April2015

The Yakima River is Brown Town

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.