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?
I’ve decided that my unofficial title should be that of Rear Admiral (stop before you even start with the sophomoric humor) as it attests to my usual seat in stern whenever I’m in a drift boat. There are many reasons for this, and it’s always a voluntary choice I make – a self imposed exile of sorts that keeps me out of sight and out of the way. In all honesty I’m comfortable back there, and it gives people who can actually catch fish a better position for doing so up front. So when Marck emailed me recently to ask if I wanted to occupy the rear seat of The Hornet for an upcoming trip down the Yakima I was curious as to why he very specifically stated that I would bringing up the rear. Apparently we would be part of a three boat flotilla that would include Sir Lancelot’s NRS raft (Lancelot is a friend with whom we occasionally angle) and a boat belonging to fishy dude CJ Emerson, who guides for The Evening Hatch in Ellensburg.
The reason 3 boats were needed was relatively simple: there were a lot of bodies to haul. Beyond that it got a little more complex. Lancelot had orchestrated the donation of a fly fishing package for a fundraising auction hosted by the Seattle Children’s Hospital Guild Association. In addition to a guided trip on the Yakima River, the outfit included an overnight stay at a Rosehill Farm Bed & Breakfast in Thorp and a fly rod gnerously donated by Sage manufacturing. The lucky holder of the winning raffle ticket would be bringing along a couple of buddies and Sage would send a dignitary along to make sure the Z-Axis 5 weight was put to proper use. By my count that was four people. I did the math several times and concluded that only two boats were needed: (1) The guide boat and (2) Sir Lancelot’s raft, “The Chuck Wagon” (named for the fact that it would carry the grub). It should be noted that Lancelot worked for over 25 years in the food service industry and would be providing a gourmet stream side lunch and accoutrements. The need for the 3rd boat is that The Chuck Wagon isn’t set up specifically for fly fishing, so Marck and The Hornet were commandeered to provide a proper fishing perch for one of the angling guests. What I couldn’t understand, however, was why I was invited along for the trip…to fill an empty seat (ballast)? As a confidence booster for the other anglers? Or perhaps during story time I’d be reading aloud from Olive the Little Woolly Bugger? The real reason for my presence would reveal itself midway through the day.
Whatever the reason, I was honored to be invited and told Marck I would drive since I had a Sage sticker on the back of my truck and wanted to suck up show allegiance to the dignitary from Sage. Besides, it was my turn to burn some gas since he’d driven the past couple times. To my surprise he insisted on driving and announced that he’d just placed a Sage sticker on his rig. His exact words were, “And mine’s bigger.”
Marck’s blatant attempt to brown-nose a representative of the company that makes the fine rods (one of which he desperately wants) was, I thought, unthinkably shameful. I mean, really – did he actually think that the good folks at 8500 Northeast Day Road on Bainbridge Island would just give him a Z-Axis simply because he had a Sage sticker on the window of his car, or because it happened to be his birthday? I was hoping for a ZXL 376-4 myself, but that clearly wouldn’t happen since my truck, with it’s tastefully-sized Sage sticker, got left behind. With my tail woefully tucked between my legs the next order of business was to stop by Lancelot’s home and load up his plentiful supply of culinary gear. Loaded to the gills, we strapped The Chuck Wagon to the top of The Hornet and were off to meet the Ambassador of Sage at the Burger King in North Bend.
Pulling in to the parking lot we no doubt looked a bit like a modern version of the Clampetts as they moved to Beverly; Hills, that is. I wouldn’t have blamed our Bainbridge Island guest if she’d have fled the scene, but our dignitary proved to be undaunted by what she saw. A native of Alaska, a tomboy at heart, and a former college athlete at the University of Montana, Karen Wilken confidently shook our hands before assuming the shotgun position in Marck’s sticker-laden 4-runner. That left Lancelot and I to verbally joust like 12 year-olds in the back seat as we drove the next leg of our journey to our scheduled 9:15 am rendezvous point at the Thorp Fruit Stand.
It seemed somehow fitting that we would meet at a fruit stand, as the raffle winner and his gang all worked in the produce supply industry. Naturally with his 25 years in the food service biz Lancelot was able to quickly establish a common bond. He’s usually shy and soft spoken, so it was a relief to see him come out of his shell and strike up a conversation with The Produce Posse. An accomplished angler (who shall remain anonymous out of respect for his unfortunate association with Lancelot) joined us as well. He was actually headed further east to fish the Clark Fork and had apparently been convinced that a little shadow casting on the Yak before fishing a real trout stream would be a good idea. I asked him if he fished the Yakima often and his reply denoted his status as a serious fisherman: “Not often,” said this King of anglers in a confident tone, “When I’m serious about trout fishing I go to Montana.” The experience level of our group ran the gamut from first-timers to old pros, but everyone seemed easy-going and everything appeared to be in good order for a fun day on the water.
