The text message from Derek Young indicated that the upper Yakima was fishing well, and suggested that perhaps we should pay a visit. “Fishing well.” I’ve heard that before. Derek guides for a living so he’s on the river a lot. He fishes it with great frequency so the recollection of a slow day can easily be lost amidst the hustle and bustle of productive fishing days. I fish it much less often – certainly not often enough for the rare, exceptional days to shroud out the other kinds of days. In other words, I get my arse handed to me by the Yakima more often than not. And so I hesitated to commit to Derek’s invitation. As much as I enjoy fishing with him, to be honest I was starting to have steelhead on the brain this time of year. When I reminded myself that a day of steelheading would be a guaranteed skunking, I opted to float the Yakima instead.
Yet another weather system was parked over Western Washington, causing moderate to heavy precipitation to fall from the skies all the way over Snoqualmie pass and even a few miles to the East of the summit. I hoped that the gloomy weather wouldn’t translate into a dark cloud of despair. As I crested the summit I passed a semi bearing the name WERNER, and thought to myself, “Could this be a good omen? Could this be MY day?” I put the silly notion out of my head and proceeded East.
The sky lightened and the rain tapered off just before I pulled into the town of Cle Elum where I met Derek at 11:00 AM. We dropped the Green Drake into the low, clear waters and floated perhaps 5 minutes before pulling over to work both sides of an island. Rocks were teeming with small green caddis larvae, so a size 16 olive Caddis (standard Elk Hair variety) was selected for initial duty. Good choice. Armed with my 4 wt. Sage Z-Axis (yes, I will shamelessly throw the brand out there in hopes that Sage will see it and choose to sponsor my blog), the fish played nicely from the get-go. I landed a small handful of 10 inch rainbows in the first half hour before pinching myself to see if I was dreaming. Except for when I visit the Firehole River in Yellowstone each year, it’s never this easy for me. I didn’t question my good fortune, however, and continued drifting the olive-colored magic through trouty looking water. At one point I was hooked up and playing a fish as another jumped within 6 feet of the action. I’ll admit that as the frenzy continued I could be heard carrying on a conversation with myself that went something like this: “With angling skills to make all others envious, you sir, are a fish-catching machine!” It doesn’t take much for me to become dilusional. For those of you who regularly catch many and impressive fish, this may not sound like anything extraordinary. Fish a mile in my wading boots and you’ll come to appreciate my glee in the moment.
We continued downstream under partly cloudy skies and mild temperatures. Clouds threatened rain, but none fell and for a short time I felt overdressed in my waders and long-sleeved shirt. When a hatch of Blue Winged Olives came off for a bit, there was no point in switching patterns because the olive caddis was still drawing numerous strikes. The action did taper off after a while though, proving that nothing good lasts forever. When the fish seemed less willing (though not entirely unwilling, mind you) to take surface offerings, we fished below. Derek grabbed his nymph rod and ran his bobber through fishy slots. I wanted to avoid nymphing, per se, so I decided to try something a little different. Reaching into my fly box, I grabbed a pattern that I usually only fish when in Yellowstone each Spring: a small soft hackle bead head nymph by the name of the Chubby Cousin.
When we fish the Firehole, we forego dead drifting double nymph rigs and bobbers, and instead cast downstream at a quarter angle and swing the small bugs through the current. Strikes usually come when the fly begins to settle into the seam where the faster water meets the slower holding water. It’s like swinging streamers for steelhead only on a miniature scale. I enjoy this type of nymph fishing but had never employed the tactics on the Yakima. Why not? Well, to be honest I just never seem to think of it at the time. This time I thought of it and I’m glad I did. There was plenty of good swinging water and the fish took a liking to the Chubby Cousin. With it’s swept-back hackles and rubber legs, there’s plenty of movement in the water. A few 10 inch rainbows were fond enough of the soft hackle to commit with solid takes at mid swing. Many more came unbuttoned during the course of regretting that they’d fallen for the Chubby. It was rare to not get at least a bump for every couple swings of the fly.
Rain began to fall intermittently in the late afternoon, but it dampened neither our spirits nor the enthusiastic appetite of the fish. Switching to an October Caddis proved to be a reasonably wise decision, but it wasn’t as effective as had been the olive Caddis, so I tied on another of those. The only downside to fishing the small dry was that it invoked many a strike from tiny troutlets. For a while the number of greedy little gamers grew aggravating but eventually the fry left me alone and I was able to hook and land a beautifully colored 12 inch rainbow. At that point I offered to row so Derek could fish as we drifted. I enjoy time on the oars, and to be honest I had wanted to try my hand at the helm of the Green Drake since fishing out of it earlier in the year.
The Green Drake is a 13 foot Maravia raft custom outfitted for fly fishing by Stream Tech Boats out of Boise. It’s nice to fish out of and as I found, a pleasure to row. I’ve rowed a drift boat many times but I’d never been on the oars of a raft before. I instantly liked the high perch of the rower’s seat which offers even a wee feller such as myself a commanding view of the river ahead. I was easily able to see approaching rocks before bouncing off of them, as opposed to banging and scraping as I’ve done in The Hornet a hard boat is prone to do. The hard inflatable floor is nice for standing on as one leans into the casting brace, and that same floor creates very little drag, making the boat very responsive and easy to hold against the current. For the first time I started to think that if I were to one day acquire a boat of my own I would have to give such a raft some serious consideration. I could see one of these boats providing a great deal of enjoyment and opportunity to spend quality time together on the water for Mrs. UA and myself. If it weren’t for those damn college tuition payments that we’ve only just begun to make…
While I rowed and Derek fished we marveled at what a tremendous day it had been in all regards. As the sun grew low in the sky it provided for some dramatic scenery, casting a glow upon the trees and causing them to stand out vibrantly against an ominous looking sky. Fall was definitely here: salmon were spawning in their redds and the trout were eating like there was no tomorrow. It was one of those days where if the water looked like it should hold a fish, it nearly always held a fish. It’s so rare that I have a day like this that for a fleeting moment I almost forgot the multiple sub-par days I’d had on the Yakima during the preceding months. I’m not one to openly declare that the Fish Gods owe me anything, but every itchy dog has his day and I was long overdue to be scratched. It’s not just the scratching catching that made the day great, but the opportunities that presented themselves: There were several fish landed, many more hooked and released prematurely, and countless strikes. It was those strikes that made the day particularly rewarding because it showed just how many fish were in the system and eager to take a swipe at the fly. The largest fish caught were no more than 12 inchers, but I was a happy angler. In fact, so good was my mood that I even let Derek pose for a photo with my nicest fish of the day.
We were just minutes from the termination point of our float and about to pack it in save for a particularly fishy piece of water that begged for one more cast. “I’m gonna run my little Chubby through that sweet spot one last time,” I announced. Derek looked at me and very matter-of-factly said, “Fly fishing is the one activity where you can say that and not get in trouble.” I had a couple tugs but didn’t set the hook fast enough. It didn’t matter – my day was compleat.
As we neared our take-out, the unmistakable odor of skunk filled the air. We laughed at the irony of that. It was too late for a skunking. Way too late. But it did remind me that had I not gone fishing with Derek I would have probably gone steelheading.
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?