Sage Z- Axis
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…”
First, a quick vocabulary lesson for non anglers: “backing” is the term for the high strength “string” that is the first attached to the spool of one’s fly reel. Anywhere from 100 to 200 yards of this usually Dacron-based material is typically used, and to that backing is tied the actual fly line. Think of backing as insurance in the event that the angler hooks into a big solid fish that runs long and pulls hard. Fly line is usually 90 to 100 feet long, and a strong fish in a strong current can easily strip that amount of line from the reel. Once that length of line is gone, then what? It’s an unthinkable scenario that would surely involve a broken leader and a lost fish, because when a fish makes a run often one’s only recourse is to give it more line. When that line runs out, chances are something is going to break. And so backing is affixed to the reel to give the angler additional yardage to play a big fish. On lighter setups for fish such as modest sized trout, the backing may not be necessary but it fills up the reel and helps to eliminate fly line “memory”, which can occur when the line is coiled too tightly and retains less-than-perfectly straight form when laid out on the water. Backing can be used, in this case, simply take up space on the reel, and that’s typically the reason why I use backing on my trout reels. With my keen angling skills, I certainly don’t need even the full length of fly line to play the 8 inch trout I typically catch. But to witness one’s backing emerge from the reel because of a large, hot fish should be considered a good thing, and anglers long for the occasion to proclaim, “That fish took me into my backing!” Lesson complete.
Until recently I’d never had the good fortune of seeing enough line stripped from one of my trout reels to see the backing. By “see”, I mean to have the entire fly line taken out to the point where the backing presents itself as the last bastion of safety. That all changed recently when I was fishing the Yakima River with Marck and Jimmy, out of the vessel known as The Hornet (sifting through the archives will reveal this as Marck’s Clackacraft 16 LP). We had just commenced a float that would take us from Mile Marker 20 to Squaw Creek (for the more PC inclined, this is Lmuma Creek). It was a stellar day toward the end of the 3rd week of March: skies were blue, the large yellow orb in the sky shone brightly, and water temps were headed toward the mid 40’s. The Skwala stoneflies had been showing themselves sporadically for a couple of weeks, and we anticipated a hatch later in the day. We were, however, seasoned enough to know that subsurface fishing early in the day would be the name of the game, until a specified time when the Skwalas would start coming off. At 1:30 PM, according to reports from The Evening Hatch in Ellensburg, we should start to encounter Skwalas and fish feeding on the big bugs. The day held much promise, and I strung up my 4 weight Sage Z-Axis with a dry fly combination of a Skwala pattern with a small mayfly emerger as my dropper. My 6 weight Sage XP was designated for streamer duty, and I selected a particularly delightful looking fly that resembled a small sculpin and affixed it to the end of my sink tip line. Marck would be nymphing and Jimmy would try the dry fly thing right off the bat, but I wanted to fish down in the slower deep pools and invoke the strike of a large meat eating trout. It seemed like a good game plan to cover all our bases and determine which method of angling would work most effectively. I love fishing a streamer because it involves active participation on the part of the angler, unlike nymphing which is, well, never mind…how easily I relapse into bashing the way of the nymph (call it a growing pain).
Fifteen minutes into our float I was stripping my streamer through a moderately fast/relatively slow current. Ahead of my fly I noted a large rock protruding above the water, but felt confident my fly would evade the rock, so there was no cause for alarm or evasive maneuvering. Suddenly my line went tight, and held fast. It appeared to be anchored on the rock, and as we drifted steadily onward, more and more distance was placed between the rock and reel. Darn it. As would any angler, I pointed the tip of my rod directly at the source of the stuck fly, and increased the pressure of my index finger on the fly line. When nothing happened and my finger began to overheat, I increased the drag on my reel. Surely now the leader would snap, and the worst that would happen would be that I’d lose a $2.50 fly. But when nothing broke, I applied more pressure to the line. Crap. Still no breakage – damn the heavy 2X tapered leader I’d selected, and why did my usually questionable knots have to hold now? Soon the yellow fly line played out and my backing appeared. I applied more pressure. Nothing. Shit. “Hey, uh– Marck? I said with a waivering tone to my voice, “Can you pull over and drop anchor?” I was worried now, because 40 yards of backing had fled from my spool, and I didn’t want to risk smoking the drag on my reel trying to put the breaks on a drift boat carrying 3 guys in a steady current (although had that worked it would have been worthy of a product testimonial for Ross Reels, manufacturer of the Vexsis model I had mounted on my rod). Marck steered The Hornet toward the bank and dropped anchor.
