(I’ve been accused – mostly by Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler – of having a tendency, as it were, to employ the excessive use of run-on sentences in my writing, and so to that end I have decided to try something different: To change my ways – please bear with me.)
We pulled up to the gravel bar. We anchored the boat. It was a cool gray (or grey) February morning on the Sauk River. We were just downriver a short ways from Government Bridge. It was probably raining lightly. I’d never been on the Sauk before. I was in the capable hands of Brian Paige. Brian guides on Pacific Northwest “S” rivers. These include rivers such as the Skagit, Sauk, and Skykomish. I don’t think he’s quite gotten the Sammamish Slough dialed in just yet. He may be working it (insert sarcasm here).
(OK, that’s not working for me, but I tried, and it’s always good to try something new, if only to determine that the old ways were, in fact, better. Or at least more effective.)
When he’s not guiding, scouting or fishing for his own peace of mind, Brian can be found doing time behind the counter at All About The Fly in Monroe, WA. Actually, “doing time” might be a poor choice of words because there’s also a state prison in Monroe, and as far as I can tell, Brian is free to come and go as he pleases. Anyhoo, I’d met Brian the year before when a mutual friend (I’ll call him William Fly – not his real name) introduced us. We stood to mutually benefit from the introduction: Brian needed a logo designed for his guide business, Steelhead Fly Anglers, and I was a freelance graphic designer (still am) interested in learning the ways of the two-handed rod (still interested). Over lunch and a beer it was decided that I’d design him a logo in exchange for some time on the water slinging a two-hander. Good trade for both of us, although I’m reasonably sure I got the better end of the deal: Brian was easy to work with, while conversely I think I tested his patience. The month was January when Brian first got me out on the Skykomish River for a day of casting instruction (and the distant hope of a hookup with a winter fish). I’d fished for steelhead enough times with my 8 weight single hander to know that catching was the exception to the rule, and to that end I was not disappointed on this first day out with Brian. The chance encounter with a fish didn’t happen, but l learned more in a day about steelhead, fly presentation and Spey casting than I could have learned in a lifetime of reading books and articles or watching DVDs. I feel compelled to note that I did purchase a copy of Rio’s Modern Spey Casting DVD and have found it to be excellent (I watch it whenever I want to see how it should be done). I also discovered on this first outing that swinging the long rod was an awful lot of fun (and served up with a heaping portion of humble pie). It was obviously going to take me a long while to get used to it, and the fact that I felt reasonably proficient with a normal fly rod didn’t mean squat (see prior post: If you don’t Spey, don’t start)
And so a few weeks later I found myself on the banks of the Sauk River with still very little idea as to what I was doing with this long rod gripped tightly with both hands (and therein lies part of the problem – I need to learn to relax and loosen my grip a bit). I was properly rigged with a red and black marabou streamer provided courtesy of Brian (when you fish with Brian, black and red is the go-to combination, with the exception of course being red and black). “Start fishing about 60 feet below the boat, and fish close to shore first,” instructed Brian as we stepped onto the gravel bar. I did as I was told, which worked well for me because I really wasn’t capable of more than a short cast anyway. “Cover the tight water first.” Roger that. The plan was for me to molest the run first and Brian would drop in behind me and pick my pocket. I peeled the length of the Compact Skagit head from the reel, and laid out a very unimpressive switch Spey. I gave it a quick mend and let the fly swing in the current of the reasonably clear waters. It should be noted that the Sauk clouds quickly and easily after a rain, but we hit it on a day when the water was nicely colored with a few feet of visibility. As the fly settled into the “hang down” I pondered how the day might turn out. Word on the street was that it hadn’t been a particularly productive winter steelhead season to date, and these fish were hard to catch regardless. Add to the equation the fact that I was a hack (still am), I stood very little chance and held out virtually no hope of catching a fish. No matter, I was here to practice casting and there would be plenty of that. It was all good. There’s more to fishing than catch– well, you know the drill.