The day held much promise and spirits were high as we moved onward to our launch point at the KOA in Ellensburg. Sun dominated the sky, and the few puffy clouds looked to be dissipating. It had been a beautiful morning on the West side of the mountains with a forecast calling for mid 60’s and clear blue skies. A forecast like that nearly always means even better weather east of the mountains, which is exactly where we were. Sunscreen was appropriately slathered in anticipation.
Just as we were backing the boats down the launch I caught a brief glimpse of Johnny Boitano’s Hyde rounding a downstream bend with a couple of lucky clients on board. That could have been seen as a bad omen because as CJ pointed out, “Johnny is not a guy you want to fish behind.” While that’s certainly true, I’m not the superstitious type except when it comes to hats, and the Lucky Fishing Hat was securely perched atop my noggin. I had debated wearing my Sage baseball cap as a show of my respect for our dignitary, but knew better than to let emotion interfere with sound judgment. Besides, nobody likes a suck-up, Marck.
Boat assignments were issued, and apparently The Sage Chick drew the short straw as she was directed to the bow of the Hornet. CJ had two members of the Produce Posse in his Clackacraft, and the 3rd Posse member and the King of anglers were stuck aboard the Chuck Wagon. The water temperature was an encouraging 46 degrees when we pushed off at 10:30 AM and began a long day’s float. The Ringer launch is approximately 8 miles downstream and would serve as our termination point, so we had some water to cover and fish to catch. With Mother’s Day less than 48 hours away, we were all hoping for the mythical caddis hatch that bears the name of the day on which we all honor our family matrons. I’ve tried hitting the Mother’s Day caddis hatch for years and have always missed it. Something felt right about this day.
It began in typical Yakima fashion, with tandem nymph rigs and slow fishing. Sage Chick actually had a couple strikes, but she was admittedly adjusting to the art of double nymph bobber fishing and missed a couple subtle bumps. After a while she developed the cat-like reflexes required for setting the hook whenever the indicator took a dive. On one occasion she did so with such authority that the hook was pulled out of the fish’s mouth and the fly smacked her square in the forehead. The ensuing welt was only moderately visible, and I assured her that it resembled nothing more than a small zit. The only thing that kept her from kicking my arse was the large fellow sitting between us: seated in the rower’s seat, Marck thankfully provided a safety barrier. He also put us on every bit of fishy looking water available, but it was a couple hours into the float before Karen yarded in the first fish of the day: a nice 12 inch rainbow that cooperated nicely until it was time for a photo, at which point the fish decided to make a desperate leap back to the water.
With the skunk off the boat and the smell of fishy hands in the air, we could finally relax. There’s more to fishing than catching fish, but eliminating a skunk always makes for a better day. After this brief moment of victory we settled into a comfortable rhythm of not catching any fish for a while. Suddenly that peace and quiet was rudely interrupted by a sharp bend in the Sage Chick’s rod. After a few minutes of her playing the fish, my keen net handling skills (reminiscent of a recent trip) ensured that Karen would get to pose for a photo with the Catch of the Day: a beautiful rainbow that, in all the excitement appeared to be a 16” dandy. A closer inspection of the photos would later reveal it to have been a more modest 15.5”, though it would still defend its title as the largest fish of the day. No day of nymphing is ever complete without a whitefish, and the honor of doing so was bestowed upon Karen as well. Sage Chick was on fire!
If that wasn’t enough excitement for the day, shortly thereafter Karen’s rod bent nearly in half and quivered in a manner indicative of something big and alive (a fish as opposed to a log). Then as quickly as it started it was over. We chalked it up to a Yakima River steelhead, Chinook salmon or possibly a halibut. Whatever it was, it was big. And another fly was lost to the river. Out of self respect I don’t keep track of such things, but at the end of the day the golf tally clicker that Marck kept hidden in his pocket indicated that 30+/- flies were offered up to the river gods on this day: at least 10 Pat’s Stones and twice again as many Lightning Bugs.
The other two boats were well ahead of us as we anchored up and worked the inside seam of a particularly nice looking slot that lived up to it’s outward appearance. For a few fleeting moments even I felt like an accomplished angler as I managed to catch 3 fish in short order. We got so caught up in the frenzy that we forgot all about the time. Marck glanced at his watch and noted that we were late for our scheduled lunch rendezvous, so we pulled anchor and moved on. It was probably best because had we continued to catch more fish I wouldn’t have had anything to write about – that would’ve been too much of a good thing, or in Unaccomplished Algebraic terms: too many positives = a negative).
