the Tav Ellensburg
It seems as though perhaps last week’s entry was not well-received (or at least it was largely overlooked, possibly because I broke with protocol and posted a day early). Maybe I’m just being an insecure creative type – I fully admit that I always hope that my offerings will be met with at least mild acceptance. I looked inward to find out where I may have gone astray when it dawned on me: I had reported on an unusually good day of fishing. I acknowledge that what draws my readers (all 5 of them) to my blog is hearing of my fishing misfortunes. I am wrought with guilt and remorse, for I have seen the error in having lost my way. With renewed focus I can, and hopefully will, remedy that with my most recent fishing exploit:
A week had passed since I went looking for unicorns and bigfoot and found instead a wild Skykomish steelhead. Unless I wanted to join the many other thousands of anglers headed to the Olympic Penninsula rivers, which were still open for winter steelhead fishing, I was apparently done swinging flies with my Spey rod for the season. As I saw it I could either sit inside and write letters to the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife demanding a change in their policies, sulk and wait for the weather to warm a bit and for trout fishing to turn on, or I could accept the invitation to join Marck on the Yakima. A wise man would have saved the gas money and stayed home.
After grabbing a sandwich at the Ellensburg Subway, I turned left on Umtanum Road and headed toward the launch at Irene Rinehart Riverfront Park to meet up with Marck and his neighbor Steave (not his real name). Not wanting to risk a shuttle service snafu, we had opted to take matters into our own hands and run our own shuttle – thus the fact that we had driven separate vehicles. As I tried to get my mind off steelhead, I performed a series of mental stretches in preparation for the first day of trout fishing of the year. By the time it hit me it was too late to do anything about it – the unmistakable aroma of skunk infiltrated the cab of my truck. Thick and heavy, skunk gets on you fast: in your nose and on the back of your tongue. And unlike an odor that originates inside the vehicle, you can’t just roll down the window – you have no choice but to deal with it until you’ve put sufficient distance between yourself and the source. But skunk lingers for a great distance and will test the lung capacity of even a pearl diver. Only once you’ve put a solid quarter mile between yourself and the source can you roll down the window and exhale. God forbid one should actually run over the mess with their tire (which luckily I did not). I cannot begin to imagine the suffering endured by those who have either been sprayed themselves, or had to deal with a dog that became bathed in skunk juice. Anyway, as I pulled into the launch, I had put odor behind me and thought nothing more of it. We dropped the Hornet into the river, did the shuttle thing (which took us again past the dead skunk), and were ready to shove off by 11:30. It was a mild day in early February. The winter had not been hard and there was no snow visible for many miles in any direction, including Vancouver BC where the Olympics were suffering from an equally mild winter.
Recent rains had caused the Yak to come up a few inches over the past few days, but she still ran low. And cold. Figuratively she’s nearly always a bit of an ice princess toward me, but on this day she was literally cold: The handy dandy Fishpond stream thermometer registered 39 degrees. No matter how I tried, I could not get it to budge above 40. At this point I pondered the value of the thermometer I carried with me. What good is it, really, to know that the water temperature is below the ideal mark? I suppose it serves as an excuse more than anything – a justification for slow fishing, and so it is that I continue to carry mine. I was, however, optimistic: 39 degrees is, afterall, only one degree below 40, and 40 seems to be a magical number with regard to trout feeding activity, though 42 or 44 are even better. We strung up the rods, pointed the bow of the Hornet downstream and away we went. The initial offering of the day was a brown Pat’s Stone above a bead head San Juan Worm dropper, with a Thingamabobber as icing on the cake. If you’ve read any of my drivel up to this point you know how I feel about nymphing. Steave had never fished a double nymph setup before, and as we rigged up I bitched about the whole nymphing thing, explained to him the potential for tangles that this method of fly fishing offered. Marck glared sideways at me and mumbled under his breath, “Not this again…”
The air temperature was probably in the mid 30’s, but it felt warmer than that. In addition to never having fished using a double nymph rig, Steave had never fished out of a drift boat either. But he was well prepared for a winter day on the river with neoprene chest waders and a heavy goretex hunting jacket. Clad from head to toe in camouflage, the flock of geese that flew overhead saw everyone but Steave. I must say that the camo was so effective that I myself could hardly see him standing in the bow of the boat from my standard perch at the tail end of the Hornet. Now before you go accusing me of sounding like some sort of snob for poking fun at his attire, please note that I’m no fly fishing fashionista, and being also an unaccomplished hunter I have plenty of camo gear myself. What one wears when fishing doesn’t make a bit of difference to me, and the only reason I’m even mentioning Steave’s attire is because I need filler material.