Standing knee-deep not 10 feet from the water’s edge, the tip of my rod dipped gently and I felt a bit of tension in the line. Naturally I assumed that my fly had hung up on a rock, but something felt a little different – I’d hung up on rocks enough to sense that this was no rock. Maybe a stick, instead. Remaining uncharacteristically calm, I laid the tip of my rod toward shore and that’s when it became clear to me that there was a fish on the other end. I forget precisely the exchange of wordsthat passed between us, but I seem to recall Brian saying something about “FISH!!!” I jumped to the assumption that it was a Dolly Varden – common to these waters – until the fish rolled near the surface and presented a dark, olive-colored backside and a flash of silver flank. “Steelhead!” declared Brian. He was certainly enthusiastic, whereas I remained seemingly calm, in much the same way that a deer in the headlights appears calm (when in all actuality they’re so scared they simply can’t move to save themselves). Sensing the significance of the moment, I pumped myself up with a good pep talk: “Alright, Jackass – do not lose this fish – given your fishing prowess you’ll likely never get another chance like this.” With me, fishing is nearly always about the ill-fated pursuit of elusive fish: I wade often in the shadow of a dark cloud of fishless despair. But as I began playing the fish the clouds parted, figuratively and literally.
I entered into what seemed in retrospect to be something of a dream state: A dream in which a dime bright wild steelhead, still oozing with salt and harboring sea lice, comes to the stark realization that it’s hooked and immediately freaks out and does it’s very best to put maximum distance between itself and the angler who is also freaking out. The fish takes off downstream, leaping and tail-walking and generally displaying impressive aerobatics. The reel sings and the drag is pushed to its limits. The fish is running as if shot from a cannon and takes the angler deep into their backing: The angler realizes that this is why reels are loaded with a half mile of the stuff – because with a fish like this, the backing is actually needed for more than just filling up the spool and reducing fly line memory. The steelhead angler sprints downstream at breakneck speeds, across ankle-twisting river rocks and wader-shredding fallen trees in an attempt to keep up with the fish. The fish is hell-bent on getting back to the salt and doing so in double time, and if that means dragging a fisherman along for the ride, so be it.
Yeah, well this was not quite how my experience played out. There were no acrobatics or drag-smoking runs, nor did my wading boots see double duty as track shoes. My backing never left the spool, though the fish did take line from the reel at will. Thankfully the drag on the Ross was smooth and proved worthy, and eventually I managed to steer the fish toward the shallows, where Brian was able to tail it and quickly remove the barbless hook. It was a beautiful native hen in the neighborhood of 32 inches and an estimated 14 pounds (these were, by the way, Brian’s estimations and not mine, so if you have an issue with the accuracy, please contact Brian through his website). Chrome bright she was not, but I’d like to think that she hadn’t been in the river for too long. While the fight was perhaps not quite the epic struggle one envisions, I have to give the old girl credit: She bore scars indicative of a close call with a gill net, and she’d likely made a fast run up the Skagit and into the Sauk: Who wouldn’t be a bit tired after all that? She’d beaten the odds in an era when fewer and fewer wild Puget Sound steelhead survive the round trip to the rivers of their birth. As I released her back into the river, a turd-eating grin spread across my face. There would never be another first steelhead – I had lost my innocence. And while I felt just a little bit dirty, I was OK with that.
It should be noted that after the drama of the first cast, the day turned mostly clear and beautiful. Fishing remained exceptional, but catching returned to what would be considered normal. Thanks to Brian for a great day and ruining my life.
This has nothing to do with fly fishing, really, except that it’s appearing in a blog dedicated to fly fishing. No, this is nothing more or less than a blatant rant – a chance for me to vent openly about SPAM. I am, of course, referring not to the “Specially Processed Animal Meat” product (although I’m not even sure that’s an accurate description) but rather to the incessant solicitations I receive from various sources offering me good jokes and then suggestions that I buy some pharmaceutical product that will enhance my virility. I am not interested in that anymore – I just want to fish.
Good old Wikipedia says this about SPAM:
Spam is the abuse of electronic messaging systems (including most broadcast media, digital delivery systems) to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately. While the most widely recognized form of spam is e-mail spam, the term is applied to similar abuses in other media: instant messaging spam, Usenet newsgroup spam, Web search engine spam, spam in blogs,wiki spam, online classified ads spam, mobile phone messaging spam, Internet forum spam, junk fax transmissions, social networking spam, and file sharing network spam.
