December 09, 2022
Washington State may not have the nation’s highest annual rainfall, but from October to May, the gloom and rain seems endless. the reward is plentiful running waters and a low likelihood of “water wars” in our near future. It’s not that the State is untouched by climate change; sadly, some areas are frequently in drought, and rising temperatures in the ocean and inland waters have plunged our once plentiful steelhead and salmon runs into decline. You’ll still find fishermen standing cheek to jowl waiting for the occasional steelhead or salmon to wander by, but many of my fly-fishing friends have retreated to less-fished areas for species under less pressure. The Yakima River has become our local life raft—214 miles long, with a 75-mile stretch designated a blue-ribbon trout fishery—the only such fishery in Washington State.
For millions of years, a slow-running version of the Yakima coursed a path across a flat volcanic-formed basalt plain called the Columbia Plateau. The river continues its work today, but now it is big water that has carved the spectacular 20-mile-long Yakima Canyon.
Once it was a salmon fishery that helped feed the indigenous Yakima people. Irrigation and the other demands of the agriculture industry nearly extirpated the salmon runs. Chinook salmon numbers have decreased from a historic abundance of 800,000 per year to an annual run of less than 5,000 today, more than half of those hatchery fish with clipped adipose fins.
But what remains in these fertile waters is still very special—a native rainbow and cutthroat trout fishery that attracts fishermen from across the country. But the recreational and the conservation value of the Yakima River goes way beyond fishing. In the Yakima Canyon, visitors encounter a wide variety of habitats including aquatic, riparian, shrub-steppe, sheer cliffs, plus a number of microhabitats. Because of this, the river and surrounding area attract hikers, birdwatchers, climbers, photographers, campers, recreational floaters, and just plain sightseers. They come to see bighorn sheep, mule deer, cougars, bobcats, elk, and black bears—one of which I came across recently in the upper reaches—as well as large numbers of nesting hawks, eagles, and falcons.
For us fly fishers, the fish population is varied. In addition to the rainbow and cutthroat trout populations, the river has brookies, whitefish, chubs, the aforementioned Chinook salmon, and some steelhead that are on the federal endangered species list.
The Yak is a tremendous recreational resource, but like most natural resources it is under heavy and constant attack by various economic interests. It was, therefore, great news that in 2021 Western Rivers Conservancy (WRC) set out to purchase and conserve Yakima Canyon Ranch, an area that includes 3.5 miles on both sides of the river, in three separate blocks: Big Horn, Umtanum, and Beavertail. Much of the Canyon is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and has been protected as part of the Yakima Canyon Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC). But the 812 acres of Yakima Canyon Ranch—perhaps the part that holds the beating heart of the river—has not. While the private ranch has been well managed, it is heartening to know that this strategically placed property will now be officially protected for the use of future generations.
Once the acquisition by WRC is complete, it will be conveyed to the BLM and managed as part of the Yakima Canyon ACEC. The plan for this area is to increase the public access along the river and to maintain the Big Horn boat launch and other sites, making it easier to for fly fishers and other recreational floaters to access the canyon. This effort will add nearly 4 miles of public access; the hope is that major fish recovery and the restoration efforts by both the WRC and the Yakima Nation might restore, to some degree, the past runs of summer Chinook, coho, and even sockeye salmon.
“People from all over know Yakima Canyon Ranch, if not by name then because they’ve dropped a boat in at Big Horn, camped at Umtanum Ridge, or floated through this incredible three-plus-mile stretch of the Yakima River Canyon,” said Sue Doroff, president of Western Rivers Conservancy. “Because of its importance to fish, wildlife, and people, it’s been a conservation target for years—Western Rivers Conservancy and the BLM are finally bringing that vision to life.”
To make a donation toward conserving the canyon and Big Horn access, visit westernrivers.org.
Floating the River
The Yakima is a tailwater fed by three reservoirs filled by snowmelt from the Cascades. Serious fishing begins above the town of Cle Elum; the river then flows south to join the mighty Columbia. Regulations dictate that all trout fishing is catch-and-release, no bait, single barbless hooks only. Although it is a blue-ribbon fishery, the Yak doesn’t always give up its trout easily. To be successful here you must know where to go and, of course, the correct flies and techniques.
