Northwest Fly Fishing

The Ultimate Cast-and-Blast
By John Shewey and Steve Maeder

Tendrils of winter fog linger over the Yakima River’s serpentine curves far below, like an idyllic scene rendered on canvas. We quietly take positions behind Steve Joyce’s classy 10-year-old English setter, Sallie, staunchly on point at the lip of a massive canyon, a cleft in the Washington desert even more awe-inspiring from this high vantage than from below, where the famous river beckons wild-trout enthusiasts from around the world.
   A veteran bird dog, ever-steady Sallie won’t budge from her stylish pose. She has a chukar locked down tight, nearly under her nose.
   The white dog, her feathered tail pointing skyward as rigid as a flagpole; the blaze-orange shooting vests against a sea of gray-green sage; the gunmetal glinting gently in the winter’s morning sun, as the Beretta over-and-under comes to bear.
   Ephemeral moments like this remind me that I love wing shooting for the same reasons I love fly fishing: it’s the places it takes you. Remarkable places few people get to see. This top-down view of the Yakima River is new to me, even though the river far below is not. On this fertile trout stream, Washington’s answer to Montana’s Madison and Oregon’s Deschutes, I’ve tempted gorgeous rainbows over hatches so dense that the Henrys Fork might blush, and I’ve had streamers brutalized by trout so pugnacious you’d think they were Alberta browns. 
   It’s also the people you meet, accordant souls who love the same things for the same reasons, fellow enthusiasts who speak reverently of fair sport, fine arms, and wonderful canine companions.
   Indeed, it’s also the dogs you meet: the happy-go-lucky goofballs whose attitudes do a 180 when hunt time arrives; the gangly youngsters head over heels with enthusiasm; the sleek, athletic, reliable veterans wise in the ways of their quarry; the old-timers, with their graying snouts and their years of experience, happily dreaming of fine days afield, whimpering excitedly, legs a-kicking, as they doze in the afternoon sun, their retirement well earned, their adventures afield recalled and retold by owners fighting back nostalgic tears.
   For anglers and upland hunters, such are the sentiments inspired by adventures afield and afloat in the Yakima River country in the care of Canyon River Ranch and Red’s Fly Shop. Here, on the banks of the renowned Yakima River, guests are treated to splendid riverside accommodations, a full-service fly shop and shotgun center, the on-site Canyon Grill, and the best fly-fishing and hunting guides in
the business.
   Placid from this viewpoint high above Canyon River Ranch, the Yakima is actually a broad and powerful flow, especially during summer. Often it fishes best in the shoulder seasons, autumn and early spring, and even during winter—a time frame that happily coincides with the wing-shooting season, when Red’s Fly Shop at Canyon River Ranch offers up perhaps the finest combination fly-fishing and wing-shooting opportunity in the West.

 