Now, I nearly understand the reasoning behind the SPAM that hits my email in-box – it almost makes sense to wage junk email campaigns en masse, hoping to occasionally foul hook a gullible bottom feeder: “Geepers, Mildred, Ah done seen these here offers fer Viagruh so many times Ah just figured Ah’d best check it out, so Ah ordered me some…an’ it werks, see?!” Really? Do people actually fall for that sort of crap advertising? I understand that another unsvaory byproduct of SPAM is the time wasted in dealing with it. Shortly after starting this blog I began getting comments submitted for my approval from SPAMMERS. That’s right – comments have to be approved by yours truly – the Admin General. Granted, I may not be the smartest or most tech-savvy guy out there, but am not altogether unaccomplished as a daily user of compooters and the internets. What makes these time-wasting morons think for a second that I’m going to (A) Read their comments and (B) Approve their comments for public consumption, and then (C) Buy their shit? I wouldn’t wish Spam upon the neighbor’s dog that craps in my yard every morning – why would I publish these comments for my cherished, loyal readers (all 3 of you) to be annoyed with? I am Judge, Jury and Executioner of this here blog: I am Master of my domain, and my domain is unaccomplishedangler.com. It’s all mine…do you got that, Sir Spamsalot? I deny you of your rights and sentence you a life of pain and suffering. You are a derelict of society, praying on the weak and ignorant. But hear me now: If you low-life scallywags think I would never fall victim to your cheap antics you are gravely mistaken. I would not waste a nickel on whatever it is you are selling, nor would I waste a minute of my valuable time or have my productivity compromised by dealing with your senseless campaigns. I will ignore you. I will not give you the time of…day. Crap – I already did.
I apologize for my rant, and assure you that this is not my blog post of the week. I can do better than this, and should the time come that I appear unable to post anything of even marginal worth and value, I shall pull the plug on this blog, which will give the SPAMMERS one less person to waste their freakin’ time on. SPAMMERS: Get a life. Or a hobby – maybe golf. Just don’t take up fly fishing.
By the way, I had no idea there are so many varieties of Spam available. I may have to try the bacon variety. A slow day of fishing is always better with bacon.
Disclaimer: This is a Gear Review. After promising a blog free of gear reviews, I find myself posting my second in less than a month. But if writing is an art and art imitates life, and life is full of empty promises then why should not my writing be so inclined? One of the great things about fishing is that it so often yields unexpected and delightful surprises. It’s common knowledge to those of the angling ilk that life imitates fishing, and so it was that I stumbled upon this little gem quite incidentally when I stopped by the local Duvall Auto Parts store to pick up a replacement headlamp bulb for my Jeep. Having never before seen this item at a fly shop or in one of the many fly fishing catalogs that arrive in my mailbox throughout the year, one can imagine my surprise and delight to discover it at an automotive store of all places. With the Holiday Retail Season officially underway, I thought some of you might searching for that perfect stocking stuffer either for yourself or the discerning angler in your lives.
I’m a wee bit of a gear whore, and profess to having a weakness for fishing gadgets. But I also like a good deal. The invoice lists the item as “air fresh trout”, and for $4.63 I figured couldn’t go wrong. Brought to you buy the same manufacturer of the world-renowned line of “Little Tree” air fresheners, this one is simply called “Fish™”. That’s right – Fish air fresheners: An oxymoron if there ever was one. As much as I love catching, releasing and sometimes catching and eating fish, the smell is unmistakably…fishy. It doesn’t take an experienced angler to realize that fish are not known for having the most pleasant of odors in the world. In fact, the smell of fish is unpleasant enough to be used when describing house guests that linger past their welcome. Remind yourself of this fact as the relatives from out of town arrive at your house for Christmas this year.
Fish air fresheners, indeed! My first thought was that that the marketing guru behind this product had probably lost his or her job due to this glaring little oversight, but closer inspection of the packaging revealed that “Fish” is apparently not the actual scent, but rather the name given to this particular product line. The actual scent is listed as “Mountain Waterfall”, which conjures up visions of, well, waterfalls in the mountains. Now I always thought that water, which includes waterfalls, doesn’t really have a scent unless brackish or somehow horribly contaminated, neither of which would seem likely given that this a waterfall in mountains. Apparently I was mistaken because this mountain waterfall does have a detectable scent. To describe the aroma, close your eyes and imagine yourself in a beautiful alpine meadow: In the distance a bubbling brook cascades down the side of a mountain, the mist from which combines with the naturally sweet scent of wildflowers and wafts gently toward you on a light breeze. It’s nothing like that.
