Ansel Adams Wilderness
High Sierra fishing at its best, served on a silver platter
My great great grandfather Robert Kennedy arrived in the States in the 1800's to roam the Sierra herding his flocks of sheep. At times he shared the mountain solitude with that other immigrant shepherd, John Muir. They would discuss sheep and reminisce about the Old Country; but mostly they talked about the incredible Sierra. Robert was the first white man to document much of the range and in his honor, meadows, mountains, and streams have been given his name.
My great grandfather followed in his footsteps, but instead of grazing sheep, he planted trout throughout the Sierra. His sons, my grandfather and his two brothers, inspired by swarms of mosquitoes and close calls with rattlesnakes during Sierra pack trips developed an insect repellent with something called DEET and a snake bite kit small enough to be carried in a fishing vest.
My dad's sister tied flies for Buz Busek's shop to offset the expense of her frequent journeys into the mountains. And of course my parents did their best to drag us kids along, fishing rods in hand, as they scrambled throughout the range exploring secret spots passed down through the generations.
As many times as not, these "secret" spots were in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. 24 years ago I took Lisa on her first backpack trip to one of these secret spots. She was so taken with backpacking, her first trout, and the incredible scenery that, despite all common sense, she agreed to marry me. Her second pack trip was a nine month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail and we called it our honeymoon. The Ansel Adams Wilderness will do that to you.
Of course it wasn't called the Ansel Adams back then, it was known as the Minarets Wilderness and many maps still refer to it as such. Ansel spent a lifetime sharing the wonders of the Sierra through his incredible photographs. But for a subject as profound as the Minarets Wilderness, a lifetime simply wasn't long enough and they gave the place his name so that a part of him might live there in perpetuity.
As wildernesses go, the Ansel Adams is pretty user friendly. The weather is generally warm and dry, the trails are well marked, and you can drive right to the Wilderness Area boundary. Once you hit the trail however, food, shelter and fishing gear must be carried in on livestock or on your back. (I must admit my cousin once dropped us two weeks' worth of supplies from his Cessna. Only one of the three parachutes opened and the impact instantly converted our goodies into cabernet-soaked mulch).
The John Muir Trail (JMT) cleanly bisects the Wilderness and many
"through" hikers starting from Yosemite enter the Ansel
Adams at Tuolumne Meadows. At 8,500 feet, the Tuolumne Meadows campground
is an excellent place to spend the night and get a bit acclimated
to the altitude before launching into the Wilderness.
Most people access the Ansel Adams at Silver Lake on the June Lake Loop off of highway 395 or from Agnew or Red's Meadows just outside of the ski resort town of Mammoth Lakes.
The path from Silver Lake climbs straight up the nearly vertical face of the Sierra's eastern escarpment. At several points the trail is blasted out of the granite walls. Horse bones litter the base of the cliffs in mute testimony to the foolishness of bringing pets into the Sierra. If you want to pack with stock stick with the trail hardened, mountain savvy animals at Frontier Pack Trains in Silver Lake.
The trail crosses back and forth over a cable car track that services the Southern Cal Edison reservoirs you pass on the way to good camping and fishing. The route is direct and highly efficient, but it is as ugly an entrance as you'll find anywhere in the Sierra. This is a good one to blow through on a horse.
Wilderness access from Agnew and Red's Meadows is via a gentle, old growth shaded trail that rarely strays far from the babble of the San Joaquin river. This is the famous John Muir segment of the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from Mexico to Canada. The JMT can be relatively busy in peak season but a quarter mile anywhere off the trail will put you into solitude.
Via the JMT you can make entrance into the heart of the Ansel Adams and from there spend a summer exploring its waters; or you can bring a lunch and hike a few miles up the JMT, drop into the San Joaquin and fish your way back to the trailhead for a wonderful day trip (Read Hot Showers, Soft Beds and Dayhikes in the Sierra for some other fun short trips) . Even on day hikes be sure to pack some matches and warm clothes. For a variety of reasons, every year people make unexpected sleepovers in the Ansel Adams and the nights frequently dip below freezing.
The Ansel Adams contains one the most diverse trout fisheries in the nation. In places you can catch rainbow, brook, and golden trout on consecutive casts. Brown trout are less common but available if you know where to look (refer to the species distribution tables in Sierra Trout Guide). To add a Lahontan cutthroat to the tally, stop in Mammoth Lakes just shy of the Wilderness and cast a bugger into Mcloud Lake.
Every day is yesterday in the Ansel Adams. Yesterday as in, "You should have been here yesterday." Fishing is almost always good. The lakes can be challenging, but the creeks give up trout at an amazing rate.
