Emerging Rivers Guide Services
Depending on whom is queried, the Yakima River is either a diamond or a chunk of coal. Suffice it to say she has never particularly kind to me.
It wasn’t always that way, mind you. In fact she lured me in with false sense of hope several years ago the first time I fished her. On this fateful day I landed a nice 16″ rainbow in a well-known foam line just below the bridge at Umtanum. Within minutes my buddy Jimmy landed a similarly-sized bow in nearly the same spot. We both naively believed that the river would be this easy—this good to us every time. And thus began my love/hate relationship with the Yakima.
I love the Yakima. There are 20+ inch fish in the river. I was witness when my buddy Marck landed a large rainbow a couple of years ago. I was behind the camera, which is where I always am when a big fish is in the picture. As far as I am concerned, that fish of Marck’s was the stuff legends are made of. I myself caught a nice fish about 8 years ago: it wanted desperately to be 20 inches, but I think it fell short of that mark by an inch or so. Our guide on that trip, Johnny Boitano, even got excited when that fish was hooked and landed. But I’ve not come close to a Yakima fish that size since.
Most of the time I catch 10-12 inch fish. Well, that’s not entirely true—most of the time I catch nothing. A 10 inch fish on this river doesn’t excite me, although it’s certainly better than the all-too-common skunk. Not that I’m a big fish snob, mind you. Au contraire. But when there are much bigger fish in a river touted to be a blue ribbon trout stream, a 10 inch trout seems like a yellow participant’s ribbon.
I hate the Yakima. 2 weeks ago, Jimmy and Morris and I fished 15 miles of the Lower Yakima Canyon and I didn’t hook a single fish. Jimmy landed one 12 incher and Morris fared slightly better in the numbers department, catching 3 fish but nothing bigger than 10-12 inches. I’ve been skunked more times on this river than I care to remember. But I keep going back.
I can’t quit the Yakima. A week ago my brother Hal and I fished with Derek Young of Emerging Rivers Guide Services. We floated an upper section of the river from Cle Elum to Bristol. Hal won out as far as quantity, catching 3 respectable fish in the 10-12 inch range as well as a handful of disrespectful fish of considerably less length.
By late afternoon I had about given up all hope of catching a fish. The day had been tough, what with a plummeting barometer putting the fish down. Even a dropping river couldn’t turn on the bite as our streamers were ignored all morning long. After lunch we opted for some dry fly fishing and even that didn’t rise any fish for me except for a diminutive troutling that even a sculpin would have called an appetizer. From the Rear Admiral position in the back of the boat I watched a crane fly skitter across the river toward the grassy bank, just a few feet below where my fly was drifting. Suddenly a very large fish (undoubtedly 20+ inches) rolled on the crane fly. Had my synthetic imitation gotten there first I’m sure the fish would have
taken my fly balked and waited for the real deal. It’s just how things roll for me. A short while later, about the time the pity party was getting into full swing, the threat of a skunk was eliminated as I landed a nice 16 inch Westslope Cutt. Not a hog by Yakima standards, but it was the best fish I’ve landed on that river in an awful long time. Derek was relieved because he knew his tip was in jeopardy of smelling as bad as a skunk had yours truly come up empty-handed.
After the day with Derek and Hal I headed back to the Yakima 3 days later to float with the Brothers Albacore. We opted for the same float that I had fished earlier in the week, and my intent was to catch the crane fly-eating hog and hold bragging rights for years to come. The weather had been stable for 4 days in a row and the river continued to drop. There was cloud cover. It held great promise of a big fish day. Well, I can tell you that if the 10 inch rainbow taken on a dry and the 11 inch chubby Westslope cutthroat that I pulled out from under some woody debris on a streamer are big fish, then I was accomplished. Everyone caught at least a couple of smallish fish, but at the end of the day if you were to ask the Brothers Albacore their thoughts on the Yakima they’d say, “At least the beer was good.”
Depending on who you asked.
It’s a familiar sight from my typical spot in the back of a boat on a steelhead river: in the bow is my son, Schpanky, with a rod bent sharply under the weight and pull of a winter steelhead.
And that is exactly what I saw on my last fishing trip of the old year.
We planned a half-day float with my buddy, Derek Young, on a local river that, while it does contain steelhead, is not generally a very productive river for steelhead on the fly. I fish it a few times each year, swinging flies from the bank. I go there simply because it’s close to home. But I never go with the expectation of catching fish.