All kidding aside, I have smelled many air fresheners that are much worse than this. One has to admit that seldom does the air freshener smell worse than the odor that one is attempting to mask, but some air “fresheners” are a bit overbearing. Some are downright nauseating. My daughter has one such device hanging from the rear view mirror of her car that is supposed to resemble “Piña Colada”. It’s a sickeningly sweet smell that reminds me of, well, a piña colada. By comparison the little plastic trout from the waterfall in the mountains is really not unpleasant at all, nor is it so overpowering that you will need to drive around with the car window down for the first 2 weeks of ownership before it can be tolerated.
To save you all the trouble, I did a little research and it appears that this particular piece of fishing gear can be found online by using the keywords, “trout air freshener“. However, the search results are misleading as it is mistakenly listed as a “rainbow trout air freshener”, when clearly it is a brown trout air freshener. This sort of technical oversight might go unnoticed by the general public, but discriminating anglers on the quest for a rainbow trout air freshener would surely take note of the inaccuracy.
After three weeks of field testing, I have some solid data to report: The air freshener is not quite up to the task of competing with the combined odors of wet dog, soggy waders and second hand Mexican food that linger in my Jeep. It was determined that a second Air Fresh Trout would be needed to effectively wage battle, but when I went back to the auto parts store to pick up another one they were out of stock (apparently this is a hot item). I considered ordering one online where the price is cheaper, but shipping charges would negate any cost savings, and besides I like to support the local shop when I can. The clerk promised to call me when more inventory arrives, and when it does I’ll let you know if my car takes on the smell of a mountain waterfall, or continues to smell like a brown trout.
In conclusion, I highly recommend you have a few of these on hand for the Holidays, to give as gifts or to hang in your spare bedroom. Remember: Fishing has established limits – so should the duration of visits from out of town house guests: 2 days, tops.
The ink from last week’s blog entry was barely dry when I received a text message from Marck. Expecting criticism for having taken certain creative liberties in my post, I was surprised to see the words pop up on the screen of my phone: “Yak tomorrow?” Unlike me, Marck is a man of few words. Texting is a rather unpleasant endeavor for me because I have a hard time buying into the whole “textspeak” thing, with its baffling array of acronyms and abbreviations and lack of correct punctuation and proper grammar. It would have taken me 25 minutes to respond with the following text message: “Good day, Marck. I received your digital communication regarding the matter of fishing the Yakima and yes, that sounds like a rather grand idea and one that I would greatly enjoy partaking of. If you’ll allow me the courtesy to first check with Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler before I commit to joining you, I will get back to you just as soon as possible. Thank you for the invitation. I look forward to conversing with you in the very near future and hope all is well. Very sincerely, The one who is rather unaccomplished in the ways of fly fishing.” So rather than reply in kind I opted to actually call him.
Then I sent an email to Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler announcing that I was going to go fishing with Marck. The reply was not encouraging: “You have a chore list to do.” Oh, yeah, that: The honey-do list that was taped to my computer so I couldn’t ignore it. “Yeah, yeah – I’ll get to that when I can. By the way, what’s for dinner, woman?” should have been my response. With no further discussion, I called Marck once again and told him I wouldn’t be able to go. I stared at the list for a few minutes and it became painfully clear what my Saturday was going to consist of: Change lightbulbs, sweep driveway, take cardboard boxes to recycling bin, sweep out garage, clean fireplace glass, and my favorite: Clean your office. When she got home from work a short while later I was moping around the house like a dog that had been punished for taking a crap on the living room carpet that had just been shampooed. I was caught completely off guard when she asked what time I was leaving in the morning to go fishing. “Huh?!” As it turns out, I could go fishing as long as I was aware that my list had to be completed by the end of the weekend. My spirits were instantly lifted and I quickly fired off the following text message to Marck: “stillgotr oom in the hornet 2morrow i cango : ) LOL”
Per standard operating procedure I arrived at Marck’s house, refilled my coffee cup, and we headed east on I-90 with the Hornet in tow. It was just the two of us on this day – apparently Sir Lancelot (not his real name) wasn’t man enough to inform his wife that he would be going fishing and anything else could wait for another day. Several feet of snow had fallen in the hills recently, providing a good start to the winter ski season, but fortunately the road conditions over Snoqualmie Pass were bare and wet. We made good time, and it was 9 AM as we drove the Canyon Road to Red’s Fly Shop to arrange for a shuttle. Along the way we saw one lone soul wading a river that was otherwise strangely devoid of anglers. As we pulled into Red’s, which is usually teeming with optimistic fishing folks, the gravel parking area was empty. Surprisingly the boat salesman had apparently taken the day off, and only Leif was working the counter as we walked into the shop. From the reception we received one would have thought we were his long-lost best friends, who’d come to party and hand out cash prizes. He was obviously deprived of human interaction, which probably meant nobody had been in the shop for days, which meant the fishing had probably been slow, which meant staying home and chipping away at a honey do list might not have been such a bad idea. But here we were, so we arranged for the shuttle, plunked down a couple bucks for some token flies (purchased out of sympathy, as we didn’t really need any), and made our way back up the canyon to our launch point. We were going to float 4-1/2 river miles and planned to be off the water by 3:30 so Marck could be home by 5 PM for a party.
