July 22, 2011
By Vince Wilcox
Adirondack Park encompasses a colossal expanse, one that easily swallows a combined Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks–twice. It is the largest park in the United States, federal or state, outside of Alaska. More than 2 million of its acres are state-owned, with unlimited public access to lakes and streams, and 1 million acres are designated as wilderness.
As early as the 1820s, the Adirondack area was a vacation destination for cooped-up urban dwellers, trophy hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts searching for clean air and wilderness. Among fly fishers, it became famous for its brook trout fishing.
Over the years, its fisheries have had the usual environmental knocks stemming from increased development, acid rain, and poor logging practices, but in general, fishing in the park is well-managed and prolific. Today's Adirondack experience–everything from aromatic wafts of balsam and multicolored fall foliage to wading productive rivers and casting for wild brookies in labyrinthine pond systems–remains part of an authentic northern New York lifestyle.
The Ausable River–divided into East and West branches–is one of the finest trout rivers in the East. Although the East Branch is fishable, the best fishing is in the West Branch, formed by the confluence of Marcy and South Meadow brooks. The West Branch flows north for 36 miles until it meets the East Branch in the town of Au Sable Forks to form the main stem of the Ausable River. Along the way, it passes the Olympic Ski Jumping Complex just off New York 73, and continues along River Road until it drops beneath the New York 86 bridge.
The section of river upstream of the jumps is predominantly riffles and pocketwater, holding mostly brook trout with occasional browns and rainbows mixed in. Where the West Branch skirts River Road, its volume increases with additional flows from the tributary Chub River, which enters just below Red Barn Run. This is where the river begins its transformation into a brown trout and rainbow fishery, with deeper runs and flats.
From Iron Bridge downstream to New York 86, you find long riffles and deeper pocketwater to Coty Flats, where the first 5-mile catch-and-release section begins. This section is floatable at flows of 1,100 cubic feet per second (cfs) or higher. Canoes, kayaks, and personal pontoon boats are best for navigating it in the spring or after rainstorms, when wade fishing can be difficult.
At lower flows the river is ideal for wading, with plenty of public access along New York 86, and good fishing in the deep pools, long flats and riffles, and bouldered water the West Branch is famous for.
The water between Monument Falls and Bassett Flats is some of the most productive on the river, with ample wading opportunities and heavy hatches through the spring and summer months. After exiting Bassett Flats, the river's gradient increases as it descends into the Notch section, sandwiched between high canyon walls with long stretches of rocky banks. Exercise caution while navigating this boulder-laden shoreline–a slip here can be treacherous.
Leaving the Notch, the river plunges nearly 100 feet at High Falls Gorge, located just above the state-operated Wilmington Notch Campground. From the campground downstream to the bridge at the base of Whiteface Mountain ski resort–home to the 1980 Winter Olympics–is the last section of catch-and-release water on the West Branch. Be prepared to do a little more hiking to access some of the more remote holes in this area.
Near the town of Wilmington, the Ausable forms Lake Everest, a small lake behind a dam. Below the dam are several productive miles of river with excellent fishing. Below this, there is a section of private water just past the Lewis Bridge, located off Preston Road. The next public access is just below the confluence with Black Brook, and the public water extends all the way into the town of Au Sable Forks and through to the next dam. Like the Notch stretch, this area requires careful hiking. Below the dam in Au Sable Forks is another nice stretch of water holding good numbers of trout, and then the river meets the East Branch and forms the main stem Ausable, which empties into Lake Champlain.
Fly Fishing Adirondack Hatches
Trout fishing in New York State opens on April 1. Hatches at that time include Blue-winged Olives and midges, but low flows and cold water temperatures create early season challenges. Adirondack winters are harsh, and fish mortality caused by anchor ice in rivers such as the Ausable is common. As a result, fishing for the few holdover trout can be spotty.
Ausable stocking programs commence in early May to ensure the best survival rates. Local Trout Unlimited members and guides help stock more than 24,000 state-supplied browns and rainbows in the 8- to 10-inch range. The Essex County fish hatchery adds another 5,000 13- to 17-inch brown and rainbow trout, making landing 16- to 19-inch fish a reality as the season progresses.
By mid-May, fish stocking combined with Hendrickson and caddis hatches produce some of the season's best fishing. This time frame also draws fly fishers to the area to participate in the annual Ausable River Two-Fly Challenge. The contest, which began in 2000, continues to grow in popularity. This fund-raising event helps protect and enhance the fishery.
During high spring flows in April and May, use heavy nymph rigs and streamers for fishing the pockets and deeper runs. March Browns/Grey Foxes (Maccaffertium vicarium, formerly Stenonema species, #10-14) offer excellent dry-fly fishing beginning in late May or early June, starting with the larger March Browns for about two weeks, and then continuing with the smaller Grey Foxes for another two to three weeks. (Grey Foxes are the same species as Eastern March Browns, but are slightly smaller, with different colors, hence the different common names.)
