Last Sunday on the Yakima River

Jim Speaker

Active Member
Fly fishing on the Yakima River, 3/30/2014

(pardon the formatting, image align doesn't seem to be working right on this forum and I don't have time to mess with it)
Well, I was supposed to spend Saturday fly fishing the salt for searun cutthroat trout in the South Puget Sound with my buddy Bob. A gale warning nixed that plan, and as it turned out it was a darn good thing we didn’t take his boat out as the blow was 25 knots that day. Really wanting to fish, I turned to Smart Trip Map to figure out where I might have some decent weather and stream flows on Sunday instead. After just a little bit of searching around, I found that the Yakima River in the canyon stretch was running at about 3,000 cubic feet per second, and the weather looked like it would be decent. I know the Yakima River pretty well, and figured by now the Skwala stonefly nymphs must be on the move pretty heavily, with the possibility of some adults showing. A quick call to a fly shop I’ve frequented on the river confirmed that, but that the water temperature had dropped a bit. The guide I spoke to said the fish probably weren’t shocked yet, but that if it dropped to 42F it could slow down quite a bit. That was good enough for me, and I planned to float in my pontoon boat from Red’s Fly Shopto Roza Dam, about 8 miles.
Not wanting to fish solo this time, I posted on the Washington Fly Fishing forums to see if someone wanted to join me. I’ve made some fishing buddies that way, and never had a bad experience, so what the heck. After a pretty short time a fellow named Matt, from Tri-Cities, started a short conversation with me and we shored up the details on the phone. Matt had only fished the canyon once, and that was further upstream in a drift boat during the Summer. Fishing the Yakima River in the Summer time is quite different, as the flows are much higher due to releases from the reservoirs to irrigate the farmland below, so it turns into a game of throwing hoppers at the banks from a fast moving drift boat. It looked like I’d get to play guide a little bit on water I knew pretty well, and in conditions that I was fairly familiar with.

Apparently the nap I decided to take on Saturday was a real bad idea. I woke up at 2 a.m., and unable to go back to sleep, I finally got up at 3 and drove on over to Ellensburg. I figured I could just get myself a hearty breakfast at the Flying J truck stop there, and poke around at Red’s Fly Shop for awhile until Matt arrived. Snoqualmie Pass was a bit slushy, and snow was coming down pretty thick as I approached the summit. Having learned to drive in far worse, it was no big deal, and I wasn’t in a hurry. The Flying J was, well, the Flying J – I don’t think that place ever changes. I must have been hungry, as what appeared to be a mountain of hash browns went down with the eggs, bacon and toast, and only a clean plate got bused! I got out of there and started driving down into the canyon just as the sun was beginning to rise. It was looking to be a glorious day!
By the time Matt got there, earlier than he said he’d be, I had my fill of screwing around in the fly shop and my boat and rod were all set up and ready to go at the launch. While Matt got ready I threw some dry/dropper casts at a likely looking bank upstream of the boat launch. When we were ready to go, I checked the water temperature. It was – ugh – 42F. Just the temperature the guide had said would make what had been good rather slow. This really didn’t deter me, though, as I knew this only meant that one would have to work harder to bring some fish to the net. It was a damn good feeling to push out and get to drifting with the current, pulling the rod out of the holder, and throwing bugs towards the bank.

It wasn’t too long before I broke from the advice Steve Joyce, the owner of Red’s had given me, saying he’d been fishing dry/dropper these days. After fishing the bank and then another run that usually produced, Matt and I both cut off our rigs and put on nymph rigs. The thing is, a dry/dropper setup would work great from a drift boat, when there’s a guide dedicated to the sticks and you can consistently throw to the bank. And, the temperature was low, so the fish would more likely be hugging the bottom and not nearly as prone to hitting something on the surface or coming up for a nymph that’s not bouncing on the bottom. From our pontoon boats, and the spot we’d stopped, we quickly realized that a double nymph rig was way more likely to get down where we wanted it – right on the bottom. The twenty incher was the point fly, as that double-beaded stonefly imitation had the weight to get down in the current, and was said to be the hot fly. It sure looks right, and in a #12 was the size of most of the Skwala nymphs migrating in the Yakima River.
After rounding a couple bends from Red’s, we fished through some prime eddies and banks where I’ve seen a lot of success in the past, all without a strike. Knowing what we were coming up on, though, I started getting on the sticks pretty hard and made my way to river-left. We pulled our pontoon boats up on to a gravel bar near a big wall. I gave Matt the prime spot at the head of the bar where a side channel split off and curved towards the wall. I moseyed down and fished the main basalt wall area without success for awhile, varying my depth to make sure I was on the bottom, and lost a couple flies to structure in the process. At last I walked up to where Matt was. He’d worked down a bit from where he started and had nothing yet, either. I couldn’t help but fish some of that good looking water he’d already worked through.
A little bit into working back up the run Matt had fished, my indicator went under, the bamboo rod flexed back, and boom! Fish on! Matt had worked down to the wall and I let him know a fish had finally been found with a loud, “whoop!” The fish pulled a some line off my reel and made the Hardy sing a sweet little tune. It then jumped once, made a couple more short, energetic runs, and at last came sliding up into my net. The colorful 15 inch rainbow trout stayed nice and calm as we snapped a couple photos. After resting a short bit it angled away into the current back toward the protection of the deeper water in the run.