The Grandest Stage
The Yakima Canyon is a rather wild place—it could hardly be otherwise, given its geology—yet luxurious Canyon River Ranch melds tastefully with the rugged landscape. Bighorn sheep roam the ramparts above; golden eagles soar the ever-blue skies; mayflies dance over the river in the golden evening light, tempting anglers who are already sated from the day’s adventures and relaxing on the lodge’s spacious patios in the desert sun.
   Yes, this central Washington sporting paradise remains surprisingly untrammeled. Elk and deer roam the wide expanses in and above the canyon; coyotes, cougars, and bobcats secret themselves away in the canyon’s many folds. Birding enthusiasts revel in the region’s diversity, from owls and falcons to brightly colored warblers, smartly patterned shrikes, and
camouflaged sparrows.
   With some 15,000 private acres at his disposal in the form of Mount Baldy Ranch Pheasant Hunting Preserve, Joyce, who handles the wing-shooting arrangements for Red’s Fly Shop at Canyon River Ranch, offers guests a unique opportunity to hunt chukars and pheasants on vast coverts they have all to themselves. Planted birds are hunted on 1,000 acres, and guests can also opt for wild bird hunts on the entire 15,000 acres. Hunting wild birds is more challenging, often entailing up to 10 miles of walking for perhaps a half-dozen shooting opportunities. Because Red’s operates on a private-access hunting preserve, they enjoy a long season for planted birds, from August through the end of March—much longer than the state-mandated public upland bird seasons. So even when wild bird hunting seasons are closed, avid wing-shooters can hunt pheasants and chukars through Red’s Fly Shop. Mount Baldy Ranch’s widely varied terrain ranges from creek bottoms and narrow, brushy draws perfect for pheasants, to high sagebrush plains atop precipitous rocky canyon slopes, where chukars thrive. Guests can opt for guided or unguided hunts for hard-flying mature pheasants and/or explosive chukar partridge, but the guided hunts include Joyce’s four-legged hunting partners, superb pointing dogs that add immeasurably to the success and joy of the hunt. 
   Unguided do-it-yourself hunters will need to bring their own dog, and many guided hunters do so anyway, sometimes in addition to the guide’s dog, if requested, in order to get some training advice from the guide and get their dog into birds at the same time. Hunters (two-hunter minimum) can choose to have six rooster pheasants released per gun, or 10 chukars. Groups of shooters can even set up a mixed bag, with one guest opting for six roosters while his or her hunting partner chooses 10 chukars; it’s a great way to maximize the action and hunt a variety of terrains on the preserve. Moreover, the preserve, in all its sprawling vastness, has plenty of wild birds—don’t be surprised to hear wild chukars cackling from the steep, rugged slopes, or to jump a covey of California quail or Hungarian (gray) partridge. Harvesting wild birds in season (early October through mid-January) requires a hunting license, but hunting preserve birds does not.
   Hunts begin in the morning as guests and guides meet at the fly shop for the short drive to the vast preserve—and fret not about climbing lung-busting inclines and scrambling through knee-jarring rock outcrops to reach the birds, because private access roads lead directly to the highest coverts on the preserve. A typical hunt packs lots of action into a maximum span of about four hours, so hunters are back in plenty of time to finish the day with a guided fly-fishing session on the Yakima.
   Moreover, guests can also tune up their shooting on a unique sporting clays course, which meanders through a spectacular basalt-rimmed canyon located just minutes from Canyon River Ranch. The course is designed with seven stations and a 50-target round, with plenty of room to expand. It offers some unique shots, and you are sure to enjoy the rabbit station with bouncing targets in a crossing pattern. Red’s has rental shotguns, sells nontoxic ammunition (required for the course), and even offers memberships to the sporting clays course.

 

