Fly Fish at Yosemite National Park

Where to Fly Fish in Yosemite National Park [with MAPS]

Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular in the country. It had 4.5 million visitors in 2019 alone, according to the National Park Service. That puts it tied with Zion National Park in terms of visitors.

While most people are drawn to Yosemite for its breathtaking granite walls, rock climbing, and ethereal beauty, there’s plenty of other things to do in the park.

Merced River for Fly Fishing

One of them just so happens to be fly fishing.

So, whether you’re on a family trip and need an excuse to get away for a few hours, or have always wanted to fly fish in some of the world’s most dramatic scenery, fly fishing in Yosemite National Park is an opportunity you just can’t pass up.

Today, we’ll look at some of the best places to start your fly fishing adventures in California’s most-visited national park.

Merced River – The Gem of Yosemite

When you think of Yosemite, the imposing granite faces of Half-Dome and El Capitan likely come to mind. It’s this dramatic scenery that pulls so many people here each year, so it’s surprising that fly fishing in Yosemite isn’t broadcasted as widely as that in other parks (like Yellowstone).

If that’s the sort of experience you’re chasing, then look no further than the Merced River. While there’s plenty of the Merced to fish, the section that’s easily the most beautiful is located smack in the middle of Yosemite Valley. The Merced offers a variety of fishing opportunities in terms of how you want to fish. Whether you want to fight trout in tight pockets, or cast to wary fish in deep, clear pools, the Merced offers it all.

Brown Trout Merced River
Brown Trout Merced River

You’ll find rainbow and brown trout in this portion of the Merced River, and these fish are all wild.

Where to Fly Fish on the Merced River

As mentioned above, you can fish the Merced for much of its 145-mile length before it joins the San Joaquin River. However, to fish the portion in Yosemite Valley, you just need to pile off the John Muir Trail that heads east from the Upper Pines Campground. This take you right to the base of Half-Dome.

Recommended Flies for the Merced River

The Merced is still, in spite of its grandeur, a trout fishery. Mayflies, caddis, and a few stoneflies make up the majority of a trout’s diet here, and that’s what you’ll want in your fly box. Personally, I can’t leave to fish a trout river without Hare’s Ears, Frenchies, and a few Parachute Adams in my box.

  • Parachute Adams size 12-18. These flies mimic just about any aquatic insect, and are a must-have for anyone looking to catch trout.
  • Hare’s Ear in sizes 14-18. I don’t know if there’s a more dependable do-it-all mayfly nymph than the Hare’s Ear.
  • Frenchie, sizes 14-18. Again, I can’t leave the house without this stellar caddis imitation. The Frenchie has saved my bacon on more than one trip.

Tenaya Creek – The Merced’s Little Brother

Tenaya Creek is a tributary to the Merced, and dumps into the river right by the North Pines Campground. It often gets overlooked by anglers who focus on fishing the bigger Merced. Just because Tenaya is smaller, though, shouldn’t disqualify it from your list of must-fish waters.

It is smaller water, although it still offers diverse fishing opportunities like the Merced does. From long flats to pools and riffles, and even some pocket water, Tenaya Creek has a little of bit everything that anglers love. The higher up you go, however, the more and more the creek turns into a tumbling bit of water, making for less-than-desirable fishing.

Instead, you should focus your efforts on the stretch between Mirror Lake and where Tenaya Creek enters the canyon between Half-Dome and North Dome. Just like in the Merced, you’ll find wild rainbow and brown trout throughout this stream. It’s recommended that you fish Tenaya earlier on in the fishing season.

Where to Fish Tenaya Creek

While you can access Tenaya directly from North Pines Campground, that stretch sees a lot of attention from campers. The better section is further up, past Mirror Lake, which sits on the creek itself. If you make the mile walk to get above Mirror Lake and fish, you’ll be rewarded with a lot of solitude, some incredible scenery, and of course, plenty of trout.

Recommended Flies for Tenaya Creek

Again, with this being a trout fishery in the High Sierra, I can’t stress enough the need for classic, time-tested trout flies. Here, since it’s smaller water, you’ll likely want less ostentatious bugs than you would on the Merced.

