California Fly Fishing 4 min read

DIY Guide to Fly Fishing the Upper Tuolumne River in California

Ken Sperry

Posted by Ken Sperry

May 14, 2020

The Upper Tuolumne River in California

The Tuolumne River is a mighty river that flows for 149 miles through Central California. It is a wonderfully diverse fishery that is the perfect destination for your next fishing trip. In this guide, we are going to focus on the Upper section of the River.

The Upper Tuolumne River refers to the area from the headwaters to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. In this section, you’ll find plenty of rainbow, brown, and brook trout.

Check out the rest of our guide to ensure you have optimal angling success when tackling this fishery. Once you master this section, you’ll be ready to take on the rest of the Tuolumne River.

About Tuolumne River

Fly Fishing in the Upper Tuolumne River

The Tuolumne River is one of two major rivers that originate and flow from Yosemite National Park; the other being the Merced River. Flowing from the high Sierra Nevada, the Tuolumne eventually joins the San Joaquin River in the Central Valley.

Human habitation along the Tuolumne River is believed to have begun around 3000-7000 B.C. The Plains and Sierra Miwok were the largest local Native American tribes in the area prior to European contact. The first recorded use of the name “Tuolumne” was from the Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga in 1806, and it is believed that he used the name of a local Native American village to refer to the river. 

The River begins at the confluence of Dana Fork, which drains at Dana Mountain, and Lyell Fork, which drains from Mount Lyell. These forks join in the Tuolumne Meadows inside Yosemite National Park.

From the Meadows, the River receives two tributaries, Cold Creek and Conness Creek, and flows over two waterfalls, La Conte and Waterwheel Falls. The Tuolumne then flows through Glen Aulin Valley and then into a canyon. This area is particularly popular with white water rafters, as there is Class IV whitewater in this section. 

After passing through the canyon, the River enters Hetch Hetchy Valley and the Reservoir, where it is joined by Falls Creek, Tiltill Creek, and Rancheria Creek. This is the end of the Upper section of the River.

Many years ago, the Tuolumne River contained teeming populations of chinook salmon and steelhead trout (at least in the lower reaches). Nowadays, you are more likely to find rainbow, brown, and brook trout.

Upper Tuolumne River Map and Fishing Access Sites

map of fishing access spots on the Upper Tuolumne River in California

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish the Upper Tuolumne River

Access to the upper section of the River ranges from easy to difficult. The area that provides the easiest access for fly fishing on this part of the River is the meadow section inside Yosemite National Park. Despite being one of the most visited areas of the Park the fishing is quite good since very few visitors are there to fish!

Outside the meadows, most of the upper Tuolumne is only accessible by foot via the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. You can also find good fishing opportunities on the Dana and Lyell Forks.

Best Time to Fish the Upper Tuolumne River

The season for trout fishing on the Upper Tuolumne River is from the last Saturday of April through November 15. The best time to visit is in the summer, after the run off ends. It can be very difficult to fish the River in the spring, particularly during dry years. You can also find success fishing in the early fall.

Fly Box – What You’ll Need

The wild trout in Upper Tuolumne are not too picky when it comes to flies since they have a relatively short window to feed on the aquatic insects that hatch in the summer. Hatches are typical of Sierra West Slope freestone streams and include a variety of mayflies, caddis and stoneflies. Terrestrial fly patterns imitating ants, beetles and hoppers are also very effective.

Here is list of general fly pattern recommendations for the Upper Tuolumne River:

  • Midge (#16-26)
  • Western March Brown (#12-14)
  • Little Olive (#16-20)
  • Elk Hair Caddis (#12-18)
  • Slate Gray Dun (#12-14)
  • Pale Morning Dun (#14-18)
  • Small Western Drake (#14-16)
  • Spotted Sedge (#14-16)
  • Parachute Adams (#14-16)
  • Royal Wulff (#14-16)
  • Renegade (#14-16)

Gear Recommendations

A 9-foot 4-wt fly rod with floating line is perfect for fishing dry flies and small nymphs on the Upper Tuolumne River. A tapered 9-foot leader, with tippet size 3X to 5X to match the flies you are throwing, is pretty standard.

Upper Tuolumne River Fishing Report

Area fly shops, guides and websites that can provide an Upper Tuolumne River fly fishing report are listed below:

Fishing Regulations

The state of California requires that all people who are 16 years of age and older have a valid fishing license. There are resident and non-resident sport fishing licenses available. You can purchase a one-year, 10-day, two-day, or one-day license. Some areas also require a permit. You can purchase the license and learn about the most current regulations through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Trip Planning Tips

The nearest airport to the Upper Tuolumne River is the Modesto City County Airport. You can also travel to Sacramento International Airport and Fresno Yosemite International Airport, which are about 87 miles away from your destination. You can travel to any major or municipal airport in Central California and arrive at the Upper Tuolumne River after a few hours of scenic driving.

Tuolumne River Campgrounds is an excellent choice if you are looking for lodging in the area. They offer clean sites that are popular among families and fly fishermen alike. If you would rather stay in an unfussy motel, you can check out the Rodeway Inn. They offer a restaurant and complimentary WiFi.

If you are looking to tackle the Tuolumne River, the Upper section is a great, and breathtakingly beautiful, place to start.

Looking for more places to fish? Check out our DIY Guide to Fly Fishing California

Feature image by Angela Sevin