singing the blues
According to Wikipedia, a “Blue Ribbon Fishery” is a designation made in the United States by government and other authorities to identify recreational fisheries of extremely high quality. Official Blue Ribbon status is generally based on a set of established criteria which typically addresses the following elements:
- Water quality and quantity: A body of water, warm or cold, flowing or flat, will be considered for Blue Ribbon status if it has sufficient water quality and quantity to sustain a viable fishery.
- Water accessibility: The water must be accessible to the public.
- Natural reproduction capacity: The body of water should possess a natural capacity to produce and maintain a sustainable recreational fishery. There must be management strategies that will consistently produce fish of significant size and/or numbers to provide a quality angling experience.
- Angling pressure: The water must be able to withstand angling pressure.
- Specific species: Selection may be based on a specific species.
When translated from the native tongue of the Yakama people, I’m reasonably sure that “Blue Ribbon Fishery” means “over-hyped, over-fished river 2 hours from Seattle.” Now don’t get me wrong – I am grateful for a river with a relatively decent population of trout so close to home, and I know folks who do pretty well on the Yakima (in fact, as you read this I am fishing with one such person and you can bet he’s out-catching me). However, as you may have extracted from previous writings, the Yakima River has never shown me much love. I fished it once with a guide, and on that day the river offered forth the biggest trout I’ve ever caught. But guides fish the water every day and develop a special and intimate relationship with the river. They know where every bit of subsurface structure is, and exactly which fish lurk there. So if you ask a guide, or someone who regularly fishes with a guide, or someone who lives close by and fishes the river a LOT, or someone who is simply a good fisherman, you’ll likely hear a different tune. But for the fish-challenged, unaccomplished angler like me, the Yakima has me singing the blues rather than proclaiming any Blue Ribbon status.
But let’s not focus on what the Yakima is lacking and instead take a look at what she does offer: For one it has wind. Count on it. Where the west-side (or, wet-side) of the Cascades has its seemingly ever-present precipitation, central Washington has its seemingly ever-moving air. Sometimes the wind is just a little annoying as your line piles up and flies off-course. Usually when it’s like this one can wait a few seconds and cast reasonably well between gusts. Other times the air moves upstream with the force equal to a gale, pushing a craft against the current. Rowing downstream and making little progress is not an altogether uncommon experience on the Yak, and pity the poor angler who finds himself on a flat stretch of water at one of these times. I’ve seen many a drift boat with their bows pointed upstream, while the oarsman pulls hard against the wind, making arduous progress, even with the current in their favor. About the only time the wind isn’t present is in the dead of winter and during the height of summer when it’s 147 degrees and you find yourself quagmired in the long, flat section of the Lower Canyon known as Frustration Flats. Suffice it to say that when planning a day to visit the Yak, I always check the weather and pick a day when the forecast calls for “light winds”. I used to argue about wind and rain with my brother-in-law, who lives in Moses Lake (where the wind also blows). My position was that the incessant rains where I live are worse than the unrelenting winds where he lives. His argument was, as you might have guessed, just the opposite. Over the years I’ve changed my tune. While I would prefer to not stand in a drenching rain while fishing, I would much rather not stand in the face of a howling wind while fishing. Rain blows, but wind blows more. But back to the merits of the Yakima River.
The Yakima is very likely better than any other trout rivers within reasonable distance of my home. I’m not sure what the accurate fish count per mile is on each section of the Yakima (or if there is even such a thing as an accurate fish count per mile) but it’s got more sub-six inch fish than any other river I’ve fished in Washington. I’ve caught more 3-4 inch fish than fish of any other size, so one thing is for certain: if even a small percentage of those trout tots make it to adulthood, there are going to be a lot of nice trout in the river some day. That provides hope, but no guarantees. Now I am not suggesting that I want a guarantee each time I fish – afterall, if it was that easy two things would happen: first, everyone would be out fishing and the rivers would be overcrowded (and at times they seem that way as it is); and secondly, anglers would lose interest because if it were that easy where would be the challenge? Challenge is what keeps us going back. It’s what keeps me going back to the Yak, where I am constantly catch-challenged.
Another huge advantage the Yakima has is that it’s a year-round fishery. So when cabin fever hits in the deep chill of January or February, one can stand knee deep in the frigid waters of the Yakima, shortline nymphing for whitefish and the occasional lethargic trout, while your guides ice-up and you lose feeling in your toes and fingers. Now, depending on the mood of Old Man Winter it might not be so unbearable to fish during the dead of winter because some years, like the one we’re currently enjoying up here in the Pacific Northwest, can be relatively mild and therefore the fishing discomfort minimal. So, yes – you can get our trout fix 12 months of the year on the Yakima. Oh, and in the dead of winter the wind rarely blows. And the fish rarely bite.
The Yakima is also a beautiful river, with entirely different personalities as she runs through the 70 some odd miles along her course. No two sections of the river are the same, but they all hold a certain beauty. While some of the upper sections will take the angler far from any road, overall the Yakima is not a remote river. It certainly has a rural flavor, but isolated she is not. Through the Lower Canyon, the river follows the highway, or vice versa. One is never far from the buzzing sound of tires on the rumble strip, which can serve to keep the angler, as well as the driver of the vehicle, from falling asleep. And there’s nothing quite like floating the Lower Canyon when the streamside railroad track comes alive with the deafening roar of the freight cars that make a daily migration. But even with the trains and steady vehicle traffic, the Lower Canyon offers up a chance to enjoy sightings of deer and Bighorn Sheep, and during the summer months when the recreational floaters comprise what is known as the “rubber hatch”, the river offers an altogether different type of wild life viewing opportunity. There’s never a shortage of astonishing sights.
My relationship with the Yakima is one of the love/hate nature. Hate may be the wrong choice of words, but there are times when the love, along with the fish, is in great shortage. You may be thinking to yourself that I am unduly critical of the Yakima, and that I beat her up unfairly in my writings. Truth be told, it is I who is on the receiving end of the beatings, so throw a little sympathy my way, won’t you? Go fish the Yakima for yourself and draw your own conclusions. Maybe I’ll see you on the river.
Map courtesy of Amato Books, from the book,