There was one drift boat with three passengers at the put-in when we arrived. Weather report: 34 degrees under sunny skies and no wind. We layered up accordingly and dropped the Hornet into the low, 41 degree waters of the Yakima river. After having been humbled the last dozen or so times on this river, I had declared today to be a day of redemption. A bold declaration for sure, everything looked just right for a great day on the water, and it should be noted that Marck had wisely opted for his old standby Red’s fishing hat. We strung up our 6 weight rods with indicators and double fly rigs: I opted for a brown Pat’s Stone with a #20 Lightning Bug dropper; Marck tied on an olive Sculpzilla followed by a Copper John. Immediately after launching we rowed across the river a short ways and anchored up on a gravel bar. A particular side channel looked fishy and we wanted to cover every piece of promising water on this day, which would very likely be our last jaunt to the Yak before spring: It was the third weekend in November, and winter could take hold at any moment. And so on this fishy-looking side channel I made my first cast, tossed a mend into the line and watched. The strike indicator dipped, but I dismissed it as the swirling current simply up to its cruel tricks of deception. However, when I lifted the tip of my rod it became readily apparent that more than the current was to blame for submerging my bobber. I was a bit too hesitant in my attempt to set the hook, and saw the fat rainbow roll below the surface and spit my fly. Good looking fish- probably 15-16 inches. Just as well – it’s not like me to have good fortune right off the bat, or at any other time for that matter. We boarded the Hornet once again and proceeded downstream.
This wasn’t the usual stretch of river we typically fish, so the change of scenery was sure to make a slow day of fishing more interesting. Navigating this section of the river was a bit more challenging as well, so whoever was on the oars at any given time had several opportunities to yell, “Hold on!” as the other braced themselves for a bumpy ride or ducked to avoid low-hanging overhead branches. However nothing really out of the ordinary took place for the first hour or so, and it didn’t appear as though the day was going to give up much fodder worth reporting. I did manage to land a couple Whitefish, but nobody with any self-respect boasts about catching these much-maligned fish.
This is something I’ve never quite understood because afterall, they’re a native species and they swim where trout swim so if a whitey puts a bend in your rod, so be it. The way I figure, it simply means you got your fly where the fish are – so what if the fish you caught wasn’t what you intended, right? I mean, heck – one occasionally hears of anglers catching a steelhead when engaged in the act of fishing for trout, and that’s an example of an unintentional by-catch, isn’t it? Wait, never mind. At any rate, my second whitey was actually a fairly large specimen and I even hooked it in the mouth, of all places.
