Yakima River fly fishing
While recently doing a bit of house cleaning, I stumbled on several “drafts” in the backroom of the Unaccomplished Angler: previously written but unpublished pieces of Weekly Drivel® that, for some reason, never made it past the cutting room floor. Many of the pieces I have no recollection of ever having written, but as I sifted through the collection of second rate musings it all came back to me: there was a good reason these had never been published. I’ll be posting a few of these to fill space until I have good reason for offering better content.
From October 2013:
I almost felt guilty taking day off of work to go fishing on such a nice day. For all *intensive purposes looked to be one of those days with nearly every ingredient needed for perfection:
• A beautiful—nay, gorgeous—Fall day on the Yakima River, with a high of 62 under cloudless skies and no w#nd.
• Prospects were high for good catching. Recent reports suggested that westslope cutthroats and rainbows were willing to eat October Caddis dries, and in fact just a week and a half earlier I’d enjoyed a rather decent day of said catching.
• I had good company in the form of my buddy Derek Young of Emerging Rivers Guide Services, and the older brother of the UA—a patient man by the name of Hal.
Indeed, all the ducks were in a row for a fine day of angling.
As the day progressed the only missing ingredient was fish, or at least respectable fish. Nobody ever knows what gets into the fish from one day to the next and I’m dumbfounded as to why they weren’t playing nicely (other than that’s just very often how it works out for me on the Yakima River). As you’ve heard me say before, the fish of the Yakima are a finicky lot. Weather-wise this day wasn’t all that much different from days prior, except for being perhaps a bit warmer. But it seems any change in the weather puts the Yakima trouts into an antisocial mood, even when the change is for the better. The results was that scant few fish entertained our offerings, only one making it to hand all day: an overachieving 3-inch trout tot. The only event worth writing home about came mid-afternoon…
A few Bald-Faced Hornets had been buzzing the cockpit of Derek’s boat, interested in either the cheese-fill pepperoni sticks from Owen’s Meats in Cle Elum, or the Professional Boater’s Refreshments. These black and white Apache Helicopters of the insect world are neither welcome, nor pleasant, any time of the year, and with the onset of cold Fall nights their dispositions had grown even less savory. We managed to avoid a full-on assault as Derek expertly swatted a couple away (guide skillz). Still, their mere presence puts a person on edge—especially in a boat where there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Then something landed on the back of my neck and proceeded to crawl down my shirt. I braced myself, fully expecting to feel the excruciating sting of a hornet as it injected its venom between my shoulder blades. After a few moments had passed, and I found myself still alive, I relaxed—just a bit. Simply because it hadn’t decided to bore into me didn’t mean I was out of the woods yet. Convinced there was a winged devil crawling around inside my clothing, somehow I resisted the urge to panic completely. I could feel it crawling lower, but because I’d not yet been stung I confidently assumed it wasn’t a hornet after all. I wasn’t about to strip down to remove whatever it was, so I worked through the heebee-jeebeez and eventually forgot about it. I continued to not catch fish the remainder of the day.
When I got home that night and stripped down for a shower, something fell out of my pants that caught my attention: Dicosmoecus rigormorti—a fully dead October Caddis.
Poor little bastard must have suffered a horrible demise.
* “for all intensive purposes” is one of my grammatical pet-peeves. Let the record reflect that the expression is “for all intents and purposes”
Depending on whom is queried, the Yakima River is either a diamond or a chunk of coal. Suffice it to say she has never particularly kind to me.
It wasn’t always that way, mind you. In fact she lured me in with false sense of hope several years ago the first time I fished her. On this fateful day I landed a nice 16″ rainbow in a well-known foam line just below the bridge at Umtanum. Within minutes my buddy Jimmy landed a similarly-sized bow in nearly the same spot. We both naively believed that the river would be this easy—this good to us every time. And thus began my love/hate relationship with the Yakima.
