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Trout On The Yakima River

Trout On The Yakima River

Learn the ins and outs of Washington's top river. (May 2010)

The Yakima River is Washington's top trout stream and its most baffling. It spills cantankerously and quickly through the splintered log jams and shifting rocks in the upper reaches through the central Cascade Mountains, then flows powerfully and sullen through the sun baked grasshopper grass and broken basalt in the down-river desert canyon.

Drift boats are an iconic image on Western waters and the best way to fish rivers like the Yakima.
Photo by Terry W. Sheely.

In this salmon-centric state, both of these stretches are blue-ribbon magnets for trout fishermen hungry for good rivers. But in an ironic twist, recent improvements in this great trout fishery are being credited to spin-off from a large-scale salmon recovery project.

The Yak's rainbow and cutthroat trout, always tough and feisty but rarely "lunker size," appear to be getting bigger and stronger on a supplemental diet of salmon alevins, fry and smolts. The tiny salmon are being stocked as part of a major salmon enhancement project headed by the Yakama Nation, a local Indian tribe, in partnership with the state fish and wildlife department in an effort to restore the river's historic chinook, coho and sockeye runs. While the tribal salmon recovery program is showing long-run progress--it's the river's trout that appear to be benefiting short-term from the smorgasbord of salmon tenders.

Infant salmon have become so important to the diet of Yakima 'bows and cutts that Steve Worley, owner of Worley-Bugger Fly Shop in Ellensburg, has developed a fly pattern specifically to match the salmon hatch. "Alevin the Smolt" is tied on a No. 8 longshank hook and Worley says "it is fantastic in the Upper Yakima drainage for big predatory rainbows when spring chinook fry are hatching from the gravel in the early spring."

Not that this prize trout river needed salmon fry to be productive. It already feeds its resident trout four-season hatches of every major and most minor Western aquatic insects, plus stickleback minnows, heaps of whitefish fry and eggs, crayfish, leeches and careless terrestrials that wind up in the drink. On this diet, Yakima River trout have evolved with plenty of attitude and muscle, and 25-inch rainbows are caught every season, along with 20-inch cutthroat. Assuredly, those are exceptional fish to averages more likely to fall in the 10-to 18-inch range.

Still, while floating the river near Thorp last fall, I was surprised to hear Worley-Bugger guide Russell Vogt say, "These fish fight harder than Montana trout, harder than Bitterroot River trout." Bold words, but Vogt fishes both rivers enough to make the comparison, and he credits a diet heavy in meat protein. Between the salmon alevins, whitefish fry, stickleback minnows, sculpins and crayfish the Yak's big predator trout are not wanting for a good meal. "Chinook and coho salmon alevin are a major resource for resident trout in the early spring months," Worley says, adding, "fry are also a commodity to larger rainbows that will feed on these immature salmon."


That's advice fly and conventional tackle fishermen should take to heart. While a lot of the headlines go to the Yak's fly-fishing potential, the river is also open to conventional tackle as long as it's catch-and-release and follows the Washington Department Fish Wildlife selective tackle guidelines: artificials, one single-point barbless hook and no baits or scents. Landing nets must be knotless to minimize handling injuries. Spin-fishermen can do well with dark Blue Fox Vibrax or Wordren's Rooster Tail type spinners or by bouncing bottom with split shot towing a leader of flies like the venerable Woolly Bugger, Leech or Stonefly Nymph.

Fly and spin fishermen like to double their odds by fishing two flies at a time, usually pairing a large streamer or nymph trailing a small wet, often a Mayfly Nymph. A friend of mine, an unrepentant spinner, has been enjoying great success in the spring by mixing his tackle -- throwing a black, brown or red 1/4-ounce Rooster Tail spinner that trails a stiff 12-inch leader and a salmon alevin, fry or sculpin pattern. The unbalanced rig is a little awkward to cast, and requires the stiff leader knotted to the spinner's single hook to minimize tangles but when mastered it's deadly. He gets the best results by casting downstream and retrieving upstream along the bank just fast enough to rotate the spinner blade. I also see a lot of spinning rods sporting big floats for drifting flies and marabou jigs by adding split shot for casting and drifting weight.

