Yakima River Fly Fishing

Scaling from the forested East slope of the Cascade mountains to the farmlands of the Kittitas valley before entering the semi desert canyon as it heads south towards its final destination of the Columbia river, the Yakima river paints many faces.

For all intents and purposes the Blue Ribbon fishery begins at Keechelus Dam and ends at Roza dam. However, the river below Roza dam while not listed as a Blue Ribbon catch and release fishery still sports decent numbers of Rainbow trout for quite a few miles. Eventually the water temps and quality of the river diminish so much that a resident trout population is not able to survive in any numbers.

The Blue Ribbon stretch of the Yakima is approximately 75 miles long and after Roza dam the river travels approximately another 125 miles before entering the Columbia River. It is in this stretch after Roza dam that the Yakima River is listed as “one of the most intensively irrigated areas in the United States.”

The watershed really is a gem. From the multiple eagles inhabiting the waterway during the winter, to the Bighorn sheep calling the banks its home, to the mule deer, the heron, the hawk, the cougar, bobcat, black bear, elk and the trout. From the water it supplies the farmer and the recreational venue it provides for water sports, to the basalt daisy which is only indigenous to the Yakima river canyon and the incredible white ash line in the lower canyon in remembrance of a time that man was not here and Mt Rainier deposited its mark.

It is a river of many faces from its terrain and seasons to the tactics and methodology used to fool the trout. Fishing techniques range from far and fine to chucking big uglies and all angles in between. Each season calls for its’ own repertoire.

Where Does the River Come From?

The Yakima is a managed flow river. From the first of September through the early spring the river flows at a mandatory minimum or more depending on releases related to the Bureau of Reclamation forecasts for influx into the reservoir; this is especially true in the late winter and early spring.

During late spring and summer the river flows based on the irrigation needs of the water rights and the need to make room for the snow melt into the reservoir. In a low snow pack year the reservoirs will most likely not ever fill to capacity.

In a large snow pack year the reservoirs may fill to capacity and H20 may need to be released to simply make room for more anticipated storage needs. It is basically a strategic guessing game based on stats, upcoming weather and capacity levels. The goal of the B of R is to make sure the reservoirs are as full as possible at the end of run-off as well as to meet mandatory minimum flows for fish habitat. Every year around the first of September the B of R performs what is referred to as the flip flop. This is when the Yakima flows are decreased from the demands of the high irrigation flows of summer to basically the mandatory minimums that have been instated. This lowering of the water is a major benefit to the spawning Chinook Salmon. The lower flows allow the Chinook to propagate successfully.

The Yakima is technically a tail water that is fed by three main reservoirs. Many tail waters are bottom fed where the Yakima is a combination of both bottom and top water reservoir releases.

The Cle Elum River feeds the Yakima system and it is a bottom fed dam. Kachees and Keechelus also feed the Yakima system and they too are middle or bottom fed releases yet they both drain into one holding reservoir, Lake Easton. Lake Easton although lake like is not considered a lake but more a wide spot in the river.

Lake Easton does feed the Upper Yakima Proper from a top water release and therefore warms with the air temperatures of the season. In the winter it is colder and in the summer it is warmer. One benefit of a true bottom fed tail water is that the water temps are fairly constant throughout the season, providing adequate temperature, in fact prime temperatures for aquatic insect hatches year round.

Examples of bottom fed tailwaters would include, The Bighorn, The Missouri, and the Green. The Yakima being a mixture of both is more like a freestone river, fluctuating in temperatures similar to that of a river without a dam.

Reservoirs

The three main reservoirs that feed the Yakima as mentioned earlier are the Cle Elum, Kachees and Kechelus. Both the Keechelus and Kachees reservoirs are channeled into the Easton Reservoir from which the Upper Yakima proper begins.

This is also the point from which the KRD cannel draws a large amount of water for irrigation purposes in the Kittitas valley.