I love the Yakima. There are 20+ inch fish in the river. I was witness when my buddy Marck landed a large rainbow a couple of years ago. I was behind the camera, which is where I always am when a big fish is in the picture. As far as I am concerned, that fish of Marck’s was the stuff legends are made of. I myself caught a nice fish about 8 years ago: it wanted desperately to be 20 inches, but I think it fell short of that mark by an inch or so. Our guide on that trip, Johnny Boitano, even got excited when that fish was hooked and landed. But I’ve not come close to a Yakima fish that size since.
Most of the time I catch 10-12 inch fish. Well, that’s not entirely true—most of the time I catch nothing. A 10 inch fish on this river doesn’t excite me, although it’s certainly better than the all-too-common skunk. Not that I’m a big fish snob, mind you. Au contraire. But when there are much bigger fish in a river touted to be a blue ribbon trout stream, a 10 inch trout seems like a yellow participant’s ribbon.
I hate the Yakima. 2 weeks ago, Jimmy and Morris and I fished 15 miles of the Lower Yakima Canyon and I didn’t hook a single fish. Jimmy landed one 12 incher and Morris fared slightly better in the numbers department, catching 3 fish but nothing bigger than 10-12 inches. I’ve been skunked more times on this river than I care to remember. But I keep going back.
I can’t quit the Yakima. A week ago my brother Hal and I fished with Derek Young of Emerging Rivers Guide Services. We floated an upper section of the river from Cle Elum to Bristol. Hal won out as far as quantity, catching 3 respectable fish in the 10-12 inch range as well as a handful of disrespectful fish of considerably less length.
By late afternoon I had about given up all hope of catching a fish. The day had been tough, what with a plummeting barometer putting the fish down. Even a dropping river couldn’t turn on the bite as our streamers were ignored all morning long. After lunch we opted for some dry fly fishing and even that didn’t rise any fish for me except for a diminutive troutling that even a sculpin would have called an appetizer. From the Rear Admiral position in the back of the boat I watched a crane fly skitter across the river toward the grassy bank, just a few feet below where my fly was drifting. Suddenly a very large fish (undoubtedly 20+ inches) rolled on the crane fly. Had my synthetic imitation gotten there first I’m sure the fish would have
taken my fly balked and waited for the real deal. It’s just how things roll for me. A short while later, about the time the pity party was getting into full swing, the threat of a skunk was eliminated as I landed a nice 16 inch Westslope Cutt. Not a hog by Yakima standards, but it was the best fish I’ve landed on that river in an awful long time. Derek was relieved because he knew his tip was in jeopardy of smelling as bad as a skunk had yours truly come up empty-handed.
After the day with Derek and Hal I headed back to the Yakima 3 days later to float with the Brothers Albacore. We opted for the same float that I had fished earlier in the week, and my intent was to catch the crane fly-eating hog and hold bragging rights for years to come. The weather had been stable for 4 days in a row and the river continued to drop. There was cloud cover. It held great promise of a big fish day. Well, I can tell you that if the 10 inch rainbow taken on a dry and the 11 inch chubby Westslope cutthroat that I pulled out from under some woody debris on a streamer are big fish, then I was accomplished. Everyone caught at least a couple of smallish fish, but at the end of the day if you were to ask the Brothers Albacore their thoughts on the Yakima they’d say, “At least the beer was good.”
Depending on who you asked.
This week’s drivel is a mostly-unedited guest post by none other than Morris, the 2012 Firehole Rookie Ranger. He has an unhealthy obsession with fly fishing that I’ve had the pleasure of watching intensify over the last year or so. We writes good, and has no oconcern for character count so sit back and enjoy a bowl of popcorn and a read about a day on the Yakima River befitting an Unaccomplished Angler.