Elk Hair Caddis - Dry Fly
Elk Hair Caddis – Dry Fly
  • Elk Hair Caddis in sizes 12-18. This is a must-have fly if the fish are even thinking about looking up.
  • Zebra Midge in sizes 16-20. I love a black Zebra Midge, and I’m convinced more fish have been caught on that nymph than perhaps any other. It’s so simple, but so incredibly effective.
  • Glo-bug in sizes 16-20. While you can’t fish when the rainbows or browns are spawning in Tenaya Creek, I’ve always found that egg imitations work when nothing else will. A Glo-bug is a good go-to fly if you need to switch things up.

Lower Ottoway Lake – A High-Country Delight

First things first – this isn’t a destination for the faint of heart. Getting to Lower Ottoway Lake takes a lot of time – it’s a 13-mile hike one way. You’ll pass a lot of fishing opportunity on the way to Lower Ottoway, so don’t hesitate to throw a line wherever you want.

This lake is tucked beneath a mountain and offers a great view of the Clark Range, high in a more remote corner of Yosemite. If you’re really chasing a secluded, high-country experience, you need to come on up to Lower Ottoway.

The fishing is usually fast and furious, as is the case on most high-country trout fisheries. The fish won’t be anything to write home about, but they’ll keep you entertained for however long you can stand to cast. This lake is an absolute gem of a spot that few visitors to Yosemite ever get to truly experience.

Where to Fish Lower Ottoway Lake

Where you fish on the lake doesn’t really matter – but getting there does. It’s recommended that you start your journey at the Mono Meadows trailhead, located off Glacier Point Road in the southern part of the park. From here, it’s 13 miles through rugged country to reach your destination.

Recommended Gear and Flies for Lower Ottoway Lake

When fishing lakes – especially high-elevation ones – you can never go wrong with plenty of leech and scud imitations in your box. Often, I’ve had a day saved from being a skunk thanks to a trout snacking on a black or olive leech. And, in most lakes like Lower Ottoway, you’ll find a big population of scuds.

  • Olive scuds in sizes 14-18. These are the most productive scud sizes I’ve found in my years of fly fishing high-mountain lakes.
  • Black leeches in sizes 18-18. Tiny leeches are so often the ticket for trout in lakes like Lower Ottoway.
  • Elk Hair Caddis, size 14-28. When the sun sets and the fish start feeding furiously on top, you’ll want a tried-and-true pattern to bring them to your net. Enter the Elk Hair Caddis.

A 3 to 5 weight fly rod is perfect for the Ottoway Lake. The fish won’t be huge, but the scenery is payment in and of itself. Try to keep your gear setup simple; rod, a balanced reel, 4x to 6x – 9 foot nylon leaders and a couple spools of tippet.

Crane Creek – Low-Elevation Fishing

Crane Creek is a great low-elevation fishery. Since the rivers in Yosemite aren’t open year-round to fishing, the ability to access some places free of snow when fishing season opens makes Crane Creek an indispensable weapon in an angler’s arsenal.

Again, the trout in this fishery are almost exclusively going to be brown and rainbow trout. These fish are also going to be some of the most educated and wary within the park. Crane Creek flows low and clear, so stealth is a must when approaching these fish. I’d recommend long leaders and small flies, as well, to increase your chances of success.  

Lyell Fork – Quintessential Meadow Fishing

One of the best things about a place like Yosemite are the gorgeous meadows that lay nestled between high mountain peaks. Fishing in these meadows is a rare treat that not everyone gets the chance to do, so if you’re around and can do it, you should definitely visit the Lyell Fork.

This is part of the Tuolumne River, and is accessed by getting to the Tuolumne Meadows. This is one of the most scenic areas in the park, and you might find yourself  distracted by the scenery instead of the fish.

Long Leaders for these Selective Trout
Long Leaders for these Selective Trout

Thankfully, the Lyell Fork offers great fishing. It’s a classic, meandering stream that requires precise presentation and plenty of patience. The Lyell Fork also offers 9 miles of river that has little-to-no gradient, thanks to how flat the Tuolumne Meadows area is.

Your small flies are going to work best here, and I’d recommend 7x leader. And probably a 3-weight fly rod, just for good measure.  

Upper Merced River – More of What you Love

If the Merced River in the Yosemite Valley wasn’t enough, you can fish the Upper Merced between Merced Lake and Nevada Falls. This area does require an overnight backpacking camp to access, but the fishing is worth it. The Upper Merced is as varied as the portion through the Yosemite Valley, but in a much smaller format. The river hasn’t picked up as many of its tributaries up here as it does in the valley floor, making for a more intimate fishing experience.

