Fly fishing the forks of the Tuolumne River in Yosemite’s high country
Almost four million people visit California’s Yosemite National Park every year. Traffic jams, busy trails, and long lines are common at the peak of summer tourist season. Of the millions who visit, the majority spend their time in the confines of Yosemite Valley, not far from the roads and parking lots.
You can’t really blame them. The scenery in the valley is spectacular—towering waterfalls and the giant granite cliffs of Half Dome and El Capitan provide captivating views along many miles of road. But if you’ve spent much time in this iconic park, you know that it’s not hard to escape the tourist areas, because 95 percent of Yosemite’s 761,266 acres are designated wilderness.
The highlight of the northeast corner of Yosemite is Tuolumne Meadows, an area with scenery every bit as breathtaking as other areas of the park: Massive granite domes and jagged peaks dot the horizon amid broad grassy meadows.
Although Tuolumne Meadows will never be devoid of people—except in winter, when the area’s 8,600-foot elevation brings heavy snows that completely cut off access—it’s a far cry from the chaos of Yosemite Valley. For fly fishers, it’s a godsend. Joining in the middle of Tuolumne Meadows are the two forks of the Tuolumne River, the Lyell and Dana forks. While the main stem Tuolumne has decent fishing, it runs close to the road near the visitor center and then quickly descends into an inaccessible canyon.
I prefer the forks of the Tuolumne to get away from it all and find solitude in one of America’s finest national parks. Each stream creates different opportunities for visiting fly fishers, who—having already seen the lofty sights—wish to sample the wild trout fishing in Yosemite’s Tuolumne River watershed.
The larger of the river’s two forks, the Lyell rises on the slopes of 13,144-foot Mount Lyell, Yosemite’s highest peak, which sits on the eastern boundary of the park bordering the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
Starting as a trickle, this glacially fed stream tumbles its way down canyons, losing elevation and gaining the contributions of smaller creeks including McClure, Kuna, Ireland, and Rafferty.
In heavy snow years, spring runoff turns the Lyell Fork into a raging torrent. These same snows usually close this area of the park completely until mid-May. In a good year, a thick snowpack keeps the Lyell Fork flowing strongly from July through September, the best time to visit Tuolumne Meadows.
The Lyell Fork is not big water. You’ll have no problem wading from bank to bank during normal flows. In a few spots, it fans out into a series of small braids, but when it’s all in one channel, the river averages just 20 to 30 feet in width.
What the Lyell lacks in size it makes up in character. This river has all the fishy spots you would expect to find on a much larger stream: undercut banks, swirling pools, funneled runs, and a healthy number of downed trees and snags, all forming ideal trout habitat.
The Lyell is a great place to learn how to read a river, as it packs a lot of fish-finding action into a small package. Unlike a large glacial river, good spots on the Lyell are close together and easy to identify.
The Lyell Fork holds mostly small, but lively and aggressive, brown trout. As you work your way toward the upper reaches of the river and into Lyell Canyon, brook trout become more numerous and eventually take over. Throw in the occasional heavily spotted rainbow trout—the only trout native to Yosemite—and you have an opportunity at a trout trifecta.
In 1978, the National Park Service began phasing out its legendary fish-stocking efforts and by 1991, 100 years of fish stocking in Yosemite had ended. It’s unknown exactly how many trout per mile inhabit the Lyell Fork, but the population is healthy and self-sustaining.
Although the average fish is about 7 or 8 inches, fly fishers can anticipate action-packed fishing. A 25- to 30-fish day is not uncommon, and if you really work at it, you can catch many more. I use an 8-foot 4-weight for the Lyell Fork, as it has enough backbone to cast flies accurately but is still light enough to deliver them delicately.
Fly selection is beautifully simple. At this high elevation, the feeding season is short. Living conditions for these Sierra trout can be harsh, as the river does not offer much in the way of consistent hatches or prolific food sources. If there were heavy hatches, the trout would be large and difficult to catch. Instead, the trout are small and eager.
My favorite fly combination for prospecting Tuolumne Meadows is a #16 Purple Haze, tied with a thick deer-hair tail. From that, I suspend an #18 Zebra Midge on a short piece of 5X tippet. This has proven to be an effective combination for catching many fish, and it’s easy to see. As long as the presentation is reasonable, any standard parachute-style attractor drys produce trout.
One “hatch” that is consistent on both forks of the Tuolumne is the big black terrestrial ants that carpet all of Yosemite—especially along the rivers. Tuolumne trout recognize these ants and are quick to snap them up.
My Tuolumne Ant (#14-16) has a high-riding foam body, and its small rubber legs create a lifelike silhouette that fish find irresistible. Beetle imitations are also good terrestrial patterns to carry in Yosemite.
