Springtime on the Yakima

Springtime on the Yakima

Forecast: heavy PMD's, with a chance of scattered sulfurs...

  • By: Robert Lyon
  • Photography by: Robyn Minkler
We'll probably be in the boat as much as in the water today," Joe Rotter, our guide, announced. "Keep an eye out for PMD's and scattered Sulfurs. It was the first week in May on Washington's blue ribbon trout river, the Yakima. Joe was rigging up my fishing partner's leader. He told us: "What works really well out here right now is the little nymph dropper below a strike indicator." In best guide fashion, Joe kept up a steady patter of information and opinion, providing us with the lowdown on the river and its fishery.A long-time guide on eastern Washington rivers and streams, Joe obviously knew both his stuff and his shtick. It was early enough that the sun had not yet found the crack in the earth that is the Yakima Canyon, and there was a nip of seasons past in the chill wind as we prepped out at the launch. Steve Thomsen and Robyn Minkler and I had spent the evening at Red's in a little cabin along the Yakima, hunkered under a Dazor magnifying lamp as we tied tiny nymphs that looked as large as hellgrammites under the lamp's thick glass lens. The sounds outside the cabin--the rustle of cottonwoods in the night wind, the steady hooting of screech owls, the thrum of Burlington Northern engines powering across the river and the muted whine of the odd semi motoring past along the old Canyon Highway between Yakima and Ellensburg--were familiar ones to us, as this was not our first trip to the Yakima. Waking at first light to the sound of quail calling in the flat along the water had me itching for the shotgun and a chase. But some fresh coffee and a walk out under the trees alongside the water brought me around to what we were there for and I sat down on a rock with my cup and watched a water ouzel diving for his breakfast. Later, armed with a good stock of bugs and nominal hangovers we gathered at the fly shop next door, then spilled into the parking lot to sort tackle and load the rigs. "Water's about 48 degrees right now," Joe was saying, and I could hear him 10 yards downstream over the susurration of water cleaving around me. "When I checked the flow last night it was running a hair over 3K. You can see on the bank," and he flipped his head toward shore while he wetted and slipped a knot tight on Steve's leader, "water's still coming up." Looking out at the water rolling madly south at the put in, I was itching to get on that highway myself. I remembered the first time I fished the Yak (FR&R, May/June 1998) and on that occassion I'd brought my little 8-foot Cat pontoon boat. When I threw out the anchor to fish, the current pulled the pontoons under and damn near flipped the boat. My guide had to drift down to free my anchor, after which, with due humility, I stashed the raft along the bank and got in the drift boat like a regular sport. Three upriver dams regulate the Yakima, and they keep it high throughout the season to provide water for the apple orchards of the Yakima Valley south of the canyon. Never prone to excessive flooding even before the era of hydropower, the Yak is like other desert streams that flow over porous lava bedrock. The surrounding flood plain absorbs the surfeit of water, or "hydrates" in winter and spring, then releases the water back to the river as the summer months sear the land. But with the dams on line, both the river flow and the aquatic insect cycles have a touch of clockwork about them. With a fishable range of over 6,000 cfs, the river shows many moods to anglers. It can get down to a couple of hundred cfs in the fall when its work is done, then crank up to a whopping 6500 cfs, when smolts are being protected and irrigation needs are still high in spring, and still be fishable. Mayflies were coming off, albeit infrequently, as we pushed off from the boat launch and approached the mouth of the canyon. PMD's they looked to be. I was itching to toss some dries; the Yak is a joy for that. My 2-weight rod was strung up and waiting in the rod tube on the starboard side of the boat. But there were too few bugs coming off and no risers to be seen as yet. We fished mostly out of the boat through the morning, running those little nymphs we'd tied the night before through the slicks, holes and runs that Joe pointed out from the boat. I am used to more definition on a river than one finds early to mid season on the Yak; still the features were there, if subtle. It just took an experienced eye to read them. Steve, running a pair of nymphs--a size 16 beadhead Hare's Ear on point and a size 12 olive stone at dropper, per Joe's suggestion--hooked up quickly. The taut, bowed rod with its dancing tip was a welcome sight. For my part, I was a little rusty getting up to speed as it was the season's first outing. I stubbornly worked my own single fly while watching Steve's strike indicator out of the corner of one eye. We pulled ashore for a bite of brie and smoked salmon and Steve Joyce pulled in beside us. Joyce is Red's new owner/GM, having bought the little fly shop in the canyon about four years ago. The property goes back to the 1930's and has evolved over the years into what is now a well-stocked shop with a savvy, professional guide service. I asked Joyce to give us a thumbnail on the bugs. "Spring is a predictable time for some good dryfly fishing," he told us. "Starting