Children’s Hospital auction

It could have been worse.

Last year I participated in a multi-boat flotilla as part of a Children’s Hospital benefit auction orchestrated by my friend Sir Lancelot (yes, the Sir Lancelot who provided a guest post not too long ago). Last year I was just along for the ride, and to clean the grill after lunch. This year I was along to provide all-day labor by rowing one of the boats. Last year the Yakima River was running unseasonably low and water conditions were excellent. This year that was not the case. The plan had originally been to float the river down around Ellensburg. Marck was unable to participate this year and while it would have been nice to have him along for his good-natured companionship, what we we really needed was his boat. However, as the date approached and the Yakima River became swollen with runoff, there was a change of plans: we’d be floating an upper section of the river where hard boats are not recommended. Rafts were the order of the day so the Hornet sat idle while 3 inflatable craft were launched for the trip.

The inflatable flotilla.

Bear in mind that names have been changed to protect the innocent avoid slander lawsuits. To run down the list of those in attendance, in one raft were Lancelot and two of his friends, FFred & NNick. The raft being rowed by yours truly provided downstream transportation for The Rev & The Father. The third boat was rowed by CJ Emerson (who guides for The Evening Hatch) and his two guests, Ben & Jerry. It was appropriate that Ben & Jerry be in CJ’s raft as Ben had purchased the trip at the auction and so thus deserved a real guide. Except for Lancelot’s boat, the experience level was mostly non-existent. Ben & Jerry’s fresh-out-of-the-box Cabela’s breathable waders may have still had the tags on them and the Z-Axis rod that Ben also received in the auction had not previously seen active duty. In my boat, The Rev & The Father were wearing neoprene waders they had just gotten, paired with over-sized, used tennis shoes they’d just purchased in lieu of wading boots. They were each employing a brand new Redington Crosswater rod and reel. Nobody teased The Rev for wearing pink shoes, except for Lancelot.

For first time fly anglers, it was an almost unthinkably cruel joke to tie on a Thingamabobber, a tandem nymph rig and a couple pieces of split shot and expect them to enjoy the casting experience, especially from a seated position (the rafts are not set up for fly fishing like, say, a StreamTech Boat).

StreamTech. I want one.

Chucking awkward hardware from a seated position was, however, the order of the day. In defense of my anglers, they managed to avoid too many bird’s nests and lost no more flies than I would have had I had a line in the water. My only complaint is that I had to sit on a cooler lid instead of a proper rowing seat (as offered in a StreamTech boat). I’d really appreciate it, Lancelot, if you would acquire a couple of these boats before next year’s trip.

Springtime and birds are building nests.

I’m not sure how beginner’s Ben & Jerry fared throughout the day, although occasionally I did hear the distance sound of CJ’s voice patiently yelling offering encouragement.

The day was very pleasant with mostly clear skies and warm temperatures. Certainly sunscreen and shirt sleeves weather (The Rev & The Father soon came to realize the error of their ways in selecting neoprene waders). The river was running high and deep green, but there was decent visibility. However, the fish were blind for the most part with the exception of one 8 inch rainbow that The Father hooked and played momentarily before executing a Long Distance Release. Even with the split shot, it was difficult to get the flies down to where there may have been fish holding in the heavy water. Granted, had the person rowing my raft been an actual guide, the anglers on board may have landed a whitefish and a slightly bigger rainbow, as had CJ’s boat. But you get what you pay for, and The Rev & The Father paid nothing for their trip.  Even with the most collective experience aboard, Lancelot’s boat finished that day with the unmistakable odor of skunk. That says a lot about the man on the oars.

Obstacle #1

As lousy of an oarsman and angler as Lancelot may be, he does know his way around food and grilled up a delicious meal of King salmon. Not much to complain about there. The monotony of the day was broken up by two river hazards that forced us to take evasive maneuvers. The first was a sweeper lying across the channel in a woody stretch of tricky water.  Not to worry, as roping the boats around the obstacle was no problem.

Obstacle #2

The second obstacle consisted of a very large cottonwood tree that had recently laid itself down across the entire river. Getting around this blockage required a 40 yard portage, made easy by the simple fact that we had plenty of manpower to carry each boat. A single boat with 3 people would have had their work cut out for them.

