large yakima river rainbow

Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, unless your name is Marck.

Late October on the Yakima River means magnificent colors that span brilliant yellows to vibrant reds and the bluest skies you can imagine. It also means fishing small flies with light tippet for potentially some of the biggest fish of the year. This can be the most technically challenging time on the Yakima, but the rewards can be great for the angler of skill and accomplishment. And still, I wanted go.

I watched the weather report, checked flows and decided that the last Friday in October would be a good day to hit the lower Yakima Canyon. Due to some heavy rain early in the week the river had spiked, but was on the drop. The weather called for clouds and mild winds and temps in the 50’s, with ample cloud cover (which should ensure a BWO hatch).  With the prospects of rising fish it didn’t take much prodding to convince Marck to join me, and we dropped the Hornet into the clear, 58 degree waters at Mile Marker 20. It was just before noon and a chilly 45 degrees under high fog that blanketed the canyon. I was glad for the lightweight long johns I’d thrown on that morning; Mark would soon wish for more than the shorts he had on under his waders. No fish would be rising for at least an hour, if then, so we selected Lightning Bugs and WD40s to fish under indicators: small stuff in the #20 and #22 hook sizes. These are things I can barely manage to see with the naked eye, let alone thread tippet through the hook eyes.

As we geared up, I heard Marck proclaim, “Oh, gosh darnit!”  Alarmed by this outburst of disturbing profanities, I glanced to see that in his hands was the empty tube for his 6 wt Sage VT2, the intended weapon for the day.  Apparently he’d failed to place the rod back into the tube after using it last, and the rod itself sat somewhere in his garage. Luckily he had with him a backup rod, though it wasn’t perhaps the best choice for fishing nymphs with an indicator to potentially large fish.  Since he had no other choice in the matter, his 7’6″ Sage ZXL 3 weight would have to do. It’s a splendid rod that is comfortably at home presenting dry flies to smallish fish.  Chances were the fish would fit that bill, as large fish on the Yakima are the exception rather than the norm. But one never knows on the Yakima, especially in the fall when the big fish are eating ahead of the ensuing winter. I’ve fished Marck’s ZXL and it’s a sweet little stick. Mated with a Sage III Click reel, the whole thing is like a feather in the hand and makes my 4wt Sage Z-Axis feel rather like a battle axe (which is, of course, absurd and I resent the implication). It should be noted that the reel on Mark’s little rod has no drag mechanism. Part of the fun of playing modest-sized fish on a light rod is applying the brakes with the palm of one’s hand, old school.

We began our float, nymphing all the likely seams off the bank, and when those produced no bumps we’d fish tighter to the river’s edge, losing a few flies to the overhanging bushes in the process. Finally after an hour, while we were anchored up working some particularly fishy-looking water, Marck’s rod bent significantly (to the cork).  “Got a fish on, finally?” I asked. “Nice fish,” was all he said (Marck isn’t real chatty when he’s focused). While it doesn’t take more than a small fish to bend the little 3 weight ZXL, this was no small fish and Marck’s reel sang the sweet tune that a click and pawl reel sings as line is peeled at warp speed.  The wind was light to non-existent, but the unmistakable smell of burning flesh wafted toward me, and I realized Marck’s palm was getting the short end of the stick. The fish didn’t jump or display any sort of acrobatics common to rainbow trout, so I immediately concluded that he’d hooked into a big Rocky Mountain Bonefish (likely hooked it in the arse, too). However when the fish flashed nearby the vibrant colors of the rainbow did away with any notions of it being a whitefish. Then the fish pit its head down and parked itself on the bottom of the river as it showed Marck who was boss. “What size tippet do you have on?” I asked, hoping Marck would reply with something a bit stouter than he did: “6X,” he answered.  Crap. The only thing going for him was that the light 3 weight rod had a very sensitive tip, so the web-like tippet would be protected as much as possible as the battle ensued. I wondered if Marck had even bothered to put backing on the spool…

As he continued to fight the fish and grind off the remaining flesh of his palm, I set myself to the task of preparing the net.  Now, a good net isn’t going to require any preparation, but Marck’s net is not what I would consider a good one. It has a decent rubber basket, but the telescoping handle requires that two spring-loaded pins lock into place to secure the basket.  The problem is that this particular aspect of the mechanism doesn’t work very well, and I fumbled with the pins, trying to depress them so the basket would slide into place and lock securely. One of the pins got stuck. I had neither the time nor the tool on hand to fix it. I hoped the other pin would suffice. It felt like eternity had passed before I finally got it partially assembled. Luckily the delay caused by my ineptness the stupid net didn’t pose a problem because Marck was no closer to landing the fish than he had been before the net fiasco began. Each time he would get the fish closer to the boat, it would roll and dive. The little clicker screamed as line was taken at will.  And repeat. During the epic struggle my job was to stay out of the way, so I cowered in the front of the boat, staying as low as possible, with a rickety net clasped tightly in my hands, waiting to knock the fish loose from Marck’s hook . (Note to Mrs. Marck: please get him a decent net for Christmas)

Fortunately, this would not happen. After several minutes of waiting patiently for Marck to land the fish so I could step in and do the important part, I finally got the opportunity to dip the net under the fish and with impressive skill scooped the beast from the water.  At an honest 20 inches , if not more, it was better than just a “nice fish”. It was the type of fish all anglers hope for but rarely if ever experience on the Skunkima Yakima. Just then the sun broke through the fog and shone rays down upon the glistening colors of the rainbow: a magnificent specimen that bore signs of some residual cutthroat DNA, as suggested by faint remnants of throat slashes. It was textbook fall fishing on this river: big fish on tiny flies fished at the end of tiny thread-like monofilament. What the textbooks don’t suggest is targeting these big fish of fall on such a light rod. However, after witnessing the event first hand, it would be hard to criticize Marck for anything other than remembering to inspect the hook on his fly after landing the big fish (later in the day he lost a fish because the hook had been straightened by the big hawg earlier). I don’t know how many times I’ve told him to check for these sorts of things…

After this fish of a ***lifetime, nothing else caught that day mattered much, though Marck did land a nice 15 inch fish.  Yours truly managed a modest 10 inch rainbow on a dry fly during a brief BWO hatch that didn’t produce much action beyond that. If not for substandard angling skills I’d have landed a 12 incher later in the day, and I hooked into something that grabbed my soft hackle as it swung through a seam, gave a series of heavy head shakes and broke me off.  One has to wonder if that fish might have been an inch bigger than Marck’s?  Probably a steelhead. That’s the angle I’m taking.

***This was actually Mark’s second fish of a lifetime on the Yakima River this year.  He caught a similar sized beast earlier in the year, on heavier tippet and his 6 weight. You can see the result HERE.