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Fly Fishing Washington

by Joey Mara & Daniel Silverberg   |  May 9th, 2014 1

Native redband rainbows are the primary species in the tributary streams of the Columbia Basin, but there are also westslope cutthroat trout and occasionally bull trout. Photo: Daniel Silverberg

Washington is a tale of two states. The western half conjures up visions of temperate rainforests filled with raging rivers and dripping ferns. When it comes to fly fishing Washington, this is a land of wild steelhead and spawning salmon, but there is another side to this story. Once you cross the crest of the rugged Cascade Mountains, you’ll find country that lies in stark contrast to the lush forests of Washington’s western side. Here exists a dramatic high desert shaped by earthquakes, volcanoes, and cataclysmic floods. Rolling through the desert, the Columbia River cuts through ancient rock in this classic Western landscape. Countless alpine streams and spring creeks join its journey to the Pacific Ocean. The vast basin of the Columbia provides endless unique fishing opportunities across the rocky peaks and channeled scablands of eastern Washington.

Despite a seemingly lifeless surface, the land is remarkably fertile. Bugling elk, barred owls, bighorn sheep, and bobcats are only a sample of the species making a living here. The rivers and streams are home to a wide range of fish, including Chinook, coho, and sockeye salmon; steelhead; and all major species of trout including native rainbows, westslope cutthroat, and bull trout.

The Columbia River Basin is home to many flowing, sparkling gems, and a few that showcase Washington’s trout fishing particularly well are the Yakima River, the Naches River, Rattlesnake Creek, and Crab Creek.

While many anglers are drawn to returning runs of salmon and steelhead, the trout fishing flies under the radar. This relatively low fishing pressure combined with catch-and-release management have left these waters unspoiled.

Washington is famous for its coastal rainforests, and its steelhead and salmon, but on the other side of the state, you’ll find adventurous hike-in fishing, and rising trout in places like the Naches River and Crab Creek. Photo: Daniel Silverberg

Yakima River
The upper portion of the “Yak” flows downstream from the Cascades near Snoqualmie Pass along Interstate 90. The river travels over 200 miles on its way down to the Columbia River. The most popular sections for fishing include the upper and middle sections between Easton Dam just east of Snoqualmie Pass, down to Roza Dam at the end of the canyon section.

The Yakima River Valley is not just an agricultural breadbasket, but also the gateway to Washington wine country. Keep this in mind if you need a clever cover story to convince your wife you are going on a romantic weekend getaway.

The Yakima River Canyon offers the best fishing access and is located just off Interstate 90 at exit 109 in the historic city of Ellensburg. Head south on Highway 821 and you can’t miss it. This takes you into the heart of the river where the scenery is dramatic, and the fishing is the most productive. The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) estimates there are more than 1,000 rainbow trout per mile here, and it is the only designated Blue Ribbon trout fishery in the state. The WDFW partners with the Yakama Nation to manage this fishery as catch-and-release only. Adding to its appeal is the fact that this part of the Yakima remains open year-round, allowing you to scratch the itch during the long winter.

As good as fishing on the Yak is today, “it has room to improve as a trout fishery,” says Eric Anderson, the WDFW district biologist. As a regulated river and tailwater fishery, the Yakima remains heavily influenced by irrigation needs downstream. River flows are highest in mid-June, when irregular releases from the reservoirs start to impact the fishing.

Eric Anderson explains, “aquatic insect production can be negatively impacted during certain seasonal periods. Since insect production is a critical component of the trout diet, providing a more normalized flow regime can improve that production base.”

Ongoing efforts to make water management more predictable and improve conditions for salmon and steelhead will also benefit trout. According to Anderson, “we should continue to see increased fish population trends, with more ocean-derived nutrients entering the system. This is a good thing for all the species in the Yakima basin.”

Thankfully, the main source of the irrigation water flip-flops from the Yakima to the nearby Naches River late in the summer, lowering flows on the Yakima and creating much improved conditions for both insect hatches and wading the river.

During high water, floating the river with a drift boat yields the best results. Public access from the highway is more than adequate for wading, but it can be a challenge and even dangerous during high water. Always be sure to check current flows before you head out. Of course, it never hurts to talk to fellow anglers, check online fishing reports, and call local fly shops to get the scoop on how the river is running.

Rainbows dominate the river, but there is a respectable population of westslope cutthroat trout as well. The average fish size is near 14 inches, but bruisers in the 20-inch range are around, and these healthy fish can take you for quite a ride.

You will want to leave your lightweight tackle in the car. A 6-weight rod with a 9-foot leader and 4X tippet should do the trick. Longer casts on this wide river can be necessary at times to properly target pods of fish.