And in that regard I have yet to be disappointed.
This was my first time floating this section of the Snoqualmie from Plum Landing to Fall City. The weather would prove far better than expected, with the steady deluge of the previous day not on the menu for this last Friday before Christmas. In fact, later in the day the sun would make an honest appearance—something not common during what had been a particularly wet month.
Schpanky’s Redington Torrent 8 weight was rigged as the meat-getter of the day. In addition to Bloody Mary fixin’s, Derek had packed an old Fenwick glass 7 weight and would be tossing streamers. I opted to swing the old Spey rod (translation: not catch steelhead). Schpanky was not unfamiliar with the task that lie before him; he’s done this type of fishing a few times before on Olympic Peninsula rivers such as the Hoh and Bogachiel: rubber rafts, bobbers, and beads (oh, my!). The Snoqualmie is a big river. Not a lot of gradient. Lots of places for comparatively few steelhead to hide. Mostly these are hatchery fish destined for the Tokul Creek natal cement ponds.
From my perch in the back of Derek’s boat, I spied a large rock off the starboard bow of the Streamtech Salmonfly. “Put it behind that rock, boy,” I expertly instructed the lad to do. The rest is best told in pictures.
While Schpanky did a fine job of playing the fish, Derek’s expert oarsmanship ensured that we would anchor in slow water while I athletically lept from the boat and successfully landed the fish; a 7 pound, dime-bright hatchery hen that would be on the smoker in less than 48 hours. It was a great day to spend fishing out the old year, but it also marked the end of the hand-holding. Neither the best seat in the boat nor the first crack at the best water will be offered up to the boy from here on out. He’s out-caught the old man 4-1 the last 3 times we’ve chased steel.
The coddling has got to stop. Happy New Year, all.
The text message from Derek Young indicated that the upper Yakima was fishing well, and suggested that perhaps we should pay a visit. “Fishing well.” I’ve heard that before. Derek guides for a living so he’s on the river a lot. He fishes it with great frequency so the recollection of a slow day can easily be lost amidst the hustle and bustle of productive fishing days. I fish it much less often – certainly not often enough for the rare, exceptional days to shroud out the other kinds of days. In other words, I get my arse handed to me by the Yakima more often than not. And so I hesitated to commit to Derek’s invitation. As much as I enjoy fishing with him, to be honest I was starting to have steelhead on the brain this time of year. When I reminded myself that a day of steelheading would be a guaranteed skunking, I opted to float the Yakima instead.
Yet another weather system was parked over Western Washington, causing moderate to heavy precipitation to fall from the skies all the way over Snoqualmie pass and even a few miles to the East of the summit. I hoped that the gloomy weather wouldn’t translate into a dark cloud of despair. As I crested the summit I passed a semi bearing the name WERNER, and thought to myself, “Could this be a good omen? Could this be MY day?” I put the silly notion out of my head and proceeded East.
The sky lightened and the rain tapered off just before I pulled into the town of Cle Elum where I met Derek at 11:00 AM. We dropped the Green Drake into the low, clear waters and floated perhaps 5 minutes before pulling over to work both sides of an island. Rocks were teeming with small green caddis larvae, so a size 16 olive Caddis (standard Elk Hair variety) was selected for initial duty. Good choice. Armed with my 4 wt. Sage Z-Axis (yes, I will shamelessly throw the brand out there in hopes that Sage will see it and choose to sponsor my blog), the fish played nicely from the get-go. I landed a small handful of 10 inch rainbows in the first half hour before pinching myself to see if I was dreaming. Except for when I visit the Firehole River in Yellowstone each year, it’s never this easy for me. I didn’t question my good fortune, however, and continued drifting the olive-colored magic through trouty looking water. At one point I was hooked up and playing a fish as another jumped within 6 feet of the action. I’ll admit that as the frenzy continued I could be heard carrying on a conversation with myself that went something like this: “With angling skills to make all others envious, you sir, are a fish-catching machine!” It doesn’t take much for me to become dilusional. For those of you who regularly catch many and impressive fish, this may not sound like anything extraordinary. Fish a mile in my wading boots and you’ll come to appreciate my glee in the moment.
