Fly Fishing Washington
May 09, 2014
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
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
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.
G.Loomis PRO-4x $480-$575 (Switch Rod)
About a year ago, G.Loomis introduced its new PRO-4x rod series — rods that mimic the actions of the top-of-the-line NRX series because they share the same tapers, but they don't use the same expensive resin systems and carbon fibers as G.Loomis's best-performing rods. What you're left with is a series of well-designed rods that are fun to cast, and affordable enough that you can get more than one. Initially, the PRO-4x was a family of single-handed rods, but in 2014 it's expanding to include switch and two-handed models for everything from trout fishing in big rivers to true Spey casting for anadromous species.
Like previous PRO-4x rods, the switch and two-handed models use some tapers from the more expensive NRX series, so if you like the 13-foot, 8/9-weight NRX, you're likely to appreciate the same rod in the PRO-4x series. But you're even more likely to enjoy the price difference. With a trout rod, a PRO-4x is about $280 cheaper, but when you get into switch and Spey rods, the savings run up to $500 and more, and you still get much of the 'œfeel' of a performance rod.
Although the series is based on NRX tapers, there are some original gems in the family. The 10\'6" 5-weight PRO-4x has no equivalent in the NRX series, yet our tester thought it was 'œthe perfect trout switch rod. While most switch rods are actually too long and too heavy for extended use with one hand, this one is a real multipurpose tool that you can Czech nymph with, hit a snap-T when the bank is tight behind you, or cast dry flies to rising trout.' gloomis.com
For more information see our Fly Fisherman Review and video G. Loomis Pro-4x
For other award winners see our 2014 Gear Guide Awards
Orvis Helios 2 Switch $885 (Switch Rod)
When rod designer Shawn Combs set out to add switch rods to the popular Helios 2 rod family, he had the same parameters — a 20% reduction in swing weight, and a 20% increase in strength.
'œWhen we were designing the Helios 2 switch rods, we wanted to reduce their swing weight (from the original Helios) without sacrificing any power or accuracy,' explained Combs. 'œThe H2's steep tapers allowed us to keep more mass in the butt section for fish fighting and longer casts, but the rods are still light enough to overhand cast like a 10-footer.'
Like the single-handed H2s, the switch rods have midnight blue blanks, crushproof REC Recoil guides, California buckeye burl reel seats with black-nickel skeletons, cork handles, and cork-composite on the top and bottom of the handle. The rods will be available in five different 11-foot models, from 5-weights through 9-weights. orvis.com
Redington Dually $250 (Switch Rod)
Price has been an obstacle for many fly fishers wanting to get into two-handed rods. It's not that there haven't been inexpensive rods out there, but that there haven't been good inexpensive rods. It seems 2014 is the breakthrough year when you don't have to break the bank to get a decent Spey or switch rod, and the Dually definitely falls into this category. Available in 4- through 8-weights in switch, and 6- through 8-weight Spey models, the Dually is a simple casting tool with an all-cork handle and alignment dots for easy setup. redington.com
Redington Vapen $350
Yes, there's an interesting story behind the blank of the new Redington Vapen Red — the X-Wrap Blank Technology creates a lightweight, quick rod with surprising power — but the bright red PowerGrip handle is what really turns heads.
Redington collaborated with the golf club grip company Winn Grips to develop the advanced polymer grip that has better traction than cork, feels softer and more comfortable in your hand, yet is firm enough that it doesn't drain power when you want to push a powerful cast into the wind. We tested this rod (and grip) extensively at Deneki Outdoors Andros South Lodge, and found many other advantages — it doesn't pick up dirt like cork, it's easier to clean, and it doesn't chip, dent, or flake. It was tactile and easy to grip and apply force in the tropics where sweat, sunscreen, and bonefish slime can quickly make a cork handle as hard to hold as a bar of soap.
The Vapen is also available with a regular cork handle for $50 less, and although it won Best Saltwater Rod at the 2013 International Fly Tackle Dealer show, it comes in a range of weights from 3- through 12-weight, making it just as applicable in fresh water. redington.com
For more information see our Fly Fisherman Review and video Redington Vapen
Sage Method $800-[imo-slideshow gallery=148],050
Although Sage isn't officially calling this a saltwater rod, we tested the new fast-action Method on the bonefish flats of South Andros Island and found it's the perfect tool for launching long, accurate casts in calm conditions where you can see the fish coming (and they can see you) from a long way off. And it's just as effectively when the wind is howling, and you need to make a powerful cast right into the teeth of a gale.
But since there are also 4- to 6-weights with wood insert real seats in the rod family, and nine different Spey and switch models, it's much more than a saltwater series — it's a high-performance casting tool for people who enjoy pushing the ceiling higher and higher.
