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.