn't have a least a few fingerlings swimming in an eddy. And most contained a trout or two laying about in the places you'd normally see trout holding.

Surveying the water
We fished two streams. The first fed one of the large waterfalls that plunges over the rim of Yosemite Valley. We fished it miles upstream where it's little more than five or six feet wide. Jimmie started with a demonstration about trout behavior in this stream. We walked up near a long pool and observed a bunch of fish holding where you'd expect to see them. He then demonstrated the spookiness of these wild fish. We held about twenty feet away while he walk to the water. He made it two or three steps before every trout in the pool headed for cover. Point taken: very spooky fish.

First fish
Sam was first up. We were fishing ant patterns. I think the Carpenter Ant is the official insect of Yosemite National Park. They're everywhere making a meal of the fallen wood. The trout seem to know they're there too. Sam managed a beauty of a Rainbow after only a few casts. He also managed a bunch of strikes so the fish were there and were aggressive.

We then passed the rod as we worked upstream. Rotating from pool to pool everyone got on fish though Chris clearly had the magic touch and was consistently getting good strikes and putting fish in the net. Sam and I fished two pools that just screamed "trout live here" and got us nary a look. This put us behind in the count early while Chris lucked out and managed fish practically everywhere they should have been.

With the water high, the Brookies seemed to be living in the grass. It wasn't uncommon to see a fish rising in among the willows that dragged in the current. I imagine that those were pretty good spots to find ants and other bugs that had wandered too far out a branch. One particular Brookie was only seen because it splashed in a clump of long grass that was swaying in the current. When we looked for the fish we only saw the head poking out into the current. Two casts and he came to hand.

This stream also held Browns and we caught a few of them too. Unfortunately, I think I waded into most of the good Brown holding water. Twice Jimmie suggested I approach a given pool from a certain spot and both times the place I ended up standing was bedside a nice undercut bank. I don't know what fish I spooked by wading in there but by the third time I learned my lesson. There was a nice gravel bank on which we could see at least one fish holding. Again, there was an undercut bank. So, before I waded up there I let my ant drift along the grass hanging in the water. What was probably the biggest fish of this river came to hand. Ten inches or so of Brown Trout.

After lunch we moved to what can only be referred to as a high gradient stream. When you've spent most of your forty-six years living at or near sea level hiking up a forty-five degree slope for a mile or so can be quite..... challenging. The water here was all large pockets and plunge pools of a variety that make our pocket water back east seem like a manicured Japanese Garden. Our goal was to climb to a stretch of water with a shallower pitch that promised long pools and more skittish trout. This water had only been officially stocked with Browns over a hundred years before so that's what we expected to find. We were not disappointed.

Looking downstream. And I do
mean "down".
Every pool held fish and we were generally sight casting to them. Like the previous creek, if the fish saw us, they were gone. Fortunately, there was plenty of cover and you could generally approach the water without being seen. Of course, that sometimes meant you were standing in the plunging water in the pool below the one you were fishing or were crawling over a rock, staying low, trying not to cast a shadow.

The casts here were short. We never had more than a foot or so of fly line out of the tip top guide and usually it was just the leader. Of few spots required a bow and arrow cast but in most you could get a short overhead cast if you angled it correctly. We lost a few flies but it was a small price to pay for fishing in such an extraordinary place.

Sam finished up the trip by fishing a sweet looking pool. The current broke around a large boulder just below the plunge and there were plenty of places for fish to hold. Chris and I had stadium seats on two boulders that formed the significant feature in the pool below. Sam worked the water hard and managed three strikes. One or two of those fish were on for a brief time but none made it to the net. It was a huge disappointment for us both. I would much rather have seen a fish or two to the net to end the trip but when I mentioned we should probably head back to the car smiles lit up the faces of two very tired boys (and their Dad, too).

For the rest of the week I watched every creek we wandered past. I saw rising fish. Fish swimming lazily in pools. I saw fish holding in the pillow in front of a boulder in the fast current. The whole family even spent time spotting trout on a bridge over the Tuolomne River. This place is far fishier than one would imagine and we didn't even get to sample the big rivers which are fabled for nice trout. If you get to the High Sierra, bring a rod. And an Ant pattern.