The River Of Mercy

The River Of Mercy

It's easy to see why the Merced River is one of the most overlooked rivers in the state. After all, it has to compete with the likes of Half Dome and Bridal Veil Falls.

A tranquil pool on the Merced River stirs to life at sunset under an illuminated Half Dome.
Photo by Brian Milne.

Just look at it. Sitting there so peacefully. Nobody around to take away from its serenity. The Merced River, a forgotten treasure, is so easily lost in the granite faces and waterfalls that dominate the landscape of Yosemite National Park.

Nearly 4 million people travel through Yosemite's majestic valley each year, but rarely do park visitors take notice of the Merced River, arguably the most overlooked river this state has to offer.

"It's pretty remarkable how many people speed right past," said Tim Hutchins, director of Yosemite Guides (209-379-2746). "They come to Yosemite for the sights, not the fishing."

Not that one could blame jaw-dropping tourists for stumbling over the river to gawk at the overpowering presence of Half Dome or the beauty of Bridal Veil Falls. That's how it's always been for the Merced River.

The Merced, its habitat and wildlife, have been trampled upon since the early 1800s when Spanish explorers first named the waterway. Early settlers named it El Río de Nuestra Senora de la Merced, or River of Our Lady of Mercy. They eventually channeled its untamed flows, blasted its glacial moraine to drop the water table, and diverted the river to help quench the thirst of a growing country.

Even then, the Merced was a magnificent river, originating in the high country of the Clark and Cathedral ranges and then plunging over Nevada Falls and then Vernal Falls before winding its way through the valley and Merced Canyon and into the parched San Joaquin.

In 1987, recognizing the Merced's significance, Congress designated its upper reaches as a National Wild and Scenic River. Restoration efforts the past two decades, including replanting, fencing and eliminating fish stocks in the park, have helped return the river to a more natural state.

MODERN-DAY MERCED

Today, the Merced and the Kings are among the few fully protected river systems in the Sierra Nevada. There's no logging. No mining. No dams. No cattle grazing. Just miles and miles of water under special-regulation trout fishing.

"It's amazing that a roadside river like this can stay in such great shape," said Hutchins, who guides out of El Portal. "It's not a secret anymore. People know the park has some pretty good fishing. It's just not a great place for spin-fishermen, and it gets pretty rugged in parts, so it comes down to knowing where all the good spots are."

Locals are tight-lipped about their favorite stretches. But after some serious prodding, Hutchins will let you in on a couple of his secret holes.

Hutchins, whose El Portal home overlooks some of his favorite runs, knows the Merced about as well as anyone. He's lived near its banks for more than 20 years and is active in a handful of restoration projects aimed at preserving its beauty.

Some of his favorite drifts are right off Highway 140, just before the Arch Rock Entrance to the park, such as the pools across from the El Portal Market, or the runs down by the government service center.

RULES & REGS

To keep that stretch feeling like Big Sky Country, the Department of Fish and Game manages the area with special regulations. While fishing is open all year from the western boundary of the park to Foresta Bridge, only artificial lures and flies with barbless hooks are allowed. No wild rainbow trout may be kept and there is a limit of five browns a day and 10 browns in possession.

"Everything's wild," Hutchins said. "Nowhere in the park is stocked, so you could have five species of wild trout to chose from. And the park is a big place: If you don't like the conditions at one part of the river, you can hop in a car and drive a half-hour and you're up 5,000 feet higher and enjoying a totally different experience."

The Merced is stocked from Foresta Bridge downstream to Lake McClure, where rainbows are planted on a regular basis and fishing is open all year. Anglers can fish with bait or artificial lures here, but limits vary throughout the year. From the last Saturday in April through Nov. 15, anglers can keep five trout daily. The limit drops to two rainbow trout from Nov. 16 to the Friday before the last Saturday in April.

In the park, the season picks up from that final Saturday in April and runs through Nov. 15 and is catch-and-release only for wild rainbows.

Stockings of hatchery fish were halted long ago to return the river within the park to its natural state. Because wild fish are smaller and harder to catch in Yosemite, serious anglers tend to fish at lower elevations. But if you know the right people, you'll soon learn the right fishing spots within the park's boundaries.

"I've fished a lot of rivers that I'd never set foot in with a fishing guide," admits Graham Hubner, head fly-fishing guide at Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides (800-231-4575). "Most of the time I'm like, 'This is a piece of cake. I don't need a guide for this.' But not at the Merced. That river is a mystery. You might see a run and think its chock-full of fish and not catch one there all day. It's a very finicky river, but it can be a blue ribbon one if you know when and where to fish."

Hubner guides in southern Yosemite, spending a good amount of time on the South Fork of the Merced. And even Hubner admits that his favorite part about fishing that fork is the view.

"There are a number of different reasons why I love fishing here, but foremost has to be the setting," he said. "There's really a great mixture available in the 15 or so miles I fish."

THE EVENING HATCH

While guides sometimes vary on their favorite runs and approaches on the Merced, there are at least two things about which they all seem to agree. If you're going to fish the River of Mercy, use extreme caution (especially while wading), as the flows tend to grow this time of year, and do the majority of your trout fishing in the evening.

See the sights all day, if you must, but reserve the last couple of hours of the day for taking in some spectacular trout. When the sun begins to set on Yosemite, the wild rainbows and browns start rising.

That's when the hatch begins and the cool, crisp evening air is filled with so ma

ny insects your fly rod doubles as a flyswatter. In the summer and early fall the dragonflies often become so think you're smacking one every other five minutes.

"When you see the dragonflies and the other aquatic insects come around, that's a pretty good indicator that you don't want to pack up and go home," Hutchins said. "It's a great dry-fly river year 'round. I out-fish nymphs with dry flies all the time here, which is very unusual."

When the flows pick up, guides stay away from the Merced gorge and fish the calmer stretches below El Portal, where trout will take typical dry flies that resemble any caddis.

While Hutchins recommends staying away from midges in cold water, he says that PMDs and Golden Stoneflies will catch fish in 36-degree water "because there are so may big, heavy stoneflies on the river."

Along the South Fork, different mayfly hatches start to go off as the spring runoff recedes, with the most accessible runs in Wawona. Here, Hubner echoes Hutchins' advice from downstream, noting that a PMD in the evening is his go-to fly all summer.

"It's the first really good hatch of the season," he said. "I'll fish a PMD in early June into late July, and always in the evening. I don't know why, but the bugs don't seem to come off early in the day. But in the evening, they wake the fish right up."

MORE OPTIONS

What if you've seen everything Yosemite has to offer and it's still three or four hours before the next hatch? Even more overlooked than the trout angling at the Merced is smallmouth bass fishing.

While the upper river from the park boundary down to Bryceburg is fairly quiet all day into the afternoon, the smallmouth fishing below Bryceburg is just heating up. From June through September, warm water temperatures turn these fish into heavyweight fighters for flyfishermen and spin-fishermen alike.

Hutchins recommends fishing in the mornings and early afternoons with a black Woolly Bugger or leech look-a-likes on a sinking line. A cross-and-pull-back retrieve can yield "a 50-fish day if conditions are right."

Spin-fishermen can see the same results with Rapalas, Roostertails, Kastmasters or SuperDupers. Night crawlers and crawfish are productive when pitched around cover.

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