Ausable River

Memories, like gray hairs, accumulate after nearly two decades of fishing a river. Not in the quantity amassed by gentlemen like Jack Smith or Bill Phillips who have up to triple that experience, but surely in quality. For it was on the West Branch of the Ausable that my son James caught his first trout, not a fresh stocky, but a plump, healthy holdover brown. And where, below the dam at Wilmington, on a soft May evening with waning sunlight filtering between the branches of towering pines, I landed and released an exquisitely marked three-pound brown. Taken on a cream Haystack from a pollen dusted slick gliding around a heavyweight glacial hitch-hiker, it was my largest trout on a dry fly until I began to travel the world.

West Branch at Willmington Notch

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).

The Flume

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 stocky.

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 For many years called the Forever Wild clause, it can only be repealed by a vote of the people of New York state.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 stronger protection.

Plentiful wildlife 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 and protracted.

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.

Covered Bridge on East Branch at Jay

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.

Upper East Branch at Beaver Meadow 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"!

Blane Holtz nymphing pocket water

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 the Ausable.

The Seasons

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 Branch.

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.

West Branch in Autumn

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 label stuck.

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.

The Lower River

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 here.]

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. . .

Fran Betters Shop

Ausable River Journal

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 here.
For the FLIES for The Ausable River, click here.
To ORDER Au Sable River direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From Ausable River part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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