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The Yakima River is Brown Town

by Kirk Werner on April 1, 2015

This is a continuation of last week’s post, Washington: the Everbrown State. Don’t read this until you’ve read that.

Incidental brown hunters.

On the last Friday of summer in 2014 (so, about 7 months ago) I headed east to the Yakima River hoping to find some trouts willing to ease the transition from my favorite season into my second favorite season. Morris joined me because he’s one of the few people who can—and will—take a day off work at a moment’s notice and go fishing. We opted to float a popular section of the river that has plenty of slow water for pulling streamers. Typically that time of year is ripe for size 20 mayfly patterns, but I wanted to discourage the small fish that can easily fit a fly that small into their diminutive mouths.  Not surprisingly, I wasn’t seeing any action. Morris caught a small handful of 10-12 inch rainbows while fishing a lightning bug dropper under an October Caddis dry (he’s not much for the streamer fishing thing, despite my attempts at encouraging him to do so). The fish Morris caught were nothing to write home about, but a trout’s a trout when you want to catch a trout, right?

Not necessarily.

While stripping a black Sculpzilla through a deep trough just below a very broad, shallow riffle I had a grab. It was a solid take, as streamer fishing tends to produce, but the assumed rainbow did not run or jump as one would have expected a rainbow to do. Instead, the fish put its nose down, issued forth a couple of violent head shakes and then just held strong. I didn’t have to worry about keeping the line tight—the bulldog fish made sure that happened. Just in case I kept gentle but steady pressure applied, trusting in the integrity of my 3X fluorocarbon tippet and the backbone of my 6 weight Sage XP. I finally got the fish to move from its lair and when, at a fair distance, it rolled and flashed yellow-gold flanks I did a double take. My first thought was that it was a westslope cutthroat; not common but not entirely unheard of in this section of the river. Cutts are found in reasonable abundance in parts of the river but even there the westlopes aren’t typically as vibrantly gold colored as are the westslope cutts of, say, Canada’s Elk River. Especially not in the late summer or early fall, months after they’ve spawned.

Typical Yakima westslope cutthroat.

Crap Carp? No, golden bonefish would never be found here. Brown trout?  Ridiculous. There are no browns in the Yakima. It may have been the ever-diminishing eyesight that comes with having been 51 at the time, or the 2 PBRs consumed previously, that had created an illusion. But when I got the fish closer to the boat I about shat my waders—I’m sure I would have had I been wearing any. I very calmly yelled to Morris, who was seated 3 feet behind me on the oars, BROWN!!!” Not surprisingly his response was something along the lines of, “You, sir, are brimming with fecal matter!” I assured him I was speaking in truthful ways and gently demanded he get the boat to the bank and drop anchor STAT!

Morris obliged as I nervously expertly did everything possible to keep the fish from slipping the hook. If ever I did not want to lose a fish—a brown trout on a river that does not have brown trouts—now was that time. Morris managed to catch a quick glance of the fish as he put the boat into the shallows. “Holy mother of Jah,” he muttered half under his breath. With all the agility of a slack-jawed village idiot I leapt from the boat to finish the job of playing the fish from solid ground. The pressure intensified. We had to capture this on film. Nobody would take my word for it. Had I been alone the chances of taking a decent evidence photo would have been impossible at best, and without photographic proof I would be ridiculed moreso than usual to no end. In fact without visual evidence I’d be better off never speaking of it, ever. Fortunately Morris was quick with the net, and while I placed my rod behind my neck he snapped a couple shots with his cell phone camera. The fish was no 24 inch Hawg Brown, but it put up the stubborn fight one would expect from a healthy 19″ fish.

Yakima River brown trout in an undisclosed location.

After snapping the photo and releasing the fish, I knelt there in the shallows; trembling and soaked in a cold sweat under the heat of the late summer sun. Neither Morris nor I could hardly believe what had just transpired and there ensued much rejoicement: a couple of high-fives followed by a riverside toast and a Riverdance jig that would have made Michael Flatley proud. A purist would have tossed the non-native fish in the bushes for the coyotes to eat, and a half second after the fish swam off I wondered if perhaps I shouldn’t have done just that. By not tossing the fish was I no better than the miscreant who released the fish in the first place? All that, however, is water under the bridge, as it were.

Aside from Morris the only other guys I told at the time were Derek Young and Joe Willauer. When Derek heard the news he obviously didn’t believe me. Derek guides on the Yakima, and while he believes in Bigfoot and the reincarnation of Jerry Garcia, what he does not believe in are Yakima River brown trout. Or at least he didn’t until he saw the photographic proof. As a native fish aficionado who fancies his upper Yakima westslope cutthroat trouts, Derek’s response to the photo was short, “Well, that sucks.”