in late February, Skwala hatches run through late April; size 8 to 12 olive stoneflies do the trick, and we start fishing dries in late February, early March. Blue-Wing Olives start middle of March, along with March Browns end of March/early April. Then late April we see the caddisflies coming on and PMD's, all the way into June. Mahogany duns are starting in about May, mid-June for hoppers and summer stones, the short-winged stone you know; very cool bug, nearly the size of a Pteronarcys. "With all the aquatic insects this river hosts, you're bound to have some decent dryfly fishing pretty much any time in the spring. It changes a bit from year to year as the bug cycles wax and wane, of course, but there are just so many different species of bugs that you just can't go too long without seeing a riser." "Well, we're long overdue then," I said, and laughed. "Exactly. Just our luck." Joyce had a wealth of knowledge about the river, not just the fishing but the bigger picture, the eco/political spheres, and he seemed to have a head for the way the winds of change were blowing. Steve had told us about the Bug for a Bag program, in which Red's gives out a fly for every bag of garbage picked up along the river. When he talks about what needs doing to preserve the river canyon he has quickly come to love, he gets excited. When you get on the same page with him conversationally, "exactly" is his favorite word. Joyce told us that, technically, the Yakima is a tailwater fishery. "There is a lot of fluctuation to the flow cycles. Different than most tail waters, the flow is high in summertime for irrigation because the orchards are all downriver of the prime fishing area in the canyon. Three upriver dams regulate flow, largely for the rich cherry and apple orchards of the Yakima River Valley. When the water is needed in Yakima the floodgates of the dams open and we get a strong push through here. "But the Yak has freestone characteristics as well; that's what's so unique about it. Besides the extended high water throughout the core of the season, the Teanaway, a tributary, provides its freestone influence." To Joyce, this created the best of both worlds. "You can prospect with big dry flies a lot here because the fish are used to having to chase after the waiter. They can't be as selective on this river if they want to survive, so they're aggressively opportunistic. On the other hand, the blowouts characteristic of some of the typical freestone streams don't happen on the Yakima because of the dams. What you've got is a wonderful blend of river typology and a healthy, productive year-round fishery. "And the bugs, my goodness, there are so many different things happening at different times during the day, that it's not uncommon for us to catch fish with dry flies, nymphs and streamers all in the same day." Underway again, I kicked back and relaxed a minute. River smells, the pungent scent of cottonwood and sage and Coppertone sun block, all spiraled together on a zephyr of spring air. Jade green currents were a treat for the eyes. There were few places I'd rather be than zinging down a high desert river. Joe was smooth on the oars, weaving us left, right, back-rowing to extend a drift in one place and jumping out to hold the boat while we thoroughly nailed a run in another. Joyce held his position behind us for the most part, carrying Robyn, our young photographer, who was burning film like mad. Robyn had accompanied Steve and me on a number of different projects over the past couple of years, published a number of excellent images in the work we did, and I always regretted it when something prevented him from joining us. The last time I fished the Yak it had been hoppers dribbled up tight against undercut banks and lots of opportunistic surface action with Parachute Adams or PMD's in the little back eddies along shore. Wish as we might this day, it appeared our future lay among the stones and detritus on the river bottom. Some of the lanes we fished were obvious, others Joe had discovered from his regular river beats. The population of Yakima River 'bows never had a problem with survival. Even back in the day before C&R, trout numbers were strong. The river is a thumping piece of liquid with lots of cover and lots of food. The average 'bow measures out at about a foot and bigger fish are not rare at all. Speaking of which, at one point I set on a slight hesitation to my line and came up against something heavy. I glimpsed it swimming under the boat in about six feet of water. It looked big, a kelt steelie I thought, and I called out as much to everyone. "Fish on!" I yelled. But after a lackluster tug of war and growing suspicions it swam into view again. I felt a blush of embarrassment as I noticed the orange/gold hue along the belly. Sure enough, a sucker--five pounds of reddish gold muscle and lips that begged to be kissed. Joe didn't think much of it. But where I came from suckers were buff: You only caught one occasionally and that heaviness on the other end was a welcome change from a 14-inch trout. Occasionally. We weren't the only creatures floating the river that day. Canada geese, mallards and mergansers shared it with us, as did their chicks swimming in convoy with mom and dad. Deer and sign of beaver were evident and I had sighted some enormous bull elk in heavy cover before we entered the canyon. Floating the Yakima was a treat, even if we were having