Some people might call Beardsley Reservoir their personal heaven because of the sometimes great trout fishing. Some might swear it is the other place because of limited, primitive facilities, a typical low water level and afternoon winds.
Yet of the hundreds of lakes in the Sierra Nevada, it is Beardsley that often provides some of the best trout fishing in California after first being opened, along with many side trips and nearby cabin-style lodging.
Beardsley is located east of Sonora, up near Strawberry along Highway 108. This reservoir is set in a deep canyon on the Middle Fork Stanislaus River, some 2,000 feet below the ridge. So while the actual elevation at the lake is 3,400 feet, where spring is taking hold, Beardsley has the feel of a lake set at much higher elevations.
This can give rise to a fish-catching phenomenon that many might dream about. I've had many April days at Beardsley where the trout seem to shout, "Catch me!" -- including brown trout in the 15- to 22-inch class. After the lake has been closed for five months, the trout often seem to forget about the wiles of anglers.
Upon arrival, the first thing you will notice is that the lake is now 55 percent full, which might seem very low. Actually, it's ideal. The lake often fishes best when it is low, not full, because it is easier to find the submerged ledges and drop-offs where the fish school. With the snowpack at Sonora Pass now melting, Beardsley is projected to rise over the next two months and present a more classic setting.
The facilities are limited, the services nonexistent. There is a boat ramp, parking area and a primitive Forest Service campground (still closed earlier this week) that consists of places to park self-contained RVs or pick- up trucks with camper shells, or pitch a tent.
Another problem is the late-afternoon wind, with a westerly breeze that whistles up the canyon in spring. Some loathe it, but it can unlock the bank vault: With a small boat, if you let the wind push you over the submerged ledges, your speed will match that of food drifting by. We've tested this with dozens of offerings: The best technique is to thread a night-crawler on your hook and line so it lies perfectly straight, and then trail it 17 inches behind a set of hammered brass/silver Cousin' Carl Half-Fast flashers.
Several side adventures can furnish more highlights. When Sonora Pass is cleared of snow, which usually occurs in early May, a must-do is the trip up Highway 108 to the Donnells Vista. Since Donnells Reservoir is set in a deep gorge and always is kept very low in the spring (now only 18 percent full), the view into the gorge will be eye-popping gorgeous. This is a baby Yosemite Valley with towering granite walls, a miniature El Capitan, and several waterfalls.
There is also access to the Middle Fork Stanislaus downstream of Beardsley Dam, with an unsigned river trail available. Fly-fishing, catch-and-release, for small natives is often good; the trout season for mountain streams opens April 24.
The resort at little Pinecrest Lake at Strawberry provides additional nearby options for boating, fishing and lodging, with the marina opening April 23
IF YOU WANT TO GO
Cost:the best part it is Free.
Facilities: Boat ramp, primitive campground with vault toilet (no water, trash service).
Maps: Ask for Stanislaus National Forest; send $6 to USFS, Map Sales, P.O. Box 9035, Prescott, AZ 86313; (928) 443-8285 with credit card; www.fs.fed.us/recreation/nationalforeststore.
Lodging: Cabins at Strawberry, info (209) 965-0885, reservations (888) 965-0885; www.strawberrycabins.com. Rivers Resort, info (209) 965-3278, reservations (800) 514-6777; www.gorrr.com. Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, (800) 446-1333; www.thegreatunfenced.com/.
Directions: From the foothill town of Sonora, at the junction of Highways 49 and 108, go east on Highway 108 past the town of Strawberry for a total of 33 miles. At Beardsley Road (Forest Road 52), turn left and go 7 miles to Beardsley Reservoir.
Fishing info: Rich & Sal's Sporting Goods, Pinecrest, (209) 965-3637; www.pinecrestsportshop.com.
Contact: Stanislaus National Forest, Summit Ranger District, (209) 965-3434; Stanislaus National Forest, (209) 532-3671; www.fs.fed.us/r5/stanislaus/.