The day started slowly, without so much as a subtle take from a single trout (even the Whitefish gave us the cold shoulder). After about an hour the lack of action allowed for outside influences to distract us from our keen focus, and the air began to feel chillier. I broke out a pair of hand warmers and stuffed them in the pockets of my Simms G3 wading jacket, which being a pleasant shade of loden goes splendidly with my tan waders. My brown lucky fishing hat and boots compliment the ensemble nicely. Warming the fingers was a nice luxury and improved much-needed dexterity. Keeping the fingers functioning proved necessary throughout the day, as tying on new flies and replacing sections of tippet was a steady ritual. Steave proved to be a quick study in the art of nymphing and had no trouble in mastering the tangling/break-off skills displayed by Marck and I. Nobody could fault us for not getting our flies where the fish were (or should have been), because we were snagging every bit of structure imaginable. At one point in the afternoon after losing my second set of flies in 10 minutes, I sensed my attitude plummeting and self imposed a timeout. I took the oars so Marck could fish, and soon was having more fun than I’d had all day: being on the oars meant I was making good use of my time and actually doing something productive. As I employed my superior oarsmanship and put the Hornet into some particularly fishy looking water, I suddenly realized that there was not a line in the water. Marck and Steave were both frantically working to reattach lost flies and broken tippet. Luckily Marck was quick to get back into action and made a beautiful cast right into a current seam that immediately took his dropper fly right into the grips of a submerged log. SNAP! So much for that set of new flies that had lasted just exactly 12 seconds. I heard Steave speaking in muffled tongues and decided not to attempt any words of false encouragement. The overwhelming sense of desperation was becoming comical, almost. Marck asked if he could row again, to which I replied “No.” I wasn’t about to give up the best seat in the house.
We threw everything at the fish: Pat’s Stones in brown and green/yellow (hoping to match a Skwala, just in case there were Skwalas starting to move about in the river, which apparently they were not); San Juan Worms, Copper Johns, Lightning Bugs, Beadhead Olive Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ears (say THAT 3 times fast). Nada, zip, zero, zilch. While I didn’t keep a running tally, it would be safe to say that I lost 6 or 8 flies over the course of the day, and Marck and Steave were in the same boat. I made a mental note to myself: “When you get home, order more flies.” (which I did, by the way- from Big Y Fly Company)
It wasn’t until right before we reached the termination point of our float that it hit me: Although the day was rather lackluster, there was one noteworthy occurrence – Marck had not caught a fish! This was the first time I’d ever fished with him that he’d gone catchless, and while I won’t go so far as to suggest that it was something to celebrate, it did make an otherwise forgettable day one for the memory books. We called the time of death at 5:16 and pulled the Hornet out of the water, stowed our gear and headed toward downtown Ellensburg for a Hungry Mother Burger and a beer. The only thing between us and The Tav was the stretch of road that still lay shrouded in the heavy odor of skunk.