Most of the year and in most places, wading is limited and difficult. Covering water by boat is the way to go, which is why boating access points like Big Horn are so critical. If you don’t own a watercraft, using the services of a guide to learn the best paths to successfully fish the river is an excellent idea. Red’s Fly Shop, right in the town of Ellensburg, has been guiding the Yakima for decades, and their knowledge of the river is unsurpassed.
Steve Joyce—a partner at Red’s—has been very active in local conservation efforts, including the acquisition project by WRC. His shop can provide any fly-fishing gear imaginable. Next to Red’s shop is Canyon River Ranch, a riverside resort that provides quick access to some of the best water on the Yakima. You’ll need reservations to eat at their restaurant—it is very popular, and tables can be scarce.
The Yakima generally fishes well year-round, but there are some highlights that coincide with the river’s reliable hatches.
“The Yakima River Canyon offers a unique opportunity to recreate 12 months of the year. Still, the best opportunity to catch fish on dry flies typically begins with the Skwala hatch in March and finishes with BWOs in November. Fishing with nymphs and streamers can also be good during the winter on this stretch, which also offers ample public access, mild weather, and consistent hatches. “The most popular section of the Yakima River is the lower canyon section, which spans 19 miles from Ringer to Roza Dam and holds the highest population of trout per mile,” said Joyce.
The normal fly-fishing trout rules of engagement hold steady for the Yakima: it’s great fun to fish drys, but you’ll catch more fish using subsurface flies. Most of the year, a nymph drifted below an indicator or attractor dry maximizes your catches (and releases). Pheasant Tails and Copper Johns in smaller sizes like 16s and 18s are good starting points. As usual, the most successful patterns are dark, nondescript, tiny, and hard to tie on. Nymph fishing isn’t glamorous, but it will get you trout.
Use thin, narrow-diameter tippet below the indicator instead of a tapered leader to allow the flies to sink quickly and drift unencumbered. The depth of the water is constantly changing as you drift, but I’ve found about 6 or 7 feet of tippet below your strike indicator is adequate. If you go longer you may get deeper in spots but you’ll also lose connectivity with your flies and miss strikes.
This is a big river in most stretches, so understanding structure and how trout use it is critical for success. Most frequently, you’ll be floating and casting toward shore below riffles, behind boulders, and under trees. The river moves with gusto, so pick your targets, hit them quickly, and move on to the next one. No lollygagging! The Yakima holds lots of trout, but you’ll only catch them if your fly is in the water, so try to avoid excessive false casting. Be a casting machine and be efficient in all your efforts.
Summer Dry Flies
I love sight fishing with drys to big, picky fish. The thrill of finding the right pattern, watching the rise, and anticipating the take—be it a gentle sip or a ravenous attack—is what I crave. So to me, it’s good news that there is a whole spring and summer of opportunities on the Yakima to experience those thrills—and the timing of those opportunities is well known.
I enjoy fishing stonefly patterns. They seem to make trout a little crazy and produce enthusiastic strikes. The fat little buggers (whimsy intended) come around mainly twice a year, with the Skwala hatch beginning in the cold weather of mid-February and running through mid-April, depending on the year and fluctuating river conditions.
The size 8 or 10 nymphs hatch well in cold, heavily oxygenated water, and drift freely until some hungry trout finds them, or they manage to get to shore and wriggle/escape from their nymphal shucks. When the adults are flying around and errantly crashing into the water, or spawning en masse, they are irresistible to hungry trout. The strike is not usually subtle.
At around the same time, the Blue-winged Olive hatch takes off on the Yakima. These #18-20 mayflies make dry-fly fishing a good bet whenever they are around. For fishability from a boat, you can sometimes get away with using Parachute Adams or Purple Haze dry flies as large as #16.
Heading into May, March Browns begin to appear, allowing you to use even larger flies, and then in June, the caddis hatches become obvious, with lines of dead flies floating in the current seams.
