I’m just a regular guy who enjoys fly fishing. Some people think that because I’ve written a series of kids books about fly fishing that I’m some sort of authority on the subject and actually know what I’m doing. But remember this: in my books the flies have eyes like ping-pong balls and they talk. It’s a fantasy world. In that same fantasy world I might be an accomplished angler, but in reality I am a much better writer than I am an angler (and the jury is still out as to whether or not I am a good writer). As I said, I just like to fish. So to be invited recently to join a couple of Orvis Endorsed Guides on their day off was like being a finalist in the 5th grade spelling bee: exciting, but more than a little daunting, too (not that I would know because I was never a spelling bee finalist).
Derek Young is the owner of Emerging Rivers Guide Services. He has fished all over the western half of the country, but now calls the Yakima his home waters. Sean McAfee hails from the banks of Kootenai River in northwestern Montana, and is working for Derek for a couple months this spring before returning to guide for Linehan Outfitting Company during the summer. Derek and I had been trying to schedule a day to fish together for a few weeks, and the timing was such that our trip would also be Sean’s inaugural float down the Yak – he had just ridden into town as the Skwalas were starting to emerge. For those not in the know, Skwala stoneflies are the first significant hatch of the year, and the promise of catching trout on a big dry fly can invoke moderate hysteria among anglers who have been fishing nymphs all winter long.
Apparently one of the prerequisites of being an Orvis Endorsed Guide is that you must be tall. I’m no stranger to fishing among giants, as Marck tapes out at an easy 6’4” and Large Albacore’s high water mark was an honest 6’8” in college (time may have caused that mark to recede an inch, so maybe he’s only 6’7″ now). At a towering 5’7” (on a good day), I’m shorter than pretty much everyone with whom I fish, including my son Schpanky, who passed me up this year. Anyway, on this day I found myself in the company of giants once again, and while being tall doesn’t automatically mean one is a superior angler, in this case it did. Another thing that makes them superior anglers is skill.
It was raining as I left home, raining all the way to our rendezvous point, and raining pretty much the entire way up and over Snoqualmie Pass. As so often it does, about the time we got to the east end of Lake Kecheelus (the headwaters of the mighty Yak), the precipitation began to taper off and the skies became a lighter shade of gray. The most recent weather forecast had promised “partly sunny and 50 degrees”: not bad for an early day in March. Afterall, it was still technically winter even though the Pacific Northwest had enjoyed a mild one thanks to El Niño, which causes Old Man Winter to become rather limp-wristed. As we pulled in to the town of Cle Elum the sun was poking out between clouds. Looking good. We stopped in at the hardware store so Sean could purchase his out of state license, and while he was making those arrangements, Derek and I browsed through the hunting and fishing department. Like so many small, rural hardware stores it was well stocked with everything one might need for a day spent recreating in the great out-of-doors. A particularly handsome fishing rod caught Derek’s attention, and he gave it the old wiggle test. It was a dandy, but he showed remarkable restraint by placing it back in the rack. As we walked toward the exit, Derek looked longingly over his shoulder, a cold sweat beaded upon his forehead. “C’mon, man,” I said. “Let it go.”
We drove the short distance to the put-in, and as we strung up our rods, the sun broke through the clouds and the heat wave brought with it a hatch of black winter stoneflies. While this wasn’t the hatch we were hoping for, I wiped a couple of the bugs from my face and took it as a good sign. Derek backed the trailer down the “ramp”, which was really no more than a rock-strewn section of steep embankment, we lifted the new Clackacraft 16’ FFB off the trailer into the shallow water and loaded our gear. Like an airline passenger listening intently to the flight attendant, I received the standard issue safety instructions (even on their days off, Orvis Endorsed Guides take their responsibilities very seriously) and we were on our way. Sean offered me the bow position, but I politely declined and took up residence in the back of the boat. Most covet the front perch, but I actually prefer it back there where nobody is watching me. I had designated my 4 weight rod for dry fly duty, and rigged up my 6 weight for nymphing. I was really hoping to use the 4 weight most of the day, but I’m trying to grow as an angler and slowly I am learning to embrace the art of nymphing, at least for trouts.