Portage made easy.

The real excitement of the day came within the last couple of hours of the trip. My boat was first through a particular stretch of water that had a brushy bank and ample structure for any fish that might have chosen to lie there (none did, by the way). From his perch in the front of the boat, The Rev sent out a respectable 20 yard cast into the waiting branches of a tree 10 yards away.  The hook on the size 8 Pat’s Stone grabbed hold firmly as the boat continued downstream. I would have attempted to row against the current to retrieve the fly, but I wasn’t man enough the high flows would have nothing to do with it. As the distance between ourselves and the snagged fly increased, so did the uneasiness on the part of The Rev.  I calmly counseled him to point the rod directly at the fly, pinch down on the fly line with his finger, and hold on. “The leader is going to snap,” I said. “It may ricochet back so turn your face away from it,” I added (as I ducked).  As the tension in the line increased and the 2X tippet strained under the load, The Rev allowed the fly line to slide between the cork and his forefinger. I detected the smell of burning flesh, and the resulting sensation was more than The Rev could tolerate.  At the exact same time he yelled, “Owch!!!” he let go of the rod. The tension of the stretched line served to slingshot the rod from his hand and Across the Water (the Crosswater aptly named by Redington) where it landed 10 feet upstream of the raft. There was no need for panic as the rod was still tethered to the tree and rescue was on the way—Lancelot’s raft was just approaching the tree and saw the line snagged. I waved to indicate we could use a little help, and pulled the boat over to a gravel bar a short ways downstream to wait. And watch. Because I was busy on the oars there were no photos to document the drama. However, I have provided this detailed illustration to illustrate the situation:

It appeared, from our distance of 80+ yards, that Lancelot’s boat was able to free the snagged fly from the branch. Then they tossed the fly into the water for us to reel in. At that point Lancelot acknowledged the great distance between us and them, and realized we were not holding the other end of the line.  They scrambled to retrieve the fly again, which luckily became snagged a second time on a branch in the water.  They succeeded in retrieving the fly a second time and pulled in several yards of fly line and eventually the rod and reel. I’m not sure if they were into the backing by the time they had the entire setup in hand, but The Rev was lucky to get the rod back.

The Rev with his rescued Redington Crosswater rod and reel.

Even though the catching was slow to non-existent, it could have been a lot worse. It could have been raining. The food could have been bad. The guests could have had a horrible time. And had there not been another boat behind us, the river would have claimed a brand new rod, reel and line. That wouldn’t have been a good way for The Rev to begin his fly fishing career.

Sage advice: Get caught up in fishing, not traffic.

I’ve decided that my unofficial title should be that of Rear Admiral (stop before you even start with the sophomoric humor) as it attests to my usual seat in stern whenever I’m in a drift boat. There are many reasons for this, and it’s always a voluntary choice I make – a self imposed exile of sorts that keeps me out of sight and out of the way. In all honesty I’m comfortable back there, and it gives people who can actually catch fish a better position for doing so up front. So when Marck emailed me recently to ask if I wanted to occupy the rear seat of The Hornet for an upcoming trip down the Yakima I was curious as to why he very specifically stated that I would bringing up the rear. Apparently we would be part of a three boat flotilla that would include Sir Lancelot’s NRS raft (Lancelot is a friend with whom we occasionally angle) and a boat belonging to fishy dude CJ Emerson, who guides for The Evening Hatch in Ellensburg.

The reason 3 boats were needed was relatively simple:  there were a lot of bodies to haul. Beyond that it got a little more complex. Lancelot had orchestrated the donation of a fly fishing package for a fundraising auction hosted by the Seattle Children’s Hospital Guild Association. In addition to a guided trip on the Yakima River, the outfit included an overnight stay at a Rosehill Farm Bed & Breakfast in Thorp and a fly rod gnerously donated by Sage manufacturing. The lucky holder of the winning raffle ticket would be bringing along a couple of buddies and Sage would send a dignitary along to make sure the Z-Axis 5 weight was put to proper use. By my count that was four people. I did the math several times and concluded that only two boats were needed: (1) The guide boat and (2) Sir Lancelot’s raft, “The Chuck Wagon” (named for the fact that it would carry the grub). It should be noted that Lancelot worked for over 25 years in the food service industry and would be providing a gourmet stream side lunch and accoutrements. The need for the 3rd boat is that The Chuck Wagon isn’t set up specifically for fly fishing, so Marck and The Hornet were commandeered to provide a proper fishing perch for one of the angling guests. What I couldn’t understand, however, was why I was invited along for the trip…to fill an empty seat (ballast)? As a confidence booster for the other anglers? Or perhaps during story time I’d be reading aloud from Olive the Little Woolly Bugger? The real reason for my presence would reveal itself midway through the day.