Sierra trout have a relatively short growing season and they are on the continual prowl for food. Give them an excuse to eat something and they probably will. A #16 E/C caddis will dependably catch trout from every creek, stream, and lake in the Wilderness. The E/C has a parachute hackle that dents the film around the fly like the sprawling legs of a natural. The trailing Antron shuck gives the impression of an emerging insect trapped in its exoskeleton, hence the name E/C (emergent/cripple). The elk hair profile of the E/C caddis effectively mimics not only caddis, but midges, aquatic moths, small hoppers, and a myriad of other small tasty terrestrials. It is the ultimate cross over pattern.
Terrestrials are huge in the Sierra. The range is bound on the west by the San Joaquin Valley and to the east by the Owen's Valley and Nevada's Great Basin. As these lowlands warm, the air rises and carries with it a payload of valley insects. The air climbs for thousands of feet, cools and dumps it windfall into the Sierra. This phenomena, called up-slope blow-in, is so dependably predictable that trout are conditioned to surface feed. Sierra fisheries are unique in that throughout the summer, dry flies routinely outfish nymphs.
Lightweight weak flying insects such as ants, beetles, and small stoneflies, are most typically captured in the valley up draughts. Ant and little yellow stonefly patterns should be in every Sierra angler's box.
Flyfishing the creeks is so easy it quickly changes an angler's perspective. We lead annual pack trips into the Ansel Adams Wilderness and many clients slide into a predictable cycle. Early in the trip they are blown away by how many fish they can catch. It's like letting kids loose in a candy store. Pretty soon however, the challenge is gone and they start making the game harder for themselves. They start targeting bigger fish, harder fish, or start trying to spot fish before making the cast. It's a wonderful transition.
Towards the end of the week they're feeling pretty smug when we turn them over to some lakes with good sized goldens. The guests become humbled pretty quickly and they're not alone, Lisa and I get skunked enough on these waters to know the feeling well.
The best time to fish Ansel Adams lakes is to get there at ice out which usually occurs in June or early July. The rainbows and goldens are spawning in the tributaries and winter-famished trout eat 3mm roe flies like they were M&Ms. The fishing is like going after summer creek fish but easier.
The truly large trout only come into the shallows well after dark
and spend the daylight hours staging just off the tributary mouths
where the lakes shelves drop into deeper water. Use shooting heads
and drag #2 drab colored streamers through blue water adjacent to
inlets. Better, much better, is to fish the ice shelves.
Particularly early in the year before the aquatic bugs start hatching, windblown terrestrials are a vital food source. Up-slope blow-in litters lake surfaces with insects but trout rising in the crystalline waters are easy marks for avian predators. The larger fish have gotten large by lurking under the protection of ice shelves from where they ambush unfortunate bugs.
In scuba gear, I have spent many wonderful hours lurking under ice shelves myself watching trout as they patrol the edges and bushwhack their prey. The fish will follow a fly drug across the ice and blindly cream it the second it falls off the edge and into the water.
On windy days when trout feel protected under the chop they will work the very edges of lakes looking for terrestrials. On calmer days they remain motionless in the deepest darkest shadows. Never walk up to an undercut or deep bankside shadow without testing it in advance with a fly.
Permanent patches of snow abound in the Ansel Adams. Not only are these good for evening gin and lemonade drinks, but their perpetual melting creates fishing in unlikely places.
Avalanche debris from Mount Banner has created vast silt beds on the western margin of Thousand Island Lake. Water from melting glaciers and snowfields percolate through this silt and create perfect habitat for macroinvertebrates and trout are keenly aware of this. We have witnessed shoals of brook trout tailing like redfish as they nose in the silt for midge, caddis, and blackfly larvae. Trout will often kick up a puff of silt then double back to swim through the cloud and eat the swirling organisms. These fish are very spooky and long accurate casts are a must.
To catch tailing trout I use a Bird's Nest nymph treated with powdered fly floatant that encapsulates the nymph in a shimmering bubble. A small shot about 2 inches up leader sinks the buoyant fly. This looks completely unlike the larvae the fish are after but it is extremely visible and looks like many of the bubble carrying insects that dwell in Sierra waters. By using such a brilliant, yet natural looking fly, I can keep my casts far enough from the fish to prevent spooking them when the fly and shot splat the water. The trout invariably make the effort to chase down the nymph.
I use Thousand Island Lake as an example, but almost all lakes in the Ansel Adams share this percolating silt bed phenomena to some degree or another.
Many of the Ansel Adams lakes have peat banks which are almost hollow and transmit vibrations exceedingly well. When trout are bolting far ahead of you, it might be a good idea to walk a little softer. The same phenomenae that builds the peat shorelines also creates rich midge habitat. Midges are abundant in every lake in the Ansel Adams and many lakes would be fishless without them.