The Ausable's Green Drake hatch is a must-experience event. Fishing into the darkness during the spinner fall is the key to landing large trout during this hatch, which typically starts in early June and lasts for about two weeks. Use an extended-body pattern, Compara-drake, or a low-riding parachute (#8-10) for the duns. Use a cream-colored Coffin Fly to imitate evening spinners.
Eastern stoneflies hatch throughout the season–mostly at night–but they are most active from June through August. Stonefly (#8-12) and caddis nymphs such as Peeking Caddis (#12-18), along with attractors such as my Superman or a Prince Nymph, play a vital role during midday fishing, when little is hatching.
River temperatures rise into the mid- to high 60s in early July and kick-start the often overlooked Sulphur hatch. Ginger Snaps and Low Rider-style emergers in sizes 14 to 18 make for exciting action into the night.
By late July, water temperatures on the Ausable can rise into the 70s during the day, shutting down most hatches. When fishing is slow, use ants, beetles, and grasshoppers to fill the void. Focus on shaded areas and deeper water where trout avoid the midday heat.
From the end of August until mid-October, Blue-winged Olives, caddisflies, and Isonychias are all available, which makes this my favorite season. Beginning in mid-September, the deciduous trees morph into what I like to call a bowl of Trix, creating a palette of breathtaking colors and scenery. Although the hatches are not as heavy as in the spring, this is a great time to be on the water.
Fishing the Ausable
The Ausable's long flats and unimpeded slicks fish best during early morning hatches or late-evening spinner falls. This is where you're most likely to find 12- to 18-inch trout sipping drys. These ultraselective fish require keen observation. Take time to study the water before trudging in, and position yourself carefully before casting. Cast down-and-across or up-and-across to your target, and use short, 20- to 40-foot casts for accuracy, and to prevent spooking the trout.
For delicate dry-fly fishing, use 9-foot 5X leaders with 2 to 3 feet of 6X or 7X tippet. Pay attention to the naturals on the water, and match the size and color with your flies.
For caddis, I use larger attractors like my JC Special, Stimulators, or other high-floating attractor patterns (#12-16), and trail a more hatch-specific dry or nymph off the bend using 6 to 18 inches of 7X tippet. I find a skittering action elicits aggressive strikes with this rig, even with a trailing nymph attached.
Flats fishing often shuts down around midday,Â a good time to focus on the West Branch's extensive pocketwater. Use shorter 7Â½- to 9-foot 5X leaders, as trout are not leader-shy in this turbulent water. Fish an attractor pattern like an Ausable Wulff or Parachute Adams (#8-10) along with a hatch-matching dropper nymph to cover the water.
Double-nymph rigs with a searching pattern like a Microstone, Copper John, or large Hare's Ear, and a smaller Prince Charming, Superman, TNT, or standard Prince Nymph tied 18 to 24 inches off the bend of the first nymph, are also effective during midday lulls while you are waiting for the evening spinner fall.
If there were such things as silver bullets, I would load my six-shooter with JC Specials (#10-16), TNTs (#14 -16), Prince Charmings (#14-18), Supermans (#14-18), Microstones (#10-14), and Low Riders (#16-18). Carry a few extra AC Caddis, BWO Micro Mayflies, Para-variants, Haystacks, Usuals, Compara-duns, BT Specials, Little Green Machines, Conehead Buggers, and foam ants and beetles to be prepared for any shootout.
The Saranac River System
The Saranac River system is perhaps one of the most diverse in the Adirondacks. The three Saranac lakes are connected by a system of locks. Upper Saranac Lake is a two-stage fishery–host to a mix of cold- and warmwater species–while the Middle and Lower lakes are strictly warmwater fisheries. The dam at the north end of Lower Saranac forms Lake Flower, adjacent to the village of Saranac Lake. The fishing in and around the village can be fantastic for largemouth, smallmouth, and rock bass, as well as pike up to 40+ inches.
There is limited trout water in the main Saranac River, except below the dam at Union Falls, where there is a Â¼-mile stretch with stocked browns and rainbows ranging from 8 to 14 inches, and the occasional 16-incher.
This area has outstanding Hendrickson, caddis, March Brown, and stonefly hatches in the spring and early summer.
There is also catch-and-release trout fishing on the main stem along Silver Lake Road downstream from Union Falls. There you'll find decent hatches, 10- to 14-inch browns and rainbows, and the occasional brook trout or smallmouth bass.
Saranac River tributaries also have good fishing. Sumner Brook is stocked with brook trout and has two access points off Oregon Plains Road in Bloomingdale. Black Brook and Little Black Brook near the town of Au Sable Forks are pleasantly remote and generously stocked with 10- to 12-inch brook trout. They are well worth the drive.