As we neared our lunch location the smell of fresh salmon grilling wafted our way. It was a pompous luxury to stride into “camp”, apologizing for our lateness because we were slaying fish, and be handed a plate of gourmet food. Lancelot knows how to serve up the grub thanks to two and a half decades of working in the food service industry, and the vittles were delicious. The wine and beer was plentiful and the mood festive as we shared stories from the first half of the day. Catching had not been great, but the fishing had been excellent. CJ’s boat had landed a 20” whitefish, and no matter what your opinion of whitefish a 20 incher is nothing to feel ashamed about. Especially when it’s hooked in the mouth. Every boat had caught some fish and everyone seemed to be really enjoying the day. After the meal had been consumed, any doubt as to my role in the day’s events became crystal clear when Lancelot handed me the grill and utensils and pointed me to the river. No doubt he derived great pleasure in putting me on Kitchen Patrol, but I have to admit – it felt good to have a purpose.
Pushing on into the afternoon the weather we had enjoyed earlier in the day yielded to the winds of change. As it began to blow, chaos began to rear its ugly head with some degree of frequency. I experienced a couple tangles that made me scratch my head and ask, “How is that even possible?”
Karen fell victim to the wind as the back of her head put an abrupt stop to the forward progress of a bead head Lightning Bug. It did more than just leave a welt this time, but Marck showed great promise as a field surgeon by extracting the hook without much bloodshed. His bedside manner was to be commended, too: “Do you want me to push or pull? Either way it’s going to hurt.” His skills as a photographer lack by comparison, however, and the surgical procedure was not well-documented in pixels. During post op we discussed the need for Sage to produce a line of Lucky Fishing Helmets (we’ll see if they actually hit the market).
Late in the afternoon clouds thickened and the air temperature dropped significantly. The fish clearly felt the pressure change as well, and got all tight-lipped on us. But hope prevailed as we angled onward. I’d been jonesin’ to get my hands on the Sage 99 4 weight that Karen had been using all day, and as the it grew colder and she lost feeling in her fingers I was able to finally pry her hands free of the cork and take the rod for a brief test drive. Lined with a Rio Indicator line, this stick was sweet casting. The 9’9” length came in handy for throwing mends and I liked it a great deal. Conversely I wish I had never fondled the evil temptress (the rod, to be very clear) because what I do NOT need is another fly rod. Well, maybe just one more. Rain began to fall first as large sporadic droplets and then it turned to a steady deluge reminiscent of the other side of the mountains (where ironically it had been a beautiful day). I longed for my Simms G3 wading jacket that I knew darn good and well was in the backseat of my son’s car because he’d been wearing it to golf in the week before. This gave me cause to reflect on what I already knew: even if you don’t think you’ll need it, always take your rain gear.
The rain may have permeated my outer layers, but it couldn’t dampen our spirits. We even broke out the dry fly rods amidst the rainstorm, but no players could be enticed. Still, we had a great time not catching fish and we worked the water diligently until we pulled out at 7:45 pm. As we stowed the gear and and offered farewell handshakes to everyone in our flotilla, the rain stopped. I might’ve seen a fish rise at that moment as well, but like the sighting of 5 white pelicans earlier in the day nobody would have believed me.
