The Lower Yakima River Smallmouth Guided Tour
Worley Bugger Fly Co-
 

The Lower Yakima River Smallmouth Fishery

For centuries, fly fishermen have pursued a variety of trout species with flies in our rivers and still-water impoundments, ignoring other freshwater species that share these very same waters. With the turn of the 21st century, men and women now travel the globe, pursuing every known species of fish on the planet with a fly. The Smallmouth Bass is simply no exception.

The Smallmouth Bass is a wilily species of fish, using camouflage, and its large broad body to propel quickly when it needs to forage.  They are a master ambush predator and prefer the cover of medium to large rock habitat or other structure for concealment.  They have developed these tactics and use them with perfection for ensnaring and consuming their prey.  Smallmouth are generally picky about their diet and consumption of the proteins that they ingest.  When the opportunity arises, grubs, worms, toads, baitfish and land roaming vermin such as mice, rats and locusts will all be part of their diet. Water dwelling snakes, lizards, turtles and other river inhabitants can and will at times fall prey to the Smallmouth Bass.

The Lower Yakima River

This interesting, highly evolved, and very aggressive freshwater predator has a unique blending of olive, black and yellow colors along the sides of its body, creating the ideal disguise, to blend in its ecosystem. Their favorite forage by far in most Pacific Northwest environments is a fresh water crustacean, called the crawdad.

Because their diet is so diverse at times, do not let that fool you, electing that these fish are easy to catch.  Yes, their aggression and feeding levels are far above that of a Rainbow Trout. However, their strength and their ability to jump, make quick and powerful runs, while using their wide, broad bodies, positions them at the top of the list, as one of the hardest fighting fish, pound for pound.  Landing adult size Smallmouth, especially in strong river currents, does take some fishing ability.  Their hardened cartilage that lines their jaw can make it difficult to sink even with the sharpest steel and keep it embedded throughout the fight.  This fun and exciting game fish is being rediscovered by many, as fly fishermen pursue this river prowler with flies.  Forget the stereo typical hill-Billy mentality that is often associated with fearless freshwater creatures. This is exciting fly fishing for one of Mother Nature's most formidable freshwater fish, living in our rivers and waterways.  Are you up for the challenge?

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The Smallmouth Bass has been present in the Lower Yakima River system since the early 1950's, when biologists at the Washington Fish & Game, presumed it would be a sound plan to plant these non-native fish in the river.  Since that time, their populations have exploded and you can now find Smallmouth Bass in the Columbia River, as well as just about every tributary within Washington State.  A consistent diet of fish, crayfish and other proteins sources, along with idea water conditions and habitat, has the Smallmouth Bass thriving, in many of our Pacific Northwest Rivers. 

The Lower Yakima River 

The Lower Yakima from the Prosser Dam to the confluence with the Columbia River at the town of West Richland is ripe with Smallmouth Bass.  The populations are thriving in this waterway and you can expect to encounter a wide range of different sized bass throughout your fishing day.  On average, 2lb. to 3 lb. Bronzebacks are in this 25 mile stretch of the Yakima and are very common with even larger sized, adult age class fish to be present.  This is especially true during the spring months of the year when many Smallie's will migrate from the Columbia River into the tributaries for forage and spawning purposes.  These adult age class fish have a much higher aggression level than that of the average trout, especially during peak times of the spawn.  If you can match this level or exceed it, then in most instances the larger of the species will be drawn to your fly.  Becoming an accomplished bass angler with a fly rod, takes skill, a high energy level and a matched determination equal to that of your primary fishing target.

Throughout the Columbia River system and especially the Lower Yakima River, small, immature Fall and Spring Chinook Salmon become a staple of the Smallmouth's diet on their out migration to the Pacific Ocean.  Spring Chinook travel hundreds of miles down the river from their natal waters in the  Upper Yakima River, traversing dams and other impediments along the way.  As these anadromous fish make their way down river they must navigate not only the man-made dams and diversions that are present, but also contend with several predatory fish species as well.  Smallmouth Bass, Northern Pike Minnow, Channel Catfish, Carp and Walleye are all consumers of these ocean going salmoniods.

