Summer Fishing Techniques on the Yak: Part 2 The Upper River

So summer has arrived in the mountains.  We have a summer forecast of highs around 75-80 through most of August, with sunshine, clouds, and the dreaded thunderstorms.  Water is high as described in part 1.  So let’s dive right into the Upper River as there is a little more going on and a bit more required of the angler to have success.

The water flows are above 3000 cfs.  We like the river in the spring and early summer to be around that 2700 mark pre-July.  When we get into the heat of the summer we get higher flows.  Right now we are sitting at 3400.  Which is high.  The river is ripping up here.  Just moving some water.  Unlike the LC, the upper river trout do something different.  They spread out all over the place.  You will find trout tucked to the bank in the big straight aways that resemble the LC.  Especially in the Bristol to Thorp area.  But with all that flow, the higher grade to the river, and the twists and turns and structure both in the river and of the river bottom itself, the river becomes a huge playground for trout.  Lots of places to hide.  Slowing the boat down in the heavy water and breaking it all down is how to play the game.  You may float 50 yards of good dry fly water, then come up on some good nymph stuff.  So having multiple rods rigged and ready to go make the day go smoother.  When we float the upper in the summer in my boat.  I have two nymphs rods that can switch to streamers quickly.  I also have two dry fly rods rigged.  This makes those transitions between the different set ups quick and seamless.  I usually have a 6wt streamer rod set up as well.  Store three rods while the two anglers have two.  Alternate rigs according to the the river.  It can get complicated and overwhelming, so I always have a game plan of how I want to break the day down and what spots I want to fish.   This is based on bugs, flows, and how it fished before, as I usually was out the day before.

There is a lot of water to read.  The fish will be in the bank in some places.  Look for grass lines, overhanging trees, and undercuts in the upper as good real estate for trout.  But you will also find big wide rock gardens where trout are tucked behind and in front of boulders.  You will find big drop offs and shallow riffles that fish hold in, logs, boulders, root wads, big eddies, side channels, the list grows.  The upper has a lot of water to read.  Big runs, slow eddies, pockets, riffles, side channels, back channels, structure, all kinds of trouty goodness.  And the water is usually gin clear which ups the technical factor. A guide that knows their way around and how to break the upper river down is how you get big numbers in the net.  If your guide picks a long stretch of river and isn’t changing tactics every few hundred yards to target the fish specifically…you need to find a better guide.  The upper river fish are not like the LC fish.  They move more, they have more water to hide in and lots of different water to hold in which makes approaching them different every turn of the river.  A guide that has you switching between dries, nymphs, and switching patterns at certain areas knows they’re shit and you should keep booking them.

The sections near Thorp are different then those near Cle Elum and those up near Easton are even more different. So there is just a lot going on up here.  The water higher up near Easton is smaller and more intimate, requiring more reading, breaking all the water up, fishing every boulder, every seam, every log, there aren’t as many fish up there but that section of river holds some of the biggest and smallest trout. That’s why I have 4wts now…those smaller fish can be a lot of fun.  Catching 20-50 12 inch cutties all day ain’t a bad day on a 4wt.  The areas near Cle Elum have a lot of different things going on.  Every 150 yards the river changes, and there may be 50 different places to fish in that 150 yard stretch, and each may have a slightly different approach or tactic.  I can float the same 12 mile stretch of Lower River and fish it the same way 3 days in a row and have success.  I could try the same thing up river and not have an ounce of success.  I end up doing a lot of 6-10 mile floats in the upper, really going slow and breaking the day up.  It’s work both for guide and anglers.  Lots of casts, lots of changes, and lots of rowing.  I can float that same 6-10 mile stretch in the upper 3 days in a row and not fish it the same way each day and that is typically how I have success.  “Always on your toes this upper river and the trout keep you.”  The upper just requires more skill…bottom line.  Those who put the time in and have patience in the summer…come out with some wicked fish stories.

So that takes us to the bugs.  There are golden and summer stones as well as grasshoppers for the big bugs.  We have more mayflies in the upper so PMD’s PED’s and Drakes become a key ingredient to the day.  We also have the baitfish, but nymphing becomes more effective up river because of how certain areas of the river force the fish to hold.  We don’t have as much caddis action in the upper, but being ready for those caddis feeders is always recommended.


Let’s start with Nymphing.

I nymph a lot.  Not in the LC as I said in part 1 but the upper is a different beast.  There are shelves, drop offs, and other areas that are just made for nymphing in the upper.  I use a 9-15 foot 4X leader.  I use regular indicator or yarn a lot because I swing nymphs off of shelves and that.  Bobbers don’t swing as easy.   I use split shot most of the time.  I start with one big fly, typically a large more realistic stonefly imitation.  Or a 20 incher instead of a regular pat’s stone.  I put split shot up 8-12 inches above the fly and set my indicator at 5 ft to start.  As I move through the run or area I have clients nymph, I will adjust the depth periodically watching the way the river deepens and shallows.  When we nymph the upper the majority of the time we are targeting fish that are riding the bottom cushion of the river.

