Jan 17, 1999 Lower Merced & Lower Stanislaus
Time:10:00am-12:00 Merced, 1:30pm - 3:00pm
The Lower Merced is still a mystery to me. My non educated guess says that it should be similar to the lower Stan; that is, it should have some resident fish and a large population of anadromous Steelhead and Salmon smolts. Yet I emerge fishless nearly each time I go. My first visit to this river must have been a fluke. 4 fish caught fairly easily, over a short period of time. Each successive visit has been less fruitful.
This trip was no different.
I had planned to fish the Lower Stanislaus today, but when my alarm went off at 6am, I didn’t budge. Getting up early in an attempt to beat the crowds which would surely overrun the Goodwin Dam area of the Stan just didn’t fit into the relaxing day of fishing that I was looking for. Instead I snuggled up to my loving wife and slept in. Unsure I’d fish that day.
3 hours later I awoke figuring that if I was going to fish the Merced, it should be today. The storms lingering near by meant that the river flows would go up soon. They’d already gone up on the Stan (950cs as of the day before) and the Merced would surely follow. 950cfs on the Stan is fishable (to me), 950cfs on the Merced would be a lost cause (for me).
I really want to explore the Merced but have not been fortunate enough to have someone volunteer to join me. I see the Merced as potentially dangerous place. The river bottom seems to have once been a lava tube of some sort. It is wrought with underwater hazards. Once could easily step off a ledge and find that one has been swept under a nearby ledge (or so it seems to me). At the very least you could get your leg jammed inside an underwater crevice.
Regardless, I like to carefully fish this water. Hopping from underwater ledge to underwater ledge, trying to adjust the weight and depth of my fly so that it sinks fast but does not hang up on the undulating bottom. This is always a challenge and fly losses are high.
I hit the water about 10am. I seined the river expecting to find small cased caddis. Instead I found small mayflies and free living caddis. Surprised, I tied on a size 16 soft hackle caddis imitation and size 18 PT. I fished without an indicator, Joe Humphreys' style. One hour and 8 flies later, I had been totally unimpressive as a fly fisher and managed to draw only on strike.
I was enjoying myself. It was a beautiful, temperate day and I was alone on the river. Not another fisherman for miles, if at all. I managed to wade (more like hop) back to shore. Pleased that I had not fallen into any holes, I moved up river. I fished the fast, shallow pocket water closer to my car without any success. At Noon, I decided to head to the Stan.
I'd never driven from the Lower Merced to the Lower Stan before but figured the trip would take about an hour. It was a nice drive though the Central Valley's infamous cow pastures. I knew I'd hit the Lower Toulumne before the Stan and was stunned when I ran across an un-marked creek. It wasn't on the map and I wondered if it was the "Dry Creek" I kept seeing on the water flow reports. I made a mental note to ask Bob at Sierra Anglers about it later.
I passed the Toulemne and reached the Stan about 1:30pm. The Toulumne gained some acclaim last year when California Fly Fisher published an article featuring the Toulemne's come back as a "premier" fishery. Fly Fishers flocked to the T. in droves. Most returned disappointed. I have yet to explore the Toulemne and will probably do so after I have figured out the Merced.
Originally I had planned to fish all of the Stan, all day. Now my plans had changed. I wanted to be home by 4pm and that meant a short trip. I grabbed my rod and headed to my favorite spot near the dam. As I approached the dam, I ran across two spin fishers. It had been a slow day by their standards. The water was high and the fish just weren't there. I thanked them for their report and kept moving. At the dam I meet a ranger. "Looking for poachers I hoped". "Scouting out the river for a friend" was more like it. He lamented how his friend was coming up the next day and the flows had been raised to 1250cfs. I smiled, we wished each other luck and I was on my way.
As I've said before, conventional wisdom says the Stan is not fishable over 1000cfs and fishes best around 300cfs. Last year I fished it at about 1800cfs all year round, so I felt comfortable. I broke out my Tonka Queen and commenced Part II of my fishing adventure. I fished my usual Thread Midge and a second fly without an indicator.
After a few casts I hooked and landed a 12' fish. I also lost a fly. Funny how you can fish for extended periods of time and not lose any flies and then....... On my first tip to the Stan this year I lost about 12 flies- I blamed a bad spool of tippet for the fish I broke off. This time, the fish had so entangled itself in the flies and leader that one fly could not be removed (even though it was barbless). Fly number one gone.
After a few more casts, I hooked into another fish. This one was a good fish, I could tell from the head shaking and bend in my rod. This fish went crazy, never had I felt such a frantic, panicked attempt to throw a hook. The fish sent violent shock waves up my rod and then....it stopped. My rod was still doubled over, but either the fish had died on the spot or.........it wrapped me around an underwater log. Flies two and three gone.
The next two fish I fought and landed fine, both in the 12-13 inch range. I had only been on the river for about half and hour, so I decided to try some of my junk flies. Anything in my box that I don't use regularly, classifies as a junk fly. 70% of the flies in my box are junk flies. The particular "junk fly" I tied on was a size 20 brassie. I hate brassies, hate to tie them and hate to fish them. I didn't expect to catch anything on it and really hoped I lose it. No such luck. Landed fish number four and five. Then it happened, I hooked a fish on the edge of the heavy current and snap- my tippet broke. Flies four and five gone.
I've hooked and played many fish in this section of the Stan and have rarely snapped off fish, even in the heavy current. The fish in recent years just haven't been that strong. Thoroughly annoyed, I decided to tie on some 5x. My strike ratio had been pretty good so far and I figured that if I didn’t catch a fish I could tie the 6x back on. To increase the chances of not catching fish. I decided to tie on two of the same patterns. One pattern was a tried an true Stan "secret" and the other was a neon version of the same pattern. No, I was sure I wasn't going to catch fish. Not only did I have heavy tippet on, but also another junk fly.
I'd made about 10 or 15 casts when I began to lose hope. I was just about to switch flies when I hooked another fish. The fish shook his head for a minute and then took off downstream. I kept the pressure on and was able to zig zag him back up stream. He took off again and again I applied side pressure to bring him back up. After a few more runs he started to tire. I tried to bring him toward the surface so that I could a least get a glimpse of him in case he broke off. The fish was obviously large and I was applying quite a bit of pressure. I was a afraid he'd break off. As he came closer to me, he made a run toward the tree that had given me problems earlier. "Oh! No, you don't, not twice in one day!" I back pedaled and applied more side pressure.
My little (7'9" ) Bamboo rod was doing a fine job of controlling the brute. I was impressed yet again. Finally the fish came to hand. It was a beautiful, hooked nosed male steelhead, over 19 inches (as measured against my arm and rod). His body was so thick that at I had a hard time handling him. To remove my hook, I held him as one might hold a stack of school books along the side of one's body. Using my forearm to brace the fish as I removed the dreaded neon junk fly.
This was the largest fish I've caught in the Lower Stan in 5 or 6 years. I'd worried that most of the large fish were going to the poachers. I'm happy to see that they've missed one.