In search of the classic trout stream

  • By Wayne Kruse / Herald writer
  • Saturday, June 24, 2006 9:00pm
  • Sports

Sport fishermen, moving here from the eastern half of the country, are often disappointed in the answer to a common question: “Can you point me toward some of your better trout streams?”

The reply, of course, is no.

If they’re looking for a Bitteroot or Blackfoot, a Clark Fork or Madison, a Bighorn or Yellowstone, the answer is no. If they’re looking for dozens of streams where they can replicate the “River Runs Through It” experience of sunlight and shadow on moving water; of big, muscular rainbow lurking under current seams and patches of foam; of the sound and the texture of crystal clear water pushing inexorably toward the sea, then the answer is no.

Unless they want to put in a substantial amount of time learning to fish salmon and steelhead, it’s a whole different ballgame.

There’s no arguing with the fact that moving water can be almost hypnotic in the spell it casts on those who stand in it and drift a fly over it or a spinner through it. Beats soaking Power Bait in a pond every time, particularly for those who learned to fish in an area where lakes and reservoirs are where you go for bass, walleye, pike and crappie, and streams and rivers are where you go for trout.

The fact of life is that the vast majority of Washington’s river systems are managed for anadromous species. Nationally recognized, blue-ribbon trout streams? Make that one, the Yakima, or possibly two if you add Rocky Ford Creek.

But there are more and more exceptions to that generally bleak scenario. Put-and-take rainbow trout plants were suspended a number of years ago in most east-slope Cascade river drainages, and management changed to a wild-trout emphasis. Enough time has passed to establish solid populations of native cutthroat and rainbow in many streams and, while you won’t necessarily feel you’ve suddenly been transported to Missoula, some decent moving-water fishing is there for the taking.

The Yakima River is still blue-ribbon, and the Yakima drainage supports probably the best selection of trout streams in the state. Wait for snow melt to subside (probably by the Fourth of July weekend), don’t expect trout in the 5-pound class (our rivers are generally not as food-rich as those in the Rockies), be prepared to walk and scramble (stream gradients are generally pretty steep), and be sure to ask permission to trespass on private land (there’s a lot of access along roads and highways, but the farther you get away from roads, the better the fishing).

While bait is effective in the few areas where it can legally be used, small, single-hook, barbless spinners, such as a Colorado, or a brown, black or white Rooster Tail, or Panther Martin are also effective. Flies are an excellent choice on any of these streams, fished conventionally or as nymphs drifted through the holes on light (2- to 4-pound) monofilament with a single small split shot.

Following is a list of top possibilities in Yakima County from several sources, including Jim Cummins, management biologist in the state Fish and Wildlife’s Yakima office (509-575-2740):

1. Upper Yakima River, Lake Keechelus down to Easton; open year-around, selective gear rules (no bait, single barbless hook) in effect. This is a great section of river for those who want to keep a few fish for a meal, because of the large population of non-native eastern brook trout. “There’s a school of brookies under every log jam,” Cummins said, “and they’ll go a respectable 8 to 13 inches or so.” While other trout species must be released, there is no limit and no minimum size regulation on brook trout. Cummins said fishing is best in the middle portion of that 12-mile section of river, around the BPA powerline, below Swamp Creek. Take the Cabin Creek Exit or the Stampede Pass Exit from I-90 to access the river.

2. Central Yakima River, from Easton down to Roza Dam, open year-around, selective gear, catch and release only, gets pounded heavily on weekends, particularly in the “canyon” section below Ellensburg. When you hear about hot fly fishing for nice rainbow on the Yakima, this is the stretch most are talking about. Cummins is trying to steer some of the pressure off the canyon stretch and onto the upper and lower portions of the Yakima, and the Naches. Boats and rafts of various types can put in at the Teanaway Junction launch, just east of Cle Elum, and float down to the Thorp Bridge takeout, a whole-day drift of about 12 miles, scenic, productive, and a lot less crowded than the canyon. Don’t go beyond Thorp, however, as the Ellensburg Diversion Dam, below, is impassable.

3. Lower Yakima River, below Roza Dam, is generally open for trout (be sure to check the regulation pamphlet) June 1 to March 31, with a 12-inch minimum size, a 20-inch maximum size, and a two-fish daily limit. Only lightly fished, even though it runs through the City of Yakima, it’s excellent and produces some of the largest trout of the year, down to about Union Gap.

4. Naches River is the best of the Yakima tributaries according to Cummins, offering 42 miles of good fishing water from Yakima up highways 12 and 410 to the community of Cliffdell. Excellent in July, after the runoff. Receives only light fishing pressure. Pontoon boats are the best way to fish it, although there is bank access as well. Rainbow and cutthroat to 20 inches, with cutts fewer but larger. Both release and “keep” sections available as follows: below the mouth of the Tieton, June 1-Oct. 31, selective gear, two-fish daily limit, 12-inch minimum and 20-inch maximum lengths; Tieton to Rattlesnake Creek, C&R, June 1-Oct. 31, selective gear; above Rattlesnake Creek, June 1-Oct. 31, two fish daily limit, selective gear, 12-inch minimum and 20-inch maximum lengths. Bigger fish in the C&R section; more fish higher up toward the Cascades.

5. Rattlesnake Creek, catch and release, June 1 to Oct. 31, selective gear rules. Best of the Naches tributaries, Cummins said; lots of smaller cutthroat and rainbow, plus a few big ones. Open June 1-Oct. 31, C&R, selective gear rules.

6. Little Naches River, toward Chinook Pass on Hwy 410, is a fun little summer stream, with lots of small trout. Open June 1-Oct. 31, selective gear, 8-inch minimum, two-fish daily limit.

7. Tieton River is accessible from Hwy 12 all the way down from Rimrock Lake and while the trout are a little smaller than those in the Naches, the numbers are fair to good. Open June 1-Oct. 31, selective gear, 8-inch minimum, two-fish daily limit.

8. American River and 9. Bumping River are both higher, smaller rivers similar to the Little Naches in that they hold smaller trout and offer fun summer fisheries. Both are open June 1-Oct. 31, to selective gear, 8-inch minimum size and a two-fish daily limit.

10. Ahtanum Creek and 11. Cowiche Creek are both lower-elevation streams which can provide fish for those willing to walk and explore the small holes, slots and brushy undercuts. Both are open June 1-Oct. 31, to selective gear, 8-inch minimum size and a two-fish daily limit.

12. Wenas Creek and 13. Oak Creek are both open to bait fishing, with an 8-inch minimum size and a two-fish daily limit.

Cummins warned that bull trout (they look like Dolly Varden; grayish with light-colored spots) are present in some of these streams, a fish on the endangered species list and fully protected. He also suggested Rattlesnake Creek and the Little Naches as smaller streams and perhaps better bets for families with kids, assuming they’re old enough to cast a barbless spinner with spinning gear.

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