It had been another forgettable day aboard The Hornet, fishing the Yakima with Marck. Like so many other days on Washington’s finest “blue ribbon” trout stream, it began with hope, which faded into frustration, and ended in disbelief. Actually, I may exaggerating things just a bit because at least one of us caught more than one fish that day. It was late summer, and we’d floated Big Horn to The Slab, covering several miles of grass-lined banks which we pounded with hoppers. As the sun set behind the canyon walls, the magical hour of the Caddis was suddenly upon us. We’d timed our float just right, hitting a long stretch of perfect dry fly water just prior to our take out. With each cast of my size 16 tan elk hair Caddis toward the brush on the river bank (where it would proceed to hang up on a branch) several dozen caddisflies would be shaken free of their perch and land on the water’s surface, where the trout would methodically sip the bugs while I fought to free my hook. When I did manage to avoid the vegetation and get my fly directly upon the water, it would be met with a rather lackluster reception from the feeding fish (read: Refusal). I won’t even tell you what Marck was doing – by now you’ve probably assumed that he was getting into fish, and your assumption would not be incorrect. I caught one fish that day, for which I was grateful. I’m not one to feel entitled, and I know that just because you’re fishing that’s never a guarantee that you’ll be catching. Still, one would expect more than one fish on a blue ribbon trout stream at the peak of hopper season.
We continued this madness until it was nearly dark, and while I have both the keen eyesight and cat-like reflexes necessary for setting the hook in complete darkness, Marck was struggling. I suggested that we call it a day: We were both hungry and The Tav in Ellensburg was calling our names. Marck got on the oars and we made our way downstream to The Slab. The high summer flows on the Yakima River can call for some frantic maneuvering at the termination point of a day’s float, but The Hornet was beached without incident. The Bureau of Reclamation had given this area a major facelift a year earlier, and it’s actually quite plush now. The campground glowed with the light of many bonfires, a couple of which could be seen from outer space. Everywhere, youthful outdoor enthusiasts were frolicking and laughing, preparing s’mores and singing campfire songs. I marveled at the good, clean summertime fun as I began breaking down the rods. I took me back to the simpler days before expensive fishing gear and fancy driftboats – back to a time when all I needed for a weekend of fun was a styrofoam cooler and a sleeping bag. Ah, good times. Marck was also feeling nostalgic and he sang “Kumbaya” as he walked off toward the parking lot to retrieve his truck and trailer, which had been dropped off by the shuttle service per our instructions. We’d be sipping a cold beer and enjoying a burger within a half hour.
Ten minutes had passed before Marck returned, but there was one thing missing. Well, actually two things were missing: His truck, and the trailer. After we stood around for a few minutes in the dark scratching our heads (during which time Marck apparently scratched off all the hair on his head), we concluded that the rig was not here. We didn’t have a cell number to reach the shuttle service after hours, and besides that, cell coverage is spotty at best in this location. Fortunately there was another fisherman who’d just pulled his boat out of the water. He kindly offered to take Marck with him as he drove the Canyon Road back to Ellensburg to drop off his boat at a storage facility. The plan was that after doing so they would head back down the Canyon Road. Along the way they would engage in a reconnaissance mission, checking each of the possible launch points where the truck and trailer might have mistakenly been left. Certainly it had to be at one of the obvious points along the river. The overwhelming majority of fly fishing folks are people of solid character, and The Good Samaritan Flyfisherman appeared to have all his teeth so I figured Marck was safe getting in the truck with this guy. An hour passed without word. Having seen Deliverance many times, I feared the worst and did what any concerned fishing buddy would do: I drank the last beer in the cooler. I walked 37 feet to the southeast, where there was a small patch of cell coverage, and sent a text message to my wife to let her know I’d be home much later than anticipated. Struggling with the “word” mode which my kids had recently programmed on my phone to make it easier for me to be an active participant in the 21st century, I managed to get off a message that read, “canv fiinde mARcks trckk wilbee hmme laabte. LOL : )”
The backlit screen on my phone was like a magnet to the thousands of caddisflies that were now fluttering about, and I actually thought about stringing up my rod and doing a little night fishing from the bank. I didn’t get much beyond thinking about it when a set of headlights pulled into the parking area. There were no trailer lights in tow, so I knew it wasn’t Marck’s rig. It was, however, Marck and The Good Samaritan Flyfisherman. They came bearing bad news: No sign of the rig. Our biggest concern now was that The Hornet was in the water with no means to extract it. We knew could get a ride home by calling one of our wives. I quickly pointed out that Mrs. Marck would have to be the one to drive 2 hours to come get us. Of the two wives, she was our only hope when it came to an act of sympathy: Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler would simply laugh at such a request before hanging up the phone and returning to her previously scheduled programming: The 14th viewing of Sleepless in Seattle. Or was it You’ve Got Mail?