This is what has kept Derek Young in Washington, for now.

As a former guide on the Yakima River I figured Joe would have a keen interest in hearing of my discovery. Joe began his downward spiral into guiding on the Yakima while earning his undergrad degree at Central Washington University in nearby Ellensburg. After later completing his master’s degree in Spokane, Willauer moved permanently to Twin Bridges, MT and continued his guiding ways. “I’ll always love the Yakima,” admits Willauer, “I cut my teeth there. But what the Yakima was missing—and what drew me to Montana—was browns.” 

This is what beckoned Joe Willauer to Montana.

Guiding has since taken a back seat to a real job—one that makes better use of his education (although Joe remains a ‘hobby guide’ from time to time). The steady paycheck also comes in handy now that Joe and his wife have started a family. Upon texting Joe of my discovery, his response came without great surprise: “Not only are you a midget, but now you’ve lost your f#cking mind.” Then I sent him the photo. Silence ensued for a period of time. His reply came slowly, cautiously, “No. Way.”

Yes. Way.

It would not be prudent to divulge the exact location where I caught The Yakima River Brown or the entire Yakima—which is already crowded much of the time—would soon be overrun with anglers eager to make personal history. The million dollar question remains unanswered: How the hell did this brown get into the Yakima River? Speculation suggests that some bucket biologist (not a term of endearment, by the way) may have caught the fish in an un-named eastern Washington creek that is known to hold browns, and transplanted it in the Yakima. Or perhaps someone from the west side thought it would be a good idea to catch a brown from Pass Lake and cart it over the mountains. Who knows? The next burning question is: did whomever released this brown into the Yakima also release others?

Browns vs. No Browns

I’m sure that there will be two camps when it comes to the presence of brown trout in the Yakima River. There are those who will be outraged at this discovery while others will be thrilled. Derek speaks of some day moving to Montana, and now that his native fishery may become threatened by a voracious, non-native predator I imagine he can’t move soon enough: he doesn’t want browns to harsh his westslope mellow. Derek is also president of the newly-formed Yakima Headwaters chapter of Trout Unlimited. How this discovery will impact the work he and the new chapter are doing to protect native fish stocks is yet to determined. As for Joe, despite having planted roots in Montana, when he heard of The Yakima Brown his response came without hesitation: “This is a game changer. I’ve already talked to the wife about moving the family back to Ellensburg. I want to see how this plays out over the next year, but I may take up full-time guiding again, on the Yakima.”

Joe’s decision to possibly come home is based on the assumption that there is more than just this one brown in the Yakima. All it takes is two to tango (of opposite sexes, obviously) and if that’s the case I’m confident there will be an ample supply of Yakima browns, up and down the river, soon enough. Let the propagation begin!

My hunch is that given the time of year the Yakima brown was making its way upstream toward a suitable spawning trib, to enjoy the life of a river resident. But once a resident population establishes itself my money is on the notion that it’s only a matter of time before the Yakima River browns makes their way downstream, through several dams, to the Pacific. And why not? It’s pretty easy to imagine a few meat eating browns chasing juvenile salmon and steelhead along their  downstream journey, as if following a trail of  high calorie breadcrumbs. If they do, things could get very interesting (reference last week’s blog post). 

Washington could become the Patagonia of the north. ¿Comprende? They’ll be in the Puget Sound Rivers before long, and by then they’ll be silvery, salty, heavily-muscled predators like their South American brethren. And if there was just one brown trout, or if there are more than one but they fail to establish a breeding population there’s always hope for the Methow River browns. Yes, there have been reports of brown trout in the Methow following mudslides following the Carlton Complex fire last summer. Apparently some browns from an area lake were redeposited into the river. The Methow is a Columbia river trib as well. Things could get interesting, indeed.

Welcome to the new Washington.

 

{ 18 comments }

Washington: Green with Envy over Browns?

by Kirk Werner on March 24, 2015

A sea-run brown in Argentina

In the past I’ve half-jokingly asserted that what our Pacific Northwest rivers need are brown trouts: sea-run brown trouts (also known as sea trout in Europe). You know, the kind that were introduced in the southern parts of South America such as Chile and Argentina, in the region commonly known as Patagonia, where they also make some pretty swanky fly fishing gear.

