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New York’s West Branch Ausable River, A Pickpocket’s Dream

brown trout in net

It’s not a stretch to say the West Branch of the Ausable River is unlike any other in New York State. Along its 36-mile journey from the confluence of Marcy and South Meadow brooks in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, to the merger with its East Branch at Au Sable Forks, there’s superb public access and quality fishing for stocked trout as well as a smattering of wild fish.

But beyond that, the river offers many different faces, and a visiting angler can pick and choose from slow-moving stretches to rollicking gradients that offer the kind of pocketwater fishing for which the West Branch is best known.

It’s why the Ausable’s West Branch is among the most popular fly-fishing waters in the state, right up there among the storied Catskill rivers where the sport has its roots.

But if the Beaver Kill is Sinatra, the West Branch is AC/DC.

“The character of this river is just not something you find within a couple hundred miles,” says Evan Bottcher, who operates the Hungry Trout Fly Shop and guide service along Route 86 in Wilmington. “You can make it quite an enjoyable and easy experience depending on where you fish, but we also have that element of, where else can you fish under a 25- or 30-foot waterfall? And there’s a choice of about a dozen of them.”

Indeed, the dramatic scenery offered by the freestone river and its surroundings alone is enough to attract anglers, but there’s more. Much more. While natural trout reproduction is spotty, a product of the harsh winter environment and the logging industry of yesteryear, the river receives regular stockings of trout through the state Department of Environmental Conservation as well as the Essex County Fish Hatchery. Those plantings of primarily yearling browns and some two-year-old fish begin in mid-April, the first of four stockings that occur every two weeks. And there’s plenty of holdover fish in the river, notably in special regulations stretches. A 20-inch fish is a real possibility.

“It’s Mother Nature, and the different dams and the logging that used to occur just changed the biology and the whole structure of a natural reproducing stream. And the amount of stocking that’s done doesn’t leave the potential for wild reproduction to ever take hold,” says Bottcher, “because they’re cannibalized and displaced by stocked fish.”

person fishing a stream
"The Ausable’s West Branch is among the most popular fly-fishing waters in the state, right up there among the storied Catskill rivers where the sport has its roots. But if the Beaver Kill is Sinatra, the West Branch is AC/DC."

In some areas you’ll be casting in the shadows of Olympic history. The upper river winds past the towering ski jumps, and one fine pocketwater stretch of the Ausable is in the area of the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center where the 1980 Olympic downhill events took place. Head into the nearby town of Lake Placid and you can visit the outdoor speed skating oval made famous by Eric Heiden, and the hockey arena that was the site of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” when the U.S. edged the Soviet Union, 4-3, en route to a stunning gold medal.

But the West Branch has a rich history as well, and over the years its pools and pockets have earned names of their own – Red Barn Run, Frustration Pool, Quarry Hole, Bergman Run, Bassett Flats, Monument Falls, Shadow Rock Pool, Fox Farm Stretch, Flume Pool, and Betters’ Pool, to name just a few.

Too, the late Fran Betters, who operated a shop in Wilmington for many years, developed popular fly patterns (Ausable Wulff, the Usual, the Haystack, and Ausable Bomber) that remain effective today.

Make no mistake, if you’re stubborn dry fly fisher you’ll have plenty of opportunities to mend your way to fish on the West Branch. In fact, some stretches offer superb dry fly fishing; deep pools and slow runs. Even Lake Everest – the term “lake” used a little loosely since it’s actually just a slow-moving section of the river behind a dam – is an option.

But the West Branch of the Ausable shines brightest as a pocketwater fishery, with big rocks – boulders in many cases – and tumbling water that offer plenty of targets for nymph fishers.

Bottcher says the growing popularity of Euro nymphing is plainly evident; all he has to do is look at his empty fly bins at the shop.

“We sell double the amount of nymphs than we do dries now,” he says. “A lot of people are fishing nymphs because they know they’ll catch more fish. The Euro nymphing scene has gotten so intense, and our river is built top to bottom for tight-lining. Tight-lining dries, nymphs, even streamers – old-school methods all the way up to the Euro style of nymphing.”

Navigating some sections can be a challenge; in some stretches you may think you’re wading on bowling balls. But if you take your time and read the water, there are, quite literally, pockets full of fish.


Since much of the West Branch flows through state Forest Preserve lands, access is generally superb and as a result fishing pressure is often high at some times of the season. But there’s plenty of room available at numerous easily identified roadside pull-offs along River Road and Route 86. The lower parking lot at the Whiteface Mountain Ski Center is also an option. Below Wilmington, there’s some good access off Preston Road, and some public water below the confluence with Black Brook.

map of west branch ausable river
Part of what makes the Ausable’s West Branch so special is its accessibility. With plenty of public access and two Catch and Release Only sections, this stream is a great destination for fly fishers.

