Yakima River, WA
Part 2: The Canyon: Ellensburg To Roza
By Terry W. Sheely
The Promised Water descends slowly into a tree-spare canyon of high wrinkled walls, below folds of eroded coulees, into the sharp wash of old sage. It swirls and eddies across a wide, fairly non-descript flow that pushes the rainbows against grass-draped banks where rafts and drift boats ghost along; left handers in the back, right handers in the bow, undecideds in the center and guides on the oars.
Give or take a put-in these 20 miles of canyon water are the most promising trout miles on the most promising trout river in a state hungry for good trout rivers: Yakima River Canyon, Washington.
Year-round the long rods lift, roll and bang flies tight into banks. Run and gun. Slap casts shootouts. In the winter it’s ice and fleece, midges and mahogany duns, and hopefully by late February Skwala stoneflies.
Spring, summer and fall slather on the SP 30, hide in the shade of a wide-brimmed hat, and throw the fly box at the river: blue winged olives, March browns, PMDs, caddis, salmon flies, stimulators, yellow Sally, golden stones, hoppers, Cahill’s and sedge and wonder who counted the trout in the Yakima Canyon. (See accompanying hatch chart).
The most current trout count that Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has on file is from a 2003 survey that documents 1,129 rainbows per mile in the Canyon, one trout in every 4 ½ feet of river for 20 miles between Ellensburg and Roza Dam. Twice as many trout as any other sub-section of the 215 miles of Yakima River water that swirls and falls from Snoqualmie Pass to the shapeless confluence with the Columbia River in the netherworld between Richland and Pasco.
In the upper river there is a sprinkling of brookies and cutthroat, too, but in the Canyon it’s all rainbow except for a rare stray cutthroat. The ‘bows of ’08 are a homogenization of at least five subspecies, but since the river
hasn’t been stocked by WDFW since 1983, the fish are self-sustaining. Not truly wild, but after 25 years not hatchery either. Rumors of browns persist as leftover river legends from a couple of Canyon plants in the 1960s that went nowhere. (Below Roza Dam, near the mouth Selah Creek a rare brown does show up. These are high-water escapees from Wenas Lake).
By definition the Yakima River canyon water upriver from Roza Dam is as close as Washington fly fishers will ever get to a resident blue-ribbon river.
The good trout water is divided into two wildly-diverse sections: the mountain water that flows from Snoqualmie Pass down the east flank of the Cascade Range, and the canyon water between Ellensburg and Roza Dam.
In Part I of this two-part series we covered the mountain section and concentrated on the quick rapid, pool and run water that parallels the forested elk range along the I-90 corridor from Easton to Ellensburg, a region that enjoys 80 to 100 inches of snow and rain a year.
Part II is the canyon water downriver from the wind-bent trees in Ellensburg following the Yak on a southern swing away from I-90 that slips into the semi-arid basalt and bighorn sheep country where it’s lucky to get 10 inches of wet a year, en route to a destiny with irrigation pipes and farm fields in the Yakima Valley.
Above that agricultural abuse and 10 miles north of Yakima, the imposing concrete wall of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Roza Diversion Dam divides the river like a 486-foot wide cleaver, 67 feet high, segregating the upstream mountain water for trout and caddis flies, from the downstream catfish and pepper fields.
Throughout the Canyon the river is paralleled on the east bank, at an elevated distance, by Highway 821 which provides miles of access for walk-in bank fishers. And while success from the bank can be respectable, it is the boat fishing that gives angler the best angle on the canyon’s bank hugging rainbows. Drift boats and rafts, pontoons and kick boats—you’ll see them all.
The Yakima is a drift and row river-internal combustion motors are not allowed above the public boat launch a half-mile upriver from Roza. It’s a river that was designed by pre-historic cataclysm and femoral chaos especially for boat fishing and public agencies have scattered put-in and take-outs at well-placed intervals on the highway side.
Float the entire 20 miles or short drift between takeouts and pound a specific hatch for a few chosen miles—there are always fly-fishing options for boaters.
Fishing the Canyon, like the Cle Elum water, can be onerous during the summer because of the Yakima’s indentured servitude as irrigation water. During the central Washington growing season reservoirs on Snoqualmie Pass gush snowmelt downstream discoloring the water, artificially raising the waterline and layering the spawning redds and bottom gravels with fine silt.
For all of the summer and much of spring and fall the river is high and gray and aesthetically less appealing than the clear water of late fall, winter and early spring. Yak fanatics and guides have learned the nuances of fishing the high and gray and freelancers would do well to not be put off by the “off color.”
