Jimmy was due to arrive at 7:30 to pick me up en route to Marck’s house, where we would hitch up The Hornet and proceed east to the Yakima Canyon for a bit of late summer trout angling. My gear was waiting in the garage, the dog and myself had been fed. The coffee had begun to work, so at 7:15 I visited the “library” for a few minutes of relaxation. At 7:17 there was a knock on the door: it was Jimmy. So much for the relaxation—it was time to go.
September is a beautiful time of year in the Pacific NW, especially this year when our Indian Summer has been in fine form. Low fog lay over the lowlands with a clear sky just visible through the film; the promise of another bluebird day. As we proceeded east over the Cascades, the weather remained similarly splendid, muted only by the haze of wildfires burning to the north near Wenatchee. It had been too long since I’d last wet a line. August would normally have been a month filled with fishing, but alas it was a month filled with moving, capped off by a two-day garage sale—a necessary evil—that nearly put me over the edge. This day of fishing would be more therapeutic than it normally is.
The first order of business was to select our float for the day. With the Bighorn launch chained off for what appears to be the rest of the year, our second choice was MM 20. However, a mudslide earlier in the summer had rendered the put-in almost unusable. We drove past, noting the remnants of the July slide. But then we pulled a U-turn, deciding to take a better look. Upon closer inspection we determined the launch was not out of the question; it would just require a bit of finesse. No problem for 3 strapping middle-aged men, or rather 2 strapping middle-aged man and myself.
We were on the water by 10:30, fishing a variety of different set-ups. I opted for an orange-bellied foam hopper with a size 20 Lightning Bug underneath. Jimmy drew the first fish; a smallish rainbow in the 10 inch range. With the skunk off the boat early, the ever-present tension of fishing the Yakima River was lifted and we could relax and enjoy the day. I hooked up with a relatively large fish shortly thereafter; an 18-ish inch rainbow that hit the dropper and instantly went airborne. My rusty fish-playing skills resulted in a long distance release, but I had the fish on long enough to consider it almost caught.
The first two or three hours produced decent action with rainbows hitting the droppers and sometimes the dries. I got another nice fish to the boat before it came unbuttoned
due to Marck’s inferior net skills a split second before it was in the net. Shortly thereafter I did manage to land a “Yakima 18” (translation: any fish within 3 inches of 18 inches). The Yakima is a finicky river that produces fewer decent-sized fish than it should. The 18-20+ inch fish are there, but one can goes several trips without hooking one. Thus, when the angler does catch a fish that falls a few inches short of a certain mark, it’s acceptable to round up. Yakima River Math is not an exact science.
As the day wore on and the air heated into the mid-80’s, the fish-trickery slowed. By 1 o’clock the trouts may have lost interest in feeding, but we wanted something we could sink our teeth into so we broke for lunch. Upon viewing the Costco chicken salad sandwiches Marck had assembled that morning, we noted a slight green tinge that served as flashing yellow caution. Marck himself had begun to second guess his decision to bring the chicken salad after he failed to remember the last time he’d actually been to Costco. A 3-way case of botulism would not have improved the quality of the fishing and we were relieved to have stopped at Subway in Ellensburg for an alternate source of fresh nutrition.
During the afternoon we got into pockets of soft water that held scores of 3 inch over-achievers, but no respectable fish were enticed to take our artificial offerings. The final 5-6 fish count had all taken place earlier in the float but still it proved to be a splendid late summer day on the water. Summer is not technically quite over, and the Pacific NW has enjoyed a great, extended run of beautiful weeks. Still, one can feel fall in the air. Even the golden stoneflies, busily going about their procreating, know their time is not long. Things will change on the Yakima significantly in the coming weeks, or perhaps even days.
We were off the water a bit earlier than we’d hoped, but had we gotten off any later we would have been deprived of the scenery at the take-out.
I’m pretty sure someone has published a hatch guide for every river in America, if not the world. These can be tremendous resources for the angler, but they can also be a little misleading. Such guidelines give the impression that the angler will encounter specific insect hatches almost like clockwork, and all one has to do is show up at the river, with a pattern that matches the hatch, and fish will be caught. While that may be the case for some anglers on some rivers, in my opinion such information should be swallowed along with a couple grains of salt (followed perhaps by a shot of tequila and lemon). The Yakima allegedly boasts some tremendous seasonal hatches like other “blue ribbon” fisheries, but don’t let that lull you into thinking the hatch guide is a golden resource when it comes to catching fish. For those of few angling accomplishments, I offer a more realistic approach to the Yakima River hatch guide game:
January. Don’t go trout fishing this month. Stay home and tie some trout flies or read a good book about trout fishing. One will very likely freeze one’s posterior on the Yakima during January, and if anglers are going to subject themselves to this sort of personal misery and not catch fish, they had better at least be standing knee deep in a steelhead river. The Yakima may have some occasional midge hatches during January, but with numb fingers, good luck trying to tie on a size 22 Griffith’s Gnat to the tippet. Of course, the whitefishing can be hot when the water temps turn the real fish into troutcicles. You may even hook one in the mouth. I recommend a bare hook under a Thingamabobber, or maybe just the bare hook.
