Yakima River Trout Fishing
In a state with relatively few options for catching big, wild cutthroat and rainbow trout (at least on the westside), the Yakima River gets a TON of hype among Washington anglers. And at one point I wrote it off as finicky, heavily-pressured, difficult to fish from the bank and all-around overrated.
But that was before I caught three of the largest trout of my life on huge dry flies in two hours wading the upper Yak.
For a Blue Ribbon-rated trout river, the Yakima system can be hard to get dialed in. It can blow out in the spring from weather or in the summer from irrigation releases. It gets swarmed by beer floaters from June to September. Worked over daily by guides and independent anglers, its mature trout have seen every fly in the book.
But when you hit it right, the Yakima River from Lake Easton to Roza Dam is a beacon of year-round, catch-and-release, wild trout fishing glory only a two hour drive from Western Washington.
Gear Fishing the Yakima River
While the Yak is best known as fly fishing water, it presents fair prospects for gear anglers. Hardware choices are standard trout fare: small black, green and white Roostertails or Blue Fox spinners, modified with a single hook. Dick Nites in half silver, half brass or with a bit of green can also work well when weighted down with split-shot a foot or two above the spoon.
Focus on softer water on the inside of river bends and behind brushy outcroppings, buckets of holding water behind boulders, and the seams where multiple currents converge. Fish your hardware like a fly angler would swing a streamer; cast across and slightly downstream, letting the current carry the lure across the river while reeling just enough to keep the line taunt and the blade spinning. Occasional twitches or changes in retrieve speed can help draw strikes, as can letting the lure “rest” near the bank before reeling in for the next cast.
The trout section of the Yakima from Lake Easton to Roza Dam is as good as it is because of careful management under catch and release and selective gear rules. Do your part by handling fish gently, pinching barbs and swapping out any treble hooks. And if you’re looking to chuck bait for wild trout, find somewhere else to fish and may god have mercy on your soul.
Yakima River Hatches and Fly Selection
The obvious downside of fishing for wild, mature fish is that they can be incredibly selective. On my first few floats down the Yak, I can’t count the number of times I said “there has to be a fish in there” after drifting my fly through a nice hole with no reaction.
With WDFW estimating over 1,000 trout per-mile in parts of the Yakima, I was probably right, and my flies were probably wrong.
I’ve broken down fly selection on the Yakima into three sections, as delineated by weather, the notorious summer irrigation releases, and local insect life.
November – February: Things get cold on the Yakima in late fall and winter, and it’s not just the weather. But with the chance to have the river all to yourself, and the water low and easy to wade, it can still be worth a visit. Try swinging streamers or dead drifting tiny nymphs in the deep pockets. Sunny afternoons can also yield brief hatches of Blue Wing Olive mayflies that hungry trout will key in on. Be on the lookout for bighorn sheep and mule deer, both are more active in the quiet winter months.
Recommended winter flies include San Juan Worms, Lightning Bugs, Prince Nymphs, Copper Johns, Zebra Midges in black and red, and Pheasant Tail nymphs, all under indicators. For streamers, swing tan and black Wooley Buggers, Sculpzillas and Dolly Llamas. Try small mayfly and BWO dry flies on warm afternoons.
March – June: Spring is my favorite time to fish the Yakima. The fish are less wary after the winter months, and there just aren’t many other fishing options available. Or maybe it’s because there isn’t yet any temptation to stash the rods, trade waders for board shorts and join the summer float parade.
Skwala Stoneflies and March Browns will begin hatching in the afternoon during late February, March and April. Depending on the weather BWO mayflies may also appear. The mornings are best suited to nymphing big rubber-leg and 20-incher stones, but keep your dry flies handy for surface feeders. This is a great time to sleep in and hit the river from afternoon to sunset, often the most productive time of the day.
The Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch on the Yakima is infamous, with millions upon millions of the small flies hatching in early May. I’ve seen great guide reports during this time, but in my experience the fish simply have so much food available it can be hard to get them to choose your fly over the real thing.
Stoneflies, Caddis, and Mayflies will continue hatching sporadically into summer, with both nymphing and dry flies being effective depending on the weather and time of day. I like to start out using a dry dropper setup with a big caddis, stonefly or Chubby Chernobyl and a trailing Copper John, at least until I see active surface feeding.
Recommended spring flies include Bitterroot Skwala Stoneflies, Tantrum Stones, Tupac Stones, Chubby Chernobyls, Elk Hair Caddis, Goddard Caddis, Foam Caddis, Parachute Adams, Jimmy Legs Stones, 20-Incher Stones and double-bead Prince Nymphs.