The top 6-12 inches of the water column is the fastest moving water.  They middle chunk of the river has the most force, and the very bottom of the river, the last 1ft or so is the slowest water in the river column.  There are really big trout and whitefish hanging out down there feeding on nymphs off the bottom.  They will literally turn over rocks with their noses and search out the crunchy trouty bacon cheeseburgers.  They will also snatch nymphs that float overhead or drop off the shelves and that as they get battered around in the undercurrents and hydraulics.  A lot of the time we are sight fishing for active nymph feeders.  You will see them flash down deep.  Gauge the depth so that the indicator holds the fly along the bottom foot of the water column and hold on.  Mending is super important as you are suing the indicator and mend to get the flies hover and drop through the water column like the naturals.  Those fish have the current to their advantage at depths.  So when they hit they typically hit hard and then move.  They run and bulldog and if you pull them into the water column to tire them out…they typically get airborne.  Not a lot of cutties are caught this way.  This is mostly for those big muscular rainbows holding down deep away from all the birds and that…hiding in the whitefish…sneaky trout.

I also swing nymphs off of shelves and big long drop offs and at the tail end of my drifts along big runs and that.  Cutties hit nymphs on the move and sometimes that swing represents the fly prepping to hatch.  I fish nymphs in the morning and pre hatch if I know the time of the hatch.  Mostly stoneflies with this method.  I will throw a trailer sometimes but remember that trailer means you have two flies to make sure you have in the right spot.  Makes it more difficult.  My trailer is usually only 12-16 inches behind the lead fly.  Mayfly nymph fishing is the next piece.

Mayflies hatch and live in the shallower riffles.  The 6 inch to 3 foot deep water typically.  It will have a broken surface in places, small bubbles or whitewater, and typically faster moving.  Very oxygenated.  Cutties like this water but so do bows.  Mayflies move up through the water column from their hiding places below the cobble and slightly larger boulders and quickly move up to the surface of the river and hatch.  They ride the fast water drying out their wings and will typically lift off at the tail end of the riffle or the 10-25 ft of river below the riffle.  This is where the trout are.  In the bottom third of the riffle.  You may not see feeders because the water is fast, but they are in there if the mayflies have been hatching.

Fish your indicator at a depth about halfway down the water column.  So a three foot deep riffle I set my indicator around 1.5 to 2 feet above the fly.  Again a yarn indicator is less spooky for fish.  I also tie yarn in my blood knots above my fly for shallow water nymphing.  No split shot.  You need to make a long cast with a few good upriver mends to let the nymph get down.  Then ride the riffle to the tail out, with a little swing out the end before recasting.  Just work every inch of the riffle.  When you hook trout you will see the flash before the indicator goes down a lot of the time.  When I have my clients fish this way I am watching the river just down river of the indicator, waiting for the flash.  I can’t tell you how many times I have yelled set before the indicator goes down and have my clients think I am magic or something.  I use size 16 pheasant tail style nymphs, or little hot belly hares ear attractors.  Nothing too specific.  I’m partial to purple and red.  Lighting bugs, copper johns.  That kind of stuff.

So that kinda covers nymphing.  It takes some work, and lots of little adjustments throughout the day to dial it in but when you get it all worked out, you can have a bitchin’ time hooking fish on nymphs watching them flash and that.  Let’s move to dries.

We will start with the Mayfly side of the dry fly game in the upper river.  We are looking at the same riffles we were for nymphing with mayflies.  PMD’s in the mornings a size 16 yellow mayfly dry, afternoons drakes, a gray or green size 14-10 mayfly dry.  Evenings a smaller gray.  Usually a standard Adams will do the job.  I use the reach cast a lot on riffles to get a nice drag free drift.  The trout hit fast and usually sneaky, even the cutties.  They like to hold position so as the fly comes to them they rise up and feed in a rhythm.  Try and cast on the rhythm if you see them actively feeding.  I usually find pods of 5 to 20 trout in these areas.  After you hook a few they will spook.  Give the riffle 2-10 minutes before recasting to let the fish reset.  I like a longer leader here so I don’t spook fish too.  Water is typically gin clear remember so fish spook easier.  A 12 foot leader down to 4X or 5X if the trout keep refusing flies.  Casting upstream and across the riffle.  Work the closest spots first working your way out across the riffle with longer casts.  The reach cast helps with not having to mend a smaller fly in faster water.  I usually anchor the boat in these areas.  Work the riffle in stages, working down the riffle.  Giving the fish ample time to reset in between netting trout.  I have sat in a single 30 yard riffle for 30-45 minutes and had clients catch 6-10 trout each before moving on.  Take your time, those cutties are sprinters and like holding in that faster water.  They can hide in the broken water surface and their camouflage is better suited for it over a rainbow.  They are a more slender fish, less bulky and can sit in fast water.  It’s also why they hit the fly harder, they have a split second to decide if they want to eat it.  When they make the commitment to the fly…its usually spectacular.  Nothing better than a big 16 inch cutty with shoulders rolling fast and hard on a drake dry fly in a riffle.

