Yakima rainbow trout
Several years ago when I fished the Yakima River for the first time, she gave up a 15 inch rainbow trout in a manner that seemed almost too easy. I naively assumed this was the norm rather than the exception, but have since become painfully aware that catching a Yakima River trout is rarely so effortless. Back in those days I was a wade fisherman: a shore hugging bank walker. My best friends hadn’t yet acquired the drift boats they currently own, nor were they at that time my best friends (though that would change when said boats were purchased). It was March, I believe, when Jimmy and I paid that initial visit to the lower Yakima Canyon. We didn’t really know what we were doing other than driving up and down the canyon looking for water that might hold a trout or two. Honestly I have no recollection of the day beyond a few magical moments that will forever remain etched in my mind…
Jimmy and I pulled into the parking lot of the Umtanum Creek recreation site. This wasn’t a completely foreign place to us, as we’d been here once before many years prior. We carried shotguns instead of fly rods, and chased chukars on the steep ridges above the river rather than trout in the river. That day was one for the memory books as we encountered more wildlife in an afternoon than one might encounter in a lifetime. The winter had been particularly harsh, and on any south-facing slope where the snow had melted, the mule deer and Big Horn sheep were grouped into large herds. We saw several dozen sheep and three times as many deer that day, as well as a bobcat and yes – even some chukar. The number of wild critters was an awesome sight to behold, and the fact that nobody in our group had a camera is something that will haunt me forever. But enough reminiscing about that day, let’s jump ahead to reminisce about the day when Jimmy and I grabbed our fly rods and set out across the suspension foot bridge…
We dropped in below the bridge and spied some fishy looking water. Dave, er Jimmy, started upstream where Umtanum Creek dumps into the river, while I walked a few yards in the opposite direction. I set up on a point of grass-lined bank and tossed my Skwala dry fly into the current. It was fairly deep right off the bank, and the current moves at a good clip, though the surface is mostly flat. Directly below my grassy perch the river fanned out into a calm, shallow side channel. Where the current met this slack water there was a foam line. When my fly hit the foam line, a healthy 15 inch rainbow rose aggressively and hammered my artificial offering. I think Jimmy heard my hootin’ and hollerin because just like a Les Schwab tire jockey, he came runnin’. After landing and releasing the fish, and proclaiming the Yakima River to be an awesome fishery, I suggested to Jimmy that he put his fly right into the foam line. He did just that, and instantly hooked and landed another beautiful 15 inch rainbow. It all seemed too easy, but rather than acknowledge the truth we concluded that we were actually anglers of considerable accomplishment. Again, there was not a camera between us. For some reason, back in those pre-digital days a camera was much less of a fishing staple.
Jump ahead many years to the present: since that fateful day at the foam line, countless float trips in drift boats and my Watermaster Kodiak have proven the Yakima to be anything but a river brimming with easily-fooled trout. If you’ve been following the adventures of the Unaccomplished Angler, you know of my love/hate relationship with the Yak, and the fact that I keep going back for more punishment. And so it was on the Saturday before Easter of this year that I went back. Way back, in a figurative sense. You see, Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler hails from the town of Yakima and that morning we had driven to her parents’ home for the Easter weekend. It should be noted that a few days earlier I had been forced to purchase a new pair of dress pants to replace the pair that has been hanging in my closet since 1999 (and here I thought that pleated corduroy was still all the rage). Like any good son-in-law, after we arrived I graciously accepted a sandwich before dashing out the door, leaving my brother-in-law to tend to the list of chores. If I was going to wear my newly-acquired dress pants and sit through a long Easter Mass the next day, I needed to fish for a few hours. It was better this way, for all concerned.
And so it was that I found myself on the road to the Yakima Canyon seeking therapy – just the sight of the river had a calming affect and I knew I’d made the right decision. I stopped at one point above the Lmuma launch and worked a piece of water that looked promising. The wind was blowing, but not to the point that it negatively affected my casting for the most part. Swallows buzzed the surface of the water along the opposite bank, and I took that as an indication that something was hatching over there. But it was too far to reach with even a Herculean cast (which is not in my arsenal anyway). After 45 minutes I concluded that I was wasting my time here, and since I was on foot I wouldn’t be able to cover a lot of water so I moved on up the road a few miles.
