Red’s fly shop
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?
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.
The ink from last week’s blog entry was barely dry when I received a text message from Marck. Expecting criticism for having taken certain creative liberties in my post, I was surprised to see the words pop up on the screen of my phone: “Yak tomorrow?” Unlike me, Marck is a man of few words. Texting is a rather unpleasant endeavor for me because I have a hard time buying into the whole “textspeak” thing, with its baffling array of acronyms and abbreviations and lack of correct punctuation and proper grammar. It would have taken me 25 minutes to respond with the following text message: “Good day, Marck. I received your digital communication regarding the matter of fishing the Yakima and yes, that sounds like a rather grand idea and one that I would greatly enjoy partaking of. If you’ll allow me the courtesy to first check with Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler before I commit to joining you, I will get back to you just as soon as possible. Thank you for the invitation. I look forward to conversing with you in the very near future and hope all is well. Very sincerely, The one who is rather unaccomplished in the ways of fly fishing.” So rather than reply in kind I opted to actually call him.
Then I sent an email to Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler announcing that I was going to go fishing with Marck. The reply was not encouraging: “You have a chore list to do.” Oh, yeah, that: The honey-do list that was taped to my computer so I couldn’t ignore it. “Yeah, yeah – I’ll get to that when I can. By the way, what’s for dinner, woman?” should have been my response. With no further discussion, I called Marck once again and told him I wouldn’t be able to go. I stared at the list for a few minutes and it became painfully clear what my Saturday was going to consist of: Change lightbulbs, sweep driveway, take cardboard boxes to recycling bin, sweep out garage, clean fireplace glass, and my favorite: Clean your office. When she got home from work a short while later I was moping around the house like a dog that had been punished for taking a crap on the living room carpet that had just been shampooed. I was caught completely off guard when she asked what time I was leaving in the morning to go fishing. “Huh?!” As it turns out, I could go fishing as long as I was aware that my list had to be completed by the end of the weekend. My spirits were instantly lifted and I quickly fired off the following text message to Marck: “stillgotr oom in the hornet 2morrow i cango : ) LOL”
Per standard operating procedure I arrived at Marck’s house, refilled my coffee cup, and we headed east on I-90 with the Hornet in tow. It was just the two of us on this day – apparently Sir Lancelot (not his real name) wasn’t man enough to inform his wife that he would be going fishing and anything else could wait for another day. Several feet of snow had fallen in the hills recently, providing a good start to the winter ski season, but fortunately the road conditions over Snoqualmie Pass were bare and wet. We made good time, and it was 9 AM as we drove the Canyon Road to Red’s Fly Shop to arrange for a shuttle. Along the way we saw one lone soul wading a river that was otherwise strangely devoid of anglers. As we pulled into Red’s, which is usually teeming with optimistic fishing folks, the gravel parking area was empty. Surprisingly the boat salesman had apparently taken the day off, and only Leif was working the counter as we walked into the shop. From the reception we received one would have thought we were his long-lost best friends, who’d come to party and hand out cash prizes. He was obviously deprived of human interaction, which probably meant nobody had been in the shop for days, which meant the fishing had probably been slow, which meant staying home and chipping away at a honey do list might not have been such a bad idea. But here we were, so we arranged for the shuttle, plunked down a couple bucks for some token flies (purchased out of sympathy, as we didn’t really need any), and made our way back up the canyon to our launch point. We were going to float 4-1/2 river miles and planned to be off the water by 3:30 so Marck could be home by 5 PM for a party.
There was one drift boat with three passengers at the put-in when we arrived. Weather report: 34 degrees under sunny skies and no wind. We layered up accordingly and dropped the Hornet into the low, 41 degree waters of the Yakima river. After having been humbled the last dozen or so times on this river, I had declared today to be a day of redemption. A bold declaration for sure, everything looked just right for a great day on the water, and it should be noted that Marck had wisely opted for his old standby Red’s fishing hat. We strung up our 6 weight rods with indicators and double fly rigs: I opted for a brown Pat’s Stone with a #20 Lightning Bug dropper; Marck tied on an olive Sculpzilla followed by a Copper John. Immediately after launching we rowed across the river a short ways and anchored up on a gravel bar. A particular side channel looked fishy and we wanted to cover every piece of promising water on this day, which would very likely be our last jaunt to the Yak before spring: It was the third weekend in November, and winter could take hold at any moment. And so on this fishy-looking side channel I made my first cast, tossed a mend into the line and watched. The strike indicator dipped, but I dismissed it as the swirling current simply up to its cruel tricks of deception. However, when I lifted the tip of my rod it became readily apparent that more than the current was to blame for submerging my bobber. I was a bit too hesitant in my attempt to set the hook, and saw the fat rainbow roll below the surface and spit my fly. Good looking fish- probably 15-16 inches. Just as well – it’s not like me to have good fortune right off the bat, or at any other time for that matter. We boarded the Hornet once again and proceeded downstream.