When the Unaccomplished Angler asked me to write a post about my debacle on the Yakima River, first I was like no chance in hell, then I thought why not – If the UA can do it, then so can I. Although, sometimes it feels like I only have a fourth grade education when it comes to writing the English language as I have lost almost all what my elementary teachers taught me, but as both UA and myself graduated from one of the top universities in the country Eastern Washington, I was convinced I could do it – really, how hard can it be. Not to mention, I am a published author in my own right. Recently, I was forced extremely happy to submit an article to a widely read industry magazine – Quality something. Don’t be fooled, a handful of nuclear power plant operators actually read this magazine or at a minimum leave it on their desk to appear intelligent – at least this is what I typically do. (By the way, I promise to stop striking out phases, but I just love the way the UA does it to confuse the reader).
It all started as I walked through the sliding glass doors at work Friday morning 8:00 AM sharp. I was wearing my favorite Simms fishing shirt and donning my polarized fishing glasses. I happen to work for a fine company that requires employees like myself to merely show up to get paid for the day. As I grind the way to my desk, I start to contemplate just how long I have to sit there as I mentally go through my fishing check list ensuring nothing has been forgotten. Promptly at 8:30 AM, I find myself creating a web of lies to our administrative assistant who guards the front door like a Doberman and probably logs our time in and out. “I have an outside appointment today, but plan to return after lunch,” I lie. She does not buy into my dishonesty, and probably knows the car is packed with my fishing gear as it is most Fridays. In hindsight I should have left my shirt and glasses in the car, and I was a tad too enthusiastic for the mundane appointment, but I was getting that goin’ fishin’ feeling and that was all I could think about.
As I pull into the empty parking lot at 10:00 AM to a not so secret fishing spot Marck recommended on the upper Yakima Canyon. I believe Marck is his secret UA alias; this is not his real name. I know this since I fish regularly with Marck and have known him since middle school. As I string up my rod, I am gracious that life affords me sunny Fridays on the Yakima, flows around 3100cfs, time to explore nature, and attempts to master the art of catching large trout. Selecting my old 5 weight Sage, large dry with a lightening bug dropper, I am set.
Part I: The miss
As I cautiously approach a large fallen tree in the river, I am eager to see what lies below. Now on top of the tree, flunking weak casts at my feet. I should have previously declared that I am strung up with 9’ of 5X leader, 3’ of 5X flora, and 2’ dropper: all making log casting to ones feet a challenge. With too much line in the water and a poor rod to water angle, a large rainbow grabs the dry while launching completely out of the water where I probably could have bear-hugged him if I was more nimble. As I attempt to set the hook, it is obvious my approach was flawed. The hog spits my bug and is gone. As I regain my composure, I say to myself, “not a great way to start the day, but it can only get better from here.”
Part II: The poison
As I leave the large log for a stretch up river where I will have more room to cast, I decide to hightail it through the brush and grass and not follow the slow shore of the river. This will turn out to be the infamous “fork in the road’ decision that will affect the rest of my day. As I trudge through very high grass and weeds and other unknown plant species, I get disoriented and somewhat lost. As my pace quickens, I trip and fall to the ground a few times and eventually make my way back to the river. After fishing for a bit, I notice some pretty large blisters forming on my arms and legs. I ignore them and get back in search of my next victim which I am sure not to miss. As the morning meanders on the itching and swelling continues to be a nuisance. But it wasn’t until my eye started to swell shut that I started to ponder calling it a day. I tried feebly to continue casting, but as the discomfort grew so did my anxiety. Fishing alone has its advantage and disadvantages as we all know, but when I used the camera on my phone to take a picture to see how bad my eye was, I knew having a friend there to tell me all is well or not so well would have been nice. As my casting deteriorated further and grew impossible with one eye, I decided to seek safety.
Part III: The scared girl
I scurried back to the parking lot so I could use the car mirror to inspect my eye and make the ultimate decision of fish or hospital. Again to save time, I head back into the tall unforgiving grass. As I broke free from the brush in delight, I happen upon a pretty college aged lady sunbathing near a small tributary in nothing but a slight bikini. Instead of staring at her girl parts and making stupid old man commentary, I hastily shoved my left eye in her face and asked if it looks ok. She nods, but I sensed she was uncomfortable and not really into my whole eye issue.