Sadly, our Northwest native steelhead runs are greatly depleted, and while the fish are clinging to existence, it seems we may never get all groups concerned to the table to agree to make all the changes needed to restore the runs to their historic greatness (or at least to give the fish a chance). Gear fishermen and fly fishermen are often at odds over the issue. Tribes continue their gill netting ways, and the government seems to still think hatcheries are a good thing. The divide over wild steelhead is maddening.

Perhaps it’s time to move on, close the hatcheries that are a drain on the natural and financial resources, and quit holding onto the past. Rather than wasting seemingly endless time, resources and money in an attempt to bring back the steelhead, I’d like to pose the question:

“What can Brown do for you?”

First, a strain of sea-going browns would go a long way toward ridding the rivers of hatchery steelhead by eating their way up and down the watersheds (wild steelhead would survive because, well, that’s what they do, given half a chance). Secondly, an established population of sea-going Salmo trutta would also provide a worthy recreational replacement for the lost runs of anadromous rainbow trouts by offering all anglers a quarry that’s big, strong, and nasty. Browns are also amazingly resilient to warmer water temps, which we’ll see as the climate continues to change. This winter, for example, has been very mild in the Pacific Northwest. Our snowpack was bleak. It’s easy to see that this summer could get very interesting with regard to dramatically lower than normal flows due to a greatly diminished spring runoff. Rainbows and cutthroat trout are not going to be pleased with the results. Browns are never happy, but they wouldn’t be quite as unhappy as the other trout species who prefer very cold water.

Mucho gusto, or not?

For anglers of both camps Operation Brown would be a win-win: catch and release anglers could continue to catch and release these fish, while meat harvesters could catch and kill their fair share because, being a non-native species, there would certainly be a harvestable limit. It wouldn’t take long before former steelhead anglers would be saying, “Steel what?”

From green to brown.

Washington might eventually change the state fish from Oncorhynchus mykiss to Salmo trutta, and become known as the Everbrown State (which is really a better description of the central and eastern parts of our state, anyway). I’ve always imagined what first time visitors to WA must think when they approach the state from the east. Once west of Spokane they undoubtedly experience shock and disbelief: “Holy criminy—I thought Washington was supposed to be the Evergreen State?!” Classic bait and switch…

Eastern WA: 50 shades of brown

Obviously Operation Brown is just a maniacal pipe dream as it would never happen in this day and age where the introduction of non-native anything is severely frowned upon. And honestly I don’t seriously want to give up on the recovery chances for wild steelhead, a Northwest icon. The vast majority of anglers are passionate about the plight of the wild steelhead: for example, Shane Anderson of Wild Reverence fame wouldn’t likely support the introduction of browns into our Washington rivers.

But what if browns found their way into our rivers by some means other than a formal, federal or state-sanctioned program?

Things could then get very interesting.

Stay tuned.

 

{ 15 comments }

The Kahuna Big Stick: Performance modifications

by Kirk Werner on March 8, 2015

Disclaimer: This entry contains absolutely no references to fly fishing. It is intended for the one person who may happen to stumble upon the article while looking for such information as contained herein.

 

Math and science were not my strong suits with the exception perhaps of Marine Biology—I rather enjoyed that class in high school. But scientist or mathmetician I am definitely not. Because of this I’m no engineer, either. I am, however, somewhat of a tinkerer and do enjoy a bit of MacGyvering—you know, using baling wire and duct tape as a solution to a problem. As long as it doesn’t involve great skill with power tools or fine attention to detail, I’ll take a crack at jury rigging most things.

Some would also accuse me of having too much free time.

I recently acquired a longboard as part of my midlife crisis. Shortly thereafter I discovered land paddling (also known as street paddling) and as soon as my Kahuna Big Stick arrived I took it for a quick spin up and down the asphalt at the end of my driveway. Despite being a neophyte in the ways of the street paddle I immediately noticed that the rubber blade had a tendency to slip and lose traction at the end of the stroke, particularly when attempting to paddle up even a mild incline. In my vast wisdom I surmised that the vulcanized rubber blade was too hard to adequately grip asphalt in a most effective manner. I concluded that the material needed to be of a softer compound—more like a tire.

Kahuna Big Stick OEM blade.

 

At the same time I understood the rationale behind the manufacturer’s decision to use the material they did: anything softer would wear out even faster. After putting a couple miles on the stick I did notice that it had already begun showing obvious signs of wear on the ends, where one plants the blade at the beginning of the stroke, and where one pushes off at the end of the stroke.