July – October: Summer on the Yak can be tremendously successful, and incredibly frustrating. A unique tailwater river, it experiences an “upside-down” flow pattern as a result of dam releases, meaning it often flows high and fast through the dry summer months to provide irrigation for Yakima Valley agriculture. Monitor the flow forecast and fish after a drop, or concentrate on beating the banks during high water days. The “flip-flop” around Labor Day when flows go from high to low can be some of the best fishing of the year.
On top of unpredictable summer flows, there are the beer, bikini and rubber raft brigades that appear from across the state to float the canyon in summer. I love lazy river floating with my friends too, but the crowds (and their tendency to litter profusely) can make for poor fishing. Hit it early, late or not at all, and bring your patience. And extra beer.
Summer presents a few big Summer Stone and Salmonflies, as well as Caddis hatches and great grasshopper action from late July to September. Fish tight to the bank with these terrestrials, and make sure your presentation is on point. A little movement of the fly on the surface is great; a sloppy splash of fly and leader touching down on a feeding trout is not.
September and October will start to see big October Caddis hit the river, and it can be a great time to fish with less crowds and crisp autumn nights. Fish will be much warier after the summer pressures however, and deep drifting tiny nymphs can sometimes be the only way to draw strikes.
Recommended summer and fall flies include big Summer and Tantrum stoneflies, Leopard Hoppers, HopperStones, Foam Hoppers, Dave’s Hopper, October Caddis and Stimulator dry flies. Try deep drifted Lightning Bugs, Copper Johns, Prince Nymphs and Zebra Midges in size #18 or smaller late in the fall.
These are by no means surefire fly selections, and if you’re not having any luck, there are a few things you can do. First, stop in at Troutwater in Cle Elum or Red’s Fly Shop in the Canyon. I fish the Yakima once or twice a month; these guys are on it daily. Picking up a few flies and some advice can make a big difference in your day.
Second, get creative. Caddis flies hatching everywhere but no luck on your perfectly-matched size #14 Elk Hair? Say to hell with it and nymph a San Juan Worm. Maybe strip retrieve a flashy Wooley Bugger. Work on your casting with a crazy looking Chubby Chernobyl. Or, pull over on a gravel bar, crack open a cold one and wait until you see signs of fish actively feeding.
Yakima River Guide – The Upper Yakima
Born of snowmelt on the eastern slopes of the Cascades, the mainstem Yakima River flows out of Lake Easton from the dam at Lake Easton State Park and meanders close to 15 miles before it meets the mainstem Cle Elum River flowing out of Cle Elum Lake. The river picks up another tributary, the Teanaway, just before entering the Upper Yakima Canyon above Thorp, and then eventually breaks into broad, braided channels near Ellensburg.
This section from Lake Easton to Ellensburg is referred to as the Upper Yakima; however there are fishable sections in both the true Upper Yakima River from Lake Easton up to Keechelus Lake, and the Upper Cle Elum River above Cle Elum Lake. The Teanaway and Cle Elum Rivers can also provide great trout fishing for the angler willing to do a little bushwhacking.
It’s believed that the Upper Yakima has less trout overall than the Middle Yakima Canyon, and you’re more likely to connect with native cutthroat than rainbows here. But I’ve heard rumors than many of the river’s biggest fish are caught in the area right around the town of Cle Elum. There are float-able sections above Cle Elum, and this is fine water for rafts, but drift boaters should come prepared with excellent skills on the oars and a long bow line in case of fallen logs.
The first WDFW access area and boat launch on the Upper Yakima is King Horn Slough, which can be reached from Exit 78 off I-90. The Teanaway Junction access features a rough boat launch off Highway 10 just east of Cle Elum, and is a great put-in for a full-day float down the Upper Yakima Canyon to the Thorp Property access. There are several sections of good wading water near the Junction, though they can be hard to access at high water due to logjams and steep, brushy banks. The actual mouth of the Teanaway is short drive further down Highway 10, with roadside parking and a nice series of gravel bars to cast from at low water.
While not a challenging float, the Upper Yakima Canyon does feature some light rapids and boulder gardens to keep oarsmen on their toes. But drifting this section offers access to lots of water separated from road access by steep banks and high cliffs. Troutwater Outfitters offers shuttles for much of the area around Cle Elum as well.