Marck was still fishless at this point, but neither of us worried about that. There was still plenty of day left and he’s a fishy dude so it was just a matter of time before he caught on. In the meantime, I managed to hook into my second biggest trout ever on the Yak: A beautiful 18-inch rainbow that fell victim to my Lightning Bug, and gave me several minutes of sporting entertainment before finally cooperating and coming to the net. It was 2-1/2 years earlier when I caught a similar sized fish on this river, and the time between had come to be known as “The Lean Years”, with few fish being caught overall, and none of those fish being more than 12-14 inches. I’d also tasted a skunk more than a couple times during this era of famine, so catching this solid fish began the healing process.The sweet smell of redemption still lingered in the air when I landed my next fish: A feisty 14-incher that I plucked from behind a log in water that looked so good there might as well have been a sign posted that read, “There’s a fish here – Guaranteed.” Landing this second trout brought me much additional pleasure, and grinning a smug grin I happily took the oars so Marck could angle. I’m not one to be greedy or spiteful, and I really did not want Marck to go fishless on this day.
We covered a lot of great looking water in our quest for Marck’s first fish of the day. While neither of us had mentioned it, we were both keenly aware of the fact that his catch record was in dire jeopardy, and as we entered the last hour of the day there rode with us an elephant in the rear seat of the boat. At one point we anchored the Hornet on an island to work some nice looking water, and Marck walked off a ways so he could be alone with his worries. It was clear that he was troubled. As Marck grew more serious I knew better than to tease him about something like this. I rowed in silence and began to ponder the headline of my next blog entry: “Marck Tastes a Skunk!”, or “Hey Marck – How Do Ya Like Them Apples?” It would to be a tough decision, but thankfully one I would never have to make because shortly thereafter he set the hook on an adorable little 9 inch rainbow and secured his skunk-free record. After releasing the fish, Marck requested another turn on the oars to warm up his hands. By now the sun was fully behind the clouds and a wind was starting to bite at us, so I humored him: The reality was that he was emotionally spent from the ordeal, and he needed some quiet time to reflect on having escaped shame and public ridicule by the narrowest of margins. This was a man who came dangerously close to epic failure…all color had drained from his face and a cold sweat beaded upon his forehead. He regained his composure and warmed his hands on the sticks.
Checking his watch he announced that it was 4:15. “Uh…Don’t you have to be home by 5?” I asked rhetorically. Marck decided that he’d just call his wife and tell her we were on our way, and that we were about an hour away from arriving home. I tried to discourage him from lying to her, but he assured me it would be okay. And truth be told it wasn’t really an all out fib because from the time we launched we were ultimately on our way home. As Marck dialed his wife’s number, he reminded me fishermen are notorious liars. He had a point. In reality we were probably 15 minutes from our take-out and another hour and a half from home, assuming it wasn’t snowing on the pass. As Marck spoke to his wife and explained that the roads were icy and the going was slow, my indicator took a nose dive and I’m pretty sure Mrs. Marck didn’t hear me yell, “Fish on!”. Enticing the 10 inch rainbow on the Pat’s Stone topped off a much better than average day, and it was good way to end the year. Let the icy grips of winter have the Yak – I’d had my day of redemption and was heading home with the smell of fish on my hands. Now, if I could have just gotten Marck home in 20 minutes he wouldn’t have had to spend the night in the doghouse.
Note: If after reading the accounts of this day you feel that the Unaccomplished Angler is becoming an accomplished braggart, fear not – winter steelhead season lies just ahead. I am bracing myself to have my posterior handed to me accordingly.
Often times after a day of fishing the Yakima River we’ll stop at The Tav for a bite to eat before the hour-and-a-half drive home. The Tav is in the heart of historic downtown Ellensburg (WA), in an old building with brick walls and heavy timber beams that suggest it was built during a long-ago era when they built things using materials like brick and heavy timber beams. Every time I’ve been there it’s a typically eclectic crowd of patrons – pretty much what you’d expect from a college town in the midst of agricultureville: College students and locals of all varieties. And of course the folks, like us, who come from near and far to fish the Yakima. It’s easy to pick the fly anglers from the crowd of otherwise jocular patrons, not from their caps displaying some sort of embroidered fly-fishing-related logo, but rather from the wind-chapped faces that bear the heavy sorrow of yet another brutal day of having their arses handed to them by the fish. Those who fish with a fly rod come to The Tav to cry in their beer, and that beer is always cold and well-suited for chasing a Hungry Mother Burger, which is always greasy in the way that any burger worth eating is greasy. It’s just what the doctor ordered as a way to cap off another unforgettable day on the water. The service is always prompt, and when asked if we want fries with our burgers, the resounding answer is always “you bet.” However, that’s after a day of fishing. While actually engaged in the act of fishing, we’d prefer to keep fryes off the menu.