Fish it tight to the banks, around tributary mouths, and anywhere there is a seam of clear water. The fish are here, and they are feeding. Even ugly water gets bit during the summer feed.
A greater hazard faced by fishers in mid and late summer is the afternoon tube hatch—when triple digit heat sends waves of swimsuits, tank tops, inner tubes, drugstore rafts, and air mattresses—some towing caissons of beer, spinning downriver. At the height of summer crazy, experienced Yakima fishers are on the water early and off before tube hatch blossoms. There’s a fine line between catching the front edge of the afternoon hopper fall and being T-boned by a beer tube.
In September the agricultural grow is gone, the crops are in, the irrigation spigot is turned off and the river falls into incredible trout shape. October, with its blue skies, golden aspen groves, reflected warmth and tango hatches of October caddis, BWOs, and Cahills is manna from the trout gods.
Spring, though is tops for Steve Joyce of Red’s Fly Shop who fishes the Yak almost daily, and has up to 12 guides on the water at seasonal peaks. “My favorite time to fish the Yakima is between March 1 and May 15. We get so many good hatches during that window that there will be a period during the day where you'll throw dries with success, and the nymphing is usually good outside of that window. We start with Skwalas and BWO's, then get into the March Browns, followed by Caddis and PMD's. The pre spawn rainbows are aggressive and beautiful.”
Early spring is also the pick of Steve Worley who has operated Worley Buggers Fly Company the venerable Ellensburg fly and guide shop for 13 years, and fished the Yak since 1989. “April has to be one of my favorites. The March Brown hatch is fantastic and incredible to watch and experience.” But he acknowledges, “September is a pretty fine month as well. Hatches are seasonal and change from year to year depending on water flows and conditions, but yes we are seeing thicker denser hatches on average each season. There was an incredible Light Cahill hatch this past September. It was extraordinary.”
Worley puts three exclamation points after the “extraordinary.”
I asked if in his opinion the recent federal, state and tribal efforts to enhance salmon numbers in the upper river was impacting trout fishing. “Yes,” Worley said, “we have seen changes. But so far for the better.”
The salmon influx is bringing out the carnivore in Yakima trout, according to the guide. “Lots of eggs, flesh, fry and smolts to eat and yes they (rainbows) are eating them,” Worley points out. “The introduction of coho may become a threat, but the entire river is healthier right now,” in Worley’s opinion.
It’s an opinion shared by Steve Joyce, from his vantage point at Red’s on the river bank in the Canyon. According to Joyce, “The salmon program has not seemed to adversely affect the trout population in any way, and we feel it has probably helped it. People were worried about the juvenile salmon competing with trout for food, but the bottom line is that the small amount of food those fish eat as juveniles in the river versus the amount of nutrients that are returned when they spawn as adults results in a huge bio mass gain to the entire Yakima system.
“Since the salmon program took place, the river has received more attention in terms of habitat enhancement,
access, and even enforcement. The trout population and anglers see the benefits here as well.” He compared the “salmonized” Yakima to Oregon’s Deschutes River and notes it “has a good population of anadromous fish and resident trout.”
For flies, “The caddis hatch,” Joyce says, “is the most prolific hatch on the Yakima each year, and again - we
have great fishing some years and not so great others.
“What we've noticed here is that we like to see water levels up to the point that many of the tree and brush
branches along the bank are touching the water surface, allowing the bugs to crawl out - and creating habitat on both sides.
“There's nothing more frustrating than to be in the middle of a caddis blizzard and not see any fish eating them!” But it happens. “After guiding in Montana for a number of years prior to coming to Red's, I can honestly say theYakima is a challenging fishery,” Joyce says. “It certainly has it's days where it gives you a glimpse of how good it can be - with fish (and I mean nice fish) feeding on Caddis or BWO's (blue winged olives) as far up and down the river as you can see. But it also has its tougher days, where you're forced to think outside the box and work hard to find a player.”
While the upper and middle Cle Elum section is traditional trout water, a pocket here, mid-water boulder there, undercut over there, eddy seam; “the canyon is,” as Worley says, “the canyon.” It’s basically point and go. “It (can be) tedious, boring fishing,” compared to the upriver areas.
Unless you count fish size.
Canyon trout are fat, healthy and there are enough 18 to 22 inch rainbows in the fray to keep the suspense in every hook set. The average is 10 to14 inches, and if a skilled angler puts in a good day, the odds are good for a 16 incher, maybe better.
