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.
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.
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!
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…”
For those of you who didn’t catch my feeble attempt at being clever with my headline, it’s an admittedly weak play on my favorite Heart song from their 1976 Dreamboat Annie album. Great song, though it has absolutely nothing to do with fly fishing. Regardless, just click the play button and listen as you read – at least that way the music will be good.
Against my better judgment I found myself once again floating the lower canyon of Washington’s blue ribbon Yakima River (which really is not a blue ribbon river based on my experiences) with Marck and Erique (not his real name). It was the third week of August, which is was prime hopper time on the Yakima. The Yak flows are artificially high during summer months in order to supply the agricultural Yakima Valley with the necessary water to grow an assortment of crops in what would otherwise be a desert filled with sagebrush. As the growing season tapers to a close, the high summer flows (around 4000 cfs) are cut off and the great annual “flip flop” commences. By September the flows settle to somewhere around 1000CFS. As the flows drop, the fish know what’s happening: Winter’s a-comin’, so they’re on the lookout for food. OK, they’re always looking for food, but like bears and sorority girls, they need to increase their caloric intake ahead of winter hibernation (not that fish hibernate, but their metabolisms do shut down considerably as water temps plummet to near-freezing).
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. And so on this trip the water level was beginning to drop significantly. I’ve heard it told that the best hopper fishing on the Yak occurs at this time of year, so I was giddy when Marck called to say we’d be fishing on this day. It would be good to spend the day with Erique as well, as he is in his own right a very accomplished angler and good all around guy, even if he made a bad choice in the college he attended.
Unfortunately, the day didn’t exactly turn into a catchfest. A couple smallish 10 inch trouts were landed, though nothing worth writing home about. One event worth writing about was the fact that Erique rose a 7 inch whitefish to a hopper. Now, before you make fun of both the fish and the fisherman, it should be noted that this was no small feat given the fact that even a much larger whitefish has disproportionately small mouth, which means that a 7 inch whitefish has a mouth so tiny that someone my age would need reading glasses just to see it. So, nice job hooking that fish on a size 10 hopper, Erique! Not surprisingly, Marck had already landed the Fish of the Day (a 13 inch bruiser), which gave him bragging rights (again). Par for the course.
Things were looking dour for me, so when I finally hooked into a solid fish that bent my 4 wt to the cork, everyone onboard got excited in much the same way that everyone cheers for the uncoordinated kid when he finally scores a point. Immediately after I set the hook, Marck (in an uncharacteristically excited manner) proclaimed, “NICE fish! That could be your best fish on this river!” (Note: To date, my best fish on the Yakima was a 19 inch rainbow I caught 3 years prior while drifting with my brother Hal and guide Johnny Biotano of Red’s Fly Shop.) At any rate, it took some time to bring this beastly fish to the net, and as it was played closer and closer to the boat, two things were missing: (A) The typical acrobatics and (B) typical coloration one might expect of a rainbow trout. Enter into evidence Exhibit W: a 17 inch whitefish. Marck was partially correct in that it was my best (white)fish to date and, unusual for me, the biggest fish of the day. Braggin rights, baby! Had the fish been a trout I’m sure I would have been an insufferable braggart the rest of the day, but being that it was a whitefish I didn’t find much satisfaction in the whole thing. The remainder of the float wasn’t much for the memory books: The hopper action we had anticipated never really amounted to much and the evening caddis hatch let us down. Blah, blah, blah. Oh well, there was still the cold beer and greasy burgers waiting for us at The Tav, and all we had to do was put an end to this forgettable float and drive the short distance to Ellensburg.
There was, however, one small matter preventing that from happening: the keys to Erique’s Suburban were not inside the gas filler door where we had instructed the shuttle driver to leave them (as they were the only set of keys). We searched every likely and unlikely location where the keys might have been incorrectly placed, but they were not to be found. Marck and I were in denial – it was almost a year to the date of our last fiasco (Dude, where’s the car?). Surely this sort of thing couldn’t happen again! After the desperate search that fell just short of removing body panels, we concluded that lightning had indeed struck for a second time. To wash down the bitter taste of the bad situation, we borrowed a couple beers from a cooler that had been unintentionally left behind at the ramp by some generous and very intoxicated rubber hatchers. We then contemplated what our next move would be.
Ted and Troy, a couple of guides who work for Red’s, were hanging around the launch, talking shop after having pulled their boats out of the water. They’d had a great day putting their clients on fish and when they asked how we’d faired, the collective reply was “Great! Fabulous! Slayed ‘em we did, by golly!” We then told them of our precarious situation and they kindly placed a call to The Boss, who in turn made a couple calls. It was discovered that the shuttle driver had safely locked the keys inside the vehicle, under the floor mat, where they were secure from anybody who might want to drive off in the car, be it some low-life car thieves, or in this case the owner of the vehicle and his two very hungry, very thirsty fishing companions. I offered a simple solution that was met with a lukewarm reception: smash the window and presto- we’re in! It was decided that Erique would make use of his roadside emergency service and call a tow truck. Seemed pretty simple and straightforward, but in actuality it was far from either. After walking 37 paces to the southeast, standing on one leg with his left arm outstretched at a 47 degree upward angle, Erique finally manage to get a cellular signal. He then spoke with an operator in Maylasia, who connected him with the dispatch center which was, I believe, in Bostwana. From there the dispatcher consulted the yellow pages and within an hour and a half we had a towtruck en route from Yakima, which was twice as far as had they sent a truck from say, Ellensburg, which was about 12 miles up the road. The important thing was that the tow truck driver was able to unlock the Suburban, and by 9:30 PM we were on our way home, way behind schedule. As we sped past Ellensburg, I pressed my nose against the window and gazed to the north: I could just make out The Tav in the distance. I was hungry and parched. If you’ve ever been struck by lightning, you know that it leaves a bad taste in your mouth that only a greasy burger and a cold beer can wash away. Oh well, maybe next time – I’ve heard that lightning never strikes three times. Knock on wood, and please pass the cheese: This Unaccomplished Angler is whining.