May is a pivotal period that may see the Yakima flushed with high cold snow melt or unseasonably clear and perfect water. It's also a big fish time. Steve Joyce of Red's Fly Shop in the Ellensburg Canyon, has been fishing the Yak for three decades and says, "It's my favorite time to fish the Yakima between March 1 and May 15. We get so many good hatches during that window that there will be a period during the day where you'll throw dries with success, and the nymphing is usually good outside of that window. We start with Skwalas and Blue Winged Olive's and then get into the March Browns, followed by Caddis and PMD's.

"The pre-spawn rainbows are aggressive, feisty, and beautiful," he adds.

Also making appearances this month are Mother's Day Caddis, Pale Morning Dun's, Big Yellow Mays, and the occasional early salmon fly. Even when the water is ugly brown, the outfitter says, cloudy mornings can be extraordinary when trout are nailing dries -- PMD's and Big Yellows. Such days are sometimes doubly blessed with an afternoon caddis feed.

Anglers often find that the Yakima is a tough read; a wet 215-mile long chameleon with a sense of humor that changes disguises every few miles, and chuckles at the consternations of the anglers it baffles. The lowest 130 miles of river are of little value to trouters, amounting to a sullen drift through irrigated melons and peppers, wine grapes and attendant pollutants of the lower Yakima Valley. This is smallmouth, carp and channel catfish water that belches from irrigation pipes and enjoys routine health department warnings abut potentially toxic fillets.

The divide between carp and pristine trout water is sharp and takes place a little north of the community of Selah where the imposing concrete wall of Roza Dam forms a cleaver that segregates the upstream mountain river into trout and caddis fly water, from the catfish and pepper field water.

From Roza Dam upriver to Snoqualmie Pass on the crest of the Cascade Mountains flows 85 miles of water and the finest flowing trout water in the state

Steve Worley, routinely puts five guide boats on the river from his fly shop in Ellensburg. and believes that fishing has been improving steadily since the early 1980s when the first

set of progressive fishing restrictions was put in place.

Today's blue ribbon trout fishery was jump started -- somewhat reluctantly -- in the 1990s when the WDFW, with incessant prodding by fly fishing organizations, agreed to restrict a 75-mile section between the dams at Roza and Lake Easton to a no-kill, no-barbs, no-bait, catch-and-release trout fishery. The 10 miles above Lake Easton are open to catch-and-eat brook trout fishing.

Dozens of boat ramps and access points are scattered along the banks dividing the river into floatable segments covering as little as a 1 ½ miles of water or as much as 35 miles. An irrigation diversion dam at Thorp kills opportunities to float and fish the entire 85 miles without taking out (Also the upper 10 miles are braid water, jammed with logs and not recommended for boaters.). Motorized boats are not allowed on the river, pushing floaters into McKenzie-style drift boats, rafts and pontoon boats.

Steve Joyce cut his guiding teeth in Montana and now works at Red's Fly Shop, running up to a dozen guide boats during seasonal peaks. "I can honestly say the Yakima is a challenging fishery," Joyce grins. "It certainly has its days where it gives you a glimpse of how good it can be -- with fish, and I mean nice fish, feeding on caddis or blue-wing olives as far up and down the river as you can see. But it also has its tougher days, where you're forced to think outside the box and work hard to find a player."

Neither Worley nor Joyce -- both well-traveled anglers -- blink when describing the Yak above Roza Dam as premier trout water, and Jim Cummins WDFW Yakima regional fish biologist agrees, adding that it can also be one of the most intensely fished trout rivers in Washington. Although WDFW does not have up-to-date creel census information, Cummin's told me that he believes 95 percent of the Yakima River trout are rainbow, with the rest cutthroat, with brookies restricted to the extreme upriver areas deep in the mountains.

The catch-and-release rule applies to rainbows, cutts and brown if you can find one, but not for brookies. In their campaign to eliminate brook trout populations in streams where the little char compete with ESA listed native char, WDFW has made an exception to the no-trout rule, and allows anglers free reign to catch and keep the non-native between Easton and Keechelus lakes: no daily or size limit on brook trout.

Downstream from Lake Easton the first decent public launch and wading access is at a WDFW site on East Nelson Siding accessible frm I-90. Several hazardous miles below is the Bullfrog/Three Bridges access. Both put-ins lead to log jams, widow makers and bottom-banging treachery and are not recommended for drift boats or novice boatmen. Adding to the discouragement is that trout in this upper water, above South Cle Elum, are uncommonly small, averaging less than 9 inches, small compared to averages just a few miles farther downstream in safer boating water.