Which patterns that fishers pack into a Yakima Canyon fly box are determined by the season. Depending on river temperatures, month on the calendar, water level and clarity and what rock you’re standing on—your pattern selection could run from dainty size 24 midges to lumbering Size 6 Stimulators, according to Worley.
A Canyon calendar compiled by the guides at Red’s recommends:
JANUARY: River flows under 1000 cfs, excellent clarity. Nymph and streamer fishing the most consistent, but don’t rule out the dry flies on sunny days. Skwala nymphs become key towards the end of this month. Light pressure.
FEBRUARY: Arguably the best month for nymphing. Skwala Stonefly nymphs begin their annual migration, and become the focal point for the large pre-spawn rainbows. River levels somewhat stable. Last week marks the beginning of one of the most prolific hatches on the river; the olive Skwala stoneflies attract trout like no other bug on the river. Blue winged Olives, although smaller at the start, also begin to emerge at this time. Some of the best fishing is at the beginning of the stonefly hatch, when the bugs are just starting to show, and again at the end of the hatch, after the main part has moved through. Fewer naturals to compete and the trout are hunting.
MARCH : If we were to rank the fishing for all 12 months of the year, March would rate in the top 3 every time. Consistent water conditions and a combination of BWO and Skwala fishing that can give anglers up to six hours of dry fly action in a day. BWO’s to start around 11:30 a.m., and the hatch often lasts until 2:30. When trout quit Baetis, put on Skwalas and prospect. Concentrate on seam lines and bank structure. March Browns start at the end of the month and are most consistent around the Big Horn access just south of Ellensburg..
APRIL: BWO’s, Skwalas, and March Browns remain strong through the first half of this month. Caddis begin with No. 12 Grannoms near the end of April. Caddis nymphs, in green and tan.
MAY: Mother’s Day Caddis, PMD’s, Big Yellow Mays, and occasional salmon fly. Cloudy days can be extraordinary early on PMD’s and big yellows, switching to caddis in the afternoon. Water conditions in May are erratic with runoff but caddis will keep working with visibility at only 1 foot in the canyon.
JUNE: Flows start to stabilize at high summer levels. Mayflies that have been working for three months remain decent on cloudy days, but start packing large terrestrials: ants, bees, beetles, and grasshoppers fished tight to the grassy banks. Good golden Stonefly and salmon fly, and the start of the tan bodied summer stonefly hatch. caddis afternoons and into evening.
JULY: River flows near 4000 cfs. Summer stone imitations slapped tight against the bank from a drift boat on the go. Caddis come up when the sun goes down. Long floats are the norm, covering 10 river miles a day. Fishing from one man pontoon boats and wade fishing is difficult in the high flows.
AUGUST: Hot in the canyon. Early mornings and late evenings are pleasant and that’s when the fish start working dry flies. Split fishing days with lunch and a siesta sandwiched between an early morning drift and another float into the evening. River is still flowing around 4000 cfs. Big bugs-grasshoppers and summer stones-under deep grassy banks. “If your fly is 3 inches from the bank, then it’s probably 3 inches too far.”
SEPTEMBER: Labor Day weekend begins the “Flip Flop, a 10-day period when dam releases decline and river flows drop from 4000 cfs to around 1000 cfs. During the Flip Flop, a major emergence of summer stoneflies comes off and dry fly fishing can be very good. BWO nymphs and terrestrials such as bees, ants, and beetles still play an important role in the trout’s diet. Grasshoppers are productive until frost. Start seeing October Caddis. Fishing can be great!
OCTOBER: Fall colors in the Yakima River Canyon are awesome, temperatures in the 60’s and river flows less than 1000 cfs. Middle of the month is prime time for BWOs, mahogany duns, and October caddis. BWO both nymphs and dries are productive. October along with March and April are the “top 3” months of the year. Fall BWO’s and October Caddis can pair up to create some very productive dry fly opportunities on rises up to 6 hours a day.
NOVEMBER: Temperatures may be in single digits the first week of November, stopping the fall BWO hatch. On mild days Baetis may re-start. Best part of the fishing day is 10:30 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Flows less than 1000 cfs. Stonefly and BWO nymphs are prime food sources. Fish a variety of midge patterns, both on top and as nymphs.
DECEMBER: Nymph and streamer fishing is the most productive. For nymphs pack stonefly and BWOs. Fish streamers on the swing in slower stretches for big fish. Midges active.