Whatever the reason, I was honored to be invited and told Marck I would drive since I had a Sage sticker on the back of my truck and wanted to suck up show allegiance to the dignitary from Sage. Besides, it was my turn to burn some gas since he’d driven the past couple times. To my surprise he insisted on driving and announced that he’d just placed a Sage sticker on his rig. His exact words were, “And mine’s bigger.”

Marck’s blatant attempt to brown-nose a representative of the company that makes the fine rods (one of which he desperately wants) was, I thought, unthinkably shameful. I mean, really – did he actually think that the good folks at 8500 Northeast Day Road on Bainbridge Island would just give him a Z-Axis simply because he had a Sage sticker on the window of his car, or because it happened to be his birthday?  I was hoping for a ZXL 376-4 myself, but that clearly wouldn’t happen since my truck, with it’s tastefully-sized Sage sticker, got left behind. With my tail woefully tucked between my legs the next order of business was to stop by Lancelot’s home and load up his plentiful supply of culinary gear. Loaded to the gills, we strapped The Chuck Wagon to the top of The Hornet and were off to meet the Ambassador of Sage at the Burger King in North Bend.

Pulling in to the parking lot we no doubt looked a bit like a modern version of the Clampetts as they moved to Beverly; Hills, that is. I wouldn’t have blamed our Bainbridge Island guest if she’d have fled the scene, but our dignitary proved to be undaunted by what she saw. A native of Alaska, a tomboy at heart, and a former college athlete at the University of Montana, Karen Wilken confidently shook our hands before assuming the shotgun position in Marck’s sticker-laden 4-runner. That left Lancelot and I to verbally joust like 12 year-olds in the back seat as we drove the next leg of our journey to our scheduled 9:15 am rendezvous point at the Thorp Fruit Stand.

The Produce Posse

It seemed somehow fitting that we would meet at a fruit stand, as the raffle winner and his gang all worked in the produce supply industry. Naturally with his 25 years in the food service biz Lancelot was able to quickly establish a common bond. He’s usually shy and soft spoken, so it was a relief to see him come out of his shell and strike up a conversation with The Produce Posse. An accomplished angler (who shall remain anonymous out of respect for his unfortunate association with Lancelot) joined us as well. He was actually headed further east to fish the Clark Fork and had apparently been convinced that a little shadow casting on the Yak before fishing a real trout stream would be a good idea. I asked him if he fished the Yakima often and his reply denoted his status as a serious fisherman: “Not often,” said this King of anglers in a confident tone, “When I’m serious about trout fishing I go to Montana.” The experience level of our group ran the gamut from first-timers to old pros, but everyone seemed easy-going and everything appeared to be in good order for a fun day on the water.

The day held much promise and spirits were high as we moved onward to our launch point at the KOA in Ellensburg. Sun dominated the sky, and the few puffy clouds looked to be dissipating. It had been a beautiful morning on the West side of the mountains with a forecast calling for mid 60’s and clear blue skies.  A forecast like that nearly always means even better weather east of the mountains, which is exactly where we were. Sunscreen was appropriately slathered in anticipation.

Just as we were backing the boats down the launch I caught a brief glimpse of Johnny Boitano’s Hyde rounding a downstream bend with a couple of lucky clients on board. That could have been seen as a bad omen because as CJ pointed out, “Johnny is not a guy you want to fish behind.” While that’s certainly true, I’m not the superstitious type except when it comes to hats, and the Lucky Fishing Hat was securely perched atop my noggin.  I had debated wearing my Sage baseball cap as a show of my respect for our dignitary, but knew better than to let emotion interfere with sound judgment. Besides, nobody likes a suck-up, Marck.