Typically the upper Yakima river proper will flow at approximately 350 CFS on average from the Lake Easton reservoir and the water they draw from the Easton reservoir into the KRD cannel during irrigation season will almost match that number!

The Upper Yakima Proper before the Cle Elum River confluence is a stretch of river that flows at the most consistent level on a year average as shown in the following graph. Besides during the typical run-off season this particular stretch of the Yakima river flows day in and day out with the most consistent levels.

Approximately 13 miles downstream from where the Upper Yakima Proper begins at Lake Easton, another dam-controlled river enters the Yakima. This river ( the Cle Elum) originates from a reservoir with the same name approximately 9 miles from the joining.

The Cle Elum River contributes most of the water volume to the Yakima River between its confluence and the city of Yakima during the irrigation season. The flows on the Cle Elum River are very low other than during peak irrigation which is from June to September.

The Cle Elum River experiences incredible fluctuations. The inconsistent and major fluctuation in water flows inhibits the biomass of the river. The average flow during Non- irrigation season is 180 CFS and during run-off and prime irrigation season the river flows anywhere from 1800-4500CFS depending on irrigation demands and influx of snow melt into the reservoir.

The trout population of the system is certainly less in numbers than the Yakima, due to the inconsistencies yet there are certainly trout in the river.

Much of the snow that melts on the East slope drainage that feed the Yakima is caught in the reservoirs. There are however tributaries below the reservoirs that contribute to the Yakima that will add flows of significance, especially during the spring.

The largest of the tributaries is the Teanaway River, which enters the Yakima approximately 10 miles downstream from the Cle Elum River confluence. Typically by the end of summer the Teanaway will be flowing at approximately 20 CFS and yet during spring run-off the Teanaway can flow up to 2,500 CFS.

Other tributaries that contribute to the Yakima river below the Teanaway are the Swuak, Tanuem, and Wilson. The Tanuem could and would be a larger tributary but much of the water is diverted for irrigation needs as are waters out of many of the other smaller tributaries before they enter the Yakima.

The Wilson/Cherry creek tributary enters the Yakima just above the lower canyon and is most certainly a clarity inhibitor much of the year. The Cherry creek drains much of the Kittitas valley’s irrigation canals and usually flows quite a few shades darker than the Yakima. After the confluence of Cherry Creek and the Yakima, the river is quite a bit less clear yet can produce some of the most prolific hatches. Some of the tributaries that contribute to the Yakima above the Teanaway River include, Big and Little Creek as well as Silver Creek.

Wading

Wading the Yakima can be easy and difficult at times, depending on the water flows and where you plan on accessing the river. Hopefully this chart on average river flows will help you understand the most practical times for foot access on the river.

  • Easy wading access: 500Cfs to 1,500 Cfs
  • More difficult wading access: 1,500 to 2,000 CFS
  • Difficult wading access: 2,000 to 2,500 CFS
  • Mostly restricted to boat fishing: 2,500 and up
River Division NameBeginsEnds
Upper Yakima ProperEaston DamCle Elum River Confluence
Upper FlatlandsCle Elum River ConfluenceState Boat Launch(East Cle
Elum State of WA Access)
Upper Canyon StateBoat LaunchDiversion Dam
Farm LandsDiversion DamRinger
Lower CanyonRingerRoza

There are certain stretches of river that lend themselves to better wading by the nature of their design. For instance the Upper Flatlands and the Farmlands provide easier wading as an overall rule just because of size of the rocks evident in the terrain. The river rock tends to be smaller and uniform and easier to walk on in these parts of the river. Also the river braids and channels therefore promoting smaller side channels that are more easily waded. In comparison the Upper and Lower canyon rocks tend to be larger and less uniform. The river doesn’t offer as much in the way of smaller channels and is generally one big river.