The Yak grows its first serious trout legs below the confluence of the Cle Elum River and steadily improves as it swirls and rolls into South Cle Elum. Called The Flats or Flatlands by local trouters, this stretch is a reasonably manageable chunk of boating water with skitches of public bank access. Here, boat- and bank-anglers work through a series of braids and runs and green-bottomed pools with two miles of wade and cast access from the Hansen Pond Road.

This twisting pool, run and tailout segment between Cle Elum and Ellensburg is the sweet love of fish outfitter Worley. "Above Ellensburg the Yakima offers more diversity, cleaner water conditions and no crowds." he says. The little main-street town of Cle Elum is squarely in the center of this water. A couple of miles southeast is a WDFW access/launch at the Teanaway River junction. (From I-90, Exit 85 and follow Old Hwy. 10 toward Blewett Pass Highway 970). This small dot on the state highway map is a major demarcation line for flyfishermen.

Below the Teanaway mouth begins the upper canyon water, which is a trouting wonderland for boaters that can be savored on a 16-miles float to a diversion dam takeout at Thorp, or cut short at 13 miles pulling out at the WDFW ramp at Green Bridge on Hayward Road, which is where most float trips end.

With a few exceptions the upper canyon water is seen from Highway 10 as a blue line in the bottom of steep-walled well. There are pullovers but the road-to-river climb discourages most bank-fishermen giving boaters exclusive water. I confess I've found it worth skittering down the steep grade to fish water well off the beaten path. One scramble though, cost me the tip section of a favorite 4-weight fly rod.

A safer and more practical option is the John Wayne Trail. It's a public path that boatless anglers follow along parts of the river on a former railroad grade from Cle Elum. The trail parallels the river south and east of Cle Elum and is a popular hike-and-wade route. Mountain bikers pack in for overnight bike-and-fish.

The bottom of the canyon boats into a section away from major roads and barking dogs that twists and turns, grinds and grumbles through riffles in a slow, steady drop between banks of cottonwood and quakies. Elk, mule deer and coyotes slip into the shadows, and the river offers up every type of river and fishing condition imaginable, pockets for the picking, overhangs, bottomless pools, deep sullen runs, and sweeping tailouts.

A novice at the oars will bang, hang, spin and ricochet, but overall there is little truly dangerous water, especially in the fall when October caddis and BWOs are coming off, the aspens drip with gold, the irrigators have sluiced off all they want and the river runs low and clear.

Most floaters hitting this stretch take out at the WDFW access at Thorp's Green Bridge. The river below the bridge covers another 3 1/2 miles of trout with minimal bank access and ends at a rough takeout at the uncrossble Diversion Dam. According to WDFW this stretch has the thinnest trout count per mile in the river, but includes trout 20-inches plus.

The river's biggest trout, according to WDFW, hang under cutbanks in the Ellensburg Canyon down river from the I-90 town of Ellensburg. The highest concentration of trout per mile is in the section of the canyon above Roza -- 1,129 rainbows per mile or one trout in every 4 1/2 feet of river. And that count is based on a 2003 study. Likely, according to Worley, the trout population this spring is much higher.

Worley and Joyce agree that, from a guiding standpoint, if they had to pick one Yakima River rod it would be a 9-foot 5-weight. Joyce, who fishes mostly below Ellensburg said his rods "would be stiffer than softer, to throw big dries and small dries, and double-nymph rigs and still handle heavy stoneflies and streamers.

Worley, whose outfitters concentrate on the Cle Elum to Ellensburg stretch has settled on, "a floating line for dry fly fishing and nymphing. Streamers are also effective," he said.

Depending on the section of river, weather, water and air temperatures, month, water level and clarity and what rock you're standing on -- pattern selections could run from dainty siz

e 24 midges to lumbering Size 6 Stimulators or fish-size sculpin-imitating dredgers.

Since salmon became part of the food chain spring rainbows have been showing a distinctive preference for salmon alevins, fry and smolt patterns, according to Worley, and in the fall flesh flies and eggs.

Below Ellengsburg, pack grasshoppers, caddis and stones. A Yellow Sally Stimulator or heavily dressed caddis will be sucked down by trout feeding on all three. If I had to rig with one dry and one wet to fish the Ellensburg Canyon, the dry would be a No. 8 Stimulator and the wet a No. 10 black Woolly Bugger.

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