The Yakima River.
I don’t fish it enough to be any sort of an authority, but I fish it often enough to know that the Yakima is a finicky temptress. I suppose I could accept the challenge and spend more time figuring out what the Yakima likes and what she doesn’t, but frankly, who wants to work that hard? I’d rather spend that time in Idaho or Montana. Unlike rivers in those states— where, when you see water that looks like it should hold fish, it does hold fish—the Yakima does not. At least not very often.
From my standpoint, as an a angler of little prowess, it’s a fairly common occurrence to get skunked on the Central Washington seductress. And is it not uncommon to catch a scant few fish under 10 inches and nothing larger. Because of this I’ve come to refer to a 12 in fish caught on the Yakima as a “Yakima 14”. By doing so I’m not exaggerating the size of the fish, but rather I am merely adding some commentary. A 12 inch fish on the Yakima would be like a 14 inch fish on a normal river: something an angler would be glad to catch. A 12 inch fish on another river might be common, as is a 10 inch fish on the Yakima. Actually 8 inch fish more more common on the Yakima than a 10 inch fish, so a Yakima 10. I realize that may not make much sense to you, but the Yakima drives me bat shit crazy.
It’s not a normal river.
But every few years the Yakima offers up a nice fish—a fish that is considerably larger than anything one may have caught in years. In August of 2014 I was fishing with Morris and Marck. I happened to be in the front of the boat, while Morris was on the oars and Marck occupied the Rear Admiral position. We were fishing the Yakima Canyon, below Red’s, and I had been treated with typical disrespect by the river all day long. I finally managed to hook into a real solid fish that was a good 20 inches. And I almost landed it. It had been 7 years since I’d last caught a fish that size on the Yakima, and I almost scratched that 7 year itch. That was a year ago, at the time of this writing, so I figure I’ve now only got 9 more years before I hook a fish in the 20 inch range. I’m on the 10 year plan.
Meanwhile, in September of this year, I was fishing with my wee lad, Schpanky, on the day before we would take part in a river cleanup (a joint effort by the Yakima and the Yakima Headwaters chapters of Trout Unlimited). I’d spent the day mostly rowing, and admittedly it’s hard to catch fish with both hands on the sticks, so I can’t complain too much about how slow the fishing had been for me, personally. We stopped at a gravel bar to angle on foot, but that didn’t produce any hookups. Nor did anchoring up so that we could both fish from the boat. Catching had been typically pretty slow for Schpanky, too, although he had managed a “Yakima 12” (a 10 inch fish) earlier in the day, as well as a smaller fish or two. Dry fly fishing had been an exercise in futility so we spent most of the time with double nymph rigs. In the afternoon I put him on the oars so I could have a chance at not catching a fish from the front of boat. My plan seemed to be working without fail and the musky scent of skunk began to set in.
As we rounded a bend somewhere between Lmuma (Squaw Creek) and Big Pines (The Slab), Schpanky said, with casual conviction, “You’re going to catch a fish before the end of the day. I feel it.” I raised and eyebrow and chortled at the boy’s ignorant optimism. The take-out was less than a mile away and I never fish better under the pressure of a deadline.
Shortly after that, while fishing the right bank, my indicator disappeared. Then line began peeling off the 4 weight reel like it was going out of style. Downstream 20 yards in front of the boat the fish leapt far out of water. I let it run (as if I had any other choice on 5X tippet). The fish turned on a dime and ran upstream as I madly stripped line in hopes of not losing it (‘it’ being my composure, and the fish). The fish jumped again, and while I may not have seen things exactly the way they were, I could swear that it tail-walked in a manner that would have made a steelhead proud. When the big trout wasn’t running or jumping it shook it’s head fiercely. I dared not utter the word ‘steelhead’ but the thought crossed my mind because I don’t remember a single previous Yakima trout that fought this hard. I commanded Schpanky to take the boat to the far bank so that I might better fight the fish from terra firma. And I would need a well-grounded net man, too. This was a good fish.
It took a fair amount of time to turn the trout, and when Schpanky finally netted the fish it became immediately obvious that it was no 20 incher, and thus not a steelhead (local opinion suggests that Yakima rainbows over 20 inches are steelhead). What it was, however, was a thick trout every bit of 16 inches (a Yakima 18). I was actually surprised that the trout was as small as it was, which is not to say that I was disappointed—not in the least. The last Yakima fish of this size I’d caught had been 5 years earlier, and it hadn’t put up nearly this good of a fight.
With that, I know it will be 2020 before I catch another fish of this size. And in 2024 I’ll be due for an even bigger fish. Those are going to be great years for me on the Yakima River. All I have to do until then is maintain sanity, and fish the Yakima with zero expectations. The latter shan’t be a problem.
The next day we fished from Umtanum to The Slab (a longer float than the previous day). Admittedly the point of our float on this day was to pick up trash, which we did. But we had a line in the water between stops to patrol the shoreline for refuse. Given the 8 river miles covered, and the amount of trash we extracted from alongside the river, we should have been rewarded with a karma fish—at least a Yakima 8.
We were not.
The clock is ticking.