Before we were faced with making that unpopular phone call, The Good Samaritan Flyfisherman offered to take Marck a couple of miles down the road in the other direction – there were two more potential launch points where the rig might be parked. If that yielded goose eggs, he said we could lift The Hornet onto his truck and he’d be glad to take it to his house in Yakima until we could make plans to retrieve it. A generous offer, but the idea of getting a 16 ft driftboat loaded onto a pickup truck with an 8 foot bed sounded like an act of dumb redneck desperation and conjured up images like the ones (below) found on the interweb.
But first things first, so once again Marck and The Good Samaritan Flyfisherman headed into the night on a continued mission to find the missing rig.
Within 10 minutes, Marck’s white truck with trailer in tow pulled into the parking lot. They’d found it parked a couple miles down the road, right where the shuttle driver left it – at the last takeout before the Roza Dam. It was an easy mistake given that “Slab” and “Roza” both contain 4 letters. Speaking of which, 4 letter words were what comprised Marck’s vocabulary as he climbed out of the truck (leaving the door open and consequently the dome light illuminated, by the way) and we loaded The Hornet onto the trailer. It was 10:30 PM–way too late for a burger and beer at The Tav tonight. We were just glad to put this one behind us, so we jumped in the truck and headed toward home, along with a thousand (give or take a couple hundred) caddisflies.
It should be noted, in all fairness to the shuttle service, that shuttle drivers are only human, and to err is an unfortunate trait of the species. When Marck called them the next day, they apologized profusely and offered us compensatory damages in the form of a few free shuttles in the future. Can’t ask for much more than that. The worst thing was that it meant we’d have to face the Yak again.
Often times after a day of fishing the Yakima River we’ll stop at The Tav for a bite to eat before the hour-and-a-half drive home. The Tav is in the heart of historic downtown Ellensburg (WA), in an old building with brick walls and heavy timber beams that suggest it was built during a long-ago era when they built things using materials like brick and heavy timber beams. Every time I’ve been there it’s a typically eclectic crowd of patrons – pretty much what you’d expect from a college town in the midst of agricultureville: College students and locals of all varieties. And of course the folks, like us, who come from near and far to fish the Yakima. It’s easy to pick the fly anglers from the crowd of otherwise jocular patrons, not from their caps displaying some sort of embroidered fly-fishing-related logo, but rather from the wind-chapped faces that bear the heavy sorrow of yet another brutal day of having their arses handed to them by the fish. Those who fish with a fly rod come to The Tav to cry in their beer, and that beer is always cold and well-suited for chasing a Hungry Mother Burger, which is always greasy in the way that any burger worth eating is greasy. It’s just what the doctor ordered as a way to cap off another unforgettable day on the water. The service is always prompt, and when asked if we want fries with our burgers, the resounding answer is always “you bet.” However, that’s after a day of fishing. While actually engaged in the act of fishing, we’d prefer to keep fryes off the menu.