a little trouble hooking up. At one point, for about an hour straight, we felt nary a take. "Snappy demeanor," Joe Rotter announced. "That's a snappy demeanor they're putting on today all right. Short-taking everything we send 'em." We laughed. Something about the snappy demeanor remark and the snub-noses from our underwater friends made a fine joke, if on us. Joe pulled us over a gravel bar and dropped anchor. He pointed out a seam just downstream of the boat. Thomsen and I divvied it up and set to work. Joe said he'd be right back and marched over to a side channel to perform baseline duties. By the time we'd finished the run, Joe had trooped back through the riffle with his rod stuck up behind his back and a frown on his face. "No dem-eanors over that way at all, snappy or otherwise," he said, and offered a sad smile. "Zip. You guys…?" "Zippers," we reported. Fishing without the benefit of a strike indicator and with only a single fly that day on the Yak, the little success I enjoyed served as a lesson for a couple of things. To successfully catch fish you need to adapt to the situation. Especially here; the Yakima is a river of many, many faces. If you're fine with waiting for the conditions you want, that's fine too--just as long as you know the difference. And I thought of Joe, how fluid he was in the moment, reading the river for changing conditions. Anymore, it seemed I liked it my way or not at all. To Joe's credit, he did not push the issue of trying to improve my fishing success. He was wise and gracious enough to let me come to my own conclusions. After the initial overture, not once did he try and persuade me to his methods; he worked with Steve instead, to Steve's immense pleasure. And when I did need his help or had questions, he was there. But by mid-afternoon, when some high cirrus clouds finally gentled the sun's incessant glare, I finally found what I was after. I noticed two quick blips in succession at one point, and started to tell Joe, when he said: "Saw it, sit down; I'm pulling in." The boat lurched and I sat down quickly to keep from falling over. A broad, even-flowing pool with a fine lick of current flowed over a cobble bottom where the fish were working. Looking out over the pool I could see a small flurry of bugs, Pale Morning Duns they appeared to be, in the air. I got out and slid the little rod out of the tube in Joe's boat and waved it in the air. The rod had an action like a wisp of wind. Its time had come. I picked out a little pale dry, tied it on and waded into position, stopping a minute to make sure the barb was down and began to work out line. The laminar current streaming through the pool made for a perfect 45-degree upriver dead-drift, no-mend presentation. I laid out a straight shot of line and stripped in as the little bug dipped and floated until it disappeared in a splashy take. I set quickly (or so I thought) and missed. Still, I was grinning ear to ear. Another cast. Another small splashy take on my next drift. I set. Tight! I held my position in the shallow flat to meet the 'bow that had finally turned my day around. Rod high and pulsing, I pirouetted as the fish swam a circle around me. I glanced up for a moment and saw more feathered strips of clouds moving in. A harbinger of late afternoon, it turned out to be. The mayflies took it as their cue, and the fish turned on the afterburners to get them. I brought that lovely, highly vermiculated rainbow trout to hand and released it to the pool. Out in the current I noticed another splashy rise, and another. I looked back to the boat to suggest someone join me and I saw Steve smile and gesture, as if to say: No, it's yours. Enjoy! Which I did while they sat back and watched for a while before finally taking off in different directions, upstream and down, to try their luck. It was a wonderful spate of fishing for me, and when the boys trooped back to the boat I had had my fill. As had the fish apparently: By then the bugs were gone and the river once again flowed unperturbed by rises. Seasons of the Yakima Changes on the Yakima, it seems, are carefully considered. The DF&W has been actively involved in the river's welfare for a very long time and has an active presence in the canyon today. The Yakima Nation--the area's Native Americans--are a big player as well and are working with US agencies to reintroduce salmon to the system. There are seven campgrounds in the canyon, both public and private, and there can be stiff competition for good camp water on weekends at the height of the season. There is no camping allowed on the State Management area on the west bank. The Yakima is entirely a catch-and-release fishery and single barbless hook regulations are in effect. While the majority of the fishing is done in the canyon, one can get away from the roadway along the upper river by hiking in along the stretch from Cle Elum to Thorp. Fishing is year round from Roza Dam on upriver. You can fish out of a boat throughout the system and wading is relatively easy over a fairly uniform bottom in most places. Felts are a good idea. Mid-season, June through September, can be hot in the canyon: 100 degrees plus. Fringe seasons are prime in the canyon. Less splash and giggle activity and less heat. For further information about the Yakima, including guides, licenses, boat launches, shuttles, camping, lodging, resources and advice, visit redsflyshop.com or call 509-929-1802.