Partiers from nearby Central Washington University, and the numerous guide services, can make the river a busy place on hot summer days. Fortunately, the increased activity seems to have little effect on the fishing, and the river provides enough room for all who enjoy it.

Autumn is our favorite season on the Yakima; low flows, prolific hatches, and relatively low traffic favor the fishing. Even in mid-November, the Yakima still has its devotees. They brave the cold to enjoy scenic isolation and sporadic midge hatches on sunny afternoons. Regardless of the season, the canyon views will wash away the stress of even the most hellish work week.

Fishing a wide variety of hatches across the calendar is part of allure of the Yakima. Skwala stonefly patterns are effective as early as February. March Brown mayflies are also frequent during afternoons in late March and April.

When flows start jumping in June, nymphing is often the best option. Weighted Copper Johns and Prince Nymphs work well with an indicator. A double nymph setup is a great way to probe the depths, but a dry fly with a nymph dropper is our personal favorite method. Early summer is famous for Golden Stones and Pale Morning Duns.

Late summer can bring great success fishing hoppers along the banks. Once the irrigation releases subside in early autumn, dry-fly fishing comes into its prime. Strong hatches of Blue-winged Olives (BWOs), October Caddis, and crane flies provide plenty of opportunities for rising fish.

Rattlesnake Creek is just one of the small tributary streams that eventually find their way to the Columbia. Long walks through public land are normally rewarded with wild trout that rise eagerly to attractor patterns. Photo: Daniel Silverberg

Central Cascades
Once you have properly sampled the Yakima, or simply decided to seek a bit more solitude, then it’s time to bust out the map (DeLorme’s Washington State Atlas & Gazetteer is our favorite) and start browsing all the squiggly blue lines leading to the Columbia.

From the Yakima, a short drive southeast takes you to the Naches River (pronounced NAT-chees) and Rattlesnake Creek. On the eastern slopes of the Central Cascades, in the cusp of Mount Rainier’s shadow, these smaller tributaries of the Yakima each have their own personality and charm. Ponderosa pines, pocketwater, and deep emerald pools await you here. Too many anglers are deterred by the hike-in access. Don’t be. Embrace the adventure, as the entire experience is more than worth it.

To find the Naches River, travel west from the city of Yakima on Highway 12 toward the Cascade Mountains. The highway hugs the Naches for its entirety, eventually becoming Highway 410 heading toward Chinook Pass and Mount Rainier National Park. Most anglers use the section between where the Tieton River (pronounced TYE-eh-ton) enters the Naches, up to the confluence with Rattlesnake Creek.

According to Anderson, “the Naches has continued to improve as a wild trout fishery over the years, especially after we stopped stocking hatchery trout, reduced the catch limits, implemented no-bait, single-barbless-hook restrictions, and implemented a catch-and-release zone. I don’t think we have seen the peak yet. Anglers can probably continue to look forward to even greater fishing experiences.”

Although keeping trout is allowed in the Naches above Rattlesnake Creek, always be sure to check state regulations for selective gear rules and daily limits. The season currently begins on the first Saturday in June and ends on October 31. The snowpack in the Cascades gets as deep as anywhere in North America, and spring runoff typically keeps streams from coming into shape until late June or July.

The picture-perfect pools and runs of Rattlesnake Creek are enchanting and draw you back again and again. This diamond-in-the-rough connects to the Naches River at the town of Nile. To find Rattlesnake Creek, head north on Highway 410 and turn left at the Woodshed Restaurant onto Nile Road. After a mile and a half, turn left onto Bethel Ridge Road, also called NF-1500. From here the road follows the creek. The two access points are just after the turn onto Bethel Ridge Road, and again several miles upstream where a bridge crosses the creek.

A significant amount of private land lines the banks of the Naches, but there are several clear access points along the highway for wading. Stay below the high-water mark on the Naches to ensure you are on public ground as you pass by any private land or summer cabins. Rattlesnake Creek remains public throughout its length but has almost no development, and fewer access points.

Unlike the Yakima’s, the westslope cutthroat in these tributaries grow larger than the rainbows, and can top 20 inches. Steelhead, spring Chinook, and coho are also present along with the occasional bull trout. The WDFW requires all anglers to carefully release inadvertently caught steelhead and bull trout, as they are federally listed Endangered Species Act (ESA) species.

Late summer and early fall are the best times of year because of lower water flows, though be sure to check reports on the Naches, as it is subject to reservoir releases due to the irrigation flip-flop later in the season.

Daytime air temperatures in the high desert remain warm enough to wet wade through the fall. Hungry fish take drys without hesitation as they try to pack on the pounds before winter. Smaller water means lighter tackle, and sticking with something like a 3- or 4-weight should keep the grin on your face. A 9-foot leader and 5X tippet will be enough to get most fish to hand. Typical Western attractor patterns and small-stream tactics work best, with caddis, Parachute Adams, Royal Wulffs, and Stimulators all on the menu. Streamers imitating juvenile steelhead and salmon hold hope for a big one in the Naches.