A hatch chart for the Ausable’s West Branch looks like this, but keep in mind the intensity of the hatch varies greatly from one bug to the next:

Hendrickson: May 1-May 31 
Blue Wing Olive: May 1-July 15 
Caddis: May 1-Oct. 30 
March Brown: May 10-June 15 
Blue Dun: May 15-Oct. 15 
Grey Fox: May 15-June 25 
Stonefly: May 20-Sept. 30
Light Cahill: June 1-July 15 
Green Drake: June 1-June 20 
Drake Fly: June 1-June 30 
Sulphur: June 5-July 31 
Trico: June 15-Oct. 15 
Hexagenia: June 20-July 15 
Golden Drake: July 1-July 31 
Mahogany Dun: Aug. 15-Oct. 15 
Isonychia: Sept. 1-Oct. 30

Don’t’ get excited about the April 1 trout opener if you’re planning to fish the West Branch. In the Adirondacks spring arrives slowly; in fact, in a typical year the Hungry Trout Fly Shop doesn’t even open for business until around May 1. And the DEC’s stocking program doesn’t get rolling until the third week of April.

“I kind of market our kickoff weekend for the middle of May, assuming we have spring weather conditions,” says Bottcher. “We have a solid Hendrickson hatch and spinner falls starting the 14th or 15th. Also Sedge Caddis; our caddis hatches have been the most consistent throughout all the weather challenges.”

The West Branch is perhaps best known for its stoneflies, both in quantity and size. They’re big, and stonefly patterns are always a good starting point for visiting anglers.

“We have a huge stonefly population that other rivers don’t share,” Bottcher says, and as a rule of thumb we size up. I constantly hear from anglers who stop in the shop, ‘these are huge flies.’ We use big Ausable Wulffs and Ausable Bombers all the way down to size 10 pheasant tails. The rough water and heavy gradient present a very different set of challenges than other rivers, and the structure presents opportunities.”

Bottcher says patterns like Chubby Chernobyls, big foam flies and Girdle Bugs “in every size, shape, and color” draw strikes from trout holding in the pockets.

That said, Bottcher doesn’t dismiss other hatches such as March Browns, several different types of Caddis that offer consistent appearances, “some Sulphurs still, but not like we used to have,” and some Coffin Fly activity. The river’s once-popular Trico hatch has largely disappeared, but a Hexagenia hatch – which is even more popular on nearby Lake Placid – arrives around the end of June to the Fourth of July. The Yellow Sally shows at times in late summer on some stretches of the river.

Isonychias play a huge role on the river toward September, and during the summer a flying ant storm provides some exciting terrestrial fishing.

“We also have a fish fly – which is a Dobson fly, a Hellgrammite adult   – in mid-summer, which is solid black with a white stripe on the wing, so we fish a lot of black attractors for that,” Bottcher said. “There’s a few major hatches and some weird, sneaky hatches that you see when you live here but they’re not calendar events.”

A 9-foot, 5-weight rod with a floating line will get it done (although I’ve enjoyed wielding a 10-foot, 4-weight St. Croix High Stick Drifter for my nymphing). A 9-foot leader with a tippet that corresponds to the flies you’re using will put you in the game.

The river can, at times, face some temperature challenges that will restrict – or should restrict – your fishing to early mornings or, in rare cases, not at all. Every weather year is different, however, and typically the cool Adirondack evenings keep the river quite fishable through the summer.

two people fishing the river
West Branch Ausable River hatches are numerous. Don't worry about getting there early in April; hatches get better as the season wears on.

Getting There

You can head north out of Albany on Interstate 87 (the Adirondack Northway), and take Exit 30 to U.S. Route 9 then bear left at the junction – dubbed Malfunction Junction by the locals – to Route 73 toward Keene and Keene Valley. You’ll cross the Ausable’s East Branch then head through the Cascades to Wilmington and Lake Placid. The West Branch will first be visible near the ski jumps. You can turn right onto River Road and follow the West Branch, and you’ll hit Route 86, which follows the bulk of the river.


DEC overhauled its trout fishing regulations several years ago, essentially creating four management categories – Stocked-Extended, Wild Quality, Wild-Premier, and Catch-and-Release. The Ausable’s West Branch, in a couple stretches, sees Stocked-Extended and Catch-and-Release regs.

Stocked-Extended sections exist from the confluence with the East Branch of the Ausable upstream to the Route 86 bridge at The Flume, and also from the Whiteface Ski Center bridge upstream to the DEC sign 2.2 miles downstream from Monument Falls. Under those rules, the season runs from April 1-Oct. 15 with a daily limit of three fish, with no more than one trout longer than 12 inches. From Oct. 16-March 31, it’s catch-and-release, artificial lures only.

The Catch-and-Release – all year, artificial lures only – sections run from the Route 86 bridge at The Flume upstream to the Whiteface Ski Center bridge, and also from the DEC sign 2.2 miles downstream of Monument Falls upstream the confluence with Holcomb Pond Outlet.

You’ll be fishing in the kind of dramatic, scenic settings that have a tendency to distract you from the business at hand. But with a drag-free drift or a tight line through the pocketwater, chances are pretty good you’ll be snapped to attention by a hungry trout.

(Editor’s note: Steve Piatt is a veteran outdoor writer and an avid fly fisherman residing in northern Pennsylvania. But during his 16 years in the Adirondacks the West Branch of the Ausable served as his home water)

For More Information

These websites will offer plenty of information on fly-fishing shops and guide services, as well as general tourism info that includes dining and lodging options in the region.








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