Photo of Fourth Recess Lake, CA

Sierra Fishing Articles and Links

Photo of fisherman in float tube on Lake Sabrina

Lake Sabrina


Fishing with Float Tubes

Habitat Restoration for the Yellow-Legged Frog

The Battle Over Fish Check Dams in the Emigrant Wilderness

Fishing on the Wild Side

Fishing & Camping Links

Fishing with Float Tubes

Float Tubes

Modern, light-weight float tubes are the answer to fishing many difficult to reach places on lakes and ponds. Whether it’s working a shoreline congested with brush or pushing out to deeper sections of a lake, the float tube can make fishing a lot more successful and considerably more comfortable. Float tubes, which can weigh as little as 6 pounds, can easily be packed into remote lakes where any other watercraft would be impractical.

While the old low-slung, donut-shaped float tubes have the advantages of being less susceptible to leaks and offer a lower profile against the wind, the advantages of the newer U-shaped, or pontoon style, float tubes are considerable. With their open fronts, the U-shaped float tubes are much easer to board and dismount. Many have seats which positioned above the water, providing an improved view and easier casting.

Important Features

Features to look for in a float tube include a stripping arm which also provides a ruler for measuring your catch and a workstation on which to rig your line. Dual bladder boats give an extra degree of safety if one should spring a leak. Urethane bladders are better than vinyl. Boston valves prevent air from leaking while the tube is being inflated. Foam or inflatable seats and backrests offer greater comfort. Other important features to look for include ample gear pockets, a beverage holder, D-rings for strapping on additional gear, and packing straps for easy portability.

Photo of Float Tube fisherman on Pinecrest Lake

Pinecrest Lake

Accessory Equipment

The temperature of most mountain lakes will make wearing waders a requirement. Most float tubers are choosing neoprene waders for the added warmth they provide. Fins supply mobility in a float tube. Prices for fins range from $25 to $200, but there’s little reason to spend a lot for fins. Classic Float fins which sell for about $35 will move you easily around the lake. A rod holder and a leash for your rod are useful additions. Frabill and Brodin make affordable nets that work well. An anchor can be useful in windy situations. For a little more than $200 you can add Fishin’ Buddy’s Portable Fish Finder.


Wearing a Personal Floatation Device (PFD) need not be cumbersome. Choose a style that is only inflated if needed. Float tubes are not recommended for use in streams or rivers where currents can create dangerous situations. Nor are float tubes advisable in large lakes where heavy winds can come up unexpectedly when you are far from shore. An approaching thunderstorm would be another obvious reason to vacate the lake promptly.

Choosing the Brand

Float tube prices range from under $100 to over $400. A product in the middle range is probably your best value. One of the leading brands, Creek Company, sells its ODC 420 for about $200. Its A-shape makes it easier to move through the water than the standard U-shape. It weighs 14 pounds and has a capacity of up to 300 pounds. Creek Company’s 2000 float tube weighs only 7 pounds and sells for around $130, including fins and a pump.

At the top of the line is Outcast’s Super Fat Cat which sells for about $420. It is made with heavier material than some other brands and comes with all the desired accessories, weighing in at a manageable 12 pounds. It has a 300 pound capacity. Outcast’s Trinity, which sells for about $400, is among the lightest quality float tubes on the market, weighing only 6 pounds while maintaining a 325 pound capacity. Classic Accessories offers its Kennebec float tube for about $190. It weighs 12.5 pounds and will carry 350 pounds. The Kennebec comes with lots of storage pockets and a hydrodynamic hull.

No longer restricted to land or to shallow wading waters, you’ll discover a whole new realm of fishing when you push off from shore in a float tube.

For a selection of good Float Tubes and accessories go to Fishing Gear.


Habitat Restoration for the Yellow-Legged Frog

in the Sierra Nevada

With the decline of the endangered yellow-legged frog in the Sierra blamed in part on predatory, non-native fish, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies have embarked on a program to remove fish from a number of designated lakes and connecting streams in the Sierra. The Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and the mountain yellow-legged frog were officially placed on the list of endangered and threatened wildlife in June, 2014; but efforts to restore their habitat in a number of Sierra Nevada lakes began years ago.

