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 California 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 Rio 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 MERCEDToday, 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 AND REGSTo 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.