It was the third weekend of September – a magical time of year to fish the Yak. The Flip-Flop was nearly complete, meaning the high summer flows (around 4000 cfs) had been cut off, and the river in the Lower Canyon was running around 1200 cfs and still dropping. For those not in the know, the headwaters of the Yakima are actually a reservoir – Lake Keechelus. The lake fills with spring melt and water is released under the careful watch of the United States Bureau of Reclamation. During the summer months the flows are kept high to provide two things: Irrigation for the Yakima valley agricultural region, and a source of good, clean outdoor recreation for a certain segment of the public. The lower Yakima canyon of summer attracts literally busloads of recreational floaters who, after stopping at Wal-Mart in Union Gap and dropping their last $30 on beer and a cheap inflatable devices, throw caution to the wind and brave the waters of the Yakima River. Anglers often compete for precious watery real estate with those who comprise the “rubber hatch”, and while the bikini-clad rafters do provide a certain degree of entertainment and a distraction from catchless fishing, when the flows are cut off and the river drops in September it is a time for the fishermen (and women) to rejoice.
At these reduced levels, rocks are exposed (so you can actually see them right before you hit them), feeding lanes are defined (so you know where to put your fly so the fish can look at and ignore it as it drifts by), and fish are gorging themselves in anticipation of the forthcoming winter. After the summer hopper game where heavy tippets are used to pound the banks with big junk, Fall marks an entirely different game: Small flies and light tippet. As if the Yak isn’t humbling enough, the Autumn season makes for technically more challenging fishing. It’s also a time of tremendous dry fly action and a chance to hone one’s skills at delicate presentation and knot tying. If you’re over 45, bring your magnifying glasses.
The week prior to our float, the “Power Hour Fishing Reports” on the website for Red’s Fly Shop had made it very clear: Fishing had been so hot for so many days in a row, it was (to quote the source) “absurd”. The reports further suggested that early was the best time of the day due to morning haze caused by controlled burns in the valley. And so it was decided that we’d meet at Marck’s house at 7 AM to be on the water by 9. When I arrived, Marck and Nash (not his real name) had The Hornet hitched up and were ready to roll. The first thing I noticed was Marck’s new hat. He’d been covering his dome with the same Red’s cap for the past few years, so I assumed it had become his lucky fishing hat. Admittedly, he always catches fish so the hat may not be a large part of the equation, but on this day he was sporting a brand new, bright yellow Simms cap. My immediate reaction was that this new hat was the same color as a banana (if you missed it the first time, check out the blog entry titled The Banana Boat). No worries, I’d long since put those superstitions behind me.
Armed with reliable intel and an ample supply of Lightning Bugs and Copper Johns, sizes 18 and 20, we hit the water right on schedule. I was a bit put off by the prospect of having to fish nymphs, but I set my attitude aside for the most part and strung up my 6 wt, which seemed the logical choice for this day as the forecast called for moderate winds. In the lower canyon, “moderate” can mean anything that doesn’t blow your boat upstream. And frankly, I’d employed my 4wt all summer, and was jonesin’ to use the Sage XP that I’d recently acquired on the used market. I also fully expected to get into at least one respectable fish on this fine day and wanted to be properly prepared for the ensuing battle. I treated myself to a new tapered 5x leader, with 6x fluorocarbon for my dropper fly. After looping in a Thingamabobber, I grimaced at the whole contraption, which was a recipe for tangles just waiting to happen.
Not 10 minutes into our float, the first fish of the day was landed. As one would expect, Marck was on the south end of the winning rod, and though the fish was perhaps only 9 inches, it was good to get the skunk off the boat early. I congratulated Marck on his trophy and got serious about fishing. Then we entered what I call the “morning lull”, which turned into the “mid-day lull” which lasted a good long while before merging seamlessly with the “late afternoon lull”. I decided that if the fishing was going to be this slow, I’d at least fish a dry fly so I had something to watch. This turned out to be a wise decision because I quickly began rising more fish to my fly than I’ve ever seen on the Yak. I just couldn’t seal the deal. The challenge was that all of the fish rising to my fly were too small for all but a size 32 Griffith’s Gnat, which I just happened to not have with me. I attached a size 10 September Caddis (because it was not yet October), thinking that a large fly would discourage small fish (and attract larger fish).