The North Branch Saranac River holds brookies and browns in the 8- to 16-inch range in pocketwater perfect for high-stick nymphing in the spring, and dry/dropper rigs in the summer. There are three parking areas along Amell Road west of Clayburg. The accesses are marked with public fishing signs. Cold Brook and Alder Brook flow into the North Branch and offer several more miles of good trout fishing for brook and brown trout.
I use 8½- to 9½-foot, 5- or 6-weight rods for throwing heavier streamer and nymph rigs on the Saranac, and an 8- to 9-foot 4-weight for fishing dry/dropper combinations in the riffles and pocketwater sections. The small-stream fishing in the tributaries calls for shorter, 7- to 8Â½-foot 2- or 3-weight rods to avoid the overhanging brush, and get the most out of small fish.
Lakes and Ponds
Adirondack Park offers anglers boundless opportunities to fish for native and stocked trout as well as many warmwater species in its productive lakes and ponds. The St. Regis Canoe Area (SRCA), located just outside the town of Paul Smiths in Franklin County, has more than 18,000 acres of pristine wilderness and 58 bodies of water. The SRCA is the only unit of New York State land solely restricted to self-propelled watercraft, and it's a little slice of heaven for canoe enthusiasts and hardcore anglers with inflatable craft.
The canoe routes have a transportation history that dates back to the mid-19th century. The landscape has changed little along these carries. Take a short hike or paddle and sojourn back in time for a true Adirondack experience.
To access the SRCA, park at one of several areas located off New York 30, which is one of the main north-south arteries running through the park. The most heavily used lot is located at Keese Mill Rd., approximately 2 miles from Paul Smiths College. This lot serves as the trailhead for St. Regis Mountain, as well as an access to the canoe area. St. Regis Canoe Outfitters, located nearby, rents canoes and kayaks and offers shuttle services.
Native brook trout, once abundant throughout the Adirondacks, have severely declined over the years due to habitat alteration, invasive species, and acid rain, but there is still good fishing in some ponds in the SRCA. The old adage of "the farther you go, the better the fishing" holds true here.
Nellie and Bessie, located on the southwest side of the SRCA, are two of the better self-sustaining brook trout ponds in the park. They require several miles of paddling across Long Pond, followed by a 1½-mile portage. The native strain of Horn Lake brook trout were used to restock Nellie and Bessie in 1990 after they were poisoned to remove invasive species such as yellow perch and suckers.
If you prefer shorter day trips and less portaging, both Bone and Grass ponds are easily reached by portages of 200 yards or less. The ponds are on the southeast side of the unit, with access at Little Clear and Little Green ponds. (Both Little Clear and Little Green are managed by the state for broodstock Atlantic salmon and brook trout. No fishing is allowed.)
The brookies (often called speckled trout in the Adirondacks) average 8 to 12 inches, with the occasional 14- to 16-incher. Landing any Adirondack brook trout weighing 2 pounds or more is exceptional, but brookies up to 4 pounds are possible.
How to fish. Traditionalists fish SRCA waters with streamer rigs trolled at depths of 6 to 12 feet while paddling from place to place. Casting to shoreline structure such as downed trees and rock ledges where feeding trout seek shelter and ambush prey can also be lucrative.
Traditional streamer patterns like Marabou Ghosts and Mickey Finns still catch many fish, but I prefer modern patterns like Orange and Olive Blossom Specials, Bunny Buggers, and various leech patterns.
Fishing is also excellent on dry/dropper rigs in the early morning and evening hours during chironomid and damselfly hatches. Fishing midge pupa, midge larva, water boatman, and damselfly patterns under a strike indicator with a long leader can be equally effective.
Gear. Use 8½- to 9½-foot, 5- or 6-weight rods for trolling and casting buggers and streamers around shoreline structure. Keep a lighter rod such as a 7½-foot, 3- or 4-weight strung up with a dry fly and watch for rising trout. Floating lines cover the majority of the fishing, but bring a sinking line for trolling and reaching the deeper areas during hot summer afternoons.
Flies. Good patterns for the SRCA include JC Specials (#10-14), Parachute Adams (#12-18), Brassies (#18-24), Glo-Ants (#14-16), Low Riders (#16-18), Little Green Machines (#16-18), Beadhead Chironomids (#14-18), Rapunzels (#12-14), 3WBs (12-14), Marabou Ghosts, Mickey Finns, Orange and Olive Blossom Specials, Bunny Buggers, and leeches (#2-8).
Scratching the Surface
The Adirondacks offers a seemingly infinite swath of lakes, ponds, and moving waters for you to explore. Beyond the region's Ausable River anchor point, there's enough good fishing throughout to get lost in a lifetime's worth of fishy pursuits. For a good reference on area fishing beyond what's covered in this article, read Dennis Aprill's Good Fishing in the Adirondacks (The Countryman Press, 1999) or the Flyfisher's Guide to New York (Wilderness Adventures Press, 2002) by Eric Newman.
Vince Wilcox is an Adirondack Park fishing guide and contract Idylwilde fly tier. He operates Wiley's Flies in Rainbow Lake, New York.