Photos and Story: Cold Water on the Yakima

Written by: Chuck Coolidge

The author with a Yakima rainbow on a cold November day.
Photos by Chuck Coolidge

What do you do when you’re upland bird hunting in Washington State but need to give the dogs a rest (this applies to your feet as well as the actual animals)? It’s an easy solution. Drive twenty minutes to the Yakima River, and experience the same amazing waterfront views Lewis and Clark first saw in 1805. Only you can one-up them by renting a drift boat or hire a guide to pilot you downstream.

The Clackacraft drift boat in her cold glory.

One of the most difficult issues we find in these types of trips is that we focus too much on the lines in the water. All too often, we forget to take a second and lift our heads to enjoy the landscape, wildlife, and incredible views these locations have to offer.

Hard to beat these views! Bighorn sheep mountains on the left and chukar fields on the right.

Today was a bit different, with a high of 36 degrees, where we had plenty of opportunities to take a couple breaks to warm our fingers, refill our mugs, and clear the ice from guides of our fly rods.

This was a common occurrence until about 11 a.m.

During these warming sessions we were lucky enough to see bald eagles, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, and about ten jake Merriam’s turkeys watching us as we waded one of the river bends.

First fish of the morning. It was easier to keep my hands warm and leave him in the net for a quick picture.

Yes, all of this, and I haven’t even mentioned the fishing yet. Within five minutes of launching the boat and fishing streamers downstream, we were tight to rainbow trout. Around noon, we switched to nymphing rigs with blue-winged olive imitations at about six feet deep to find the cold, slower-moving fish.

Michael ended up a statistic, as his leader snapped just after this battle.

If you find yourself trout-fishing in November, you might get a bit more fight than you’re expecting. There are steelhead making their way upstream, and if you’re lucky enough to hook one, you’ll know it. Be patient and let them run; if you don’t, you will hear the heartbreaking snap of your leader.

Safe to say I didn’t have to worry about sun burns today…

Braving the elements on the longest river in Washington State was a lot of fun, and it provided a welcome change of pace from our upland hunting. I highly recommend it.

Chuck Coolidge lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and travels a lot to feed his fly-fishing passion.

11 thoughts on “Photos and Story: Cold Water on the Yakima”

    1. That’s because it didn’t Terry! Nice catch. Poor writing and an even poorer topic choice trying to pump Orvis’ endorsed local guide business on an already overcrowded and overused fishery, on a 3rd rate trout stream to boot.

  1. The Yakima is not the longest river in Washington. Do some homework (before you write bullshit and inaccurate fact based reviews for businesses who pay your media company for them, or take you fishing for free) Chuck Coolidge.

  2. Fished the Yak this past Saturday (November 24th). No fish caught, but as was stated in the article, beautiful scenery and well worth the trip from the Western, wet side of the state!

  3. Like the story, fish and facts – admire clear Waters too. But unfortunately, have broken some rods because of the ice in the tip ring causing the tip to break, one cane rod too while forcing it to a double haul …. The other problem is the finger tip problem huh..
    Thanks for the story and slides.

  4. The Yakima’s Other Season…..
    Plain and simple, the fishing on the Yakima during the Winter and early Spring can be good. Often times the river is low and clear and the fish tend to be ‘funneled’ and isolated to specific zones. Food sources are significantly less at this time of year so the trout and whitefish will target the available foods in the ‘feed me’ zones. Generally on the Yakima some of the best winter calories for the trout consist of Skwala Stone fly nymphs, Midge pupae and adults, Whitefish spawn (egg patterns), Caddis pupa and forage fish.
    Typical ‘feed me’ zones can be described as defined drop-offs and slow downs following large riffles or less isolated waters such as long deep pools. Big broad open flats, riffles and pocket water with multiple current lines are inviting and intriguing but certainly not isolated . The trout are often ‘holed’ up at this time of year and will move with in that hole to ‘funnel’ zones. The fish are definitely more migratory within a zone during winter’s low volume and cold water season. Usual water temps for this time of year range from 35-40 degrees.
    Let’s paint a picture here. 9am in the morning and the water temperature is 35-39 degrees. The midge activity is minimal. By about 11am the water temp has warmed up to 36-41 and the trout are starting to move up from the depths of ‘the hole’ toward the drop off that forms the hole. Feeding becomes more active as the midge pupae are hatching more regular and the trout target the pupae along with the eggs of the whitefish. (Whitefish spawn in the flat riffles of tail outs and the riffles at the heads of pools). The water temp peaks at 38-43 degrees and holds at that temperature from 1-2:30. The fish actively seek the aforementioned food sources combined with the occasional Skwala Stone nymph. The Skwala stonefly perpetuates with a two year life cycle and hatches in March+/- on most western streams, including the Yakima. Therefore, the most mature adult Skwala nymphs are active during the winter time as they are not far away from their emergence. (hatching). At about 3:30 the water temps start to drop usually and given the strength of the subsurface activity the trout may continue to feed or may settle back into the hole where they can conserve energy until the following day, eating here and there. Fishing streamers (forage fish) is a great technique at all times of the day in the winter. Sometimes, prior and post to the described days activity is optimal because the fish are not typically feeding hard, yet the calorie intake of a small fish is hard to pass up.
    While every day is not exactly the same, the above description is representative of ‘Winter Fishing’.
    When conditions align for optimal fishing, some great fishing/catching on the Yakima River can be in the Winter. Proper attire is essential as the water temps and air temps demand quality outdoor gear designed to cushion the elements.
    Aside from the actual fishing, Winter brings a new perspective to rivers. The landscape is ‘pared to the bone’. The birds of prey are on the hunt. The Big Horn sheep are wintering in the Lower Canyon after a long and arduous rutting season. The most patient fisher of all, the Blue Heron, is present daily. Small heards of elk find refuge near the river bottom especially from Ellensburg upstream. Rarely is the river crowded.

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