It was the third weekend of September – a magical time of year to fish the Yak. The Flip-Flop was nearly complete, meaning the high summer flows (around 4000 cfs) had been cut off, and the river in the Lower Canyon was running around 1200 cfs and still dropping. For those not in the know, the headwaters of the Yakima are actually a reservoir – Lake Keechelus. The lake fills with spring melt and water is released under the careful watch of the United States Bureau of Reclamation. During the summer months the flows are kept high to provide two things: Irrigation for the Yakima valley agricultural region, and a source of good, clean outdoor recreation for a certain segment of the public. The lower Yakima canyon of summer attracts literally busloads of recreational floaters who, after stopping at Wal-Mart in Union Gap and dropping their last $30 on beer and a cheap inflatable devices, throw caution to the wind and brave the waters of the Yakima River. Anglers often compete for precious watery real estate with those who comprise the “rubber hatch”, and while the bikini-clad rafters do provide a certain degree of entertainment and a distraction from catchless fishing, when the flows are cut off and the river drops in September it is a time for the fishermen (and women) to rejoice.
At these reduced levels, rocks are exposed (so you can actually see them right before you hit them), feeding lanes are defined (so you know where to put your fly so the fish can look at and ignore it as it drifts by), and fish are gorging themselves in anticipation of the forthcoming winter. After the summer hopper game where heavy tippets are used to pound the banks with big junk, Fall marks an entirely different game: Small flies and light tippet. As if the Yak isn’t humbling enough, the Autumn season makes for technically more challenging fishing. It’s also a time of tremendous dry fly action and a chance to hone one’s skills at delicate presentation and knot tying. If you’re over 45, bring your magnifying glasses.
The week prior to our float, the “Power Hour Fishing Reports” on the website for Red’s Fly Shop had made it very clear: Fishing had been so hot for so many days in a row, it was (to quote the source) “absurd”. The reports further suggested that early was the best time of the day due to morning haze caused by controlled burns in the valley. And so it was decided that we’d meet at Marck’s house at 7 AM to be on the water by 9. When I arrived, Marck and Nash (not his real name) had The Hornet hitched up and were ready to roll. The first thing I noticed was Marck’s new hat. He’d been covering his dome with the same Red’s cap for the past few years, so I assumed it had become his lucky fishing hat. Admittedly, he always catches fish so the hat may not be a large part of the equation, but on this day he was sporting a brand new, bright yellow Simms cap. My immediate reaction was that this new hat was the same color as a banana (if you missed it the first time, check out the blog entry titled The Banana Boat). No worries, I’d long since put those superstitions behind me.
Armed with reliable intel and an ample supply of Lightning Bugs and Copper Johns, sizes 18 and 20, we hit the water right on schedule. I was a bit put off by the prospect of having to fish nymphs, but I set my attitude aside for the most part and strung up my 6 wt, which seemed the logical choice for this day as the forecast called for moderate winds. In the lower canyon, “moderate” can mean anything that doesn’t blow your boat upstream. And frankly, I’d employed my 4wt all summer, and was jonesin’ to use the Sage XP that I’d recently acquired on the used market. I also fully expected to get into at least one respectable fish on this fine day and wanted to be properly prepared for the ensuing battle. I treated myself to a new tapered 5x leader, with 6x fluorocarbon for my dropper fly. After looping in a Thingamabobber, I grimaced at the whole contraption, which was a recipe for tangles just waiting to happen.
Not 10 minutes into our float, the first fish of the day was landed. As one would expect, Marck was on the south end of the winning rod, and though the fish was perhaps only 9 inches, it was good to get the skunk off the boat early. I congratulated Marck on his trophy and got serious about fishing. Then we entered what I call the “morning lull”, which turned into the “mid-day lull” which lasted a good long while before merging seamlessly with the “late afternoon lull”. I decided that if the fishing was going to be this slow, I’d at least fish a dry fly so I had something to watch. This turned out to be a wise decision because I quickly began rising more fish to my fly than I’ve ever seen on the Yak. I just couldn’t seal the deal. The challenge was that all of the fish rising to my fly were too small for all but a size 32 Griffith’s Gnat, which I just happened to not have with me. I attached a size 10 September Caddis (because it was not yet October), thinking that a large fly would discourage small fish (and attract larger fish).