As I pulled into the parking lot of the Umtanum Creek recreation site I grew immediately disheartened – the lot was full. What should I have expected on a busy Saturday before Easter? I parked in an undesignated spot, grabbed my rod and set out across the suspension foot bridge. I assumed I would have to walk a mile upstream in order to find unoccupied water, but to my surprise and delight not an angler could be seen in any direction. Apparently the dozens of cars in the parking lot belonged to people out for an afternoon hike atop the ridge. This pleased me greatly, and I dropped in below the bridge on took up position on a familiar grassy point and listened to the river. There was no great hurry – it was 2:15, and I didn’t have to be back to my in-laws’ until 5. As I stood there quietly, a few Swallows swooped in and began picking bugs off the surface of the water. They were soon joined by more birds and I watched intently as the flock moved up and down the river right in front of me, working the water like group of fat kids gettin’ after a buffet line. It quickly became apparent that the birds were feasting on small brown mayflies so I reached into my fly box and extracted a March Brown dry, which I tied to the end of my 5X.
Before I could make my first cast, I heard slurping and splashing in all directions as the fish began rising enthusiastically to the hatching bugs. As I laid out my first cast the hair on the back of my neck stood up – it doesn’t take much to get me all worked up into a trout tizzy, but I hadn’t been this excited in a long time. My first drift yielded no hits so I recast the fly and gave it a couple of good mends. The fly drifted drag free right over the top of a greedy trout – BAM! Fish on, baby! There was nobody to share the moment with, so I remained uncharacteristically calm as I played the fish to the bank. It was only 10-11 inches, but it felt much bigger in the current, even on my 6 weight rod. A quick release sent the fish on it’s way as the feeding frenzy by both birds and fish increased in intensity. I had many missed takes as well as several hookups that resulted in Long Distance Releases (LDRs). Suddenly the wind whipped up something fierce and the sky darkened as a squall blew in, bringing with it a combination of snow and hail. It seemed the March Brown lost its appeal so I swapped it out for a Blue Winged Olive (parachute variety for better visibility). That immediately drew some interest from the fish but I missed several hook sets because the tiny fly with the upright white tuft became all but invisible on the surface of the hail-pummeled water, what with hail being white an all. Typical of Spring weather, the squall didn’t last long and as soon as the sky cleared the March Browns began emerging once again.
I observed some seriously large fish jumping below me, but they were too far out – in water unaccessible to a lonely shore hugger like myself – so I concentrated on water I could reach. Eyeing the foam line directly downstream, I put my fly on the water and then gave several feet of slack so the fly could drift slowly into the seam where the foam accumulated. Slowly…slowly…right…THERE! A fish slammed my fly and the hook was set instinctively in a manner uncharacteristic of my true angling skills. The fish immediately ran toward the fast current and would have taken as much line as I would have given it. I hoped my clinch knot had been properly seated as I steered the fish back toward the bank. The heavy current worked to the fish’s advantage and put a serious bend in the Sage XP. Silver flashed in the clear water as I established visual contact with the fish. It looked much bigger than it would prove to be, but as they say, it’s not the size of the fish in the fight, it’s how giddy the angler gets. This fish had plenty of gumption, and I was plenty giddy. I carefully played the 13” rainbow to shore where I admired how healthy and well fed it was. After releasing the fish and apologizing for having made it late for another go at the buffet line, I high-fived myself. I may have also muttered an audible, “You da man!” but with nobody around to hear me I can’t be sure of that. I glanced at my watch: 4:20 PM. I’d been at this for 2 hours and there hadn’t been a break in the action – time’s fun when you’re fish’ flies.
Fish were still rising to bugs as I reeled up and looked across the river. I pondered the ramifications of staying just a little longer but figured I better quit while I was ahead: I dared not press my luck here on the river, nor at my in-laws’ home. As I skipped across the bridge it dawned on me that had I been fishing from a boat on this day, save for perhaps a couple casts I’d have likely drifted right past the old foam line and missed out on all this fun. It seemed as though I would be able to tolerate new dress pants and a long Mass in the morning – happy Easter to me.