Sections of the River

The Upper Yakima Proper: Lake Easton to Cle Elum River Confluence

The river between Lake Easton and the Cle Elum River confluence flows at an average of about 350 CFS. Access is difficult in that it borders many private summer home developments. Floating certain stretches of this section is not recommended with a large raft or drift boat. From the dam down to the Washington State Dept. of Wildlife access just below the LDS Ranch as well as from the Bullfrog access to the Cle Elum River confluence there are many log jams and a few dead end braided channels that are definitely impassable with large rafts and drift boats. These two sections of this stretch could be navigated with smaller personal float boats, yet extreme caution is recommended and only intermediate to advanced boatman should attempt. The stretch between the State Wildlife access and the Bullfrog/ Iron Horse access is navigable by larger drift boats and rafts. The Upper Yakima is predominantly Rainbows with a small mixture of Cutthroat, and Brook Trout as well as a few Bull Trout. The best chance to see a black bear along the Yakima is either in this stretch or the Upper Canyon.

The Upper Flatlands: Cle Elum River Confluence to the East Cle Elum

This stretch of river sports some braided channels and broad riffles. Housing some fine habitat for the wild Rainbows, Cutthroat and a few Brookies the Upper Flatland stretch has either fairly easy or difficult access. Much of the lower fourth of this stretch is bordered by private land and not easy to drive or walk up to. The section above the lower fourth is easily accessed by the Hansen pond road access that parallels the river for approximately 2 miles. Decent wade fishing even in high water and awesome wade access in low water makes this stretch appealing. Hatches are not is consistent yet can be prolific.

The Upper Canyon: East Cle Elum to the Diversion Dam

This particular part of the river is certainly a beautiful long 14 mile stretch of the Yakima. While foot and car access is at best not easy from the semi adjacent State Route Highway 10, the John Wayne trail does parallel literally 75% of this stretch in close proximity. The John Wayne trail access is by foot, non motorized bikes and horses. Highway 10 for the most part of this stretch is a steep grade away from the river. There are points at which the river and Hwy 10 are fairly close which allows an angler to access the river without hiking, yet these are few and far between. For the avid biker and hiker, some of the best access to the Upper Canyon is via the John Wayne trail.

This Upper Canyon is loaded with large boulders and offers minimal wading access at higher volumes. Water clarity is generally beautiful and the Cutthroat population is definitely more prominent in this stretch than any other stretch. When this stretch is at lower volumes there is good wading opportunities. Three major tributaries enter this particular stretch of the river; The Teanaway, Swuak and Tanuem.

The Farmlands: Diversion Dam to Wilson Creek

The Farmland stretch of the river probably has the most character featuring multiple islands and braided channels: truly one of the best stretches for trout food and spawning habitat as well as wading. Bordered predominantly by major cottonwood flats, the deer and elk population in this stretch is fairly high per mile. We generally like to fish it at lower volumes yet this section offers great fishing at all levels. There are certainly a good number of sweepers in this area of the river and there is a specific area we refer to as the “S” curves. At times over the years there have been complete blockages making it difficult for drift boats and the like. Although the wading is good at all levels, vehicle access is basically nonexistent. The Farmland stretch is bordered by major ranches and private access. The best way to fish this stretch in higher volumes is to float fish as well as float and get out and wade fish. During lower volumes there are a few put-in accesses that allow an angler on foot to explore. This stretch also has quite a few contributing streams that are definitely affected by field irrigation before they enter the river. The streams tend to be a bit off color and as one progresses downstream the final affecting stream is Wilson /Cherry creek which is the most significant in size and is a definite clarity inhibitor.

The Lower Canyon: Wilson Creek to Roza

Affectionately referred to as the “Yakima Canyon” this certainly can be some of the most prolific habitat on the river. Year in and year out probably the most fished stretch on the river. The Lower canyon is a very easy stretch to drift as it travels through a basalt and desert landscape that is as appealing to many as is the fishing. The sage brush country is home to many Bighorn sheep, deer and good hatches. General water clarity in this stretch is less due to the stream contributions that are listed above.