This wasn’t the usual stretch of river we typically fish, so the change of scenery was sure to make a slow day of fishing more interesting. Navigating this section of the river was a bit more challenging as well, so whoever was on the oars at any given time had several opportunities to yell, “Hold on!” as the other braced themselves for a bumpy ride or ducked to avoid low-hanging overhead branches. However nothing really out of the ordinary took place for the first hour or so, and it didn’t appear as though the day was going to give up much fodder worth reporting. I did manage to land a couple Whitefish, but nobody with any self-respect boasts about catching these much-maligned fish.
This is something I’ve never quite understood because afterall, they’re a native species and they swim where trout swim so if a whitey puts a bend in your rod, so be it. The way I figure, it simply means you got your fly where the fish are – so what if the fish you caught wasn’t what you intended, right? I mean, heck – one occasionally hears of anglers catching a steelhead when engaged in the act of fishing for trout, and that’s an example of an unintentional by-catch, isn’t it? Wait, never mind. At any rate, my second whitey was actually a fairly large specimen and I even hooked it in the mouth, of all places.
Marck was still fishless at this point, but neither of us worried about that. There was still plenty of day left and he’s a fishy dude so it was just a matter of time before he caught on. In the meantime, I managed to hook into my second biggest trout ever on the Yak: A beautiful 18-inch rainbow that fell victim to my Lightning Bug, and gave me several minutes of sporting entertainment before finally cooperating and coming to the net. It was 2-1/2 years earlier when I caught a similar sized fish on this river, and the time between had come to be known as “The Lean Years”, with few fish being caught overall, and none of those fish being more than 12-14 inches. I’d also tasted a skunk more than a couple times during this era of famine, so catching this solid fish began the healing process.The sweet smell of redemption still lingered in the air when I landed my next fish: A feisty 14-incher that I plucked from behind a log in water that looked so good there might as well have been a sign posted that read, “There’s a fish here – Guaranteed.” Landing this second trout brought me much additional pleasure, and grinning a smug grin I happily took the oars so Marck could angle. I’m not one to be greedy or spiteful, and I really did not want Marck to go fishless on this day.
We covered a lot of great looking water in our quest for Marck’s first fish of the day. While neither of us had mentioned it, we were both keenly aware of the fact that his catch record was in dire jeopardy, and as we entered the last hour of the day there rode with us an elephant in the rear seat of the boat. At one point we anchored the Hornet on an island to work some nice looking water, and Marck walked off a ways so he could be alone with his worries. It was clear that he was troubled. As Marck grew more serious I knew better than to tease him about something like this. I rowed in silence and began to ponder the headline of my next blog entry: “Marck Tastes a Skunk!”, or “Hey Marck – How Do Ya Like Them Apples?” It would to be a tough decision, but thankfully one I would never have to make because shortly thereafter he set the hook on an adorable little 9 inch rainbow and secured his skunk-free record. After releasing the fish, Marck requested another turn on the oars to warm up his hands. By now the sun was fully behind the clouds and a wind was starting to bite at us, so I humored him: The reality was that he was emotionally spent from the ordeal, and he needed some quiet time to reflect on having escaped shame and public ridicule by the narrowest of margins. This was a man who came dangerously close to epic failure…all color had drained from his face and a cold sweat beaded upon his forehead. He regained his composure and warmed his hands on the sticks.
Checking his watch he announced that it was 4:15. “Uh…Don’t you have to be home by 5?” I asked rhetorically. Marck decided that he’d just call his wife and tell her we were on our way, and that we were about an hour away from arriving home. I tried to discourage him from lying to her, but he assured me it would be okay. And truth be told it wasn’t really an all out fib because from the time we launched we were ultimately on our way home. As Marck dialed his wife’s number, he reminded me fishermen are notorious liars. He had a point. In reality we were probably 15 minutes from our take-out and another hour and a half from home, assuming it wasn’t snowing on the pass. As Marck spoke to his wife and explained that the roads were icy and the going was slow, my indicator took a nose dive and I’m pretty sure Mrs. Marck didn’t hear me yell, “Fish on!”. Enticing the 10 inch rainbow on the Pat’s Stone topped off a much better than average day, and it was good way to end the year. Let the icy grips of winter have the Yak – I’d had my day of redemption and was heading home with the smell of fish on my hands. Now, if I could have just gotten Marck home in 20 minutes he wouldn’t have had to spend the night in the doghouse.
Note: If after reading the accounts of this day you feel that the Unaccomplished Angler is becoming an accomplished braggart, fear not – winter steelhead season lies just ahead. I am bracing myself to have my posterior handed to me accordingly.