The E/C caddis is a killer midge pattern when fished on 20 to 24 hooks. Randall Kaufmann's Midge Emerger is an excellent midge imitation when fished off the end of fine, well greased tippets. Big blood midges are critically important on some of the waters in the Ansel Adams and I always carry a handful of #14 Martis Midges. The Martis Midge was patterned after the blood midge emergers in Martis Lake but trout all over the Sierra seem to like it just fine. The tangerine-colored fly is a great equalizer when trout start slapping at your orange strike indicators!
A nine foot 4 weight is a good all around rod for the Sierra. A floating line and a couple of shooting heads will cover all the bases. Waders and float tubes are not only unnecessary, but often counter productive. Feeding trout are invariably on the edges of lakes. Bring a tube and you'll feel obligated to shiver in the sterile open waters while your less equipped friends are walking the shorelines and catching fish.
The Ansel Adams contains over a hundred named lakes and hundreds of miles of rivers, creeks and streams. It is beyond the scope of this article to detail these waters but to give a very rough overview, we can break the Ansel Adams into four watersheds.
On the far northeast margin is the Alger Lakes basin with only two fish bearing lakes. Algers has some nice goldens but it is an arduous climb out of Silver Lake and if the fishing is off, your only option is to fish the small creek outflow. Frontier Pack Trains out of Silver Lake services the basin and it is a given there will always be at least one large camp of anglers on the water.
On the eastern edge of the Ansel Adams is the Rush Creek drainage. This watershed is the most nutrient poor of the Ansel Adams. The gradients are steep which allows little time for the water to garner mineral from the soil. The creeks are loaded with dinks but the action can be very fast. There are some smaller lakes and ponds in this basin with weedy shorelines, lots of scuds, and pretty good Callibaetis and damsel hatches. Fishing these can be deluxe. Look for the unobvious waters here.
Waugh, the largest lake in the upper Rush Creek drainage is a gorgeous body of water fit for a Chevy commercial. It looks very fishy; however, Southern Cal Edison drains it every winter and the lake has nothing but a very few, very small trout. I sincerely feel for those unknowing anglers who camp on this beautiful lake and fish their brains out for not.
The third drainage contains the headwaters of the mighty San Joaquin River. This region is a huge granite bowl ringed by towering jagged peaks that seem to defy gravity. It is largely above timberline and the vistas are awe inspiring. You could pitch a tent anywhere in the watershed and think you'd gone to heaven. If fishing is the excuse you need to come here, fine; but if a marmot eats your flyline, I think you'll agree it was no great loss. Being here is the reason for being here. The relatively flat basin and mixed granitic and volcanic soils from which this river originates, creates waters that are quite fertile by Sierra standards.
Almost all of the lakes contain trout but the size of the lake has little correlation with the size of the trout. Remember that terrestrials are a large component of the food base and small lakes have a relatively greater amount of food producing shoreline than big lakes. As a rule, the further down the watershed you go, the more time the water has had to garner nutrient and the better able it will be to grow trout.
The fourth watershed is on the Western boundary of the Wilderness. Separated from the JMT by the spectacular Ritter Range, the North Fork of the San Joaquin is by far and away the least visited and most isolated part of the Ansel Adams. Couple this with the fact this basin has some of the most nutrient rich water in the Wilderness, it is easy to see why dedicated anglers make the effort to get here. The closest access is from the Clover Meadows campground, a long windy drive out of Oakhurst in California's Central Valley.
A really neat trip is to find someone else with a car and have one party park at Clover Meadows and the other park at Tuolumne Meadows. Spend a week hiking and fishing to the other person's vehicle. In this way you can get a good overview of the Wilderness without having to backtrack.
The fishing in the Ansel Adams is better than good, it is great. This is how it used to be in lots of places until the environment got whacked or anglers over harvested the waters. As limitless as the trout seem, they can be impacted by you.
A Southern California flyfishing club was packed into the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The lake fishing was tough so they concentrated on a creek that ran near their camp. In one week they so decimated the trout population that it took four years to recover and it still hasn't regained its big fish. I spoke to the packer and he swore they never kept more than their legal limit. These were not beer swillin', four wheelin', tobacco chewin', worm gobbin', fish whackin', red necks... you know, the other guys. They were readers of this magazine who simply didn't know better.
If you want a few trout for supper, eat brook trout from lakes and feel good about it. Brookies are not only the tastiest trout, they are sex fiends and have the ability to maintain their numbers even under severe angling pressure.
Oh yeah, those secret places you've been waiting for me to write about. Here's a hint: they're within 100 miles of Mt. Ritter.