The Hatch Chart and Entomology

The following is a basic hatch chart for the Yakima.

yakima hatch chart
Hatch Chart

Yakima Fishing Tactics

Generally, we use as heavy a tippet as possible for the technique we are utilizing. For example…when streamer fishing we will generally fish no lighter than 2x and often 0x depending on the clarity of the river; leaders will be about 7.5-9 feet in length. When Fishing #8 and bigger dry flies in the summer we never fish them on less the 3x and will generally use about a 7.5 foot leader. When fishing #18-20 Blue Wing Olives of the Fall we go down to 6x and use leaders in the 12 foot length

Winter tactics 34 to 42 degree waters

Streamers, Streamers, Streamers

Streamer Techniques of Winter include fast and slow presentations.
(Spuddlers, Buggers, Clousers.)

Nymphing

Dry Droppers and Indicator style. Nymphing generally in slower deeper water yet with good midge hatches you will find trout in the shallow riffles. (Stone Nymphs, Brassies, Copper Johns,Prince Nymphs)

Dry Flies

Dry Fly fishing is fairly slow other than the Midge hatches which can be fairly prolific.
(Hatching Midge patterns, Adults #18-22)

Wet fly Fishing with midge soft hackles.

Spring tactics 38 to 49 degree waters

Dry Fly fishing to specific hatches and rises can be absolutely prolific. Search with dries is average.
(Hatch specific dry flies, Attractors)

Nymphing—Dry Droppers and Indicator style Nymphing generally in the slower to medium fast waters. Can be incredibly automatic for big fish.
(Variety of Nymphs….Generally Skwala Stone Nymphs)

Streamers with fast and slow presentations

Wet Fly presentations especially during a March Brown or Caddis emergence

Summer tactics 50-65 degree waters

Dry fly fishing is more of a searching type fishing and covering water; except for the last Hour where all heck can break lose and there will be plenty of targets to cast to if you can see!

Nymphing with dry droppers and Indicator style—Generally in the oxygenated waters

Streamers…Especially early and late in the day

Wet Fly tactics specifically with the Caddis, Yellow Sallies and Cahills.

Fall tactics 38-52 degree waters

Dry fly fishing to rising fish with decent dry fly searching. Rises can be prolific!

Nymphing can be unbelievably automatic for numbers as well as big fish. Small nymphs!

Wet Fly swing can be awesome

Streamers most certainly.

Seasons on the Yakima

January

River conditions are favorable with flows under 1000 cfs and excellent clarity. Water temperatures are low, which make nymph and streamer fishing the most consistent means of catching fish. Don’t rule out the dry fly fishing, however, as sunny days can produce some world class midge opportunities. Skwala nymphs become a key component of the trout’s diet towards the end of this month. We have caught some of the larger fish we’ve seen on this river during the month of January. Enjoy the solitude because by mid – February, traffic volume starts to pick up again.

February

February is arguably the BEST month of the year for nymph fishing on the Yakima. Water temperatures warm up, causing the Skwala Stonefly nymphs to begin their annual migration. This event becomes the focal point for the large pre-spawn Rainbows. The river levels and conditions are somewhat stable, and the weather is pleasant. We have had shirt sleeve days near the end of February in each of the last 2 years. The last week of this month marks the beginning of one of the most prolific hatches on the river, the Skwala. These olive colored Stoneflies attract the attention of the trout like no other bug on the river. The fish have come through a long winter, and this hatch is the first opportunity they get to gorge themselves. Spring Blue winged Olives, although smaller at the start, also begin to emerge at this time. Some of the best fishing during these Stonefly hatches is at the beginning of the hatch, when the bugs are just starting to show, and again at the end of the hatch, after the main part has moved through. At both of these times, the fish are looking for them, and there are not many naturals out there to compete and fill up their stomachs. The early part of this hatch is also targeting fish that haven’t seen a dry fly for quite some time.

