hopper fishing

What Happened to the Hoppers?

I first caught wind of it in early spring and the news spread quickly throughout the fly fishing networks about a Western states grasshopper invasion predicted to be of Biblical proportions. Several news sources posted articles of the impending doom, and it appeared that my home state of Washington was not safe from the perils facing other states from the Dakotas through Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon. Do a search for “grasshopper invasion 2010” and you’ll be amazed at the hype predictions.

Hoppers can be devastating to crops and native grasslands, and farmers throughout the west were grimacing. At the same time anglers were grinning ear to ear. I certainly wish no ill upon the good folk who work the land, but hopper fishing in the mid to late summer is always a grand time on rivers such as the Yakima. Floating the canyon under abundant sun and hot temperatures, tossing large bushy imitations that look somewhat like a grasshopper tight to the banks is something I look forward to every year. The fish are seeking protected shelter from the high summer flows so they don’t really want to move more than an inch or so to eat. Casts must therefore be right on the bank. Not six inches out from the bank, but literally on the bank.  If you can bounce the fly off a blade of grass or twig of some shrubbery and have it flop gently into the water within an inch of the bank, chances are an opportunistic trout will grab the offering as it falls on their nose.  If the hook snags some vegetation and holds, the angler need not necessarily fret because heavy tippets are needed to turn over the big flies. 3X doesn’t snap as easily as 5X and it’s not uncommon to get your fly back after snagging it. I think that’s what I like best about hopper fishing.

As daunting as the predictions were, the hopper invasion evaded me on two consecutive outings on the Yakima this summer during what should have been prime hopper time. On one outing we saw a lone grasshopper. On the next trip we saw not a one. Fishing hopper patterns did not prove overly effective either, so apparently the fish weren’t looking for that particular foodstuff.  Maybe they new that it was all just hype. The first hopper-free outing was written up previously here.  The next outing is what you are reading right now.

Try as we might neither Jimmy nor I could find a third person willing to share time on the oars come fishing with us, so we headed east on I-90 toward Ellensburg. Friday traffic was fairly heavy as West-siders fled the gloomy gray weather for more summer-like conditions on the East side. Luckily they were all in a hurry to leave the lousy weather in the rear view mirror and traffic moved along at a good clip. That is, until the sudden presence of a police vehicle in the slow lane caused everyone in the fast lane to overreact and apply their brakes. Police vehicles always make people nervous, even when those people aren’t violating any laws. As we inched our way past the police car I could have sworn I saw Barney Fife behind the wheel, though I may have just been having flashbacks to 1956. We were headed to Mayberry or Ellensburg? Weird.

Without further incident we made it to Ellensburg and grabbed a sandwich at Subway before proceeding into the lower Yakima Canyon to procure a shuttle at Red’s Fly Shop. We launched Jimmy’s Hyde at Big Horn and began our afternoon float that would take us 16 miles to the take out at Roza. The great flip flop of the Yakima was happening early this year and the high summer flows were already dropping. Lowering water means feeding fish, and we were stoked to hit the river. The plan was to pound the banks with big bugs all day and once the sun dropped behind the canyon walls we’d be on some slow water for when the fish switched from hoarking hoppers to sipping small caddis.  The last 3 miles of our float were perfect for that- long stretches of flat water lined by grass and shrubbery.

The hoppers were, again, curiously absent.  The w#nd, however, was not. It blew in our faces and at our backs, but w#nd is something one just learns to deal with, and except for a few gusts that blew our hats off and rattled our fly boxes, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been (like the day before when it was blowing 40 mph). I fished a golden stone dry for most of the day before switching to something smaller and tan-colored later on, while Jimmy fished mostly a variation of tan foam ant.  He did try a Chernobyl hopper for a spell, but it yielded no results. This actually surprised me because often times if an angler thinks outside the box and shows the fish something radically different from what they’re used to seeing, the results can be favorable.  Not so this time. As far as fishing goes, it was still a great day.  Low pressure over the West side of the mountains had cooled things off in central and eastern Washington, and the temps were comfortably in the mid 70’s – very cool for this time of year but very tolerable, especially when on the oars. And since it was just the two of us we each saw plenty of time in the rower’s seat, mostly trying to keep the boat from being blown into the bank.

The last remnants of the Great Summer Rubber Hatch of the Yakima revealed itself in a number of scantily-clad young people in inflatable toys, milking the river for all its worth. They were admittedly under-dressed for the coolish weather but alcohol seems to dull the senses and they all appeared to be having their own brand of fun. In another few days the river would drop to levels where exposed rocks would put an end to the Rubber Hatch for good.

Other than the few flotillas of frolickers the river wasn’t very busy. We leap-frogged with 4 other boats all day but there was plenty of room in all the good water to drop anchor and ply the likely haunts with our dry fly offerings.  We saw a couple anglers fishing with strike indicators but we refused on this day to fish anything but a dry. We stumbled upon Sir Lancelot and Marck and their cargo of guest anglers as they were pulled over seeking a place to grab some lunch. As we approached I shouted a friendly greeting as friends often do when they see a comrade on the water:  “Ahoy! Catch any whitefish lately?” I asked.  Marck’s reply was brief, as he’s a man as short on words as I am on height: “Nope, how about you?”  Before I could say “We’re not fishing for whitefish, sir – we are gentleman dry fly anglers and we are fishing exclusively for trout,” my rod tip bent slightly and I reeled in a small Squawfish Northern Pikeminnow. Marck pointed out what I already knew: there is a bounty on the heads of any Northern Pikeminnow over 9 inches, and my fish would have fetched a reward of $4 had I caught it on the Columbia River. But there’s no official bounty on these fish in the Yakima River so I released it back into the waters to devour more juvenile salomonids.

Catching was actually better than what I typically encounter on the Yakima, which isn’t saying a lot. Jimmy landed a half dozen fish in the 8-10 inch range and nearly landed a 15 inch trout that showed all the gumption of a spawned-out, half-rotten salmon.  It was really quite a surprise at how little resistance this otherwise healthy looking fish offered, and the fact that Jimmy didn’t actually bring it to the net speaks only to the fact that he is as unaccomplished as the other fisherman in the boat.  Yours truly landed a handful of rather unimpressive fish in the similar size range of 8-10 inches.

The action turned up a notch during our last 45 minutes on the water as I hooked 3 fish and landed two of them.  A strong fighting ~15 inch fish took line from my reel and jumped a couple of times before breaking off my 5X (at least my knots held).  I’d liked to have landed that fish for sure, but it was fun just to feel a solid tug on the end of the line after many previous trips without that privilege. We saw very few rising fish all day, and many of those hooked were done so several feet off the banks.  The only fish we encountered that were hunkered tight to the banks were 2-4 inch troutlets.  This came as no surprise given the dropping flows – the larger fish were moving into feeding lanes out from the banks as they do every year at this time. So everything was as it should have been.

Except for the hoppers.  Where were the hoppers?

The Unaccomplished Angler’s Hatch Guide to the Yakima River

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.

Skwala

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 Brown

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.

Salmonfly

Salmon Fry

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.

Pale Morning Dun

Golden Stone

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.

Chernobyl Hopper

Rubber Hatch Emerger

Dome Light Caddis

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.

Rubber Hatch Spinners

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.

Blue Winged Olive

October Caddis in September

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 Caddis

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.

Thingamabobbers

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.

Coal

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?

Troutwater Guide Service & Fly Shop

The Evening Hatch

The Worley Bugger

Red’s Fly Shop