We continued downstream under partly cloudy skies and mild temperatures. Clouds threatened rain, but none fell and for a short time I felt overdressed in my waders and long-sleeved shirt. When a hatch of Blue Winged Olives came off for a bit, there was no point in switching patterns because the olive caddis was still drawing numerous strikes. The action did taper off after a while though, proving that nothing good lasts forever. When the fish seemed less willing (though not entirely unwilling, mind you) to take surface offerings, we fished below. Derek grabbed his nymph rod and ran his bobber through fishy slots. I wanted to avoid nymphing, per se, so I decided to try something a little different. Reaching into my fly box, I grabbed a pattern that I usually only fish when in Yellowstone each Spring: a small soft hackle bead head nymph by the name of the Chubby Cousin.
When we fish the Firehole, we forego dead drifting double nymph rigs and bobbers, and instead cast downstream at a quarter angle and swing the small bugs through the current. Strikes usually come when the fly begins to settle into the seam where the faster water meets the slower holding water. It’s like swinging streamers for steelhead only on a miniature scale. I enjoy this type of nymph fishing but had never employed the tactics on the Yakima. Why not? Well, to be honest I just never seem to think of it at the time. This time I thought of it and I’m glad I did. There was plenty of good swinging water and the fish took a liking to the Chubby Cousin. With it’s swept-back hackles and rubber legs, there’s plenty of movement in the water. A few 10 inch rainbows were fond enough of the soft hackle to commit with solid takes at mid swing. Many more came unbuttoned during the course of regretting that they’d fallen for the Chubby. It was rare to not get at least a bump for every couple swings of the fly.
Rain began to fall intermittently in the late afternoon, but it dampened neither our spirits nor the enthusiastic appetite of the fish. Switching to an October Caddis proved to be a reasonably wise decision, but it wasn’t as effective as had been the olive Caddis, so I tied on another of those. The only downside to fishing the small dry was that it invoked many a strike from tiny troutlets. For a while the number of greedy little gamers grew aggravating but eventually the fry left me alone and I was able to hook and land a beautifully colored 12 inch rainbow. At that point I offered to row so Derek could fish as we drifted. I enjoy time on the oars, and to be honest I had wanted to try my hand at the helm of the Green Drake since fishing out of it earlier in the year.
The Green Drake is a 13 foot Maravia raft custom outfitted for fly fishing by Stream Tech Boats out of Boise. It’s nice to fish out of and as I found, a pleasure to row. I’ve rowed a drift boat many times but I’d never been on the oars of a raft before. I instantly liked the high perch of the rower’s seat which offers even a wee feller such as myself a commanding view of the river ahead. I was easily able to see approaching rocks before bouncing off of them, as opposed to banging and scraping as I’ve done in The Hornet a hard boat is prone to do. The hard inflatable floor is nice for standing on as one leans into the casting brace, and that same floor creates very little drag, making the boat very responsive and easy to hold against the current. For the first time I started to think that if I were to one day acquire a boat of my own I would have to give such a raft some serious consideration. I could see one of these boats providing a great deal of enjoyment and opportunity to spend quality time together on the water for Mrs. UA and myself. If it weren’t for those damn college tuition payments that we’ve only just begun to make…
While I rowed and Derek fished we marveled at what a tremendous day it had been in all regards. As the sun grew low in the sky it provided for some dramatic scenery, casting a glow upon the trees and causing them to stand out vibrantly against an ominous looking sky. Fall was definitely here: salmon were spawning in their redds and the trout were eating like there was no tomorrow. It was one of those days where if the water looked like it should hold a fish, it nearly always held a fish. It’s so rare that I have a day like this that for a fleeting moment I almost forgot the multiple sub-par days I’d had on the Yakima during the preceding months. I’m not one to openly declare that the Fish Gods owe me anything, but every itchy dog has his day and I was long overdue to be scratched. It’s not just the scratching catching that made the day great, but the opportunities that presented themselves: There were several fish landed, many more hooked and released prematurely, and countless strikes. It was those strikes that made the day particularly rewarding because it showed just how many fish were in the system and eager to take a swipe at the fly. The largest fish caught were no more than 12 inchers, but I was a happy angler. In fact, so good was my mood that I even let Derek pose for a photo with my nicest fish of the day.
We were just minutes from the termination point of our float and about to pack it in save for a particularly fishy piece of water that begged for one more cast. “I’m gonna run my little Chubby through that sweet spot one last time,” I announced. Derek looked at me and very matter-of-factly said, “Fly fishing is the one activity where you can say that and not get in trouble.” I had a couple tugs but didn’t set the hook fast enough. It didn’t matter – my day was compleat.