Desolation Wilderness

In the Desolation Wilderness seven lakes were selected for habitat restoration in 2006: Lucille, Margery, Tamarack, Cagwin, LeConte, Jabu, and a pond near Lake Lucille. All the lakes are near Thousand Island Lake. Fish surveys were done and it was decided to cease stocking these lakes. In 2008 efforts were launched to remove all of the remaining fish in the seven lakes using gill nets. The overwhelming majority of the trout captured in the nets were brook trout, followed by a few rainbows and a single Lahontan Redside shiner. Gill netting continued for four years, and by 2011 all non-native fish had been eradicated from those lakes.

Kings Canyon National Park and Humphrey Basin

In 2001, Kings Canyon National Park staff began using large nets and electrofishers (a device that temporarily stuns fish) to physically remove trout from selected waters. The goal was to restore the balance of nature to the pre-trout environment, with a focus on improving the health of mountain yellow-legged frogs. By 2011, nearly 44,000 fish had been removed from 19 lakes, including complete removal from 9 lakes.

One area of focus for habitat restoration has been the upper LeConte Canyon, along the John Muir Trail, south of Muir Pass. After most of the fish had been removed in 2004, the number of mountain yellow-legged frogs/tadpoles in three restoration lakes increased from nearly 190 to over 18,800. Over in the Humphrey Basin fish were removed from Marmot, Cony, and No Good lakes. The National Park proposes removing nonnative fish from an additional 87 (16%) of the parks' remaining 549 high elevation lakes, ponds and marshes known to contain fish.

Yosemite National Park

Fish removal in Yosemite National Park has focused on 11 lakes in six areas. Six of these lakes are now considered fishless (Virginia Lake, Cold Mountain Area Lakes, and Bartlett Creek Lakes) and five more are currently being restored to their natural fishless state (Tiny McCabe, Ardeth, Miwok, Roosevelt, and Hutchings Creek Lakes). These lakes make up about 5% of the park's lakes.

Other Threats to the Yellow-Legged Frog

Non-native fish are not the only threat to the recovery of the yellow-legged frogs. A fungal disease called chytridiomycosis is threatening the existence of frog populations that had once thrived in fishless areas. Additional causes of decline may include airborne contaminants, such as pesticides and other chemicals, and other pathogens.

The Battle over Fish Check Dams

in the Emigrant Wilderness

For the past three decades the Emigrant Wilderness, situated just north of Yosemite National Park, has been the setting for a dispute over 18 small, stone “check dams” constructed during the first half of the twentieth century. On one side in favor of the dams have been anglers, wilderness campers, and advocates seeking to preserve local history. Arguing against them have been environmentalists who believe a wilderness area should not contain any man-made structures, except perhaps foot paths and an occasional trail sign.

Photo of Emigrant Wilderness near Kennedy Lake

Emigrant Wilderness

The Emigrant Wilderness, part of the Stanislaus National Forest, encompasses 100 named lakes and about 500 smaller, unnamed lakes. It contains miles and miles of streams, the headwaters of the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers. But it wasn’t always the fishing paradise that it is today.

Soon after the last emigrant wagons rolled out of the mountains near Sonora Pass in the 1850s, cattlemen and sheep herders began to graze their animals in high meadowlands that are now is part of the Emigrant Wilderness Area. Finding a dearth of fish in the lakes that dot the region, stockmen started hauling buckets of native fish from lower elevation lakes and streams and dumping them into the alpine lakes.

By the late 1800s large lakes like Kennedy Lake and Emigrant Lake became popular fishing destinations, attracting sportsmen from nearby gold country towns like Sonora and Columbia and from valley cities such as Modesto and Stockton. The only significant reservoir at the time was Strawberry Lake, today’s Pinecrest Lake. Most river and stream fishing was at low elevations along the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers. Because the high elevation streams and some lakes tended to dry up in late summer and fall, they did not provide a habitat adequate to sustain fish populations.

Photo of Buck Lake, Emigrant Wilderness, CA

Upper Buck Lake

Construction of the Check Dams

Around 1900 a young local man named Fred Leighton began to make his way into the high country near Sonora Pass. He soon realized that if just a few of the lakes could be regulated with what he would call “check dams”, more water could be stored in the lakes and then released at a slower rate early in the summer during the snowmelt. As a result there would still be a reserve of water in the lakes when the rainless late summer and fall arrived so an adequate stream flow could be maintained to provide habitat for native trout. They would also serve as an early method of flood control.

Starting in 1920, Leighton and a crew of volunteers began to construct a number of low “check dams” on key lakes. They hauled supplies into the high country on pack animals and built the dams by hand using stones and mortar. They received the full support of the US Forest Service, California Fish and Game, and many local organizations.