March

If we were to rank the fishing for all 12 months of the year, March would rate in the top 3 every time! Mild Spring weather, consistent water conditions, and a combination of BWO and Skwala fishing that can give anglers up to 6 legitimate hours of action on dry flies in a single day. Look for the BWO’s to start around 11:30 am, often lasting until 2:30 or later. When the fish quit on the Baetis, it’s time to put on the Big Bugs (aka Skwalas) and go prospecting. Concentrate your Skwala efforts on the likely seam lines and structure along the banks. Oh yeah, did we mention the March Browns? They start towards the end of the month and are most consistent on the sections between Irene and Big Horn.

April

Spring BWO’s, Skwalas, and March Browns remain strong through the first half of this month, and then start to decline. Caddis, beginning with the Grannoms (a true size 12!), start taking flight near the end of April. Caddis nymphs, in green and tan, are active and worthy to receive consideration when selecting flies. With the favorable conditions, prolific bugs, and beautifully colored trout, April joins March in our top 3 list for best months of the year – October rounds out the roster. The first 2 weeks of the Caddis hatch can be the most productive fishing of the year. Grab your pen and calendar and block out the last week of the month. You’ll be glad you did!

May

Mother’s Day Caddis, PMD’s, Big Yellow Mays, and even the occasional Salmon Fly make an appearance in May. Cloudy days can be extraordinary, with the fish extending the dry fly opportunities early in the day on PMD’s and Big Yellows, and switching over to Caddis in the afternoon. Water conditions in May are a bit more erratic, with runoff and Spring rains coming into the equation. Don’t, however, write off the day if you happen to find yourself in the middle of a brownish colored river. We’ve had some GREAT Caddis fishing this month with visibility at only 1’ in the canyon.

June

June is the transition month from Spring to Summer. The flows start to stabilize at higher Summer levels, and our fishing tactics change with them. The Mayflies that we’ve been using over the last 3 months remain decent on cloudy days, but we start thinking more about the larger terrestrials such as ants, bees, beetles, and grasshoppers fished tight to the grassy banks. There is also some good Stonefly activity this month, with a handful of Goldens and Salmons and the start of the tan bodied Summer Stonefly hatch. Caddis continue to provide sight casting opportunities during the afternoon and into the evening. Warmer weather causes the last of the runoff to make its’ way through the system and the recreational floating season begins.

July

Warm weather and river flows near 4000 cfs are normal conditions for this time of year. This is also the time of year for casting Summer, also called Short Wing, Stone imitations tight against the bank from a drift boat on the go. Caddis are still on the menu, especially when the sun goes off the water in the evening. Long floats are the norm. It is not uncommon to cover 10+ river miles a day. As a general rule, the river moves at approximately 1 mile per hour for every 1000 cfs of flow. Therefore, at 4000 cfs, you’re going to cover about 4 mph if you just floated and didn’t stop or touch an oar. Recreational floating traffic increases with the warmer weather and higher flows. While weekends in July and August are peak times for recreational floaters, it is very predictable in terms of schedule, making it possible to plan your float and avoid most of the rafters if you desire. The floaters start up top at Big Horn and Ringer between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm, and by 2:00 – 4:00 pm, have reached the lower half of the canyon. Starting on the lower canyon early in the day or the upper canyon later in the day, allow you to avoid a lot of river traffic. Fishing from one man pontoon boats and wade fishing is more difficult with the higher flows. The lower half of the canyon offers more opportunity for these, as the river tends to bend a bit more and has more gravel bars and inside corners to get out on.

August

This is the warmest part of our Summer. Water temperatures reach into the 60’s, with air temperatures in the canyon often breaking into triple digits. Early mornings and late evenings are pleasant times to be on the river, with the fish being more active on dry flies during these low light periods. Often, we split our fishing days up in August with lunch and a siesta sandwiched between an early morning drift and another float into the evening. This schedule also allows the majority of the recreation traffic to clear out ahead of us. Releasing fish as soon as possible with minimal handling is very important if water temperatures reach upwards of 68 degrees. The river is still flowing around 4000 cfs. Grasshoppers and Summer Stones remain the focus, targeting the deeper grassy banks. There is nothing quite as exciting as seeing a large Rainbow attack a hopper. If your fly is 3” from some of those strong banks, then it’s probably 3” too far! Big bugs, shorts and sandals, covering lots of water, and the dry canyon air all make August a great month to spend time on the Yakima River.

