By western standards the Ausable is a small river, with mostly limited,
not vast, vistas. Paradoxically, there are waters less often seen by anglers
here than on many Rocky Mountain streams. Glacial dropping inhibit
driftboats so the only way to explore is on foot (thankfully an unpopular
option with many visitors).
Regardless of its unique geology and reputation, the Ausable is a
typical eastern freestone stream - having a far brighter past then present.
A five-hour drive from America's largest city, it suffers enormous pressure.
Pressure from anglers who get excited over a finless five-pound breeder
and which reduces the average size of the trout to an eight-inch fresh
It is impossible to understand the region where most of the Ausable River
lies, or the challenges facing fisheries managers, without an acquaintance with
the Adirondack Park. The largest in the country - at 5,929,000 acres it is
almost three times the size of Yellowstone National Park - the park supports
a staggering variety of uses. From high volume ski centers and commercial
developments to limited access wilderness, the demands of the resource are
frequently in conflict. [ See map here.]
Created in 1892, the State Forest Preserve (the progenitor of today's park)
is protected by the State's constitution. The founding Article includes the
words, " . . . shall be forever help as wild forest lands." For many years
called the Forever Wild clause, it can only be repealed by a vote of the
people of New York state. Conservationist and preservationists elsewhere
in the U.S.A. and Canada drool over the strength of such deeply embedded
protection, beyond the sticky fingers of politicians and bureaucrats. While
the preserve came too late to prevent the devastation visited on the region
by loggers, the rape was largely responsible for its creation. New York
City businessmen were so concerned that further logging would dry up
the state's canal system water supply that they successfully lobbied for the
However, there is a serious complication. Much of the impressive acreage
inside the present park boundaries is privately own. In fact, only 38 percent
is state land (the original Forest Preserve) and thus sheltered by the
constitution. As can be easily imagined, the protection has been assaulted, and
supported, many times in the last hundred years. Twenty years ago, concern
over the unchecked exploitation of the private holdings resulted in the
Legislature creating the Adirondack Park Agency with authority to regulate
development throughout. The battles over this authority have been bitter
All this impacts on the Ausable. Nine miles of the East Branch have been
designated Scenic, with virtually all the rest classified Recreational. Both
designations protect the river from hydroelectric exploitation and other
dams, but also make bank repair or stabilization, particularly on private
land, a bureaucratic nightmare.
The East Branch
"Let me now tell you of an August day . . .I hooked and released
fifteen good trout and had kept two . . . but because the entire stretch
between the head of the island and the Upper Jay bridge was dotted
with rising fish I kept at it." Ray Bergman, Trout
Ray Bergman's dry fly (Gray Grizzly Bivisible) experience on the East
Branch confirms that fishing was once excellent there, however it began
to decline in 1932.
Although the fly fishing rebounded for a few years after World War II,
Fran Betters recalls that by 1949, "none of the better fly fishers went
over there." And today, although I heard comments from some about
improvements, the East Branch is in fact a basket case. The decayed
carcass of a once vibrant trout stream, no matter how artistically the
bones are arranged, generates a profound melancholia in those who
feel deeply about fly fishing.
No doubt a persistent angler could find the odd hold-over brown in
a spring-fed pool, but the task would be daunting. Few are so
inclined and most settle for removing a share of the 30,000 eight-inch
browns and rainbows the state pours into the East Branch each year.
Fisheries managers clearly feel the river is useful rearing habitat for
landlocked salmon and steelhead considering the many thousands
dumped in with the trout.
The West Branch
In reality, fly fishing the Ausable is largely synonymous with fly fishing
the West Branch. And although few anglers venture above the Olympic
ski jumps on Route 73, the activity is concentrated from there downstream
to the village of Wilmington. That is "activity," not "best fly fishing"!