In my desire to improve upon the OEM traction and durability I purchased a 20-inch mountain bike tire for $20. Simple math might suggest to us that this works out to be $1 per inch of tire but that would be incorrect; the cost is actually considerably less than that. You see, the 20″ designation refers to the diameter of the tire. As a fabricator I’m more concerned with linear dimension. It’s the tire circumference that interests me much more so than diameter. Thus, a 20″ tire has a good deal more material than 20″ due to the circumference of the tire being considerably longer than 20″. Something about multiplying 20 by pi. Like I said, math is hard. The bottom line is that I didn’t want to spend much on a speculative project that may provide no benefit as far as increased traction, and for $20 I got roughly 63″ of material with which to work.

My First Generation Performance Enhancement Prototype (Exhibits A and B below) covered the bottom of the blade and was attached using cable ties threaded through holes I drilled in the tire material. It worked pretty well, especially if I was real careful when planting the stick for the stroke. There was a notable improvement in traction over the bare OEM bade, but because the ends of the blade were still exposed, traction remained compromised and the OEM blade would continue to wear on the ends. I was not satisfied.

Exhibit A

Exhibit B.

I removed the First Generation Performance Enhancement Prototype and went back to the drawing board. This time I accounted for the exposed ends of the OEM blade and cut my next tire section accordingly. The Second Generation Performance Enhancement Prototype (Exhibits C and D below) shows a marked improvement in the design and functionality. The entire OEM blade footprint is covered, resulting in vastly improved traction through the full spectrum of the stroke. It also completely protects the factory blade from wear and tear. If I keep steady pressure on the Kahuna Stick throughout the entire stroke, I get no loss of traction unless I am attempting a significant incline. That’s when I get off the board and walk. A little cross training never hurt anyway.

Exhibit C.

Exhibit D.

I’m quite pleased with the Second Generation Performance Enhancement Prototype, but like any designer/fabricator, I fully admit there remains room for improvement. Once I’ve worn out the current prototype I plan to experiment further with a different type of bike tire. Admittedly the tire I purchased was rather inexpensive, and cheap. Being an off-road mountain bike tire it features fairly pronounced tread lugs separated by considerable areas of non-tread. I can see how this particular tire design might wear more quickly on pavement than a tighter tread pattern intended for road surfaces. Perhaps something along the lines of a hybrid tire is in order.

Perhaps something like this:

Future possibility #1

Or perhaps like this:

Future possibility #2

Whatever you do—even if it involves no aftermarket modifications at all—don’t use your land paddle as a braking device. It’s not at all effective, in my opinion, and will only wear down your blade prematurely. Stay off hills (I do) or have a good exit strategy (I dont’) for when your speed exceeds your comfort level.

Now, what was that about me having too much free time?

Perhaps it’s time to go fishing (oops, I lied about this article having no reference to fly fishing).

 

NOTE: Since first publishing this article I have made the decision to remove the Kahuna blade altogether and affix an XL Kong Extreme. The grip is vastly improved over even my previous modifications, with the added bonus that I can put peanut butter in the Kong and stop occasionally for a quick hit of protein. The hole in the XL Kong was just a tad too large for the Bamboo Kahuna Stick to fit snugly so I drilled one hole in the Kong and inserted a lag bolt, lining it up with one of the pre-existing holes in the stick. If you have one of the adjustable Kahuna sticks, use the next smaller sized Kong (Large) and it will fit nice and snug-like with no need for additional hardware. No matter what stick you have, if you opt for the Kong, go with the black ones—Extreme Kongs. They’re made of the most durable material. Check the hole size to see which one fits your stick best. And pass the peanut butter.

(top) Kong XL on Kahuna Bamboo stick; (bottom) Kong L on adjustable Kahuna stick.

PS: Some SSUP-ers like the Kong ball option. However, the hole in the those is way too small for a stick without drilling, which requires the need for a drill press. Unfortunately not many have a drill press sitting around.

 

 

 

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The Happy tail of a rescued dog.

March 3, 2015

It wasn’t quite a month after losing our Chocolate Lab, Edward Brown, that I was surfing Adopt-a-Pet and Petfinder for the thousands of dogs in need of homes. We hadn’t planned on getting another dog so soon after Eddie passed and I suppose I had convinced myself that I was just ‘window shopping’ to get [...]

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Midlife Crisis: The Unaccomplished Longboarder

February 24, 2015

  Most of the time this blog features something obviously related to fly-fishing, although admittedly The Unaccomplished Angler does occasionally veer ever so slightly off course. With today’s content those reading (all 13 of you) may think that I am officially and completely off my rocker, but I ask for your patience. If you wait [...]

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