September

September is the late transition month, marking the change from Summer to Fall. School is starting across the state. Recreational floating traffic disappears, and the cooler weather is more than welcome. Labor Day weekend marks the beginning of the “Flip Flop.” Over a period of 10 days, the river flows steadily decline from nearly 4000 cfs to around 1000 cfs. During the Flip Flop, a major emergence of Summer Stoneflies takes place, and dry fly fishing can be very good. With decreased water levels, wade fishermen and one man pontoon boats enjoy unlimited access to many of the rivers “honey holes.” At this time of year, Baetis (Blue Winged Olive) nymphs and terrestrials such as bees, ants, and beetles still play an important role in the trout’s diet. Grasshoppers are present until the frost, and in cooler years, we even start seeing some October Caddis. The fishing can be great!

October

Fall colors in the Yakima River Canyon are awesome. For the most part, the conditions are favorable with temperatures in the 60’s and river flows less than 1000 cfs. Recreation floaters are now spending their weekends in football stadiums, once again leaving the river to the fly casters, Big Horn Sheep, and Bald Eagles. The middle of the month is prime time for Blue Winged Olives, Mahogany Duns, and October Caddis. Blue Winged Olive nymphs and dries are both productive. Don’t give up on the hoppers just yet. They can still catch fish, especially after the first few frosty nights of the Fall. This is another of our “top 3” months of the year. While nymph fishing and streamer fishing can be worthwhile, the extended dry fly fishing is what we really enjoy. As with the BWO/ Skwala combination in the Spring, the Fall BWO’s and October Caddis can pair up to create some very productive dry fly opportunities for up to 6 hours in a single day. The quality fishing, amazing Fall colors, and abundant wildlife along the river make the October experience one that you absolutely don’t want to miss.

November

Fall is turning to winter. By the end of the month, fishing traffic has substantially decreased because of the cooler temperatures and other activities as families begin preparing for the Holidays. The dry fly fishing in November depends largely on what Mother Nature serves up for weather. The last 2 years, we have had temperatures in the single digits the first week of November, which has brought the Fall BWO hatches to a halt. However, in warmer weather years, the Fall Baetis can last nearly through the month. Our fishing days do shorten this month (we go to off-season rates on all of our services), with the best part of the day being from about 10:30 am until 4:00 pm. Temperatures normally range from the high 30’s to low 50’s. The flow is less than 1000 cfs and will remain there the rest of the winter. As for the sub-surface activity, Stonefly nymphs are always present, and Baetis (Blue Winged Olive) nymphs remain a food source at this time of year. We will fish a variety of midge patterns, both on top and as nymphs. When you encounter feeding fish this time of year, it may take some work to determine whether they are eating Midge or BWO’s. Make sure you have both readily available.

December

Winter has come to the canyon, and we are fast approaching the shortest day of the year. Big Horn Sheep, Deer, and other wildlife are a common site on the hillsides along the river. Lower water temperatures, normally in the low to high 30’s, make nymph and streamer fishing the most productive method of catching fish. Stones and Baetis nymphs are on the menu at this time of year. Fishing a streamer on the swing in slower stretches of water can produce some exciting fishing and big fish. Midge activity can also be good at certain times in select locations. At this time of year there is very little traffic on the river, and the experience of being out goes well beyond the fishing.

Sale
Yakima River (River Journal, Vol 2, No 2)
  • Hardcover Book
  • Probasco, Steve (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 08/01/1994 (Publication Date) - Frank Amato Pubns (Publisher)

Related Resources

Avidangler.com – profile of the Yakima River

Yakima River fishing reports from Reds Fly Shop

Yakima reports from the EveningHatch.com

Yakima reports from WorleyBugger.com

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