The Sage Chick had a ferry to catch and a longer drive than the rest of us, so we opted to forgo a stop at The Tav for a Hungry Mother Burger in Ellensburg. We’d be back to North Bend in an hour anyway…except for the matter of lane closures on I-90 which brought traffic to a standstill. As we dead-drifted westward at a snail’s pace, our collective blood sugar dropped and we began hallucinating. Karen mistook the red and blue flashing lights on a state patrol car for cherries and blueberries, and tried to climb out of the sunroof in order to harvest the fruit. I began fantasizing that at any minute a golf cart selling hot dogs would pull up alongside of us. I mumbled incoherently about the revenue such a venture could generate on a night like this. Lancelot suddenly became lucid and abruptly shot down my hypoglycemic dreams by stating, “With my 25 years of experience in the food service industry, let me just make it very clear that a roadside hot dog cart is a notoriously bad idea.” Thankfully that same food service experience also produced 4 leftover cookies from lunch, which is the only thing that kept us from lapsing into comas. When we arrived back at the Burger King in North Bend 3 hours later, Karen grabbed her gear from the back of Marck’s rig, tossed a couple Sage t-shirts and hats our way and said “See ya, suckas!” As she sped off toward the ferry docks in Seattle, Marck stood there with a forlorn expression on his face and an armload of Sage swag. Behind him the over-sized Sage decal on the rear window of his car shone brightly under the lights of the parking lot as he mumbled softly, “But it’s my birthday, and I was hoping for a Z-Axis…”
Lately the weather around the Pacific Northwest has been lousy: unseasonably cold and excessively wet. And because of that I have weather on the brain. Most notably, I am longing for warmer days that lie just ahead, though they seem currently out of reach. I want summer here now. July typically offers forth the finest weather available in Western Washington. For me personally it’s the month I look ahead to starting at the end of October: the months that lie in between are simply to be endured. If not for steelhead fishing, the winter and early spring months would be unbearable. As I eluded to above, Spring weather does not usually offer much reprieve from the winter doldrums either. Starting on July 5th, however, good weather finally arrives and people from all walks of life celebrate by going outside to recreate. Outdoor interests are widely varied, but one thing the people who live here have in common is that we tend to complain no matter what the weather is. After bitching about the miserable gray dampness for months on end, July can occasionally get a bit too hot for the pasty-skinned inhabitants who lurk on the west side of Washington state. About the only time we’re ever happy is when the temps are in the upper 70’s to low 80’s, with no wind worth mentioning, and crystal clear blue skies. Perry Como had it right when he sang,“the bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle.”
It’s on these perfect days that there’s no better place to be than 30 or so miles east of Seattle, along the banks of the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River, chasing small native cutthroat (and some wild rainbow) trouts with a lightweight fly rod. A 4 wt is overkill for these little fish, which average about 9 inches. A 12 inch fish is a rare trophy, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve actually caught one of these elusive hogs and they sure are beautiful.
The Middle Fork is open to catch and release fishing year round, but its fish aren’t known for their playful ways until the river drops into it’s svelt summer shape. Throughout the year the river fluctuates with rainfall, and can rage like a swollen monster when fueled by heavy winter storms. During summer she is a medium/small sized freestone river that flows through an area that is king-sized in beauty. So incredible is the scenery that it’s important when fishing to look up from the water and take in one’s surroundings. I’m not sure what the annual rainfall is in the valley of the river, but it’s certainly more than the 70 inches per year that falls in nearby North Bend. And because of this, the flora is lush and plentiful – in some of the deeper reaches of the area, moss clings from trees and conjures up images of a rain forest. The mountains rise directly front of or behind you, and it would be easy to forget that the big city is only 30 miles away and the suburbs much closer. I live 30 miles in a different direction that takes me thankfully nowhere near a big city. My route involves rural and semi-rural backroads through the lower Snoqualmie Valley, and the drive is almost as enjoyable as the destination. But 30 miles is 30 miles, which is too far to quickly dash home when you forget something you might need. That is, if for example, you forgot something. Hypothetically speaking, of course.
And so it was on one of these perfect July days that I loaded my gear and set out in my Jeep to hit up the Middle Fork for some of it’s small, feisty fish. I hadn’t been up there the previous summer, and the preceding winter had been a doozer: Old Man Winter and Mother Nature must’ve been drinking heavily because they unleashed a collective wrath that included record rainfall and a series of damaging floods. A section of the Middle Fork Road had washed out and remained closed through the summer. In fact I don’t know if it’s been fixed and reopened to date (luckily the Lake Dorothy Road provides a detour). This particular trip was as much of a scouting mission as a fish outing, as I really didn’t know what to expect. Driving the several miles up the dusty, pothole-riddled Middle Fork Road I passed a few rigs that were parked at all the typical spots along the river. Most anglers park where they can see the river, but I have a favorite area that requires a bit of a jaunt to find the river. It’s not exactly secluded, but it is far enough off the beaten path and I can usually find solitude. However, when I arrived there was another rig parked at my favorite pullout. I would have preferred no company, but the river could accommodate more than one angler and I am not territorial so I resisted the temptation to lift my leg on their tire. It was 5pm, which would give me several hours of good fishing. I would be where I wanted to be when I wanted to be there: as shadows fell across the water and the long summer day drew to a close. This is the prime time to be on the Middle Fork, when the fish start hitting just about any dry fly that drifts drag-free overhead: Humpies, Royal Coachmen/Wulffs, Stimulators, Adams- they all get it done. It can be silly fun, and what the fish lack in size they make up for with gumption. They’re like terriers of the fish world.
