CLE ELUM — I don’t know if it was the cold or all the days that I sat inside waiting for snow to melt on my icy road, but I was so glad to say goodbye to winter this year.
And I can’t think of a better way to say hello to spring than to float down a river with a group of friends looking for hungry trout.
So that’s what we did on the last weekend in March, hiring guides from the Troutwater Fly Shop in Cle Elum to take us down the upper Yakima River. I always feel a little lazy when I hire a guide to do the work, but it’s rarely a bad idea.
Guides know where the fish are and what they’ve been eating recently. They also know where the dangerous log jams are in the river and how to avoid them, which is always a good idea if you haven’t floated the area recently.
Joining me in the boat was Gary Medema of Marysvillle. Paul Teltzlaff, also of Marysville, and Les Bouck of Everett were in a drift boat nearby.
I like fishing the Yakima early because there are a lot fewer people on the river than there are when the season is in full swing. We saw an angler who’d walked in to fish one stretch and another in a drift boat, but our group was pretty much alone for most of the day. Our only regular companions were a few honking Canada geese that appeared to be looking for mates.
Fly fishing the Yakima and many other rivers has evolved into sort of a regular system in recent years. You tie on a couple flies to give the trout a choice, put the flies under a small bobber, usually referred to as a strike indicator, and drift them along beside the boat. Or you can anchor the boat along the shore or a gravel bar and wade and fish stretches of the river.
What you’re looking for are the slightly deeper channels where the river winds through boulder fields or fallen trees that provide a safe home for the fish. If those areas lie under the brush along the shoreline or just generally in the shade, so much the better.
When the indicator goes underwater, you set the hook, hoping you’ve got a fish, not a rock or a stick.
Because an insect called a Skwala stonefly was starting to hatch, most of us tied on a stonefly nymph to mimic the bugs that live under the river rocks for most of the year. And because trout like worms, most of us added a fly called a San Juan worm to a section of line at the end of the Skwala.
Driving over Snoqualmie Pass to Cle Elum, we saw a lot of snow in the mountains. There were still some areas along the Yakima that had patches of snow and the river, which is fed by snow melt, was a little cold. That may be why there weren’t a lot of stoneflies hatching on the river’s surface, although we did see a few as things warmed up in the afternoon.
But the fish seemed to like the fake worm, and we landed a number of trout, including some up to 18 inches or so. As a self-respecting fly angler, it’s hard for me to admit that a segment of the sport has evolved into catching real fish on a fake worm under a fake bobber. Using a real worm and a real bobber is what I did for many years as a kid.
But at least the trout don’t swallow fake worms deeply into their gullet. If you set the hook right away, you usually hook the fish right in the mouth. And we had pinched down the barbs on our hooks, which made it much easier to release the fish relatively unscathed so they can be caught again by somebody else.
My favorite fish was a nice rainbow/cutthroat trout hybrid with a beautiful spot of red on its gill plate that was caught by Medema.
All told, it was a slow day for me. But a sunny spring day floating down the river under blue skies is always welcome.