These salmon and their spring migration is always a source of interest for these predacious fish species and for over twenty years now, WBFC has perfected flies that replicate this important food source in this portion of the Yakima River.  The time frame for the out-migration, generally occurs and coincides with a spring, high water event and snow pack melt from the Cascade Mountain Range.  The higher water flows allow for a safer and quicker passage through the gauntlet of predators that the immature salmon must swim through, on their way to the salt waters of the Pacific Ocean.Chinnook Salmon-Yakima River

As this natural migratory event ensues, it has been documented that nearly 40,000 Smallmouth Bass will migrate into the Lower Yakima River and begin an all out feast on juvenile salmon. Unfortunately, each year thousands upon thousands of salmon, both Spring and Fall Chinook alike, are ingested by Smallmouth Bass in the Lower Yakima. This is just one example of why Smallmouth Bass are thriving in the Columbia River system.  A diet rich in fish protiens has bass growing to infinite porportions.

Is there a bright light for salmonoid recovery and their declining populations?  Perhaps, however, during periods of low water, Chinook Salmon, the "Kings of the Pacific" are highly vulnerable and continually fall victim to many of these predatory fish. Higher water events are ideal and provide some escapement for salmon on their exit route to the Pacific Ocean.

 
The Lower Yakima River-Bass Spawn
 

Every serious fishermen understands that it is unethical to cast to and fish over spawning fish. Disturbing this natural birthing process, while adult sized fish are nesting and lying eggs, has always been a serious taboo, and one that is discouraged in all fishing circles.  Fishing the Bass spawn on the other hand is the absolute opposite. 

Like other freshwater species of fish, water temperatures are one of the preliminary factors of inducing fish into spawn.  As late spring arrives and the waters begin to warm, female Smallmouth, ripe with several pounds of roe in their belly, begin looking for a mate.  Once they have found a proper suitor and the ideal nesting grounds, a small spawning bed is prepared.  Once the nest is arranged, the female will lay thousands of eggs.  Her duties within the natural order of procreation are now complete, and unlike most animals in the natural world, she abandons her confidant, the young and the nest completely. 
 
Lower Yakima River Smallmouth
 

The sole protection to guard the precious resource, while under incubation, now lies solely with the male bass.  The large female in most cases is out of the picture within a few hours time of spawning.  Her now ravenous attitude, due to the arduous processes that she has undertaken has her cruising the stream bed, foraging and nourishing her depleted physique.  This is not a good time to be a food organism of this progressive predator.  As the female feeds, the male stubbornly stands guard on the nest and furiously protects the eggs from potential marauders that would love an easy meal of hapless adolescent fish.

Like other freshwater species of the fish, Smallmouth will choose gradient that is ideal for nesting.  Imagine, in your lifetime once a year, dragging your body over stream sediment, rocky debris and other fragments of the river bottom to procrete.  If elected to do so, you would also choose a smooth and viable surface as well.  Fish do the same, as they slog muscle and sinew across stream deposits, clearing the small cobble surface in preparations for the eggs.  During this time, scars, fin incorsions and other bodily injurs can of course occur throughout this carnal time frame. The spawn usually occurs in two to four feet of water, so spotting a nest or a male protecting a bed in the spring, is usually quite obvious to the trained eye.  Wearing a pair of polarized glasses is a must in any fishing situation, and especially so for spotting shallow, nesting male bass.  

When the male bass is guarding the nest, a challenaging fly casting event will concur and your skills and precision with a rod, can create a fun and interesting experience.  Like casting a dry fly to raising trout, the fly must be placed in the correct current line, where the trout is feeding on natural insects.  Placing your fly several feet or inches away from a nesting Smallmouth in most cases will not provoke or even trigger a response.  The fly must be placed in the closest proximity to the nest and dropped within inches of the target.  If completed correctly, the nesting sentry will immediately attack it, while it furiously protects the gestating occupants, lying within.

The Smallmouth spawn can last a few days to several weeks.  Every river system is different and during the spring, water temperatures can be very unstable.  As winter snow pack melts, water flows and oxygen levels increase in our rivers. That typically effects the spawning level and time frame of bass, stunting it until warmer water prevails.  In most cases, the Smallmouth in the Lower Yakima begin this seasonal ritual in the month of June, after spring runoff has completed in the Upper Yakima and Naches drainages.

This is an ideal time to target large Smallmouth Bass with flies since their holding positions are typically in shallower water depths, of one to four feet of water.  Top water flies can be ideal and an exhilarating experience to cast.  Watching large Smallmouth crush a top water popper or diver is a visual treat, that any fly angler will not forget.

When water temperatures get too warm, large Smallmouth will seek cooler climates and head for much deeper water.  As fly fishermen, this is when our challenges get much more difficult.  Sinking fly line and weight flies at times aren't adequate enough equipment to achieve these deep depths and the goal of getting the fly in front of the fish seems almost impossible.