As we neared our take-out, the unmistakable odor of skunk filled the air. We laughed at the irony of that. It was too late for a skunking. Way too late. But it did remind me that had I not gone fishing with Derek I would have probably gone steelheading.
Cold Weather Blues
A couple of months ago while my kids were on Spring Break, my son and I were scheduled to spend a day bonding with fly rods in our hands. I’d made arrangements for Schpanky and I to float the Yakima River with Derek Young of Emering Rivers Guide Services, and we’d been looking forward to Spring Break and the fishing trip for quite some time. To make a long story short, Spring was broken. Mother Nature showed her dark side and the trip was called off the night before due to winter-like weather. Come Hell or high water, I was determined to get the lad out on the water sooner or later, so we rescheduled for a later time when school was out and summer weather would prevail. So we waited for two months and endured a very cold, wet Spring in the process. For those who like to dwell on the negative, the Seattle area enjoyed 0 days of sunshine in April 2010, 2 days of sunshine during of May 2010, and up until the 21st of the month, only 1 day of sunshine for June 2010. The new date for our trip was June 22nd, and when the day finally arrived it looked as though Mother Nature would finally smile upon us. We needed some sun and some good fishing, and because the high summer flows had not yet begun, the promise of good conditions and maybe some Salmonflies had us jonesin’ to go. At least me, that is.
I’s Be Troubled
The night before our trip, Schpanky had gone to bed early and ended up logging 14 hours of shut-eye. While it’s not uncommon for a 16 year-old to spend a good majority of their time unconscious, the early retreat signaled that something beyond growing bones and overactive hormones was amiss. When I awakened him on the morning of our trip his bedroom smelled of death. Fortunately that was just the odor from the pile of dirty cloths lying on the floor. His vital signs were strong, though it was clear that he was not feeling well. This was troubling, but there would be no canceling the trip again. Like any good parent I doped him up with some Tylenol Cold, vitamins and a couple shots of Dry Fly whiskey. OK, not really – it was just one shot (Note to Schpanky’s mom, AKA Mrs. UA: I’m kidding). The boy was moving at a snail’s pace as we loaded up the truck with our gear. No time for breakfast, he grabbed a couple pieces of toast and a slice of bacon to eat as we drove to meet Derek. One piece of toast slowly found it’s way to his digestive system, while the other slice of toast and the bacon sat untouched on the dashboard of the truck, getting cold. Not one to waste a perfectly good piece of toast and bacon, I quickly consumed them both.
So Glad, Baby
Jumping ahead to the town of Cle Elum, we stopped at Owen’s Meats for a few sticks of the best pepperoni in the known world before driving to the Bristol launch east of town. We’d be doing a 5 mile float that would take us all day toward the town of Thorp. The weather forecasters appeared to have finally gotten it right, and blue skies and no wind greeted us as we received our pre-launch safety instructions from Derek prior to launching his new raft, The Green Drake (A Maravia raft outfitted for fly fishing by StreamTech Boats of Boise, Idaho). I assumed my duties as Rear Admiral, giving up the hot seat in the bow to the lad who was feeling not-so-hot. Whether it was the good weather or the drugs finally kicking in, Schpanky seemed a bit more chipper as we set off downstream in quest of trout. The water temperature was right about 56 degrees, and there was a fair amount of debris in the water, but clarity was 3-4 feet. The previous day Derek had floated with a couple of clients and encountered strong winds, but ample trout-based opportunities. The wind was not a factor on this day, so we anticipated a glorious day in all regards. I’ve rarely been more excited to start a day on the water than I was on this day.
You Gonna Need My Help
Derek is a great teacher, which is why I had wanted to get the lad out on the water with him. Schpanky has fished with me since he was about 11 years old, and he had learned decent fundamental skills and caught a few fish. But I wanted him to advance his skills and catch more fish. Thus enter Derek. Throughout the day he worked with Schpanky in a calm but enthusiastic manner, giving him pointers on his casting and talking about insects, river dynamics and fish behavior. And giving him more pointers on his casting. We’d been throwing dries all day, but Derek strung up a third rod and schooled the boy on nymph fishing and roll casting. I soaked up the sun and remarked that if I’d been the one doing all the same talking and correcting, fisticuffs would have broken out between Father and Son and only one of us would have made it home alive. And Mrs. UA would never have forgiven her little boy for having dispatched of me somewhere in the Upper Yakima Canyon.