We both continued to worked this water for a bit longer, but to no avail. So, we hopped in our pontoon boats again and continued on down around a little s-curve bend and cast our rigs near the bank as we drifted through the Wymer flats. We each had a couple really light strikes as we worked through this water, but nothing substantial. As we reached the end of the flats we pulled out again on a gravel bar where the current formed a nice side channel.
Again, the water looked great, really darned fishy, but didn’t produce. We fished both the side channel and a nice riffle on the main river side of the gravel bar. We spent a bit of time there before hopping in our boats again. After this gravel bar we nymphed a really long, slowly curving stretch of bank habitat before we reached Lmuma Creek. Even some good water around the Lmuma Creek campground wasn’t producing for us. Again, we continued to float, this time past a couple of basalt walls just downstream of the campground. I knew that the water near the walls was deeper, and nymphed about 6 or 7 feet down as we floated along with oars up at the mercy of the Yakima River’s current.
I was just past the second wall when I glanced downstream to ensure I was doing okay in terms of where the current was taking me, and glanced back to where my indicator was, but it wasn’t there! I instinctively pulled my rod tip tight and set up on a fish as I let out another, “whoop!” Immediately after feeling elated that I had another fish on, it let me know definitively that it wasn’t just any old fish. The line in my hand was quickly gone and the fish ran hard making my reel sing while it ran towards the main current ripping line off the click-pawl reel, “Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz-zzzzzzzzzzzz-zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!!!” “That’s a fish,” I exclaimed as soon as it started that first big run. I managed to turn its head just before it got into heavier water and had it angling back into softer water when it ran again, long and hard, this time sizzling line off my reel upstream in the softer current. This repeated about 6 times before I managed to bring the fish closer to me, and as soon as I did, it decided to swim under my boat. I reacted to this alright, and played the fish back out from underneath of me. All the while, of course, I’m floating along and rather fortunate that the current wasn’t drawing me into the brushy bank on river left that I was concerned about. After another attempt to swim under me, the fish then did a 360 around my boat causing me to follow it around with the tip of my 8 1/2′ rod, craning my head around as far as it would go before turning to the other side as it completed the circle. At last the big rainbow trout’s energy had subsided enough that I was able to coax it into my long-handled boat net. I just kept the fish in the water, in the net, as I floated a ways further down the river to a gravel bar that I knew was coming up so I could safely revive and release it. This beautiful Yakima River rainbow trout buck was 18 inches, nice and healthy, and full of energy. After reviving it a short while in the shallow water it seemed to be doing just fine and swam lazily away.

Matt had caught up with me by this time, and had a look before we had a sandwich for lunch and fished the long gravel bar’s side channel. I gave him the prime water at the head of the channel and headed on down much lower to fish an area that I used to like some years ago. I wasn’t down there long when I heard a “whoop” out of Matt as he’d hooked a nice fish up there. I came running back up and digging out my camera snapped on shot as I got nearer to him, then helped out with the net as he played the fish in. At first we thought he’d landed a nice 16 inch rainbow trout, but upon further inspection realized it was a westslope cutthroat trout. There aren’t a lot of westslopes in that stretch of river, as most of them call the reaches further upstream on the Yakima River home. It was a beautiful fish.

After Matt had released that cutthroat I wandered back down and continue to fish the lower part of the side channel. I was rewarded with a small rainbow trout of about 10 inches that quickly came to my hand. Eventually we got back in our boats and continued down toward Roza Dam. As we floated along, I hooked one other fish, but as I brought it toward my boat recognized it was about an 18 inch whitefish. Knowing how crazy whitefish flop when they’re distressed, I opted not to use my net and instead brought it to my waiting hand cupped softly under it’s belly. I lifted it just enough to get the hook out of its lip and let it go. I’ve found that this technique works great on whitefish, just very gently lifting them without squeezing at all usually keeps them calm.

The timing turned out to be perfect, as we were approaching the takeout near Roza Dam at about 5 pm. Plenty of light remained and we chatted with a few gentlemen that were trailering drift boats as we broke down our gear and stacked and strapped down our boats in Matt’s pickup bed. We shuttled back up to Red’s after a beautiful day out, chatted a bit, and shook hands pledging that we should do this again.

~ Jim Speaker

Dan Cuomo

Active Member
Nice chronicle of a beautiful day. I particularly applaud your inclusion of a pic of your breakfast. The morning meal always tastes so much better when followed by time on the river. Thanks for sharing.

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