Thorp Property is a good take out for floats on the Upper Yak, but I’ve never had much luck bank fishing the area. My favorite upper river access points can all be found along Highway 10 from Thorp Property down to the junction with Highway 97 near the Diversion Dam, where several discrete road pullouts offer access to lightly-pressured stretches of river.
Another way to fish sections of the Upper Yakima is to utilize the Iron Horse Trail, which can be accessed from Gladmar Park Road in Thorp and several areas near Ellensburg. The trail, an old rail line now part of the Washington State Parks System, parallels the river for much of its length above Ellensburg. I’ve even heard of anglers cruising it on mountain bikes to access prime water.
Yakima River Guide – The Middle Yakima and Yakima Canyon
When most anglers think about the Yakima River and its great trout fishing, it’s the Yakima Canyon that comes to mind. This stretch of river, from the Farmlands around Ellensburg down to Roza Dam in the lower canyon, has one of the best rainbow trout populations in the Northwest, and some of the most scenic drifts anywhere. Of course that scenery draws crowds, from anglers to kayakers, hikers, Boy Scout troops, running and bike touring organizations and many more. Unless you’re fishing mid-winter, don’t expect to have the place to yourself.
Traveling south on Highway 821 (Canyon Road) after taking Exit 109 just past Ellensburg, the first WDFW access area on the Middle Yakima River is Ringer (also called Thrall), which features a well-kept boat ramp and OK bank fishing up and downstream of the ramp. Another bank area is available from a park off Ringer Loop Road north of the boat launch.
Driving downstream through the lower Farmlands, the river begins to enter the Canyon proper. Several pulloffs provide access to prime bank-side holes, if you don’t mind potentially hooking a semi on your back cast. There’s also a private launch here called Bighorn, but it’s hard to justify paying for with so much other access nearby.
Further along and into the prime Canyon stretch, BLM campgrounds at Umtanum, Lmuma Creek and Big Pines (also known as The Slab) offer boat launches and free camping from October to May. Just be sure to pay for parking and camping during the late spring and summer, I have tickets to prove their vigilance. The campgrounds can be a party in the summer, and each offers ample wading access during everything but high flows. But with the brush and tree-lined banks, come prepared with a good roll cast. There are a few other WDFW access points and highway pulloffs in the middle Canyon, but be on the look out for ‘No Trespassing’ signs as much of the area is private land.
Red’s Fly Shop provides a great private ramp directly in front of their lodge about two miles past Umtanum, and will shuttle your truck and trailer anywhere on the Middle Yakima for around $30, well under the cost of gas to bring a second vehicle over from the westside.
The Yakima Canyon is well known as a very easy float for both drift boats and rafts, with wide, gently sloping runs, no rapids and few exposed boulders. Umtanum to Big Pines is my favorite drift, with numerous brushy banks, rocky outcroppings and soft bends and channels that hold trout. Give yourself a good portion of the day to float this section effectively, or for a shorter drift and more time spent fishing out of the boat, try Red’s to Big Pines or Umtanum to Lmuma Creek.
I haven’t fished it as much, but the longer float from Ringer down to Umtanum provides a shot at lots of good water and fish that don’t see as many flies as those below Red’s. For a detailed map of Yakima Canyon holes and launches, check out this one provided by Red’s: www.redsflyshop.com/map.html.
Yakima River Guide – The Lower Yakima
The lower Yakima from Roza Dam to the confluence with the Columbia is well known for bass, catfish and salmon opportunities. With all the great water closer to home, this is not a fishery I’ve personally explored, though I hear the smallmouth bass fishing can be phenomenal. There are rainbows and cutthroat below the dam, but warm, slow water limits trout opportunities as you move further down. Access can be found at a number of WDFW ramps from the City of Yakima down to Kennewick.
Yakima River Guided Trips
As mentioned, many guides work the Blue Ribbon waters of the Yakima River from Cle Elum to Roza Dam, offering expert river knowledge and decent odds of hooking into a trophy trout any day of the year.
Guide services include Red’s Fly Shop in the Middle Canyon (509-933-2300), Troutwater Outfitters in Cle Elum and Ellensburg (509-674-2144), The Evening Hatch in Ellensburg (509-962-5959), Yakima River Angler (509-697-6327), Emerald Water Anglers (206-601-0132) and Emerging Rivers Guide Service (425-373-6417).
Chase Gunnell is a Public Relations professional in Seattle and former journalist. When not helping clients tell their story, he’s salmon fishing on Puget Sound, swinging flies for steelhead, or snowboarding every month of the year on the Northwest’s volcanoes. He can be found online at www.chasegunnell.com.