The lad remained uncharacteristically quiet for most of the morning, and had I not known he was feeling poorly I would have accused him of acting like a brooding teenager who was simply showing his displeasure at the lack of catching. As mid-day approached we found ourselves fishless. It’s not that either of us lost any fish, we simply had no hookups. But we were never without hope, and to his credit, Schpanky kept at it. A guide on the oars of a passing boat commented about the rising water and said that the river had come up over 250 cfs in the past three hours. Come to think of it, the water had gotten dirty and visibility was greatly reduced over what it was when we had put in. Derek declared that it was time to pull out the “Trout Candy” to hopefully entice the fish to look up and take an offering that was too good to deny. I was confident that no trout in its right mind could ignore these patterns that resembled something out of a Dr. Seuss book (sort of a cross between a stimulator and a circus clown). But all the Trout Candy succeeded in doing was to make the fishermen hungry so we opted to pull over to enjoy lunch on the same gravel bar where Derek had eaten lunch 24 hours earlier. A lot had changed since the day before, and there was much less gravel bar visible now. While the fish may have been fasting, Derek fed us well with homemade Turkey sandwiches that weighed at least 2 lbs each. Always the teacher, he showed me how to open a bag of Oreos using the easy open pull tab instead of using my teeth to tear open the packaging. What will they think of next?!
You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had
There are always frustrations when fly fishing, particularly for those with limited experience. Not that anyone was keeping track, but Schpanky lost 8 flies during the course of the day. Fortunately these were flies that Derek had supplied and not me, because I would have deducted the cost from his allowance. Since he doesn’t get an allowance, I’d have simply charged him for the flies. He’s got a job at the Carnation Golf Course so he could afford it if need be. I wish I could say that the flies were broken off by fish, but such was not the case. The good thing about that is that the lad never lost a fish. The bad thing is that he never got a chance to lose a fish. Me neither for that matter.
Blow Wind, Blow
The calm start to the day gave way to the four letter word: W#nd. It’s well nigh impossible to avoid the w#nd completely this time of year, but there’s always hope that the air will be still. The fact of the matter is that fly fishing and w#nd go together like oil and water: they don’t mix well. However, they also go hand-in-hand, so to become a fly angling person one has to learn to deal with the w#nd. Schpanky got plenty of opportunity to do that, which led to the increase in lost flies and frustration. Catching just one fish would have done away with all the other worries of the day.
Muddy Water Shuffle
As if Mother Nature’s decision to unleash the w#nd wasn’t enough, another entity added a big dose of salt to the wound: as the day wore on the river continued to rise slowly and visibility was rapidly lost. This is not the recipe for good catching, and while we saw a couple fish rise, they did so only once and not to our flies. The high water put them down and sealed their lips. Mother Nature started exhaling heavily on us and the w#nd grew frustrating at times. After piling up his fly and leader into an impressive wind-aided bird’s nest, I saw Schpanky’s cheeks puff up and then deflate as the telltale sign of frustration reared its ugly head. Things appeared dire, but we were never completely without hope. Derek’s is a master at sensing the plummeting mood of his companions and steering them away from the dark abyss of self pity, so he cheered us on as we continued to pound the banks with big salmonfly patterns and smaller caddis and PMD imitations, all to no avail. Even my Lucky Fishing Hat wasn’t enough to save us from a double skunking.
(I Feel Like) Going Home
We tucked our collective tails between our legs and terminated our float: time of death shortly past 7 PM. I always hate the end of a day spent fishing, but I could see it in the lad’s eyes: the second dose of Tylenol had worn off, and all he wanted to do was get home and hit the sack. Derek and I weren’t quite so content to drive home without a rational explanation for our defeat, so we performed a final water clarity test and determined that the visibility had been reduced to 4 inches at best. Driving home we noted that the Cle Elum River, which dumps into the Yakima River west of the town of Cle Elum was the muddy water culprit. Apparently the Army Corps of Engineers failed to check with us first before deciding to discharge water from the Lake Cle Elum reservoir prior to our trip. Derek’s enthusiasm was seemingly boundless, however, and he pointed out that we’d simply have to do it again.
Come Back, Baby
That we shall.