The shoreline was steep and rocky, and footing was precarious as I made my way upstream toward the rock which held my fly. I reeled in slack line as I proceeded, and that was when I realized just how much line had been removed from my reel. The highway was but a very short distance above me and as I picked my way along the rocks I hoped that a speeding vehicle wouldn’t crash through the guardrail, or toss some sort of refuse from an open window. Standing on the shoreline adjacent to the rock, I carefully surveyed the situation: the rock was about 30 feet from the bank, occupying heavy water that was 3 feet deep and moving with some degree of force. Large rocks lay strewn upon the bottom of the river, and they all bore a coating of slippery slime. It was going to require some careful wading, and the last thing I wanted was to take a swim in the cold water – that would surely put a damper on the rest of the day. As I inched my way toward the rock, I noticed a peculiar stench in the air. No, I was not smelling another skunk, but rather an odor that is similarly unpleasant. Decomposing flesh has an unmistakable odor which I recognized immediately, and with each carefully placed step toward the rock that stench grew thicker until I realized there was more to the rock than just basalt. The partially decayed carcass of a deer lay pinned against the rock, held fast by the strong current of the river. My fly was not stuck on the rock, per se, but rather it was buried under the hide of the rotting carcass that was stuck to the rock. As I stood next to the rotting corpse, hip deep in a heavy current that was making every attempt to knock me off my feet, I pause for a moment to reflect on the situation. It was so ridiculous that I smiled and laughed at the fact that this sort of thing could only happen to me. In many ways it was a perfect moment.
How the carcass got to be where it was isn’t such a hard thing to imagine. The Yakima Canyon teems with wildlife, and undoubtedly the deer was headed to the river for a drink, crossing the highway as darkness fell. A car rounding the bend very likely made high speed contact with the animal, which would have been wearing the old “deer in the headlights” expression right before the impact sent it cascading over the guardrail into the river. From there the current would have swept the deceased critter downstream until it became hung up on the rock, where my fly found it.
Thankful for having flattened the barb on the hook, I quickly removed the fly from the hide of the dead deer and made my way back toward the shoreline. Marck was watching from nearby, and although he claims to have been standing at the ready to rescue me had I required assistance, no doubt he was greatly amused by the whole thing. I made it to the shoreline without incident, and once there I inspected the hook for damage. Other than the bend of the hook having become slightly less bent during my tug-of war with the rock carcass, all seemed to be in good order. I removed a bit of flesh that had become lodged in the hook during the ordeal, as I did not want to be accused of fishing illegally with bait. Then I used my pliers to put the bend back in the hook and we were on our way downstream once again.
Had the whole rock carcass incident not taken place, the day would have yielded very little to write about. The weather was great and we all added a bit of color to the pasty skin of winter.
Winds were light and made for an enjoyable day of casting. Jimmy managed a beautiful 3 inch Chinook fry on the dry and Marck added an 8 inch rainbow to his catch record. The honor of being skunked was reserved for me, although I did have one nice trout take a shot at my dry fly late in the day. Surprisingly I missed the hook set.
We saw no fish rising all day, but kept our hopes up that with each bend in the river our fotrunes would change. At one point we anchored up in a particularly fishy section of water to enjoy the sun and some sandwiches. While we ate our lunch the fish seemed disinterested in doing the same, completely ignoring the Caddis and March Browns that were hatching all around us. It was quite an insect buffet, and why the fish never showed up for the feast remains a mystery.
We saw a total of 4 adult Skwalas all day long, and on one occasion actually observed a fish rise and miss a shot at one of the big stoneflies, proving that fish don’t just miss the take synthetic imitations. Seeing this play out in real life drama caused me to feel a little better about my angling skills.
Overall it was a stellar day spent fishing, although the catching left much to be desired, and we were dumfounded as to the lack of Skwalas hatching and fishing rising. But that’s fishing, and the scars left by a lackluster day will soon heal themselves. The scar left by a large rock on the hull of The Hornet, however, will not heal itself and some fiberglass repair is in order. Sorry, Marck– it was Jimmy’s fault.