And then it happened. Without my knowing it – I crossed over to the Zen zone: The land of Mushin (mind of no mind), where instinct takes over for conscious skill. I ceased being an angler burdened by useless technique, and simply became a living being moving through space – a living being moving through space that just happened to have a fly rod in hand. The hook set was so quick that the fish had no idea what happened, and neither did I for that matter. It was one of those all-in-one motions where the hook set became the back cast which became the release, which sent the 3 inch fish sailing overhead and it became detached somewhere behind me on the river. No need to handle that fish – such is the beauty of barbless hooks and rapid acceleration. Marck had one such encounter while fishing two nymphs under a couple of foam indicators. The resulting tangle was so bad that he had to cut the entire mess off and start all over from scratch. At least he’d recovered the hardware this time, as earlier he’d snapped off everything, which, I reminded him, amounted to the equivalent of throwing about $8 in the river. At any rate, after attaining this heightened level of no mindedness, we were able to remain in this state accute awareness for the better part of an hour. These hook set-back cast-overhead releases happened a handful of other times, with none of the fish being more than 3 inches in size. We did our best to move past these pods of aggressive preschoolers, but they were everywhere. By the time the bite turned off we’d easily caught every troutlette in the river, and had transcended even the state of no mindedness. We were, in fact, approaching a state of complete brain deadness.
We saw a few “decent” fish rising sporadically throughout the day, but no looks or takes. And “decent” took on a whole new meaning: By now our standards were so low we’d have considered an 8-inch fish quite respectable. This was familiar territory for me, but this time it hurt. It hurt bad. Now I’m not one to feel entitled, nor do I ever have high expectations when I go fishing, but this time I did – and for good reason. All the reports pointed to red hot fishing. It was a beautiful day. Even the wind had behaved itself. Add to all this the fact that the Yakima hadn’t been kind to me recently, and I felt I was owed my due. The day had all the ingredients of an epic outing, except for the fish. The look on Marck’s face revealed that even he was clearly troubled. Nash had withdrawn to the point where he simply hugged himself and rocked back and forth in the rear seat of the boat, mumbling quietly. It became clear that we had one of two choices: Either we’d laugh, or we’d cry. A quick session of rock-scissors-paper determined our fate: Laughter it was. And laugh we did – hysterically: In the manner that men driven to insanity by floating down a canyon in a boat on river boiling with fish and not a rod between them might laugh. Or worse, like men driven to insanity by floating down a canyon in a boat with plenty of rods on a river with no fish over 3 inches might laugh. The echos of our deranged howling bounced off the canyon walls, stopping deer and Bighorn Sheep in their tracks. But after a few minutes the reality of our predicament found us sullen once again. We were out of beer. Insults were hurled back and forth from bow to stern, and arguments broke out over who would get to row next. Being on the sticks was, on this day, the best seat in the boat.
Between the three of us we’d run the gamut of end tackle offerings. We fished double nymph rigs under an indicator (I did so against my will), a dropper under a hopper, a hopper with a small trailing dry. And of course we also fished single dries: September Caddis, Light Cahills, Caddis emergers, Caddis parachutes, Caddis run-of-the-mill elk hair variety, X-Y-and-Z Caddis. Figuratively we threw the fly box at them, and literally at one point I’d almost done just that before self-imposing a time-out on the oars. Right before we took out around 6:30 PM, Nash – who had been staring a skunk in the eyes – landed the biggest fish of the day: A broad-shouldered 10-inch hog that had Marck and I marveling at the beauty of the fish and awestruck by Nash’s fishing prowess. This was cause for celebration, and we were suddenly transformed once again from bitter and defeated fishermen into a boisterous boat load of high-fivin’ white guys. That fish had sealed the deal, ensuring that not a single one of us would be skunked by the Yakima on this day. We had saved collective face by the thinnest of margins. The Hornet was pulled from the water, and as we broke down our rods our moods flip-flopped once again. With disbelief at the day’s events, we headed west, passing by Ellensburg without a stop at The Tav. We wanted to avoid the temptation of crying in our beer, and even though we were hungry, the thought of more fryes was more than anyone could bear.