Since these small and eager fish sometimes swallow the fly too deeply, use barbless hooks. This makes it much easier to unhook these trout without damaging their mouths.
While most of the fish are small, the Lyell Fork does hold some larger browns. I’ve caught numerous 12- to 14-inch fish that raced out from an undercut bank and took a fly aggressively, and there are some 18-inch and larger pigs hiding in the deeper pools. If you want to chase them, stick to the dawn and dusk hours, as the largest fish in the river are predominantly nocturnal. Big, dark-colored streamers are your best bet.
Though catch numbers on the Lyell Fork can be high for experienced anglers with good casting skills, this doesn’t mean that the fishing is easy. Precision casts that target high-probability areas give you consistent hook-ups, but if you can’t hit the spots, you won’t find the fish. Sloppy casts and noisy wading will send Lyell Fork trout scurrying.
When casting, stand back a few feet from the river’s edge to prevent the fish from seeing you. When approaching a prime spot, crouch low or drop to one knee and make as few false casts as possible.
Use roll casts, steeple casts, or bow-and-arrows to avoid lodgepole pines and other obstructions and to get your fly to the right spot. If you don’t like tight fishing conditions, just walk around the next bend. There are plenty of opportunities to cast freely, as both forks of the Tuolumne offer vast stretches of river flowing through broad meadows.
My favorite tactic is to stand midcurrent and make a long cast upstream to prime holding water. From the middle of the river, my cast is often unobstructed and I am downstream of the fish so they cannot see me.
Be ready for a strike as soon as your fly hits the water. You can sometimes miss a fish if you don’t get the line under your finger and strip in slack quickly enough after the cast.
In this clear mountain water, you can often see the fish coming for your fly from across a pool. If a fish swims up slowly and warily to inspect your fly, it’s been my experience that it will usually not bite. In this situation, it’s best to move on rather than waste your time changing flies and repeatedly casting at an unwilling trout. There are plenty of other fish that are more eager to eat.
On the Tuolumne forks, it’s rare to catch more than one fish from a single pool, as the thrashing of the first hooked fish usually sends the others fleeing. You can either rest the pool for 15 minutes or move on, and I usually prefer the latter.
There are two ways to access the Lyell Fork. Roadside parking is plentiful at the only bridge in Tuolumne Meadows, near the Lembert Dome parking area. Leave your car here and follow the river to the back of the campground, where you will find an established trail. This path joins the popular John Muir Trail, named after America’s most influential naturalist, who was instrumental in the creation of Yosemite National Park. The John Muir Trail parallels the Lyell Fork throughout its length. Don’t start fishing until you are about a mile away from the campground. At times the flotilla of swimmers on this lower section of river makes it nearly impossible to fish.
A second option is to drive about a mile past the bridge on Tioga Road and park at the Wilderness Permit Center. Follow the signs to the John Muir Trail, cross the Dana Fork on a small wooden bridge, and after about 25 minutes of level hiking you’ll come to another footbridge that spans the Lyell Fork. From here you can walk upstream and find prime fishing everywhere. Start wherever you see something you like. You’ll often have the stream to yourself, as most people don’t stray far from the road and campground.
As you drive toward the park boundary from the center of Tuolumne Meadows, 13,053-foot Mount Dana dominates the horizon to the east. The headwaters of the Dana Fork start high on the slopes of this reddish-gray peak. The Dana Fork drains a smaller watershed than the Lyell, and therefore has lower flows. Though this is relatively small water, the Dana Fork still features the same wonderful trout habitat as the Lyell Fork: small cascades, clear pools, and gravel runs typify this stream.
In his 1912 book The Yosemite, John Muir wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”
The Dana Fork is such a place. Its water-soaked granite boulders smell of a fresh rainstorm, and its lazy curves and gurgling waterfalls remind me why I took up fly fishing in the first place. I imagine that if Muir were alive today he would take great pleasure in the joy and relaxation that this cascading stream brings as it tumbles toward Tuolumne Meadows. Fly fishing on the Dana Fork is as intimate as the sport gets.
The mix of browns and brookies on the Dana Fork is about the same as on the Lyell Fork, but the trout seem to be a little more nervous. Although the Dana Fork does not see heavy angling pressure, it gets more attention than the Lyell Fork, due to its proximity to Tioga Road. You can access the Dana Fork by parking at any of the roadside pullouts between the Wilderness Permit Center and the park boundary, and walking the short distance to the water.
Dana Fork trout average 7 or 8 inches, the same size as those on the Lyell Fork, but the Dana lacks the larger fish found on the Lyell. But with the proper tactics and presentation, the catching on the Dana Fork can be fast.