Wet wading is one of the benefits of summer fishing, but since I would be out until dark, standing in a mountain-fed river, I opted for my waders and headed down the familiar trail toward the river. As I approached the river I came upon an encampment obviously belonging to the owners of the vehicle I had elected not to defile. The camp was empty of inhabitants, but I respectfully gave it a wide berth and headed toward the river. I waved to a group of twenty-something year-old folks who were sunning themselves on the gravel bar just a short distance upstream. They’d picked a great spot to camp and frolic at the river’s edge, but not a fly rod was present anywhere. The young man and his two female companions were apparently just enjoying some good, clean outdoor recreation, and as I waded across the river I thought to myself, “That Lucky Dog…”
I made my way downstream to the first of several favorite runs. The winter floods had deposited some impressive logjams and gouged away at the bank in several spots. One gravel bar had been completely washed away, but there remained a lot of really fishy looking water. There was no hurry, so I took my time and soaked in the beauty of the river and its surroundings.
I had ample opportunity to reflect on all things fishing, and for some reason my mind turned to a particular day a couple years earlier when I’d pulled one of the most bone-headed moves I’ve ever pulled…
Jimmy and I had decided to fish a small lake about 12 miles from my home. We arrived at the lake, inflated our float tubes and began to gear up. When I reached that point where one would typically don their wading boots, I realized that I’d left them at home. No worries, I wasn’t going to be walking more than a few yards to the water’s edge: I could strap my fins over my neoprene booties and make due just fine. What I could not make do without, however, was my fishing license, which I’d also left at home. I debated calling the very unsympathetic Mrs. Unaccomplished Angler to inquire about the possibility of her meeting me halfway with my license and boots, but thought better of it. Instead I paddled around all afternoon in my float tube without a fishing rod, watching as Jimmy hooked a few rainbows. I felt a little bit like a fool, but there’s more to fishing than catching fish, and frankly being without a rod wasn’t much different than if I’d been fishing anyway. That was a day to remember, if for no other reason than to be more careful about packing all the gear I needed in the future…
After I’d sufficiently reflected on that unfortunate incident, I meandered downstream about a half mile to the confluence with a small tributary. Not surprisingly there’s a good hole right there that normally produces some good action on a small woolly bugger. Rarely do I fish beyond this spot and I decided to turn around and make my way back upstream. As the cool evening air settled in, the Middle Fork was heating up: under the protective cloak of the long shadows fish began rising in all the likely spots.
As I approached the camp of the Lucky Dog, it’s occupants were apparently partaking of the cocktail hour and greeted the return of the man in waders by offering me a cold beverage. “Thanks, but I brought my own,” I replied as I reached into a vest pocket and extracted a luke warm Bud Light. They certainly seemed friendly enough, and we chatted for a few minutes. “So, are you a biologist or something?” asked one of the young ladies. I chuckled out loud at the suggestion. “No, I’m no biologist. I’m just– “
“So what are you doing wading around in the river then?” she continued to press the matter. “Are you studying something?”
“Well, sort of,” I replied. “I actually came up here to–“
“Why are you dressed like a fisherman?” she asked pointedly. Standing there in my waders, boots, lucky fishing hat and my fanny pack of assorted tippet and gadgets, it wasn’t an altogether stupid question.
“Well, I am a fisherman. It’s just that–“ I was cut off again.
“Where’s your fishing pole?” She demanded to know.
“We fly anglers prefer use the term ‘fishing rod’,” I corrected her. “And it’s in my car. The problem is that my reel is at home.”
“What a dorky thing to do!” she quipped good naturedly.
I had to agree, but then the conversation quickly took an ugly turn. The young female asker of many questions declared that the whole catch and release thing seemed cruel and hurtful for the fish. I tried to calmly defend the practice of proper fish handling and release, but she seemed intent on proving me to be an animal abuser of some sort. I tried to present my side of the argument in an intelligent and rational manner, but it was probably difficult to take me too seriously as I stood there dressed like a fisherman without the essential tools to actually do any fishing. The Lucky Dog tried to defend my stance as a conservation-minded fisherman by declaring that letting the fish go was better than flat-out killing them, but his companion would have none of it. “Well I think it’s mean,” she declared. I can’t be sure, but she may have had a PETA tattoo on her lower back.
With that I bid them a pleasant evening and made a hasty exit. On my walk out I thought that perhaps the Lucky Dog wasn’t so lucky afterall.
I’ll never forget that fishless day and hope that it serves as a lesson. No doubt there are more fishless days ahead, but hopefully not for a lack of necessary equipment.