A Blues Ribbon Fishery

According to Wikipedia, a “Blue Ribbon Fishery” is a designation made in the United States by government and other authorities to identify recreational fisheries of extremely high quality. Official Blue Ribbon status is generally based on a set of established criteria which typically addresses the following elements:

  • Water quality and quantity: A body of water, warm or cold, flowing or flat, will be considered for Blue Ribbon status if it has sufficient water quality and quantity to sustain a viable fishery.
  • Water accessibility: The water must be accessible to the public.
  • Natural reproduction capacity: The body of water should possess a natural capacity to produce and maintain a sustainable recreational fishery. There must be management strategies that will consistently produce fish of significant size and/or numbers to provide a quality angling experience.
  • Angling pressure: The water must be able to withstand angling pressure.
  • Specific species: Selection may be based on a specific species.

When translated from the native tongue of the Yakama people, I’m reasonably sure that “Blue Ribbon Fishery” means “over-hyped, over-fished river 2 hours from Seattle.” Now don’t get me wrong – I am grateful for a river with a relatively decent population of trout so close to home, and I know folks who do pretty well on the Yakima (in fact, as you read this I am fishing with one such person and you can bet he’s out-catching me).  However, as you may have extracted from previous writings, the Yakima River has never shown me much love. I fished it once with a guide, and on that day the river offered forth the biggest trout I’ve ever caught. But guides fish the water every day and develop a special and intimate relationship with the river. They know where every bit of subsurface structure is, and exactly which fish lurk there. So if you ask a guide, or someone who regularly fishes with a guide, or someone who lives close by and fishes the river a LOT, or someone who is simply a good fisherman, you’ll likely hear a different tune. But for the fish-challenged, unaccomplished angler like me, the Yakima has me singing the blues rather than proclaiming any Blue Ribbon status.


But let’s not focus on what the Yakima is lacking and instead take a look at what she does offer:  For one it has wind. Count on it.  Where the west-side (or, wet-side) of the Cascades has its seemingly ever-present precipitation, central Washington has its seemingly ever-moving air. Sometimes the wind is just a little annoying as your line piles up and flies off-course. Usually when it’s like this one can wait a few seconds and cast reasonably well between gusts. Other times the air moves upstream with the force equal to a gale, pushing a craft against the current. Rowing downstream and making little progress is not an altogether uncommon experience on the Yak, and pity the poor angler who finds himself on a flat stretch of water at one of these times. I’ve seen many a drift boat with their bows pointed upstream, while the oarsman pulls hard against the wind, making arduous progress, even with the current in their favor. About the only time the wind isn’t present is in the dead of winter and during the height of summer when it’s 147 degrees and you find yourself quagmired in the long, flat section of the Lower Canyon known as Frustration Flats. Suffice it to say that when planning a day to visit the Yak, I always check the weather and pick a day when the forecast calls for “light winds”. I used to argue about wind and rain with my brother-in-law, who lives in Moses Lake (where the wind also blows). My position was that the incessant rains where I live are worse than the unrelenting winds where he lives. His argument was, as you might have guessed, just the opposite. Over the years I’ve changed my tune. While I would prefer to not stand in a drenching rain while fishing, I would much rather not stand in the face of a howling wind while fishing.  Rain blows, but wind blows more.  But back to the merits of the Yakima River.

The Yakima is very likely better than any other trout rivers within reasonable distance of my home. I’m not sure what the accurate fish count per mile is on each section of the Yakima (or if there is even such a thing as an accurate fish count per mile) but it’s got more sub-six inch fish than any other river I’ve fished in Washington. I’ve caught more 3-4 inch fish than fish of any other size, so one thing is for certain: if even a small percentage of those trout tots make it to adulthood, there are going to be a lot of nice trout in the river some day. That provides hope, but no guarantees. Now I am not suggesting that I want a guarantee each time I fish – afterall, if it was that easy two things would happen:  first, everyone would be out fishing and the rivers would be overcrowded (and at times they seem that way as it is); and secondly, anglers would lose interest because if it were that easy where would be the challenge?  Challenge is what keeps us going back. It’s what keeps me going back to the Yak, where I am constantly catch-challenged.

Another huge advantage the Yakima has is that it’s a year-round fishery. So when cabin fever hits in the deep chill of January or February, one can stand knee deep in the frigid waters of the Yakima, shortline nymphing for whitefish and the occasional lethargic trout, while your guides ice-up and you lose feeling in your toes and fingers. Now, depending on the mood of Old Man Winter it might not be so unbearable to fish during the dead of winter because some years, like the one we’re currently enjoying up here in the Pacific Northwest, can be relatively mild and therefore the fishing discomfort minimal. So, yes – you can get our trout fix 12 months of the year on the Yakima. Oh, and in the dead of winter the wind rarely blows. And the fish rarely bite.

The Yakima is also a beautiful river, with entirely different personalities as she runs through the 70 some odd miles along her course. No two sections of the river are the same, but they all hold a certain beauty.  While some of the upper sections will take the angler far from any road, overall the Yakima is not a remote river.  It certainly has a rural flavor, but isolated she is not. Through the Lower Canyon, the river follows the highway, or vice versa. One is never far from the buzzing sound of tires on the rumble strip, which can serve to keep the angler, as well as the driver of the vehicle, from falling asleep. And there’s nothing quite like floating the Lower Canyon when the streamside railroad track comes alive with the deafening roar of the freight cars that make a daily migration. But even with the trains and steady vehicle traffic, the Lower Canyon offers up a chance to enjoy sightings of deer and Bighorn Sheep, and during the summer months when the recreational floaters comprise what is known as the “rubber hatch”, the river offers an altogether different type of wild life viewing opportunity.  There’s never a shortage of astonishing sights.

