squawfish

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?

This year, my Stocking is half full.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make the general assumption that we all like opening presents on Christmas morning. It’s the kid in all of us that enjoys the surprise of discovering what’s inside that gift wrapped box under the tree, or revealing what PC210434special little surprises cause our stockings to swell as they hang by the chimney with care. And even if it’s not what we had hoped for or thought it might be, it’s a surprise nonetheless. As kids, I’m sure we all faced a certain disappointment on Christmas morning at least once because what we had asked Santa for had apparently fallen on deaf ears, like the time a young boy asked for a Billy Blastoff and instead received a new pair of Sears dress slacks (hypothetical scenario only). As we get older, we realize that it’s not what’s inside that counts so much as the thought that goes into it – that’s part of being an adult. And it’s that same sort of rational maturity that allows us to actually believe in sayings such as, “It’s not the destination, but the journey that counts.” Another one comes to mind as well: “There’s more to fishing than just catching fish.”

Fishing is a lot like opening presents because fishing is all about surprises as well. Sure, you might head to a lake known to have just been stocked with trout, but you’re never guaranteed success so catching a fish is a gift. That first cast into a river may or may not result in a hookup (it seldom does in my case), but you keep at it, hoping that the next cast will produce some action. Catching is one thing, but what you catch is another surprise in and of itself. Unless you’re at a fishery that is known to produce one and only one species of fish, what that gift will be simply adds to the surprise factor. You may be fishing for bluegill, but hook up with a fat bass. Rainbow trout might be the intended goal, but you may find an unexpected steelhead on the end of your line (and if you do, good luck with that). Or maybe you’re fishing for cutthroat trout on a mountain stream, but wind up dealing with a bull trout instead (make sure it’s not a Dolly Varden, by the way).  There are many possible surprises when you’re fishing, and sometimes that surprise is so glorious that you can’t believe your good fortune. But as it is with material gifts, mature and rational adults are thankful for the gift no matter what it is.

For the most part.

Sometimes, try as we might, that surprise on the end of the line is beyond (or below) our abilities to keep it in proper perspective and appreciate it for what it is:  A wild creature perfectly suited for it’s natural environment that, in a moment of poor judgment, actually fell for the imitation food item that we placed in the water for the sole purpose of fooling the fish into accepting our false advertising and engaging us in a bit of sport. It’s called success. A bend in the rod is better than the alternative, right? What could possibly prevent anyone from being pleased with about that?

Well, self-righteousness, for one thing.

It seems that all too often we focus too narrowly on our goal and become blind to the possibility that the fish we catch, while perhaps not what we intended to catch, is worthy of our admiration, respect, and maybe even a hero photo. OK maybe that’s a stretch, but shouldn’t we at least pat ourselves on the back for any successful catch, even if it wasn’t our targeted species? Specifically, you ask, what are we talking about here?  Oh, you know – “garbage fish”:  Whitefish, suckers, carp, squawfish and the like.  If you fish the salt, the list grows to include a whole bunch of maligned by-catch species (dogfish, just to name one).

Whitefish

Whitefish

Who determined that these poor, disrespected species were somehow beneath our approval? Yes, some species are known to feed on juvenile salmonids and others compete for food with the popular fishes on the block, but isn’t that what they’re supposed to do in order to survive? Anglers are like politicians in this regard: Special interests and partisan opinions keep us from being able to objectively see the big picture:  Fish are, in the end, fish.  The Great Creator of Fish made them all equal, and it was only we high-browed upright walking mammals, with our large brains and opposeable thumbs, who applied a status to the different species (which started by giving them names that sound bad to begin with). Certainly some fish may not make for the best table fare, but if we’re out to practice catch and release, as most fly anglers do, then why not be pleased with an unintended catch? I recall once fishing a section of an Idaho river  known as the “Whitefish Hole”. Imagine my surprise (and disappointment) when I actually caught a whitefish there! Looking back, what a snob I was. Sheesh, I’m just sure.

Sucker

Sucker

I’ve caught my fair share of whitefish, and a couple squawfish. I’ll readily admit that I’ve been disappointed when I’ve incidentally caught these bottom-shelf species, because I was out to catch a noble gamefish at the time. I thumbed my nose at these disgusting creatures rather than admiring them for what they were: Fish.  I even tried, intentionally mind you, to catch some crap- I mean carp, once, but they would have none of it. When those oversized pond guppies wouldn’t show me the love, I judged them immediately for being stupid, worthless, trash fish.  As I walked away, I hollared back over my shoulder to the fish, “Yeah, well, I didn’t want to catch you anyway cause you’re…stupid. And ugly!” Reflecting back, as I look forward, I see that this sort of negative attitude puts me into the same camp of doubting Thomases that in other walks of life always see the glass as being half empty: Dwellers of negativity. I strive to be more positive as an angler in the future: To be thankful when I catch something, even if it wasn’t what I was targeting.  I mean, with my catch record, who am I to be selective?  My new motto is going to be, “There’s more to fishing than just catching what you intended to catch.”

Carp

Carp

I need the odds in my favor, and if I embrace anything that will hit my fly I’m going to be a lot better off. So no more “garabage fish” for me – from this point forward they will be described as “unexpected treasures”. By embracing this new,  positive philosophy I am reducing the amount of inevitable disappointment I’ll encounter as I fish the future.

Squawfish (Northern Pikeminnow)

Squawfish (Northern Pikeminnow)

So, what are you fishing for this Christmas? I hope it’s a good surprise. And if upon initial inspection it appears to be a lump of coal, maybe you can make a diamond out of it.

Merry Fishmuch to you and yourn.