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Trout of historic rugged wildness

orthwestern Yosemite is rarely visited in contrast to the nearly four million people who enter the park each year. And, of all these visitors, only a fraction of one percent, are anglers who venture off the beaten path. There’s solitude in northwestern Yosemite, and late fall fishing trips can etch lifelong memories.

Once disputed territory between the Sierra Miwok and Mono Lake Paiute no native trout occurred here. The coastal rainbow (steelhead) is native to Yosemite’s lower regions, in the Merced and Tuolumne river systems, but waterfalls prevented these trout from inhabiting the higher, glacial-fed streams and lakes. The only native fish to Yosemite’s frigid, high elevation waters is a sucker. The Paiute called these suckers “Ah-wa-ago” meaning wide gaping mouth.

Tuolumne, view through the mouintains, photo by Phil Akers
In Yosemite, late fall enhances scenery, solitude, and fishing.
Mortars, photo by Phil Akers
Mortars and other evidence of Native American history are rife not only in this area, but throughout the entire western slope of the Sierra Nevada.

The major lakes of this northwestern portion of Yosemite are Eleanor, Hetch Hetchy, Kibbie, Laurel, and Vernon. The first record of fish stocking was in 1877 (by homesteaders) fourteen years before the US Congress set aside this land later to become Yosemite National Park. Once the national park was established, organized stocking was initiated by the Army, and Benson Lake is named after Col. H.C. “Batty” Benson who was acting superintendent of Yosemite. Devoted to blazing trails and packing trout into Yosemite’s remote waters where no fish had ever existed, Benson later transferred to Yellowstone NP.

Lyel Fork , photo by Phil Akers
The upper stretches of Yosemite are a granite slab region where glacial waters retain pure quality, cascading miles through lake-destined, eye-candy paradise.

Throughout time, the government planted Yosemite with various strains of rainbow trout, brook trout, brown trout, bull trout, golden trout, cutthroat (including Paiute cutthroat), kokanee, and even grayling. But to me the most interesting stories of fish planting come from the early homesteaders, like Horace J. Kibbe who settled on the north shore of the largest natural lake in all of Yosemite -- Lake Eleanor. The lake is much larger today than it was back then. In 1918 a dam was constructed downstream of natural Lake Eleanor, causing it to nearly triple in size. It’s a big lake!

Eleanor Dam, photo by Phil Akers
Because of Lake Eleanor’s remote location, the dam was built using the multi-arch style. This design - dating back to the Romans - maximizes strength while using minimal concrete.

A “squaw man”, Kibbe not only stocked natural Lake Eleanor, but many other backcountry lakes…packing pure steelhead, and a “McCloud River” strain of rainbow trout from lake to lake. Up Kibbie Ridge from Eleanor is Kibbie Lake, another terrific backpacking destination to experience these historic trout. Kibbie Lake, Kibbie Creek, and Kibbie Ridge are all named in Horace J. Kibbe’s memory. I applaud those who, despite other historic achievements, are most recognized for early trout introduction to the high country. Thanks to Kibbe, there are still populations of quality wild trout.

Wolf Pack photo by Phil Akers
Fellow Yosemite wolf pack members Mark Papanek (the one on the left resembling a big steelhead fly) and John Matkoski joined me on this late season fishing lollapalooza.
Rugged Wildness, photo by Phil Akers
It’s fish like this, caught by John, that lure us back time after time, knowing any particular cast has the potential of providing handsome, well-earned rewards for efforts spent hiking and dealing with the elements.

November’s the perfect time to trout fish here. We’ve been blessed with some of the finest quality of wild trout on these late November fishing trips. It’s exciting to pursue the two wild descendent strains of Kibbe’s rainbows. Because of their size, sport, and hardiness, these trout are legendary, historically recognized for their “rugged wildness.” Eventually, an egg taking station was placed in Frog Creek (the trout’s primary spawning ground) and these eggs were used to stock many of Yosemite’s high country lakes.

John holding his Eleanor rainbow, photo by Phil Akers
John, with a classic Eleanor rainbow. From a fishing perspective, a large percentage of Eleanor’s shoreline is a fruitless waste of time. Try and get to the inlet.

All the lakes in this region of Yosemite are remote. Kibbie, Laurel, and Vernon are all backpacking destinations. You can drive to Hetchy but productive fishing requires hiking and scrambling. Floating devices and body contact with the water is prohibited at Hetchy. Fishing Eleanor also demands effort. The road to Eleanor is blocked by a gate at the top of a hill where you park and hike the remaining half mile down to the dam. From there, a trail follows the northern shoreline ridge for a little over a mile to a backpackers’ camp. From the camp you can follow the shoreline to productive areas, but realize it’s farther than it looks, you have to cross Kibbie Creek, then boulder hop as the shoreline becomes increasingly cliffy. The adventurous can launch a kayak or any other flotation device at Eleanor…they’re legal, but it’s quite a haul back up the hill!

Mark holding his rainbow trout, photo by Phil Akers
Mark proudly displaying his rainbow trout dinner. Told you he resembled a steelhead fly.

Mark lost an even bigger one…I was close by when he hooked it…net in hand and ready to assist. The fish tested Mark’s 4-pound setup, effortlessly ripping out line run after run. After a long, give-and-take battle, the fish dove below a submerged Volkswagen-sized bolder and broke off. Anyway, we’ve been fishing here for years, some trips have been legendary…some, not so much. John almost always out-fishes everyone. When catching, you’ll experience fish of every size class, indicating rich reproductive health. The big trout don’t go down easy as they possess a bar-brawl fighting style that rivals their ocean-run steelhead brethren. Each trip here is like shoving all your chips to the center of the table…sacrifice, but the payouts can be huge.

Phil Akers with his trout, photo by Phil akers
That’s me with one I kept. Trout like this is why I travel off the beaten path to fish.

Like all national parks, Yosemite hasn’t been planted with trout since the late 1970’s, but, as you now know, there’s a wild-wild-west history of planting and coffee-canning. These trout evolved to naturally reproduce and are self-sustaining to this day. I encourage you to go experience them, but please be forewarned, it’s addictive - hooking one of these fish can also hook you into returning year-after-year.

Hiking the great outdoors, photo by Phil Akers
Until next year, Merry Christmas to all My Outdoor Buddies!

Important to note is some special regulations to Eleanor. To protect spawning trout, Frog Creek doesn’t open until June 15th, and this restriction extends 200 feet into the lake from the mouth of Frog Creek. Also of note is bears - it’s Yosemite - so please plan accordingly. Bear boxes are available at the Eleanor trailhead. Use bear canisters when backpacking (they’re required) and don’t leave any food in your car! Yosemite bears hold the gold metal for popping out car windows. Plan well, be safe, and go tangle with those large trout of historic rugged wildness.

Phil “Flip” Akers is a diverse angler and outdoor adventurer. For over 20 years he has backpacked, packed llamas and fly-fished the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, venturing into the farthest reaches of our wilderness areas pursuing quality trout and solitude. He enjoys sharing his experiences including tips, techniques, outdoor cooking recipes, and storytelling. He is certified in wilderness first response and rescue including swiftwater rescue, technical rope and technical animal rescue.


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