And then it happened. Without my knowing it – I crossed over to the Zen zone: The land of Mushin (mind of no mind), where instinct takes over for conscious skill. I ceased being an angler burdened by useless technique, and simply became a living being moving through space – a living being moving through space that just happened to have a fly rod in hand. The hook set was so quick that the fish had no idea what happened, and neither did I for that matter. It was one of those all-in-one motions where the hook set became the back cast which became the release, which sent the 3 inch fish sailing overhead and it became detached somewhere behind me on the river. No need to handle that fish – such is the beauty of barbless hooks and rapid acceleration. Marck had one such encounter while fishing two nymphs under a couple of foam indicators. The resulting tangle was so bad that he had to cut the entire mess off and start all over from scratch. At least he’d recovered the hardware this time, as earlier he’d snapped off everything, which, I reminded him, amounted to the equivalent of throwing about $8 in the river. At any rate, after attaining this heightened level of no mindedness, we were able to remain in this state accute awareness for the better part of an hour. These hook set-back cast-overhead releases happened a handful of other times, with none of the fish being more than 3 inches in size. We did our best to move past these pods of aggressive preschoolers, but they were everywhere. By the time the bite turned off we’d easily caught every troutlette in the river, and had transcended even the state of no mindedness. We were, in fact, approaching a state of complete brain deadness.
We saw a few “decent” fish rising sporadically throughout the day, but no looks or takes. And “decent” took on a whole new meaning: By now our standards were so low we’d have considered an 8-inch fish quite respectable. This was familiar territory for me, but this time it hurt. It hurt bad. Now I’m not one to feel entitled, nor do I ever have high expectations when I go fishing, but this time I did – and for good reason. All the reports pointed to red hot fishing. It was a beautiful day. Even the wind had behaved itself. Add to all this the fact that the Yakima hadn’t been kind to me recently, and I felt I was owed my due. The day had all the ingredients of an epic outing, except for the fish. The look on Marck’s face revealed that even he was clearly troubled. Nash had withdrawn to the point where he simply hugged himself and rocked back and forth in the rear seat of the boat, mumbling quietly. It became clear that we had one of two choices: Either we’d laugh, or we’d cry. A quick session of rock-scissors-paper determined our fate: Laughter it was. And laugh we did – hysterically: In the manner that men driven to insanity by floating down a canyon in a boat on river boiling with fish and not a rod between them might laugh. Or worse, like men driven to insanity by floating down a canyon in a boat with plenty of rods on a river with no fish over 3 inches might laugh. The echos of our deranged howling bounced off the canyon walls, stopping deer and Bighorn Sheep in their tracks. But after a few minutes the reality of our predicament found us sullen once again. We were out of beer. Insults were hurled back and forth from bow to stern, and arguments broke out over who would get to row next. Being on the sticks was, on this day, the best seat in the boat.
Between the three of us we’d run the gamut of end tackle offerings. We fished double nymph rigs under an indicator (I did so against my will), a dropper under a hopper, a hopper with a small trailing dry. And of course we also fished single dries: September Caddis, Light Cahills, Caddis emergers, Caddis parachutes, Caddis run-of-the-mill elk hair variety, X-Y-and-Z Caddis. Figuratively we threw the fly box at them, and literally at one point I’d almost done just that before self-imposing a time-out on the oars. Right before we took out around 6:30 PM, Nash – who had been staring a skunk in the eyes – landed the biggest fish of the day: A broad-shouldered 10-inch hog that had Marck and I marveling at the beauty of the fish and awestruck by Nash’s fishing prowess. This was cause for celebration, and we were suddenly transformed once again from bitter and defeated fishermen into a boisterous boat load of high-fivin’ white guys. That fish had sealed the deal, ensuring that not a single one of us would be skunked by the Yakima on this day. We had saved collective face by the thinnest of margins. The Hornet was pulled from the water, and as we broke down our rods our moods flip-flopped once again. With disbelief at the day’s events, we headed west, passing by Ellensburg without a stop at The Tav. We wanted to avoid the temptation of crying in our beer, and even though we were hungry, the thought of more fryes was more than anyone could bear.