So…its summer time. And let me tell you…I freaking hate it. Now I love to go fishing. But something about this 90 degree heat, too much sunshine, and shy fish really just doesn’t vibe with me. We’ve had some good days early in the morning fishing big dries to the bank but the Yakima River isn’t really a summer fishery. It’s a trout fishery…and trout don’t act like trout in the summer when the temps rise, both water and air. Now that the water temps have crested over 64 and aren’t cooling because of the summer heat wave that always plagues the tail end of August…I have one thing on my mind…Autumn.
This heat wave is almost done. Tuesday next week the temps drop back to the 70’s and the overnight lows finally start falling into the low 50’s high 40’s. This is what I have been waiting for. The transition from summer to fall. My clients late next week will be on river with me when it begins it seems! It’s a magical time on the Yakima River, to be cliche…but there is a reason why the Yakima River becomes a different fishery in the autumn season. The river goes back to her normal self. No more irrigation water running down making a mess of the whole thing. Let’s talk about why I feel this way.
The Yakima River has a 70 plus mile Blue Ribbon Trout Stream section on it. From Easton Dam to Roza Dam there are roughly 1000 wild and native trout per mile. During the course of the year the river goes through some changes that directly correlate to how the trout act. Let’s discuss the season where fish act completely unnatural…as its the shortest season on the river but it seems to be the most busy time for fishing over the course of the year…and that has me a little confused.
From July 1st to September 10th, or roughly 45 days of the year…the Yakima River is a raging torrent of irrigation water growing agriculture investments from Easton all the way to Prosser Washington where the Yakima enters the mighty Columbia River. From hops, wine grapes, apples, soy, and hay, the water is stored, packaged, and sent down river like the Yakima is a conveyor belt for the human world it serves. Frankly…its unnatural. Stretches of the river that would never see sustained high flows like we have in the summer become swollen for almost 2 months and the trout change the way the act. And not for the better in this anglers opinion.
Trout get pushed all over the river during the summer. Their calm home gets filled with more water then they would normally see in the summer, and this forces the trout to feed differently, as well as hold in water unnaturally. Fish like to swim. I see it when I snorkel the river all the time. There is freedom to the underwater world, and trout take every advantage of it. Just like birds flying because they can and it’s what they do…fish swim because they can…it’s what they do. But in the summer the fish are forced on the NASCAR race track, a race they can’t win, just a carousel of heavy water and opportunistic feeding to survive the irrigation season. Instead of having free range of their home, trout are forced along the banks of the river, hiding in the small slivers of shade, under the trees where flies hang in memory of anglers attempts to entice them into the sunlight and heavy current for a foamy grasshopper. They are exposed to predators more then they normally would be because they cannot hide. The middle of the river is so heavy it holds very little food, trout have to expel too much energy to use it to their advantage, and if fish are in the middle they are in the bottom 3 feet of it holding deep, away from the current above, knocking cased caddis off rocks and eating stoneflies that scurry along the bottom. Thinking a trout ever has to surface for food in its life during the summer is just silly. There are fish that never break the surface during the summer. I believe this because I see it, because I catch way more fish during other times of the year, especially bigger fish. You know what you catch a lot of in the summer…1 and 2 year old fish 6-14 inches. A lot of them. They get forced out of all the good hiding spots, and are forced to eat anything they can…which is why you have small fish messing with your flies all day. Its not just the salmon smolt, most of which are gone by the summer, its baby trout trying to figure out the game that is summer time on the Yakima River.
The Yakima River has been marketed as a summer fishery for so long and in 11 seasons, I can tell you…the best times I’ve ever had on this river…are not during the 45 days of irrigation season. I get it. People wanna be on the river when the sun is out and its hot. But the fish don’t. As an angler it doesn’t seem logical to come fish when fish are less inclined to act like their normal selves. If there is one thing any trout angler should know…its that trout like consistency, low pressure, and mild weather. Trout like overcast days, cooler mornings, they like their water temps between 42 and 55. This is the Pacific Northwest, and trout like it cold and kinda soggy sometimes. Think about the weather here. Most of the year…it’s pretty consistent…consistently cold, wet, cloudy, windy, and basically not what people want to be out in all the time. But the wild animals do. Trout are no different. But people like 70 plus degrees, vast vitamin D quantities spewing from the orange orb we call the sun, and creature comforts. You wanna catch trout…the best way to catch them is when they are acting like their normal selves…you throw a fly, the fish thinks its real, and magic ensues. Is it normal for a river to be flooded with stored snowmelt for growing crops? Not really…think the trout understand this and react to it? You bet your ass.
Why am I talking about all this. Well. There has been a lot of talk in the angling and guide community here about the summer season. When the river crowds with other user groups: rafters, tubers, drunk people, bored families trying to keep kids entertained before school starts again. I love seeing the river come alive with people, but I also see the downsides, like more trash, less respectful people, and crowded areas that are almost impossible to float and fish. I get asked the questions by almost every set of clients, “When is the best time to fish the Yakima River?” to which my answer is: “2nd week of February to July 1st, and anytime after Labor Day to Thanksgiving.” When the river acts like a normal wild trout river, or as close as possible with dams.