Neither Worley nor Joyce hesitate to describe the Yak above Roza Dam as premier trout water, and Jim Cummins, WDFW Yakima regional fish biologist agrees, adding that it can also be one of the most intensely fished trout rivers in the state. The effect of that “intense” fishing pressure is unknown, though. Not since 2003 has WDFW put together creel census surveys, angler pressure estimates or trout population censuses to guide future trout management.
Worley believes the Yakima has been improving steadily since the early 1980's when the first set of progressive fishing restrictions was put in place.
Today’s trout fishery was jump started in the 1990s when Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, (WDFW)
with incessant prodding by fly fishing organizations, agreed to restrict the 75 mile section between the dams at Roza and Lake Easton to a no kill, no barbs, no bait, catch and release trout fishery. Support for trout protection from the salmon-steelhead focused WDFW was at best half hearted. They agreed to the restrictions with a “what-can-it-hurt” shrug and the justification that banning bait, debarbing hooks and putting a stop to catch-and-eat fishing might spare some of its prized but environmentally threatened salmon and steelhead smolts. The original bait ban and trout release restriction has since been extended the remaining miles to the Yakima’s less than pristine source--an outfall culvert from Keechelus Lake.
Standard rod-reel-line combinations for the Canyon water are a 9-foot 5-weight a little stiffer than softer in the spine, to throw big dries and small dries, double nymph rigs and still handle heavy stoneflies and streamers. For small dries, tie in 9 foot leaders with 5X tippet, but for most fishing a 3X will suffice to turn big dries, shoot them underneath the brush canopy and rip flies off the bank grass. For nymphing run 3X fluorocarbon to the top fly and 5X between flies. Streamer tippets run big--1X to 2X .
Worley recommends short fast sink tips during summer high water and for streamer fishing, Type V or VI in 7-foot lengths. “Nothing over 10 feet. Too much belly,” he explains.
Walk-in anglers arrive on Highway 821/Canyon Road and with one exception are confined to the east bank. That exception is a BLM footbridge suspended across the river at Umptanum Creek six miles below the Canyon Mouth. By crossing the bridge a careful bank fisherman can pick at bank water up and downstream along the west bank.
Canyon water floats can start as high as the KOA campground in Ellensburg, but the immediate water is braided, sometimes barricaded by log jams and sweepers. Because of the hazards and rare bank access (private farm ground) the river is only light fished above Ringer Road WDFW access. For all intent and purpose, Ringer a mile above the Canyon mouth is the start of Canyon floats. The most popular in-Canyon, put-in is arguably at Bighorn Access right at the canyon mouth. There are at least half a dozen public access launches below Hwy. 821 on the east bank of the Canyon.
Guides and shuttle services are available at Worley Buggers and Red’s.
Yakima River Canyon Notebook:
When: Open year-round, best March-May before irrigation releases and in late September-October after irrigation ends.
Regulations: Catch and release all rainbow, cutthroat and brown trout, no bait or scents, single barbless hook. Brook trout may be killed in the extreme upper river between Lakes Keechelus and Easton.
Where: Ellensburg Ringer Road WDFW Access to Roza Dam BOR access.
Headquarters: Ellensburg. Full service town on I-90 at head of Canyon. Lots of motels, restaurants, private camping, raft rentals.
Appropriate gear: 9’, 5-wt. rod, floating and sink tip lines, 5X tippet for small dries, 3X to flip big dries and 1X to 2X for streamers. Waders and good shoes a must, pontoon boats are perfect for this section. Flatlands to Thorp okay for rafts and drift boats. Bring good Polarized glasses, extra tippets and lots of flies.
Useful fly patterns: Caddis and blue winged olives are the most prolific. Also carry plenty of stonefly variations, Skwalas, Stimulators, midges, PMDs, salmon fry, egg and egg patterns. Prince and Woolly Buggers are always welcome. (See chart).
Advisable necessities: Breathable waders, and neoprene’s in the winter, polarized sunglasses, plenty of drinking water, day pack, fluorocarbon spools for tippets, sun protection, big hat, release pliers.
Non-resident license: Annual freshwater, $43.80,
Fly Shops and Guides:
These local shops offer flies, tackle, maps, current information, fly guides, float trips, and shuttle service for the Yakima Canyon.
Gary's Fly Shoppe,
Yakima River Angler Guide Service,
Books & Maps:
Yakima River Journal,
Washington Blue-Ribbon Fly Fishing Guide,
Fly Fishers Guide to Washington,
Washington State Fishing Guide 9th edition,
Terry W. Sheely,
Washington’s Best Fishing Waters Map book,
Washington Atlas and Gazetteer,