February/March. Skwalas. The emergence of these stoneflies is the first big event that draws anglers out of hibernation. Whenever I’ve tried to time this hatch I’ve been met with disappointment and wished I’d stayed in my cave. I’ve caught a couple fish on Skwala nymphs, but I’ve never been there on a day when the bugs seem to be hatching, so I can only live vicariously through those who’ve had the good fortune to actually engage the fish on Skwala dries. I’ve heard it can be fun because up to this point it’s pretty much a subsurface game since Fall. These stoneflies may start appearing in February, but beware of reports proclaiming as much. The nymphs might be moving around toward the end of February, but the adults probably won’t really be hatching until early March, and that’s only if the water temps warm up. But when anglers hear the word “Skwala”, they start thinking irrationally and may reach for their dry flies too early. More than anything, “Skwala” is merely a marketing ploy tossed about by fly shops and guides hoping to draw some customers out of winter hibernation. And who can blame them?
March/April. If you find yourself on the river on a day when Old Man Winter might have loosened his grip temporarily and long enough for the water temp to rise into the 40’s for a couple days, the adult Skwalas might actually make an appearance. Will you be there at the right time in the right place? If you’re like me, the answer is yes and no. Oh, I’ll be there alright – just not on the right day. I’ll have to take your word for it, but March Browns are said to begin emerging in March, which this is probably where they got their name. Just in case, I have a few patterns to match the emergence of these brown mayflies, but only once have I ever gotten the opportunity to actually use any of them. When I have stumbled upon a hatch of March Browns, the hatches came off for two hours at a time. There were bugs in the air and bugs on the water, but no fish looking up. So if you do encounter one of these hatches, prepare to be frustrated. To be completely honest, I did once stumble upon rising fish during a March Brown hatch the day before Easter. I got lucky– but only once, so it doesn’t count. Next up you have the Blue Winged Olives. Yeah, right. Whatever. BWO’s like cloudy days. The problem is whenever I fish the Yak in April, it’s under bluebird skies. That’s good for the pasty white skin of winter, but not so much for bringing out the little olive colored mayflies.
May. Salmonflies. When they’re hatching on rivers across the west, these bugs attract anglers like flies to rotting meat. I’ve never actually seen a Salmonfly on the Yakima, which doesn’t mean they aren’t there – they’re just not there when I’ve been there. And honestly I don’t think they’re abundantly established yet. Occasionally an angler (usually a guide) will proclaim of having seen an actual adult Salmonfly on the Yakima. Not me, though I have caught plenty of salmon fries. That’s really annoying because one can be literally harassed by a pod of these baby Chinook and the only way to put an end to the madness is to pull up anchor and move downstream. Admittedly I don’t usually get to fish much in May because it’s a very busy month, what with Mother’s Day and all. Unfortunately my mom isn’t around any more for me to dode over, but I do have the pleasure of honoring the mother of my children. Another reason I don’t fish much this month is because I’m usually saving up my hall passes for my Memorial Day Weekend trip to Yellowstone with Marck. But the biggest hatch this month is the The Mother’s Day Caddis. It is reputed to be one of biblical proportions. It has also been the biggest disappointment for me. I hear tales of a hatch so prolific that anglers actually forget to honor their mothers on this day and go fishing instead. The problem with this hatch is that the runoff usually fouls the river and you’d never know if the hatch came or went. Marck happened to time this hatch perfectly this year, and sent me a text message that simply said: “Epic hatch.” Our followup conversation after his trip revealed that there were so many hundreds of thousands of bugs in the air and on the water that the natural competition proved too great. Fish were rising, but the water was high and dirty and hookups were few. Fishing was frustrating. If you do visit the Yakima hoping to encounter the Mother’s Day Caddis hatch, I suggest taking flowers and a card and leaving your fly rod in the car. You’ll probably catch just as many fish that way.