Boat assignments were issued, and apparently The Sage Chick drew the short straw as she was directed to the bow of the Hornet. CJ had two members of the Produce Posse in his Clackacraft, and the 3rd Posse member and the King of anglers were stuck aboard the Chuck Wagon. The water temperature was an encouraging 46 degrees when we pushed off at 10:30 AM and began a long day’s float. The Ringer launch is approximately 8 miles downstream and would serve as our termination point, so we had some water to cover and fish to catch. With Mother’s Day less than 48 hours away, we were all hoping for the mythical caddis hatch that bears the name of the day on which we all honor our family matrons. I’ve tried hitting the Mother’s Day caddis hatch for years and have always missed it. Something felt right about this day.

It began in typical Yakima fashion, with tandem nymph rigs and slow fishing. Sage Chick actually had a couple strikes, but she was admittedly adjusting to the art of double nymph bobber fishing and missed a couple subtle bumps. After a while she developed the cat-like reflexes required for setting the hook whenever the indicator took a dive. On one occasion she did so with such authority that the hook was pulled out of the fish’s mouth and the fly smacked her square in the forehead. The ensuing welt was only moderately visible, and I assured her that it resembled nothing more than a small zit. The only thing that kept her from kicking my arse was the large fellow sitting between us: seated in the rower’s seat, Marck thankfully provided a safety barrier.  He also put us on every bit of fishy looking water available, but it was a couple hours into the float before Karen yarded in the first fish of the day: a nice 12 inch rainbow that cooperated nicely until it was time for a photo, at which point the fish decided to make a desperate leap back to the water.

With the skunk off the boat and the smell of fishy hands in the air, we could finally relax. There’s more to fishing than catching fish, but eliminating a skunk always makes for a better day. After this brief moment of victory we settled into a comfortable rhythm of not catching any fish for a while. Suddenly that peace and quiet was rudely interrupted by a sharp bend in the Sage Chick’s rod.  After a few minutes of her playing the fish, my keen net handling skills (reminiscent of a recent trip) ensured that Karen would get to pose for a photo with the Catch of the Day: a beautiful rainbow that, in all the excitement appeared to be a 16” dandy. A closer inspection of the photos would later reveal it to have been a more modest 15.5”, though it would still defend its title as the largest fish of the day. No day of nymphing is ever complete without a whitefish, and the honor of doing so was bestowed upon Karen as well. Sage Chick was on fire!

Catch of the Day

Ytfeesh!

If that wasn’t enough excitement for the day, shortly thereafter Karen’s rod bent nearly in half and quivered in a manner indicative of something big and alive (a fish as opposed to a log).  Then as quickly as it started it was over.  We chalked it up to a Yakima River steelhead, Chinook salmon or possibly a halibut. Whatever it was, it was big. And another fly was lost to the river.  Out of self respect I don’t keep track of such things, but at the end of the day the golf tally clicker that Marck kept hidden in his pocket indicated that 30+/- flies were offered up to the river gods on this day: at least 10 Pat’s Stones and twice again as many Lightning Bugs.

The other two boats were well ahead of us as we anchored up and worked the inside seam of a particularly nice looking slot that lived up to it’s outward appearance.  For a few fleeting moments even I felt like an accomplished angler as I managed to catch 3 fish in short order. We got so caught up in the frenzy that we forgot all about the time. Marck glanced at his watch and noted that we were late for our scheduled lunch rendezvous, so we pulled anchor and moved on. It was probably best because had we continued to catch more fish I wouldn’t have had anything to write about – that would’ve been too much of a good thing, or in Unaccomplished Algebraic terms: too many positives = a negative).

As we neared our lunch location the smell of fresh salmon grilling wafted our way. It was a pompous luxury to stride into “camp”, apologizing for our lateness because we were slaying fish, and be handed a plate of gourmet food. Lancelot knows how to serve up the grub thanks to two and a half decades of working in the food service industry, and the vittles were delicious. The wine and beer was plentiful and the mood festive as we shared stories from the first half of the day.  Catching had not been great, but the fishing had been excellent. CJ’s boat had landed a 20” whitefish, and no matter what your opinion of whitefish a 20 incher is nothing to feel ashamed about. Especially when it’s hooked in the mouth. Every boat had caught some fish and everyone seemed to be really enjoying the day. After the meal had been consumed, any doubt as to my role in the day’s events became crystal clear when Lancelot handed me the grill and utensils and pointed me to the river. No doubt he derived great pleasure in putting me on Kitchen Patrol, but I have to admit – it felt good to have a purpose.