 

The Yakima River is known widely in the fly fishing world as one of the premier trout fisheries in the country. Whenever the "Yak" is mentioned you can see fishermens eye's light up. With over 80 miles of trout fishing in what is considered the "Upper Yakima" it produces some of the finest fly fishing for trout, in the entire Pacific Northwest. However, this amazing Central Washington River is really two very distinct waterways.  An amazing catch & release trout fishery in the upper reaches and an incrediable Smallmouth Bass river in the lower portions.

The Upper Yakima River flows clean and clear most of the year, fed solely by small tributaries that induce snow pack runoff into its streambed as well as the man-made reservoirs that feed and control its predictable flows throughout the year. Approximately 60 miles to the south of Ellensburg, Washington, the river takes on a whole new identity.  It gains speed and volume, especially in the early spring at the town of Selah, where the Naches River links with the Yakima.  Here it expands, broadens and flattens in its gradient, as it continues its southerly flow.

Between the agricultural towns of Wapato and Prosser, the Yakima continues south along Interstate 82.  Here, Cottonwood Trees, mounds of sage as well as natural grasses, grow along the river banks.  The river between these two points unfortunately, doesn't retain a quality fishery. Carp, Suckers and Pike Minnow are the most prevalant fish species found in this stretch of the Yakima.  It is not until you reach the town of Prosser, where a diversion dam, consturcted of concrete and steel, stretch from bank to bank where productive fishing picks back up.  From this point to the confluence of the Columbia is where you find a premier, Smallmouth Bass fishery.
 
The Lower Yakima River Bass

In this section of the Yakima River, the stream gradient changes dramatically and transforms to a mixture of course basalt and river rock, which creates ideal habitat for Smallmouth Bass.  The river here flows through miles of private farms and access to the river is difficult.  It moves away from the interstate and slices through small canyons of volcanic rock formations.  Lush, heavy vegetation grows along the river banks making it even more impossible to appose its banks.  Thorn spheres of Wild Roses, Cottonwood Trees and Russian Olives grow tightly here, impeding bank access, especially for the fly caster.

A drift boat or raft is the proper vessel for navigating the lower sections of the Yakima.  Unlike the Upper River, here the "Yak" slowly meanders and moves as it broadens in width between its banks, until it reaches the Columbia River near the town of West Richland.  Stream flows will dictate the fishing here and ideally, we want a minimum of 2500 cubic feet of water for ideal fishing conditions.  If the river drops lower than this, the stream bed vegetation grows up rapidly under the warm, sunny skies as well as warmer water conditions that occur here.  When the river vegetation explodes, it becomes nearly impossible to fish as well as to move a boat through.  Be conscious as well in the month of June, that the air temperatures can exceed 100+ degrees here, so sun protection clothing, water and polarized glass are essential.

The window here for excellent Smallmouth fishing is very short, with the time frame being approximately 30 days give or take, depending on the winter snow pack conditions.  Unlike the Upper Yakima, the lower portion of the river gets de-watered very quickly.  Farmers, ranchers and local residents that live along the river, extract water for irragating and the river flows will drop quickly after spring run-off has occurred.  

This is the Lower Yakima, so also don't be alarmed when you don't witness, crystal clear water. All of the agriculture run off waters eventually end up in this section of the river from three different farming counties. Very seldom will you have clear water conditions.  We like to see a minimum of two (2) feet of visibility for optimal fly fishing conditions.  The Smallmouth, as well as many of the other species of fish have developed a keen sense of sight and have no problem seeing flies in these conditions.  Many times throughout the day, as we fish top water flies and pop them along the surface, the sounds and vibrations are felt in the bass's lateral line and they are drawn to the fly very quickly.  Bass use not only their keen sense of sight, but movement in the water as well to feed.  They are always preparing for the next protein, based meal.

For those that would like to schedule a day of guided fly fishing, we recommend getting your day booked well in advance.  The window is so short here that once the river drops into shape, you must be ready to fish.  Being prepared with your date, allows WBFC the ability to get you on the river during the most productive time.  Even if we must reschedule because of high water flows, this allows us to insure you are given the best dates avaialble.

To book your day with WBFC, please contact the Ellensburg proshop directly.  WBFC celebrates two decades of fly fishing for Smallmouth Bass in the Lower Yakima in the year 2019. 

 

Worley Bugger Fly Co

1713 SOUTH CANYON ROAD
ELLENSBURG, WA 98926
509-962-2033
www.worleybuggerflyco.com
 
Worley Bugger Fly Co-