We stopped at our first run, anchored up, and spread out along the gravel bar. Derek worked the top of the run while I took the middle. Below us, Sean quickly got to know the Yakima by hooking up with a whitefish. He was no longer a Yakima virgin, and the skunk was off the boat early. We moved on, pounding the water with our tandem nymph rigs: I was fishing a Skwala nymph pattern with a Copper John Dropper. I think the guys in front of me were fishing Pat’s Stones with some sort of small mayfly droppers, but being in the back of the boat I was a little out of touch with what the cool kids were doing up front. The handy dandy stream thermometer read 40 degrees, so there wasn’t much hatch activity. It made sense to save the dry fly fishing for a little later in the day – perhaps when the water warmed up. If the water warmed up. I had a brief moment of fleeting enthusiasm as I set the hook on an Upper Yakima Stick. Not everyone can master this task, as was obvious because neither Derek nor Sean managed this feat during the course of our float.
Amazingly the weather forecast proved inaccurate, and the brief glimmer of hope and sunshine early in the day soon vanished as clouds thickened and the air temperature began to drop, along with beads of rain. So much for fishing in shirt sleeves and adding a little color to the pasty skin of winter. It rained off and on all afternoon, but didn’t dampen our spirits. One thing you learn from the company of true anglers is that discouragement is not part of their vocabulary. “Man, this is great looking water!” was a recurring comment from Sean. Coming from a native Montanan, where trout fishing is a destination sport for people from all over the world, it was nice that he approved of what he saw. We continued to approach each new piece of water with hope and determination, and I carefully watched my two companions, hoping to learn a thing or two, which I did. Sean hooked and landed a beautiful 13” rainbow that might as well have been a 24” trophy based on his reaction.
As we continued our downstream quest, Derek acknowledged the obvious: fishing was S-L-O-W. “I’ve never been skunked on this stretch of the river before,” he admitted, and at the next run he ensured that his record was not to be jeopardized by pulling a beautiful 15 inch cutthroat from a deep pool on a big black streamer that resembled a woolly bugger on steroids. There was much rejoicing as we gathered ’round the fish for a photo shoot. I was starting to get the picture: Guides don’t just feign excitement for the sake of their clients when the clients catch a fish, they actually get excited catching fish! Plain and simple: they love what they do. As Sean said with regard to his chosen profession, “It’s great when you can make a vice part of your living. Breakin’ even never felt so good.” Amen to that.
I had my opportunity in the limelight just a few minutes later. A couple fish were seen sipping bugs inside a foam line on the opposite bank. I was directed to get my 4 weight and see about rising one of those fish to a dry. Not one to argue, I set up in position and attempted to put the fly in the money zone. The fish weren’t sipping Skwalas (we’d only seen a couple of these adult stoneflies all day), but that’s what I had tied on so I offered the big bug to the feeding fish. After a couple of less than perfect presentations I had a fish on. With two guys who do this professionally watching from nearby, there was no pressure to seal the deal, and I soon forgot that I had an audience. It was just me, and the fish. And the two professional fishing guides standing behind me. Things were looking good, and I felt the Orvis Endorsed enthusiasm emanating from my onlookers. I was already looking ahead to the trophy photograph that would soon follow: the problem was that there would be no fish in the photo, because it managed to slip the hook before I could land it. It’s called a Long Distance Release (LDR) and is actually the highest form of conservation-minded catch and release fishing. Before parting ways I’d played it close enough to know that it would have been a beautiful trout- either a cutthroat or a rainbow. It probably would have been the biggest fish of the day, too – or maybe not. Regardless, I’d come so close to holding my own with a couple guys who do this for a living, and that would have been something to write about.
Regardless, there really is more to fishing than catching fish. On this cold, damp day I learned a few things, and I had a blast.
If you’re looking for a great day on the Yakima River, where you’ll learn a lot and very likely catch a fish or two, give Emerging Rivers Guide Services a shout. Not only does ERGS have an awesome website and logo, they’re endorsed by The Unaccomplished Angler. And Orvis.
PS- When you find yourself hungry after a day on the Yakima River, stop by The Brick Tavern in Roslyn, WA. The atmosphere is great for a game of pool and a pitcher of beer, and the food is excellent. The Jalapeno Swiss Burger is awesome.