'œSage's DNA is synonymous with fast-action rods, and through Konnetic Technology, we've taken seriously smooth, ultra-fast action performance to a new place entirely,' said Sage chief rod designer, Jerry Siem. 'œOur newest high-performance rods will make any caster better, but will also help experienced casters notch exceptional casts with regularity.' sageflyfish.com
For more information see our Fly Fisherman Review and video Sage Method
For other award winners see our 2014 Gear Guide Awards
Sage Pike & Musky $595
Everyone knows about Sage's Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass II rods — deeply loading rods for big flies and big fish in warmwater situations. Sage has now created two more specialty species-oriented rods, the Pike and the Musky. These rods have the same cosmetics and hardware as the 7\'9" tournament-inspired rods in the Bass II series, but are 9\' long and designed to throw even bigger flies, and they also have oversized stripping guides and extended fighting butts.
The Pike rod is a 9\' 10-weight, and the Musky is a 9\' 11-weight, and each comes with an appropriate floating Pike or Musky line. Our testers used both models on Wollaston Lake, Saskatchewan, for pike up to 50 inches, and found they were perfectly suited to giant flies up to 18 inches, and surface-churning topwater bugs that attract monster pike in shallow bays. sageflyfish.com
Scott Radian $795
Sometimes it's major improvements to rod blank technology that set a new rod apart. Other times, it's little functional switch-ups and cosmetic changes that woo consumers. In the case of the new Radian, it's both. Jim Bartschi and his crew at Scott Fly Rods have hit a home run.
The Radian uses Scott's X-Core design to create a wide, stable tube with thin, sensitive walls, along with ReAct technology to speed rod recovery time and reduce vibrations when the rod stops. Getting rid of these extra 'œwobbles' has been a goal of rod designers for a long time, and Scott seems to have brought us a step forward with a rod that casts with crispness and authority, but still has the feeling of connection you need in a trout tool.
And while some might consider a rod handle 'œcosmetic' I'd have to disagree. Your grip, and the handle on the rod, can affect the way you cast, and a full wells grip reduces hand fatigue and is a better grip for a wider range of distances and conditions. Sage did it last year with the ONE series, and we may be seeing the beginning of a trend here with the full wells grip on the Scott Radian.
Another improvement is the REC wood-insert reel seat with an uplocking ring Bartschi calls 'œself-indexing.' What this means is that you don't have to spin the reel seat ring to find a proper alignment for the reel foot. It's always perfectly aligned in relation to the forward hood under the handle. It's a very small thing — and no one has ever failed to seat their reel properly due to lack of a self-indexing reel seat — but it shows that Scott is thinking about consumers, and considering just about every possible path to make things slicker and more convenient.
Other small details like Universal Snake guides with curved, 'œradiused' feet that fit slimmer on a rounded blank; alignment dots; and measuring wraps on the blank all add up to a rod that has forward-thinking design and higher performance in mind. The fly-fishing industry seems to agree, as the rod won Best Freshwater Rod at the 2013 International Fly Tackle Dealer show, and also overall Best in Show. The 4-piece rods are available in 4- to 8-weight models. scottflyrod.com
For more information see our Fly Fisherman Review and video Scott Radian
For other award winners see our 2014 Gear Guide Awards
St. Croix Legend X $480-$490
The black Xtreme Skin handle on St. Croix's newest rod series is durable, easy to clean, and is solidly adhered directly to the rod blank in thin layers. Think of it as a handle that is painted millimeter by millimeter right onto the blank in the Park Falls, Wisconsin, factory. The solid Xtreme Skin handle gives you greater feel with what's going on at the other end of the rod because of this direct contact with the blank, and there's no dampening effect caused by the cork and glue in traditional handles.
The rods also have a new combination of four carbon fiber materials, chosen and designed for the extra casting power needed for large flies, and for fighting large fish. The rods have custom, saltwater-safe reel seats, fighting butts, and Fuji K-series stripping guides to prevent tangles when shooting long casts. Built with bass, pike, and muskies in mind, the 9\' rods are available in 7- through 10-weights. stcroixrods.com
For more information see our Fly Fisherman Review and video St. Croix Legend X
Winston Boron III LS $795
The hallmark of boron is its powerful strength-to-weight ratio, but you don't need a big gun for most dry-fly situations. What Winston has done with the new Boron III LS series is use 10+ years of boron experience to create a light, accurate dry-fly rod with the best modern technology and hardware behind it. While you can get the LS with a traditional nickel silver and burled wood reel seat, you can also choose an updated, lightweight, skeletonized, aluminum-over-graphite reel seat. The rod has chrome, Nanolite stripper guides, comes in a graphite rod tube, and is available in 2- through 5-weight models from 7\' to 9\'. winstonrods.com
For more information see our Fly Fisherman Review and video Winston Boron III LS