Yakima at Its Best
The Yakima River may well be at its best from fall through early spring, a time frame that, fortuitously, aligns with the wing-shooting season at Canyon River Ranch. Autumn visitors find the river’s banks, and the upland draws and hollows, glowing in colored foliage; mornings are refreshingly cool, eventually yielding to warm afternoons that persist through October and some years well into November. It’s a serene setting, all the more appealing to anglers because the river is in prime shape, its wild rainbows, westslope cutthroat, and cuttbows eager to take flies.
   During the summer, the Yakima runs unnaturally high as water is dumped from upriver reservoirs to feed the needs of regional agriculture. But come September, when the irrigation season ends, the Yakima drops to perfect levels for fly fishing. By late September, the trout have adjusted to the much lower, far more user-friendly river. They become easier to locate, though with less water in the river they can become wary too, especially above Ellensburg, where the river runs gin clear. Of course, when the fishing gets tricky, the expert guides at Red’s shine brightest.
   The drawdown also forces the chinook salmon to build their redds farther from the banks, ensuring they will remain covered by water until the eggs hatch. Salmon—chinook, sockeye, and even coho—have made a comeback in the system. Spawning and dying salmon contribute mightily to the river’s biomass, and trout are prime benefactors. The Yakima now boasts bigger, healthier trout than the fishery has seen in many decades.
   The low flows make wade-fishing practical and effective for the first time since spring, and the good times last until spring runoff (occasional heavy rains or warm weather causing rapid snowmelt may raise the river level during winter). Between fall and spring, the Yakima no longer barrels along like a runaway train, and Red’s guides and their clients enjoy ample opportunity to drop anchor just about anywhere to thoroughly fish prime areas.
   For dry-fly enthusiasts, autumn brings plenty of opportunity. During years when summer lingers, so too do the abundant grasshoppers. But the hefty land insects only hint at the big-bug action to come: by late September, giant October Caddis dominate the scene. These inch-long orange-body caddisflies provide trout with a last big-insect food source for the year. In autumn, large craneflies also make an appearance; they are overlooked by most fly anglers, but not by Yakima trout and not by Red’s Fly Shop guides, so be sure to ask for pattern recommendations and pick up a few at the shop before you hit the water. Fish them in slower water, eddies, and slicks—and keep a firm grip on your rod.
   The Yakima, during the mesmerizing days of autumn, also produces hatches of Blue-Winged Olives, Mahogany Duns, Pale Evening Duns, and midges. Daily weather is a factor in when, where, and for how long the hatches occur—the kind of details that can make or break a day of fishing, and also the kind of intimate insider’s detail that make Red’s guides and shop staff worth their weight in gold. This is their home water, and they know which bugs, and which stage of the bugs, the fish are keying on at any given moment anywhere on the river. The shop’s amply stocked fly bins testify to the many decades of combined experience you’ll benefit from when you fish the Yakima.
   As fall progresses, streamer flies become increasingly valuable because some days the trout hammer juvenile salmon. In fact, some Yakima regulars, addicted to the savage strikes of big, powerful wild trout, say every day is a good day for streamers. They’re probably right—get a smolt pattern in front of a large trout and you have a good chance of drawing its attention any time of year. Salmon fry inhabit the river year-round, each generation waiting its turn to head downriver toward
the Pacific.
   Once November arrives, wing-shooting conditions improve because seasonal moisture—frost, rainfall, snow, and more humid air—improves scenting conditions for the dogs. This is the beginning of prime time for cast-and-blast enthusiasts. The wing shooting is fantastic, and the Yakima’s trout seem to instinctively know it’s time to eat everything in sight with winter just around the corner. They become highly predacious. When the fall streamer bite comes on, the fishing can be nothing short of unbelievable, with anglers often catching multiple very large trout in a day. These leviathans—15 to well over 20 inches for trout that prey heavily on juvenile salmon—may surprise visiting anglers who don’t realize the Yakima’s proclivity for growing
huge trout.
   The river is also loaded with sculpins, which, like juvenile salmon, provide a big-ticket meal for big trout. Fish sculpin patterns deep and slow, especially after a fall freshet. The peak and duration of autumn streamer action depends on the weather. If seasonal cold weather arrives gradually, epic streamer fishing can last for several weeks or more.
   Traditionally December brings challenging fishing on the Yakima. It’s all about temperatures, and if December emphatically ushers in winter, trout become increasingly inactive in the cold water, requiring anglers to fish slowly and methodically, mostly with nymphs. As in most rivers, Yakima trout tend to gather in prime pools and runs to wait out the winter, so finding and thoroughly fishing these locations is key—and it bears repeating that a Red’s guide, with all that local knowledge, is the best assurance of success. Sometimes during winter—typically on days with mild weather and heavy cloud cover—hatching midges create an opportunity for dry-fly action. And speaking of whitefish, the Yakima has plenty of them; they can reach more than 20 inches and they consistently provide good action for nymph anglers.
   No matter what December brings, January delivers the heart of winter. But successful fishing is still very possible. If you stroll along the snow-encrusted riverbank, pay close attention, for upon that snow you may see midges as well as the little, aptly named Winter Stoneflies that hatch this time of year. The trout exist on a fairly limited menu at this point, so angling success hinges largely on knowing where to find the fish and then being methodical in your presentation.
   Occasionally harsh winter weather renders the river slushy or even largely iced over, and in that eventuality, Red’s cast-and-blast guests can enjoy guided fishing on Rocky Ford Creek, the most famous spring creek in Washington. Rocky Ford remains ice free, thanks to consistent water temperatures, and holds some truly huge rainbows.
   By the end of January, Yakima regulars start to come down with Skwala fever. Skwala is a genus of fairly large stoneflies, and in these parts they stir the kind of excitement among fly anglers that Salmonflies elicit in Montana. Except they hatch in late winter, just when cabin fever has reached a zenith among anglers. There is nothing like big trout rising to dry stonefly patterns with seemingly reckless abandon on a late-winter day on the Yakima. You may see only a few of these bugs flying and crawling about because they rarely hatch en masse; rather, they emerge (and oviposit) steadily but, typically, sparsely. The fish, however, are on to them; in fact, it often seems as if the trout have been anticipating the hatch and are more than ready to hammer both nymph and dry facsimiles at the drop of a hat. The Skwala hatch is a way post, the nexus marking the transition from winter to spring on the Yakima.

 

Renewal
The big stoneflies of late winter usher in a new season, when a variety of other insects will take center stage on the Yakima, and when the wing-shooting season on brae and glen above the river draws to a close.
   It’s a time to celebrate the season now past: the amazing work by stylish pointing dogs under blue skies high above the Yakima; the epic battles with bruiser trout on the shining waters coursing between dramatic canyon walls. It’s a time to spend one last evening at Canyon River Grill, reliving the adventures made possible by this special place in this incredible land, to idle on the waterside patio at the lodge, sipping a local Yakima Valley Cabernet, drinking in the gloaming as the refreshing chill settles in along the river.
   It’s a time to anticipate the next cast-and-blast season, when once again you can entrust the details of your adventurous endeavors to the experts at Red’s Fly Shop and Canyon River Ranch—a best-in-the-West wing-shooting and fly-fishing dreamscape.

 

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