The Special Regulations area extends from Monument Falls to the end of
Basset Flats. Created almost 20 years ago, in part by pressure from Fran
Betters, the take here is restricted to three trout over 12 inches, only
artificials are allowed, and there is no closed season. . . .Between the
roadside markers is considerably classic pocket water, some in steep
sided gorges bristling with sturdy stunted spruce and ridged by towering
pines. And it's the pocket water, both here and elsewhere, which has
defined the individual charcter and reputation of the West Branch of
Depending on the year, the spring season on the West Branch begins in
mid-May. These early weeks are always a gamble. I've arrived to find
a massive rainstorm in progress, which in a few hours swells the river to a
point where even the bait boys give up. Fortunately the NBA playoffs have
usually started so that the weekend isn't a total loss. Good conditions will,
however, yield some useful dry fly activity between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
. . .Certainly the long weekends in May (Canadian Victoria Day and
Memorial Day) see the pressure building rapidly. A survey of anglers
would certainly confirm late-May and June as prime time on the West
The Ausable suffers from the inevitable summer de-watering endemic of
eastern freestone rivers. The best hatches have passed or are now
occurring after dark. Also, the stockies have taken a massive culling so
available numbers are down. Paradoxically, this may prove a boon to
the dedicated fly fishers. The pocket water is easier to read and the
trout are hungry. Once again, stonefly nymphs during the day and
large dries at and after dusk may yield yellow-bellied well conditioned
wild browns. Those addicted to all-day angling will appreciate the
mid-morning trico falls. While my experience is that few large trout are
attracted to these tiny flies, the left-over but now smarter stockies and
smaller wild browns can provide an enjoyable few hours.
Autumn can be a confused season on the Ausable. Some tout it as the
best fishing, but I freely admit that it has only rarely excited me. The
Isonychia are sparse on the surface, and the trout don't
come rushing. My best moments have arrived with a blue wing olive
emergence on dismal days. Regardless, the coat of many colors worn
by the banks in September is reason enough to wade the river.
Little needs to be said about the West Branch in winter. Mostly it is
frozen and snow covered, and any open water is too shallow to support
trout. The section from Monument Falls to the mouth is open to angling
year round, but who wants to; the ski hills are operating.
The Main River
"Virtually no one fishes here except for a few locals," Russell Pray told me.
He was speaking of the main river between Ausable Forks and Alice Falls.
Many years ago, when I first began to fly fish the Ausable, I was told that the
lower river was too warm for trout and harbored only smallmouth bass. The
The label is wrong. For over 30 years Russell has lived beside and fished
this unheralded region of the Ausable. Only this spring his son netted a four-
pound rainbow from its waters. As evidence of the productivity of this
section, Russell, who guides whenever he can get away from his construction
business, mentioned a fly fishing couple he introduced to a riffle section near
the end of June last year. "Before one o'clock they got all the fishing they
wanted," he said.
Shortly after ice-out in april the Atlantic salmon are available to the fly fisher.
Entering the lower reaches of the tributaries for reasons not yet firmly
established, the salmon feed heavily. Often termed a false spawning run,
in reality the Atlantics are probably searching out warmer water and the
resulting forage activity. . .Although wading will produce salmon, a
preferred tactic is to move into the lower riffles with a shallow draft boat.
Anchoring where one can reach several seams, smelt or other minnow
imitating flies are worked down and across in a classic Atlantic salmon
approach. Assuming uncrowded conditions (not unrealistic in mid-week)
the angler can fish the drop throughout the productive stretches and
across the entire river. Less appealing but perhaps even more productive
is trolling a fly in the slow water of Carpenter Flats. Other nearby streams
such as the Boquet and Saranac are also hot at this time.
The Ausable is a quintessential freestone stream and the hatches reflect
the habitat . . . As mentioned previously, the Ausable offers two
strikingly different water types. so, imitations of the hatches, particularly
emergers and duns need to be selected on the basis of the type of water
fished. Pocket water calls for heavily dressed floaters to withstand the
rigors of many casts and dunkings. Flats and quieter runs and riffles
demand sparser silhouettes. Furthermore, hatch timings during the
day are affected by where you are on the river. [For the FLIES for
The Ausable River, click
In 1978 Bill [Phillips] and Francis [Betters] teamed up to publish
Fisherman's Map of the West Branch of the Ausable.
The pamphlet has since become the bible of West Branch fly fishers.
For the first time, many of the pools between the Olympic ski jumps and
the village of Wilmington (plus a few others) acquired documented names. . .
The Fisherman's Map, although consisting of only seven
double side folds, offers a host of useful information. Besides the map
itself, which identifies all the pools and the mileage from easily identified
landmarks, there are hints for fishing the river, emergence dates, best
patterns, and more. Although the first edition has long since sold out,
Francis has produced a second edition which is available at his store,
The Adirondack Sport Shop.[Fran Betters, P.O. Box 125, Wilmington, NY
12997 USA] ~ Paul Marriner
For a MAP of The Ausable River, click
For the FLIES for The Ausable River, click
To ORDER Au Sable River direct from the publisher, click
Credits: From Ausable River part of the River
Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications.
We greatly appreciate use permission.