Pushing on into the afternoon the weather we had enjoyed earlier in the day yielded to the winds of change. As it began to blow, chaos began to rear its ugly head with some degree of frequency. I experienced a couple tangles that made me scratch my head and ask, “How is that even possible?”

Karen fell victim to the wind as the back of her head put an abrupt stop to the forward progress of a bead head Lightning Bug. It did more than just leave a welt this time, but Marck showed great promise as a field surgeon by extracting the hook without much bloodshed. His bedside manner was to be commended, too:  “Do you want me to push or pull? Either way it’s going to hurt.”  His skills as a photographer lack by comparison, however, and the surgical procedure was not well-documented in pixels. During post op we discussed the need for Sage to produce a line of Lucky Fishing Helmets (we’ll see if they actually hit the market).

Late in the afternoon clouds thickened and the air temperature dropped significantly. The fish clearly felt the pressure change as well, and got all tight-lipped on us. But hope prevailed as we angled onward.  I’d been jonesin’ to get my hands on the Sage 99 4 weight that Karen had been using all day, and as the it grew colder and she lost feeling in her fingers I was able to finally pry her hands free of the cork and take the rod for a brief test drive. Lined with a Rio Indicator line, this stick was sweet casting. The 9’9” length came in handy for throwing mends and I liked it a great deal. Conversely I wish I had never fondled the evil temptress (the rod, to be very clear) because what I do NOT need is another fly rod. Well, maybe just one more. Rain began to fall first as large sporadic droplets and then it turned to a steady deluge reminiscent of the other side of the mountains (where ironically it had been a beautiful day).  I longed for my Simms G3 wading jacket that I knew darn good and well was in the backseat of my son’s car because he’d been wearing it to golf in the week before. This gave me cause to reflect on what I already knew:  even if you don’t think you’ll need it, always take your rain gear.

The rain may have permeated my outer layers, but it couldn’t dampen our spirits.  We even broke out the dry fly rods amidst the rainstorm, but no players could be enticed. Still, we had a great time not catching fish and we worked the water diligently until we pulled out at 7:45 pm.  As we stowed the gear and and offered farewell handshakes to everyone in our flotilla, the rain stopped.  I might’ve seen a fish rise at that moment as well, but like the sighting of  5 white pelicans earlier in the day nobody would have believed me.

The Sage Chick had a ferry to catch and a longer drive than the rest of us, so we opted to forgo a stop at The Tav for a Hungry Mother Burger in Ellensburg. We’d be back to North Bend in an hour anyway…except for the matter of lane closures on I-90 which brought traffic to a standstill.  As we dead-drifted westward at a snail’s pace, our collective blood sugar dropped and we began hallucinating.  Karen mistook the red and blue flashing lights on a state patrol car for cherries and blueberries, and tried to climb out of the sunroof in order to harvest the fruit. I began fantasizing that at any minute a golf cart selling hot dogs would pull up alongside of us. I mumbled incoherently about the revenue such a venture could generate on a night like this.  Lancelot suddenly became lucid and abruptly shot down my hypoglycemic dreams by stating, “With my 25 years of experience in the food service industry, let me just make it very clear that a roadside hot dog cart is a notoriously bad idea.”  Thankfully that same food service experience also produced 4 leftover cookies from lunch, which is the only thing that kept us from lapsing into comas. When we arrived back at the Burger King in North Bend 3 hours later, Karen grabbed her gear from the back of Marck’s rig, tossed a couple Sage t-shirts and hats our way and said “See ya, suckas!” As she sped off toward the ferry docks in Seattle, Marck stood there with a forlorn expression on his face and an armload of Sage swag. Behind him the over-sized Sage decal on the rear window of his car shone brightly under the lights of the parking lot as he mumbled softly, “But it’s my birthday, and I was hoping for a Z-Axis…”