These fish are wild. I can’t stress that enough, at a time in Washington state when, if you have fins but you don’t run to the ocean, no one cares about you, wild resident trout need stewards. If you ain’t anadromous then you are on the bottom of the list of fucks people give. Anglers have to give those fucks. There are those of us who know all wild fish matter and that resident wild populations are the glue that holds all anadromous fish together. So why would anyone come fish a wild trout fishery…when the river is the least wild it can be? That is the real question you have to ask yourself. It’s like there is a secret that all the locals, shops, and guides are keeping: “Don’t come fish when it’s good…that’s when we fish.” Or maybe its just because it’s the way this river has been advertised for so long. Whatever it is…its utter bullshit…I tell everyone who asks when the best time to come is. It’s not the summer, those vacation and sick days you have at work…if you fish…they should be used during the spring and fall season. That’s one of the reasons I offer a discount for repeat trips in the same season, because in all reality, the best way to experience this river as a client, is to fish it 2 or 3 times a year, during the best windows for tricking these wild fish. My whole business model is based around clients fishing multiple times in the same season, offering a better priced trip, that allows anglers to experience the Yakima the way she is meant to be. Plus if you’ve gone with me already this season, you know the energy that happens in my boat. This shit is really fun when things are all clicking and fish are cooperating. I try and sell the river with that in mind. Not just trying to get days on the calendar…but to get quality days on the calendar. There are 100 plus days of good fishing on this river…you just have to be willing to use those $400 waders and $350 rain jacket that sit in your closet most of the year, and take a day off of work.
So why do I love the Fall season, because its the best fucking time to fish the Yakima ever. I have had my best days in the late season on this river. I have had my biggest trout in the late season, the most consistent fishing, and the biggest number days, when the leaves start to change and the sun rises a little later each morning, trout just seem to like it better. When the irrigation water finally leaves the system, and the flows return to normal, the fish settle back into their natural wild rhythm. They do what the river does. It sounds cliche and philosophical or whatever, but the river will tell you everything you need to know to enjoy trout fishing. When you see the river in the summer, she is this big wide beast, with little to no hatches, hot water temps, and trout battered and tired from the excess flow and inability to be themselves. When the river wakes up from the winter in the spring, the flows change erratically with the snow-melt and spring rains, the fish are spawning, but this is normal and fish act accordingly, runoff is a regular thing for them, and fishing the windows of opportunity when fish are on schedule and settled can be incredible. Making sure to leave them be while spawning and fishing them when they are on the move up and down river, holding, feeding, then moving, can be very fun, and a great way to experience wild trout. The summer approaches and frankly, things begin a downward trend fishing wise once we hit the latter part of August. The bug hatches subside, the days are long and hot, fish are tired, worked over, and tucked to the banks trying to find any respite, then…everything goes back to normal after the flip flop. Irrigation water being turned off.
Salmon return to the system, and the fish act accordingly. The flows drop, and the air and water temps drop back into prime ranges for troot. The fish are able to swim freely and move about at will and they do. They follow spawning salmon up river and feed ferociously on eggs and flesh. The movement throughout the system, causes them to be on a schedule. They move, feed, rest, move, feed, rest, throughout the day, and this gives guides the ability to break the day down and target fish that are being specific and acting like their wild natural selves. The hatches return. Big ones. Ones that put all other hatches to shame in my opinion.
We start out with the Shortwing Stone Hatch. A smaller stonefly that reminds me of the sqwalla. It typically starts hatching after the flip flop and comes off in the evening, but as the days grow shorter the hatch window moves into the afternoon. Then the cranefly hatch begins. These large leggy bugs are one of the best hatches on the river, and the only way to truly explain its awesomeness, is to show you. Fish get silly for them. Then the October Caddis begin, and these bugs are one of the last big meals for trout before the winter sets in. There are also egg and flesh flies that can be thrown, but we also have a small Cahill or sulfer hatch in the upper, silver sedge, Mahogany Duns, and the season finishes strong through the first part of November with Blue Wing Olives once again. Plus…lets not forget sculpin patterns stripped with a 6WT can be just down right crazy in the fall. When it rains, the fish get active, blue wings come off, and pods of fish look up. When the caddis pop in the evening big fish slurp slow with the lower water temp, and every boulder, seam, pocket, undercut, run, drop off, and log…has a trout in it. Lots of fish are called to the fly during this time of year, and with lower water temps, the fish fight harder and have the turbo charge like they do in the late spring during march browns.
The Fall Season approaches. Late mornings, hot coffee made with river water, a warm toasted sandwich for lunch, flannels, waders, and tooks. The day broken down by hatches and pods of fish feeding actively on the surface once again. The amber and pink light of the late season mornings refracting brightly off the gin clear water surface…illuminating the gold, red, and orange leaves of the foliage along the banks. A slight rain, snow returning to the highlands, white caps against the western larches brightly showing against the blue and purple mountains. A 20 minute blue wing hatch, the bottom of a riffle, a pod of wild rainbow and cutthroat trout feeding slowly on a 20 second count. Standing knee deep in the cold water. Three false casts between rises…5x tippet lightly landing with a reach cast across the current, a rise, a bent tip, and a wild trout acting like a wild trout. The Yakima River…the way she was always meant to be, smaller, intimate, and full of eager wild trout waiting to play the game with anglers.
Let’s go chase some trout this late season.