Part IV: New location
After a thorough eye exam in the dirty side mirror of my car with the one good eye remaining, I decide to fish on. Playing it safe though, I decide to drive further down river into the canyon where there is less vegetation. After a few small fish during the heat of the day, everything is starting to feel better up to the point when I find myself on a large rock in the river and in need of a new fly. Instead of heading to shore like a wise person would, I commence with the fly change. Opening my dry bag I forget to notice all of my belonging as I dig for the fly box. As I precariously balanced on the rock with a red deep rash all over and one good eye, needless to say I ended up face down in the river. As I came to my feet I noticed the dry bag was still open and filled to the top with water. Luckily nothing had vanished to the river and the only real damage was to the iPhone and luckier still, it was a work phone.
Part V: Early departure / Good Samaritan
As evening approached with anticipation of the late hatch, I sat quietly by the riverside pondering the day’s events. This time, I was approached by a weary traveler in search of some help. After some pleasantries, he asked if he could borrow my phone to call for help. After explaining to him the difficulties there, I offered up a ride to town where he could find some real help. Before I could recant my offer as my mind turned back to the hatch, he accepts and I hastily depart for town. I thought that perhaps being a good Samaritan might put me back in grace with whatever force I upset this morning. Now missing the evening bug fest along with my hope of redemption, my one-eyed-drive back to Seattle was uneventful. Until I arrived at home and realized that in my hurried blurry departure I did not shore up my tackle and badly damaged my favorite Ross reel.
By the next morning I had fixed my reel and most of the rash and swelling were gone yet my legs where still covered with scrapes and bruises one typically finds after a hard day on the river. Looking back now I realize that not every fishing trip is going to the perfect experience but it is still and will forever be better than a day at work.
Jimmy was due to arrive at 7:30 to pick me up en route to Marck’s house, where we would hitch up The Hornet and proceed east to the Yakima Canyon for a bit of late summer trout angling. My gear was waiting in the garage, the dog and myself had been fed. The coffee had begun to work, so at 7:15 I visited the “library” for a few minutes of relaxation. At 7:17 there was a knock on the door: it was Jimmy. So much for the relaxation—it was time to go.
September is a beautiful time of year in the Pacific NW, especially this year when our Indian Summer has been in fine form. Low fog lay over the lowlands with a clear sky just visible through the film; the promise of another bluebird day. As we proceeded east over the Cascades, the weather remained similarly splendid, muted only by the haze of wildfires burning to the north near Wenatchee. It had been too long since I’d last wet a line. August would normally have been a month filled with fishing, but alas it was a month filled with moving, capped off by a two-day garage sale—a necessary evil—that nearly put me over the edge. This day of fishing would be more therapeutic than it normally is.
The first order of business was to select our float for the day. With the Bighorn launch chained off for what appears to be the rest of the year, our second choice was MM 20. However, a mudslide earlier in the summer had rendered the put-in almost unusable. We drove past, noting the remnants of the July slide. But then we pulled a U-turn, deciding to take a better look. Upon closer inspection we determined the launch was not out of the question; it would just require a bit of finesse. No problem for 3 strapping middle-aged men, or rather 2 strapping middle-aged man and myself.
We were on the water by 10:30, fishing a variety of different set-ups. I opted for an orange-bellied foam hopper with a size 20 Lightning Bug underneath. Jimmy drew the first fish; a smallish rainbow in the 10 inch range. With the skunk off the boat early, the ever-present tension of fishing the Yakima River was lifted and we could relax and enjoy the day. I hooked up with a relatively large fish shortly thereafter; an 18-ish inch rainbow that hit the dropper and instantly went airborne. My rusty fish-playing skills resulted in a long distance release, but I had the fish on long enough to consider it almost caught.