My relationship with the Yakima is one of the love/hate nature.  Hate may be the wrong choice of words, but there are times when the love, along with the fish, is in great shortage. You may be thinking to yourself that I am unduly critical of the Yakima, and that I beat her up unfairly in my writings.  Truth be told, it is I who is on the receiving end of the beatings, so throw a little sympathy my way, won’t you?  Go fish the Yakima for yourself and draw your own conclusions. Maybe I’ll see you on the river.


Map courtesy of Amato Books, from the book,

Yakima River (River Journal Series, Steve Probasco, 1994)



  1. Patrick

    This time of year, when the my only day-trip trout choices are the much-hyped but difficult, semi-urban and sometimes trash-ridden Putah Creek or a two-hour drive to the Stanislaus River, where I can join dozens of other fly fishers, I’d gladly give up some fly-tying time to play with four-inch fish. (And I know that Horizon Air is just taunting me with new direct service from San Jose to Mammoth, where, with sufficient funds, I could access year-round Sierra streams with the help of snowshoes or snowmobiles.)

    • admin

      Sounds like you need to move to Mammoth…or Ellensburg. Or even Duvall.

  2. Skate the Fly

    As a lifelong Seattle angler I understand your pain. You can only take so many beatings on the Yakima before it starts to wear you down. I take from your piece more frustration than anything. I’ve taken my fair share of 1, 2, or 0 fish days which hurt even more when you’re guiding! They don’t call it the Yaki-vegas for nothing.

    I’m no Yakima guru but for those that spend the week in a cubicle, and NEED a trout fix, think out of the box! The fish aren’t JUST in the canyon for one. They may not be in the most trouty water. When pressure is high they could get pushed into some weird water. Don’t fish gold or nickel beads, they see a ton of those! Fish tiny flies, fish huge flies. Swing flies, skate flies, drag flies in the current. Have fun fishing some outlandish methods in crazy water.

    One thing is for sure. There’s fewer rivers more beautiful in the peak of Autumn, with the sun 10 minutes away from slipping beneath the canyon wall. Made even better by kicking back in the drift boat and licking your wounds with a river cooled pale ale. Cheers.

    • admin

      Dylan, thanks for the radical ideas: I’m going to swing a few steelhead streamers next time I visit the Yak, and maybe even skate a Moose Turd for giggles. At least the little fish won’t be able to touch my offerings ; ) You are correct- for all it’s shortcomings, the Yak certainly has it’s moment of glory- fall is drop=dead stunning through the canyon.

  3. Derek Young

    I’ve fished many other streams and rivers across the West with the same “Blue Ribbon” designation, including one with that very same name in Colorado, and the Yakima is a much better experience.

    Yes, both have freeway noise but one is far less pressured. Yes, the weather can impact casting and fishing – but it’s better than a ringing phone at a nondescript cubicle. No, the fishing isn’t easy, but if you go enough, you do get a better sense of the entire river.

    True, I can tell you how much of that long sweeper on river left is underwater and when to start that cast towards it, or how the fish pod up in that swirling foam line just where that pool recirculates back onto itself.

    Skate a fly? Don’t use nickel or gold? Sure, when what really works isn’t working.

    • admin

      Derek, you must be a guide. Oh wait, you are!

      Maybe I should fish with you. Oh wait, I have!

      Clearly I need to fish with you more often!

  4. Chunky Tuna

    You forgot the stunning audiovisual experience the Yak presents on just about any hot summer day–about a thousand reveling drunks in every shape and color of floating contraption conceived by man, shouting to the skunked angler the repeated and increasingly frustrating question: “Hey man, catching anything?” To which, I normally smile, nod and mutter “have another Bud Light, dude.” Unfortunately, some days on the Yak the “rubber hatch” is a lot better than the bug hatch. Other than summer, however, the Yak is as good a place as any to prove my unaccomplished trout angling skills. And I kind of like the road noise, particularly when it comes from 20 Harleys roaring up the Canyon.

    • admin

      Chunky, thanks for stopping in for a visit. Yeah, you nailed the essence of the rubber hatch. It is, if nothing else, good for a little entertainment. I take a little offense to your remark about Bud Light, as if that’s a bad thing ;). If you want to see true unaccomplished trout angling skills, let’s hit the Yak this summer!

  5. Chunky Tuna

    I specifically googled “cheap beer” and “crappy beer” and the websites that came up all listed Bud Light–backed by scientific taste tests. Apparently you are also an unaccomplished beerdrinker and weren’t invited to these gala affairs but you can still visit this site http://lifeinthegreatmidwest.blogspot.com/2009/05/great-mass-produced-crappy-beer_02.html to see the results. While Bud Light made the “Sweet 16,” I get the sense it wasn’t the very worst. 🙂

    • admin

      I don’t place much value on “scientific tests”- I’m strictly a seat of the pants beer drinker. Admittedly I have a genetic tendency toward bottom shelf beers, although I’ve been known to enjoy a really good beer from time to time. You know, something exotic like Bud Lite with Lime ; )

  6. Skate the Fly

    Ha, your welcome for my awesome outlandish fly fishing ideas. I think the next time I go to the Yak I’m going to try fishing two flies at once. Maybe a dry fly with another fly attached to it. I know I’m crazy, I shouldn’t give up all my awesome Yak strategies.

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