You’ll get your pick of pools, pocket water, glides, and riffles to fish. Up here, you might even run into the odd brook trout, but you’re most likely to catch brown and rainbow trout.

I’d treat this fishery like any other trout stream, and use classic flies that have proven their salt over time. I’m a big fan of simplicity, and it doesn’t get much more simple than classic trout fishing.

Illihouette Creek – Secluded Small Stream Fishing

Last, but certainly not least, is Illihouette Creek. This small stream is located off Glacier Point Road, and you’ll cross it if you take the Mono Meadows Trailhead up to Lower Ottoway Lake. Everywhere that you can see, there’s likely fish in this creek. And thanks to its location near a major trail that ferries backpackers and hikers, Illihouette doesn’t get nearly as much fishing pressure as you’d expect.

The fish up here are primarily small, but gorgeous, rainbow trout. Again, you may run into some brook trout up here, but that’s not likely. Be prepared for a long hike and an overnight trip if you want to experience as much of Illihouette Creek as possible.

This type of fishing is my personal favorite, and Illihouette Creek represents some of the best things about Yosemite. You can just venture off-trail, follow a blue line on the map, and likely get into good fish.

Recommended Fly Fishing Gear for Yosemite

You don’t need much more than what you’d take for any trout fishing trip in the Sierra or Rocky Mountains. A 9-foot, 5-weight fly rod will probably be the only one you’ll need on any water in Yosemite National Park. You could pack a smaller 3 or 4-weight rod if you plan on fishing mostly smaller water.

click and pawl drag
click and pawl drag

A click-and-pawl reel is more than enough to handle the fish in Yosemite. They’re not big enough to warrant a disc drag. Floating lines, long leaders, and plenty of fly floatant are going to round out the gear you need to fly fish in Yosemite.

Recommended Flies for Yosemite NP

Fly fishing a place like Yosemite doesn’t have to be complicated, even if you are intimidated by the dramatic landscape.

pheasant tail_parachute adams_wooly bugger_elk hair
pheasant tail nymph, parachute adams, wooly bugger, elk hair caddis

Remember that these are small, wild trout and those fish usually respond well to classic flies. I’d carry the following with me everywhere in the park:

  • Parachute Adams, sizes 12-18
  • Elk Hair Caddis, sizes 12-18
  • Zebra Midge, sizes 16-20
  • Hare’s Ear, sizes 14-20
  • Frenchie, sizes 14-20
  • Black bunny leech, sizes 6-10

Best Time of Year to Fly Fish in Yosemite

Fishing season doesn’t open until the last Saturday in April, and closes November 15, for fishing streams and rivers in Yosemite. Lakes are open year-round, with the exception of Mirror Lake.

Annual Temps for Yosemite NP
Annual Temps for Yosemite NP

With those restrictions in mind, your best bet for getting into great fishing in Yosemite is in late June through July. This is when the high country really opens up and gives you the chance to experience as much of the park as you can explore.

Fly Shops and Fly Fishing Guides for Yosemite

If you’ve never visited before, a guide is a great help. And stopping by a fly shop means you don’t have to pack as much gear – and you get to support a local business.

Some shops in the area include:

Lodging and Campgrounds in Yosemite NP Area

You can camp within the park, provided you have the right permits, or make reservations at any of the campgrounds. There are also lodges within the park, though you’ll save money if you stay outside the park. Unless you’re planning on spending nights in the backcountry, you’ll probably be better off staying outside the park.

Some lodging options include:

Fishing Resources from the National Park Service

The only special regulations that apply to fly fishing in Yosemite National Park are as follows:

  • No use of live or dead minnows for bait, or other fish or amphibians
  • Fishing from bridges and docks is prohibited
  • Sections of the Yosemite Valley are subject to artificial fly-and-lure only tackle restrictions, in addition to harvest limits
  • Other areas of the park are also subject to similar restrictions

You can view all the regulations via the National Park Service website.

Fishing Licenses and State Regulations for California

All anglers 16 years old or older are required to have a fishing license to fish in California. Yosemite National Park doesn’t impose any additional licensing requirements. You can view the details, and purchase a license to fly fish in Yosemite National Park, here.

Spencer Durrant is a fly fishing writer, guide, bamboo rod builder, and novelist from Utah. He’s the News Editor for MidCurrent, and a regular contributor to Hatch Magazine. Spencer has also written a book Learning to Fly. Connect with him on Instagram/Twitter, @Spencer_Durrant.

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