The first two or three hours produced decent action with rainbows hitting the droppers and sometimes the dries. I got another nice fish to the boat before it came unbuttoned
due to Marck’s inferior net skills a split second before it was in the net. Shortly thereafter I did manage to land a “Yakima 18” (translation: any fish within 3 inches of 18 inches). The Yakima is a finicky river that produces fewer decent-sized fish than it should. The 18-20+ inch fish are there, but one can goes several trips without hooking one. Thus, when the angler does catch a fish that falls a few inches short of a certain mark, it’s acceptable to round up. Yakima River Math is not an exact science.
As the day wore on and the air heated into the mid-80’s, the fish-trickery slowed. By 1 o’clock the trouts may have lost interest in feeding, but we wanted something we could sink our teeth into so we broke for lunch. Upon viewing the Costco chicken salad sandwiches Marck had assembled that morning, we noted a slight green tinge that served as flashing yellow caution. Marck himself had begun to second guess his decision to bring the chicken salad after he failed to remember the last time he’d actually been to Costco. A 3-way case of botulism would not have improved the quality of the fishing and we were relieved to have stopped at Subway in Ellensburg for an alternate source of fresh nutrition.
During the afternoon we got into pockets of soft water that held scores of 3 inch over-achievers, but no respectable fish were enticed to take our artificial offerings. The final 5-6 fish count had all taken place earlier in the float but still it proved to be a splendid late summer day on the water. Summer is not technically quite over, and the Pacific NW has enjoyed a great, extended run of beautiful weeks. Still, one can feel fall in the air. Even the golden stoneflies, busily going about their procreating, know their time is not long. Things will change on the Yakima significantly in the coming weeks, or perhaps even days.
We were off the water a bit earlier than we’d hoped, but had we gotten off any later we would have been deprived of the scenery at the take-out.
I’ve bitched plenty about our Pacific Northwest summer weather (or lack thereof) this
summer season. No need to beat a dead horse, although one more kick in the ribs won’t hurt. With that said, I’m putting on my steel-toed boots. Let’s begin.
August 11, 2011. It was cloudy and cool with a daytime high headed towards a sweltering 70 degrees in Western WA. Not raining or even drizzly–just not summer weather, thanks to the phenomenon known as the Western Washington Ream Job. To illustrate, I’ve included an action photo sequence. Below, from left to right: I-90 eastbound, 15 miles west of Snoqualmie Pass; I-90 eastbound, 5 miles west of Snoqualmie Pass; I-90 eastbound, 1 mile west of Snoqualmie Pass; I-90 eastbound, 1 mile east of Snoqualmie Pass.
The bottom line is that once we got east of the Cascade crest, it was blue skies and summer weather. ‘We’ consisted of Jimmy and myself. We hadn’t fished together since the annual trip to Yellowstone, and usually we get out at least a couple of times during July. That didn’t happen this Julyuary but finally the time was right. Per usual when fishing the lower canyon, we stopped in at Red’s Fly Shop to arrange for a shuttle and pick up a couple flies (which I didn’t really need, but always buy just to help them pay the bills). Word from behind the counter was that dry fly fishing had been tough recently so we would fish with a hopper and a dropper (Lightning Bug, to be exact).
From our launch site at Big Horn, we had 15.5 river miles to cover with a current running about 4mph. Calculations suggested that if we milked it and delayed whenever possible, back-rowing to slow our pace by one-half, we should be at the Roza take out around 9 pm. This would give us time on the water for the evening caddis hatch as darkness set in. And so off we went under warm, blues skies, a mild breeze and a river devoid of other anglers.
The first surprise of the day came when Jimmy unveiled his newest fishing hat made for him by one of his 4 daughters. It was
a beautiful thing something to behold, decorated with nick-knacks from their recent family vacation to Florida.
After the initial shock wore off I eventually forgot that he was wearing the distracting headwear, and I honestly believe Jimmy forgot it was up there too. That is, until a wind-aided cast wrapped his leader around the bird’s nest that resulted in, well, a bird’s nest. After that the hat was replaced with something a bit more practical.