Crab Creek is named after the crayfish that scuttle along its rocky bottom. Rattlesnakes are also common in eastern Washington’s high desert. Photo: Daniel Silverberg

The High Desert
When seasonal snowmelt peaks in the spring and early summer, streams fed by the Cascades are often blown out by runoff. Washington’s savviest anglers head even farther east to the high desert, seeking spring creeks as an escape from the high-water blues.

Crab Creek is the longest ephemeral stream in North America, and it snakes through much of eastern Washington. It is fed entirely by springs and fluctuates above and below ground for miles at a time. The creek’s subbasin spreads out across over 5,000 square miles. The large size of the drainage is not an indication of the stream’s volume, as Crab Creek isn’t much more than a trickle in many sections.

Crab Creek‘s bipolar personality is more than enough to confuse the uninitiated, but if you know where to start you are in for a treat. The creek might reveal itself as a picturesque run through a terraced rimrock canyon, meanwhile just downstream you might find only dry creek bed and the sweet smell of manure. Local hydrology can also be affected by weather and substrate conditions, not to mention impacts by heavy irrigation withdrawal and runoff. Needless to say, the water table and creek’s presence vary from year to year.

This variability in the landscape was made possible by an ancient flood cycle, which carved the coulees of these channeled scablands. The Missoula Floods occurred between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. During this ice age, an enormous ice dam held back Glacial Lake Missoula. The dam ruptured several times, scouring the desert with each episode.

Photo: Daniel Silverberg

Today, Crab Creek’s many canyons are a mix of public, private, and leased land. The upper section of the creek above the town of Odessa is where the majority of the action happens. High summertime water temperatures and low oxygen levels render most water downstream from here (with the exception of Rocky Ford Creek) unfit for trout survival. Cool springs throughout upper Crab Creek provide relief from scorching summer temperatures and create an oasis for wild redband trout.

The best public fishing is from Rocky Ford Road North via Interstate 90 exit 220 or Harrington-

Tokio Road via exit 231. Upstream (east) from where the creek and Rocky Ford Road North intersect there is roughly 6 miles of perfect desert spring creek. The eastern end of this Bureau of Land Management (BLM) parcel is crossed by Harrington-Tokio Road, essentially marking the end of public access, although about a half mile of access is allowed upstream from this point.

Rocky Ford Creek, located just northeast of Moses Lake, is also a popular catch-and-release option. It bursts from the ground as one large spring and is known for the trophy-class rainbows bred at the hatchery along its banks. Most fly fishers do not realize that Rocky Ford is actually part of Crab Creek. It appears to be a separate entity, but pink dye tests have confirmed their continuity.

Private grazing and agricultural land account for much of the property along Crab Creek. In Washington, only navigable waterways guarantee public access below the high-water mark. This leaves access permission in the hands of individual landowners. My father always told me that it never hurts to ask, and ranchers have been known to grant access to fishermen in the past.

Some of the most scenic and productive land on Crab Creek is privately leased by outfitter and guide G.L. Britton of Double Spey Outfitters. “This past year we had another great season. We manage it as a wild and native trout fishery,” says Britton. “Our numbers of trout per mile are lower than the public section but the big difference is average size. If we get a guy who knows what he’s doing, he’ll hook several fish over 20 inches in a day.”

What really sets Crab Creek apart is the rate at which it grows trout. The name “Crab” refers to the abundance of crayfish in the creek, and the redband trout here grow fast as a result. There are also a few wild brown trout that can grow even larger, giving every cast that lottery-ticket feel.

This section is open all year, but early spring and fall provide the best fishing options. Lack of shade and high air temperatures make summer for diehards only. Springtime is tick season and rattlesnakes are common, so wear long pants and sleeves, and watch where you step.

Approach and presentation are paramount here. Heavy footsteps can spook trout holding in undercut banks, and crawling on your belly to get streamside only feels ridiculous. Nymphing with 6X tippet and size 18 to 24 midge pupae or larvae gets the job done, but it’s complicated by the grassy river bottom. Size 16 to 18 BWOs and olive caddis can also be successful. Large streamers and even mice can be used to coax some of the larger specimens.

Eastern Washington’s Columbia Basin has underrated and overabundant trout fishing opportunities. You could spend an eternity exploring the fishing across this classic Western landscape. Just off the beaten path, babbling brooks echo on canyon walls and the scent of sagebrush rides on the wind. When it comes to trout fishing, Washington may not yet be on everybody’s bucket list, but it won’t stay a secret for long.

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