The first dam was built at Yellowhammer Lake on the headwaters of Cherry Creek, only two miles north of the Yosemite boundary. Over the years 17 more dams were built. Most were on lakes, including Lower Buck Lake, Bigelow Lake, Emigrant Lake, Emigrant Meadow Lake, and Huckleberry Lake. Two dams were constructed along streams, creating reservoirs to provide summer irrigation water to meadowlands. The last couple of dams were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1941.

Photo of Emigrant Lake, emigrant Wilderness, Ca

Emigrant Lake

As a result of the dams, fishing improved considerably in the region with Rainbow, Brown, and Brook trout populating the waters. Every summer anglers flocked to the high country, taking pack animals in from trailheads like Pinecrest, Kennedy Meadows, Gianelli’s Cabin.

The Designation of the Emigrant Wilderness

The beginning of the end of the “check dams” came in 1975 when the region was designated as the Emigrant Wilderness. The 1964 Wilderness Act prohibits virtually any kind of man-made structure within the boundaries of a wilderness. Exceptions made for historic structures such as early log cabins have been rare. For a time it appeared that the “check dams” would fall into the category of historic features. Many of them were eligible to be included in the historic register. Most of them only stood a few feet tall and were hardly intrusive. Other people saw them differently.

The battle over the “check dams” continued for decades. In 1988 the Regional Forester for the Stanislaus National Forest ordered all the dams to be removed. His decision created a public outcry, and soon afterward he reversed his position. Then in 1991 the Forest Service began to develop a Land Resource Management Plan for the area. At the same time Representative John Doolittle attempted, but failed, to get a bill through Congress to protect the dams.

In the meantime evidence mounted that the dams were in desperate need of repair. Some had been vandalized, others were simply eroding. Spill valves were lost under silt. Eventually in 1998 the Forest Service decided to rebuild 8 of the decaying dams in order to maintain stream flow. But only a year later the Regional Forester reversed that decision. He held the position that there was no evidence that the dams were needed. Aerial stocking was keeping the fish levels at an acceptable level.

The US District Court Decision

The dispute over the “check dams” reached its conclusion in 2006 when Wilderness Watch and other environmental groups filed suit to stop the proposed maintenance of the dams. Both sides argued persuasively. Advocates for the dams pointed out their historic value, their non-obtrusive nature, and their benefit to wildlife habitat. Wilderness purists pointed out that there was nothing in the Wilderness Act that permitted such structures within the boundary of the Emigrant Wilderness. Furthermore, the Forest Service had conceded that the fish populations were self-sustaining. The construction of the dam at Cherry Reservoir in 1957 had long ago negated the need for flood control upstream.

Judge Anthony W. Ishii ruled in June 2006 that the dams could not be rebuilt or maintained. But neither did they have to be dismantled. They would be left to decay naturally. “The area manifested its wilderness characteristic before the dams were in place and would lose nothing in the way of wilderness values were the dams not present,” Ishii wrote in his decision. “What would be lost is some enhancement to a particular use of the area (fishing), but that use, while perhaps popular, is not an integral part of the wilderness nature of that area.”

With that decision the fate of Fred Leighton’s “check dams” appears to have been settled. Even without maintenance, many of them may last for another century or longer. In the meantime, fish populations have continued to hold steady. Every summer thousands of visitors flock to the Emigrant Wilderness to fish, camp, and enjoy the pristine beauty of the area.


Fishing on the Wild Side of California’s

Sierra Nevada

I call it Fishing on the Wild Side. It’s my version of adding a little extra adventure to a fishing outing. Fishing the wild side has taken me on some unforgettable escapades, sometimes incredible, occasionally a little frightening, but never boring. The first step is to scour a topographical map of an area you want to visit. For me that is almost always California’s rugged Sierra Nevada. Before long I spot a lake, or possibly a stretch of river, that matches my criteria of what constitutes a good wild side fishing destination.

Photo of Virginia Lakes, Ca

Virginia Lakes

My favorite lakes or streams are the ones that, because of their location, are overlooked my most anglers. Sometimes they have no name. Often they are small. They’re not on the way to anything else. Usually they are just far enough off the beaten track that most fishermen overlooked, dazzled by other, closer, larger, or more famous bodies of water. Sometimes they are tucked away up a side-canyon only a mile from one of the big attractions. Every year thousands of anglers toss their hooks into the Virginia Lakes near Yosemite, but how many bother to trek less than half a mile up to Moat Lake? If they did, they would have a chance at some golden trout.