The other (pleasant) surprise of the day came in the form the the furled leader I was using for the first time. My buddy Derek Young, Washington’s only Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide (and the 2011 Orvis Endorsed Guide of the Year), had raved about the leaders he had recently gotten from Cutthroat Leader Company, and gave me a couple to try. I had, up until Derek’s act of suspicious generosity, resisted the temptation to try furled leaders because I’m cheap. And I had doubts that they would perform significantly better than traditional tapered mono.
While the cost is higher than a standard tapered leader, given the expected life of the furled leaders the price is actually quite attractive, and is about the same as the cost of a 3 pack of traditional trout leaders. But the performance was really impressive with the 76″ Dry Fly furled leader, and even delivered the hopper/dropper combination quite well. Once I removed the dropper later in the day, the furled leader really shone. I’m sold on Cutthroat leaders, thank you very much, Derek. As much as I detest a tandem nymph rig, I am looking forward to trying the Nymphing Leaders the next time the situation calls for it.
It wasn’t long before we got into fish, and throughout the day we had fairly decent action (none of the extended, back-to-back lulls so common to the Yakima River). I fished first while Jimmy rowed, then we switched. This repeated itself throughout the day, and we each caught enough fish to keep it interesting. All the fish were taken on the top fly, so after a couple of hours we ditched the droppers. This also simplified things when tossing flies tight to the bank, which is where all but a couple fish were. With temps in the mid 80’s it was comfortable for us but too warm for much insect activity. A well-placed hopper or golden stone dry would produce strikes, and plenty of strikes came from 10-12 inch fish throughout the day. Jimmy had a couple nice fish slam his fly, but given reflexes akin to a reptile on a January day, he missed a couple hook sets and then lost one very nice fish (most likely a steelhead…). I managed 6-8 smaller fish, but the 15 incher (what I call “A Yakima 18”) was the best fish I’ve pulled from this river in at least 2 years. It felt good, but I know I’m in for another 2 year drought so the accomplishment was bittersweet.
Strangely, this was the second time in as many visits to the Yakima that the boat I was in has had fairly steady catch action: a trip from a month ago was just about as productive. I’m sure as hell not suggesting that I’ve developed a case of Yakima Mojo or anything like that. I’m just not quite used to catching fish on the Yakima.
As we swapped positions and emptied the cooler as the day wore on, we watched the position of the sun and by means of dead reckoning that would have made Lewis and Clark proud, we paused where we could to let the sun drop behind the canyon walls, anticipating that the onset of evening would bring out the caddis flies. And the rising trout. It’s that last hour before the sun drops behind the steep canyon walls that the Yakima Canyon is at it’s finest aesthetic glory.
As day gave way to evening, we enjoyed a beautiful purple sunset followed by what was destined to become a full moon, although the moon was slower to rise than the trout. Had the moon been directly overhead we’d have been able to see quite well. As it was, darkness fell quickly upon the river and at 9pm we were still a couple of miles from our take out, floating in nearly complete darkeness. There were bugs in the air, which I knew because they flew into my nose and mouth. Trout did rise, because we could hear them doing so. But each cast was a shot in the dark, and any hooksets, had there been any, would have been instinctual (in other words, missed). I had tied on my last size 16 caddis with the aid of reading glasses, and barely managed that feat. Had I snapped off that last fly, it would have been game over. Lights out. And by 9:30 when we pulled the boat from the water, it was.
We returned home to the cloudy side of the mountains just before midnight. Jimmy dropped me off at the local Safeway parking lot where I had left The Fish Taco that morning. As Jimmy drove off into the night it suddenly dawned on me that the next day was the 22nd anniversary of the wedding between Mrs. UA and myself. Luckily Safeway was still open, so I paid a quick visit for a bouquet of flowers and an anniversary card. As it turns out, Mrs. UA got me the same card. I guess we deserve each other.