Use #12-16 Elk-hair Caddis, E/C Caddis, or E-Z Caddis in olive and tan. At this time of year you should expect lots of surface action without resorting to dead-drifting nymphs.
Skwalas aren’t the only stoneflies on the Yakima. Sometime in late May to early June, salmonflies (Pteronarcys californica) begin to emerge on the lower river and work their way upriver. By mid-June you’ll also see Golden Stones fluttering around rocky shorelines and foliage. Cast close to shore—and under the overhanging branches if your casting is up to it.
By late June it’s time to cast terrestrials. Drift some hoppers along the bank, and the trout can get enthusiastic. Through the summer, it’s mostly a caddis and hoppers game, and in the fall it gets better as the hoppers grow plump and the caddis seem to grow larger. By the time October comes around, the trout are feeding on everything from giant October Caddis to tiny #20 Blue-winged Olives.
With the coming of winter, the hatches become less frequent, and nymph fishing takes over again, along with streamer fishing, which can produce the largest fish of the year.
Here’s a quick breakdown of where and where not to fish the Yakima River, provided by Jack Mitchell at The Evening Hatch fly shop and guide service in Ellensburg, Washington.
The Upper Yakima/Lake Easton to Cle Elum River
Foot access here is difficult and limited by many private summer home developments. Floating with a large raft or drift boat on certain stretches of this area is not recommended since there are many impassible logjams and a few braided channels with dead ends. With sufficient skill this section can be navigated in smaller boats, but extreme caution is recommended. Only intermediate to advanced boatmen should attempt it. The stretch between the State Wildlife Access and the Bullfrog/Iron Horse access is more mellow and navigable by larger drift boats and rafts. The Yakima here is mainly a rainbow trout fishery with a small mix of cutthroats, brook trout, and a few bull trout.
Cle Elum River Confluence to East Cle Elum
Here the river sports some braided channels and broad riffles, housing some fine habitat for the wild rainbows, cutthroats, and a few brookies. The lower portion of this stretch, bordered by private land, is not easy to reach by car or foot. The upper section is easy to access using Hansen Pond Road, which runs along the river for approximately 2 miles. There is decent wade fishing in high water, and great wade fishing in low water.
The Upper Canyon/East Cle Elum to the Diversion
This 14-mile stretch is not easy to reach, even though Highway 10 is semi-adjacent and the John Wayne Pioneer Trail runs parallel to it. The John Wayne Pioneer Trail is a 37-mile hiking trail that runs from North Bend to Easton, Washington. Access is by foot, mountain bikes, e-bikes, and horses. There are a few points at which the river and Highway 10 are fairly close, but the descent to the river is steep. Water clarity is superb, and the cutthroat population is definitely more prominent in this stretch than in any other. When the river is running at lower volumes, you can find good wading.
The Farmlands/Diversion Dam to Wilson Creek
This portion of the river features multiple islands and braided channels and is one of the best stretches for trout feeding and spawning. Wading can also be good here. Due to the braided channels, in some years, there have been complete blockages, making it difficult for drift boats. Because this area is bordered by private property, vehicle access is nonexistent. The best way to fish this stretch in higher volumes is to float, and then get out and wade.
The Lower Canyon/Wilson Creek to Roza
This is the legendary Yakima Canyon, one of the most scenic and prolific trout habitats on the river. The canyon is very easy to drift as it travels 27 miles through a spectacular basalt and desert landscape. BLM access sites include Umtanum, Lmuma Creek, Big Pines, Roza, and now Big Horn.
I’ve barely touched the surface (or the subsurface) of the complexities and opportunities the Yakima offers all year. It is comforting to know that with improved and preserved access, the Yakima will continue to provide a blue-ribbon fishing experience, and will likely continue to be Washington’s best trout stream for the foreseeable future. Organizations like Western Rivers Conservancy are expending time and considerable resources to protect rivers like the Yakima, and to protect out access to them, and this fly fisherman applauds them.
Rick Rosner has fished—and fallen in—rivers all over the world. He has been writing outdoor-related travel articles for 30 years and has been published in a variety of magazines and newspapers. He lives in Gig Harbor, Washington.