When I’m fishing on the wild side I care very little about the size of the fish or the number of fish I catch. Just so there are at least some fish. It’s the destination that is the real prize. Sometimes you’ll get skunked, but not often. And once in awhile you’ll make one of those miraculous discoveries—a secret lake showing no signs along the shore of previous visitors, while all around the lake, 15-inch rainbows glide about the shallows.

A wild side destination need not be far from civilization. In valleys with large rivers, try finding a safe crossing to the other side of the river where there is no trail. An example of this in the Sierra might be Paradise Valley in Kings Canyon National Park. Or watch for places where a trail diverges from the stream, such as up Bear Creek near Lake Edison. Three miles from the trailhead the footpath swings away from Bear Creek. Most hikers continue along the trail, yet only a half-mile farther upstream are a series of great pools with wonderful fishing.

Photo of Paradise Valley, Kings Canyon National Park, CA

Paradise Valley
Kings Canyon National Park

Staying Safe on the Wild Side

There’s never a trail to my wild side lakes or streams, so I always go prepared for cross-country travel. If mountain travel is new to you, go out with others more experienced until you learn the art of off-trail route finding. For your first outings on your own, choose low-risk destinations where you can clearly see the route back. And take a friend with you. While a GPS is a handy tool, I still carry a topo map and compass. If you are going alone, make sure a trusted person knows exactly what route you will be taking, when you are expected to return, and who to call if you don’t show up.

Carrying a satellite phone, one of the new SPOT Satellite GPS Messengers, or a personal locator beacon (PLB) would give you an extra layer of safety. I always go prepared for inclement weather, including adding an emergency shelter to my daypack. Along the way I keep a close eye out for poisonous snakes. Rattlesnakes are rare now along the heavily used trails in the Sierra, but as soon as you start clambering around in country where few others venture, you will almost certainly encounter snakes.

One consideration with fishing on the wild side is that you are often making your way over difficult terrain. I’m not an enthusiastic bush whacker, so any significant barricade of brambles is likely to turn me around or send me off another way. Often though, you will find yourself in places where you need both hands free: scrambling over rocks, crossing a stream, or pushing your way through pine boughs. As a consequence, I put everything in my daypack, including my fishing rod.

Fishing Rods

Choosing a Back-country Fishing Rod

Among the most popular fly rods for off-trail, high country fishing is the March Brown Baden Powell special edition. It’s a 7-piece, #5, 8’6” rod, which is perfect compromise in length for both stream and lake fishing. Broken down it is only 17” long. Many people like its medium-fast action. Another rod to consider is Cabela’s Stowaway 7. It’s an 8’6” rod which breaks down into 7 pieces, which is quite convenient for slipping into a daypack. Another choice, best for streams or small lakes, is the Fly-Lite Mini Rod and Reel. It’s a 2-piece, #4 weight rod and comes in lengths up to 6’.

For those of you who are spin casting, you might want to look at Eagle-Claw’s Pack-it telescopic rods. Another choice is the Crystal River Executive Travel Pack Spinning Combo. This 6’ rod breaks down into 6 sections. Whichever rod you choose, you’ll want to get an ultra-light carbon fiber or plastic case to protect the rod in your pack. The cases that come with some of the rods are usually pretty heavy.

Where to Fish in the Sierra Nevada on the Wild Side

If you are already an experienced cross-country hiker, then spread out your maps and choose a destination that catches your eye. If you are just starting out you might want to choose some lakes that aren’t too far off in the wild and aren’t too difficult to reach. In the Sierra Nevada a great place to begin is out of Rock Creek on the eastern side of the mountains. Any easy entry hike takes you up Rock Creek into Little Lakes Valley where you can wander about all day trying your luck fishing in a dozen little lakes. Another good destination is out of North Lake. With less than two miles on the trail you can be at Lamarck Lake and from there launch yourself up into the scattered Wonder Lakes.

For experienced cross-country hikers there is nothing to compare with the high country. Once you are at the edge of timberline, above most of the annoying thick timber and bushes you find at lower elevations, you are free to wander from lake to stream without hindrance. There’s no reason you couldn’t try fishing the wild side anywhere close to wherever you live, whether it is in the North Cascades, the Adirondacks, the Great Smokey Mountains, or the Rockies. Even if you only venture a few hundred yards from the well-beaten pathways, you will find great rewards.