June. Runoff is usually done with, but the flows are kept artificially high as the irrigation in the Yakima Valley begins. Pale Morning Duns and Golden Stones are hatching. OK, I must confess I witnessed a PMD hatch once. I was eating my lunch on the riverbank, sulking over how slow fishing had been all morning. Then I heard trout rising. Then I saw trout rising not 20 feet from where I sulked. I tossed out a cast and caught a small fish. Then it happened again. Then as quickly as the feeding had begun, it ended. Woo-hoo! Two fish! Golden Stones? They must only exist at the end of a rainbow, and I must always be at the wrong end. They are said to be present this month – I’ve read as much on the fishing reports posted by the fly shops in the area.
July. Hopper time. OK, it’s not a hatch, per se. Throw something big and ugly that resembles a foam mutant from a nuclear waste site and you might catch a couple fish before you succomb to heat stroke. Hopper fishing is not exactly technical fishing, and builds sloppy presentation skills which make me feel right at home. Slap that big ugly bug up against the bank- as in hit the bank because the fish are so fat and lazy from eating well that they won’t move two inches out of their way to take your fly. Keep a watchful eye out for the rubber hatch, which is epic in proportions this month. You’ll see things that you won’t soon forget as well as many things you wish you could. If you’ve made it through the day and find yourself on the water toward dusk the evening caddis hatch can be great. I’ve watched Marck slay the trout on Elk Hair Caddis when the light grows dim. What I’ve found most of the time is that the fish don’t really start rising until it’s way too dark to see the fly on the water, which makes setting the hook difficult. And God forbid you should lose a fly and have to tie on another under the cloak of increasing darkness – especially the typical Elk Hair Caddis. The way the hackle is swept forward over the eye of the hook makes it difficult to thread one’s tippet even in good light with good eyesight. Remove both of those from the equation and you’ll see what I’m talking about. To fully appreciate just how many caddisflies come out at night, perform this little experiment: As you are breaking down your rods and stowing your gear, leave the car door open so the dome light illuminates the dark summer night. Caddis are attracted to light.
August. Copy and paste the month of July here, then add the following: Toward the end of the month when the river starts to drop, hoppers become less effective and it’s time to key in on Short Wing Stoneflies. I can’t say I’ve ever seen one, although I can say that I’ve fished with a stonefly pattern late in the month and been skunked. As the month begins the rubber hatch is still in full swing and the general rule is that quality does not increase as the summer drones on. By now the fish have seen every pattern drift overhead way and anglers have seen everything imaginable float past them on the river as well. At least as the river drops the rubber hatch tapers off and anglers don’t have to halt their back casts so often to avoid hooking a non-game species. While casting gets easier the fishing, however, does not. The last time I fished the Yakima in late August we didn’t rise a fish to a dry fly all day. One should not have to nymph this time of year, but we did. I don’t want to talk about it.
September. The great flip-flop of the Yak is well underway, meaning the irrigation flows are cut off and the river drops to more natural late summer flows. Again, the Shortwing Stones are said to abound, but I don’t know that I would recognize one if it landed on my nose. The fishing gets more challenging as tippets and flies get smaller. Gee, I didn’t realize the fishing prior to this had been easy? Well, it just gets damn tough in September, and those sloppy presentations that worked for hopper fishing will come back to haunt you now. Water clarity increases, feeding lanes are defined in the lowering flows, and the fish lurking therein are watching to make sure your presentation is perfect. Baetis is the name, and loathing is the game: Get it right, or go home. This is not the time of year to go searching for an ego boost from the fish. You might start to see some October Caddis, but being September it would seem wrong to refer to them as October Caddis. They’re big and orange, from what I’m told. I’ve only ever caught one fish on a September Caddis pattern, and it was the only fish I caught after a very long day. And the fish wasn’t much bigger than the fly I was using.
October. The September Caddis become October Caddis this month, and some anglers love the Yakima in October. Myself, I’m so emotionally bruised and battered by this time of year that take a timeout from the Yakima to heal my wounds. I’m usually chasing some sort of game with a firearm in October, or seeking some inland steelhead on rivers elsewhere, so I really don’t have a clue what Oktoberfest is like on the Yak. Go for it if you want.
November. Winter can hit hard at any moment during this month, but if you want to nymph for increasingly more catatonic trout before the Yak turns into a literal Ice Princess, give it a go. Take nymphs. Lots of them. Conveniently December is just around the corner and you can ask Santa for a bunch of flies to replace those you sacrificed to the river gods. Ask for some tippet spools, tapered leaders and strike indicators while you’re at it.
December. Never fished the Yak during December, so I can’t be of much help to you there. If you like getting coal in your stocking on Christmas morning, you may like fishing the Yakima in December.
Now that you have an alternative perspective to the hatches of the Yakima River, who you gonna believe- me, or them?