Big dries.  We have stones and hoppers just like the lower end and we are fishing the same type of water for the most part.  There is just less of it in the upper river.  When you find long straight areas of bank, with grass, undercuts, trees, and overhangs, this is where you focus the big dry game.  Get them tight, and twitch them.  Look for cutties coming out of nowhere and big rainbows sneakily sipping them.  Also target logs, log jams, deadfalls, big boulder gardens and that for stonefly dries.  The stoneflies congregate in these areas when they hatch.  These are also good places for trout to hide from predators.  With gin clear water, trout are always looking for cover up here.  Keep that in mind when reading water.  If you’ve got pocket with a log, or overhang, little shade, there is a fish in it.

Keep in mind the time of day.  As it is more of a factor in the upper.  Trout up here feed on a schedule.  They eat more as the water is really fast up here, so they gotta put more in their bellies.  Your tactics should resemble the schedule of the trout.  Fishing nymphs in the morning pre mayfly hatch.  Switching to mayfly dries around 9-10 am, unless the hatch is earlier.  Then switching to big nymphs before the heat of the day.  Then moving to hoppers and stonefly dries as 11:30-2:00 pm hits.  Then switching back to mayfly nymphs pre drake hatch.  Then to mayfly dries from 2:30-4:00.  Then back to big bugs to get the ovipositing female stones.  Caddis into the evening or sticking with stones.  Streamers plugged in there throughout the day when good areas of the river present themselves.

Streamers in the upper.  I fish the same rig, fast sinking sink tip as in part 1.  And I will have clients target the same types of areas that we do in the LC but there is a lot of places to swing flies for trout in the upper.  There are large drop offs, shelves, and boulder gardens that hold large trout waiting for a big meal to swim by.  A guide that puts a streamer rod in your hand at 3-6 spots in the upper river means he knows there is a chance at hooking into a big ol’troot.   Listen and enjoy.  The cutties like to chase smaller streamers.  I use smaller size 8-6 streamers.  Again a conehead bugger is my go to.  Stripping the streamer through the top end of the target area and then swinging it out the bottom, or just swinging runs steelhead style can be very productive.  Swinging flies instead of stripping through boulder gardens, drops offs, and shelves and letting the river do the work for you can make for some fun times.   Fish hit hard on the streamer and usually peel line in the fast water when they do.  This brings us to playing fish in the upper.  The most important factor for a successful day.


The upper river current is way heavy.  Lots of elevation to the river here so its moving.  This gives the trout the advantage.  They can move up and down get slack and roll off easy up here.  Playing the angles and working the fish into and out of the currents is how to win.  You will lose a lot of fish up here.  They just know how to play the game.  I watch fish outsmart anglers and guides all the time.  It happens in my boat lots.  It becomes a team effort sometimes to land these wild trout.  If your guide isn’t coaching you through the battles you need a new guide.  I have my clients change angles, feed and take line, work the fish into and out of current to tire them out.  Otherwise the fish typically win.  Especially with newer anglers.  The whole ball game in the upper river just becomes a bit more involved then the LC and the same tactics that work down low don’t have the same success rate up high.  If your guide is doing a big long stretch of the upper and not changing it up throughout the day and getting really intimate with the fishing…you need a better guide.  It’s just what is required up here. Shorter floats, more rowing, more time in the spots.  Stalking fish, sight fishing for them, working the water, sometime is takes 15-30 casts before fish hit.  There are less fish up here so you have to spend some more time with them.

So there you have it.  Hopefully those of you that come fish the upper on your own and have a hard time in the summer are helped by this.  If this kind of stuff sounds awesome to you and you want a challenge from your trout then booking an upper river trip is a good route.  Finding a good upper river guide is key.  There are only a handful of us here that really know how to fish the upper.  It changes a lot and is more effected by dam releases and weather so a guide that is really in tune with things will up the fun and success factor.  I have availability all summer, we have about 65 days of this kind of fishing headed our way.  Give me a call, send me an email, and book a trip.  Let’s go chase some trout in the Upper Yakima River.





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