You’ll need to concentrate on a stealthy approach to consistently catch fish here. Stand back from the river and survey for high-probability areas. Make as few casts as possible to deliver your fly. Leave your bright-colored hat and shirt in the car, as they are sure to scare the trout.
If you see the fish scatter, or can’t seem to get a strike in a pool that looks great, you’ve been made. Move on to the next spot. When you begin to get regular, aggressive takes, you’ll know that you have perfected your stealthy approach.
On both forks of the Tuolumne, the sculpted shoots of granite that form the riverbed appear to have been made specifically for wading. It’s tempting to go bounding from rock to rock searching for productive water, but looks can be deceiving. I’ve found out the hard way that the coarse granite for which the Sierras are famous can be as slick as ice, having been polished by thousands of years of flowing water. If the surface of the rock looks smooth or has a slight sheen to it, step with caution.
The water is not deep or fast, but I’ve had my feet go completely out from under me on numerous occasions. One time I broke my fall with my rod hand, smashing my reel against the rocks to the point I had to bend it back into shape with vise grips. To prevent this, walk with caution and wear rubber-soled wading boots with metal spikes.
It would be hard to write about Yosemite without mentioning the bears. Hundreds of black bears call this preserve home, and the National Park Service has embarked on a massive campaign to protect both bears and visitors. There are bearproof food storage lockers at every trailhead, and anglers are well advised to use them. It’s okay to store your food out of sight in your car trunk during the day, but don’t even think about it at night.
Whenever possible, lock all your food—and also cosmetics and toiletries—in the provided bearproof lockers. Bears have a keen sense of smell and voracious appetites. Always spend the couple of minutes it takes to secure your food properly. Otherwise, when you return to your car after a day on the river, you won’t find it damaged.
If you are planning to camp overnight in the Yosemite backcountry, you are required to carry a bear-resistant food canister with you. It’s no longer an option to “bear bag” your food in a tree: Yosemite bears have proved that this method is ineffective. You can rent bear cans at Wilderness Permit Centers throughout the park.
Free wilderness permits are required for overnight stays in the park. If you want to make your fishing trip an overnight adventure, plan ahead, as Yosemite National Park has a trailhead quota system, limiting the number of overnight permits issued on any given day. Due to the popularity of the John Muir Trail, permits for the Lyell Canyon area fill quickly. You do not need a permit for day hiking in the area.
There are 13 campgrounds in Yosemite National Park. Seven of them—including the Tuolumne Meadows Campground, located conveniently at the junction of the Lyell and Dana forks—are on a reservation system. During the summer, campgrounds are often full, particularly on weekends. Make reservations at recreation.gov or call (877) 444-6777. You can also stay at Tuolumne Lodge (http://www.yosemitepark.com accommodations_tuolumnemeadowslodge.aspx) or one of the many motels in nearby Lee Vining.
Local guides include Yosemite Fly Fishing (yosemiteflyfishing.net), Sierra Fly Fisher Tours (sierraflyfisher.com), Sierra West Adventures (fishthesierra.com), and Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides (symg.com).
You need a California fishing license to fish in Yosemite National Park. Unlike Yellowstone National Park—where you need only a park fishing license—Yosemite follows state rules and regulations, and does not require any special park fishing permit. For additional information about the park, including current road conditions and closures, visit www.nps.gov/yose.
Putting It All Together
I stalk to a midstream island that is thickly matted with blueberry bushes; the river has carved its way around either side of this raised median. The current has also undercut the opposite bank, and the flowing water tumbles over a gravel bar that slips into a small pool. There’s a bit of a backwater, but most of the water funnels along the undercut bank.
The late afternoon sun is to my left. I stay low to avoid throwing shadows on the water. One false cast, and I place my parachute dry fly at the head of the pool, just over the tail of the gravel bar. Any fish taking shelter in the undercut bank will have plenty of time to see my offering coming its way.
As my fly hits the water, a yellow rocket moves from the back of the pool. I barely have time to react as the brown slams my fly. Feeling the sting of the hook, it buries itself on the bottom and thrashes violently. After making three complete circles of the pool, the trout reluctantly comes to the surface. It’s a perfectly proportioned brown with big, deep red spots.
Without touching the fish, I slip the barbless hook from the corner of its jaw, and it quickly takes shelter beneath the undercut bank—the exact spot where you would expect to find a nice fish if you were walking up to this pool for the first time.
I smile. it’s just another action-packed day of fishing on the forks of the Tuolumne.
Kenny Clarke is a professional photographer whose work has appeared in Outdoor Photographer, Backpacker, Paddler, Camping Life, and The American Gardener. He lives in Boulder City, Nevada.