A weekend hall pass and I-90 lead to three trophy trout waters for Tacoma anglers.
By Al Schultz
Early in April of last year, I got three days off in a row and I knew just how I wanted to spend them: fishing my way across Eastern Washington. I didn’t want any wasted time. I wanted the trip to be productive, with plenty of time for fishing, catching quality trout and enjoying time with a friend.
In January at the Western Washington Sportsman’s Show I’d obtained a “show special for two” flyer from the good folks at the Ellensburg Angler Guide Service, so I called them up and asked if the flyer was still good. They said it was, so I booked a trip for two floating the Yakima River. Day one was planned!
I contacted my friend, Leo Pierson, and advised him he was being included in another one of my harebrained outdoor adventure schemes.
“Oh, by the way,” I added, “don’t forget to load up your camper.”
Leo is a retired meat cutter and butcher who worked for over 30 years at the old Hi-Grade Meat Packing Plant that used to exist in Tacoma before it closed down and headed south. At 80 years old he still gets around well and is the best company and my first choice for a partner on any trip. My “plan” called for his camper with my boat towed behind. We would fish for trophy trout on three distinctly different waters open to the public year-round without having to spend more than two and a half hours on I-90 between fishing destinations, except on our way back.
I had to work right up until an hour before we were scheduled to leave, so I told Leo to meet me at 7 a.m. at my house. We’d hitch my boat to his truck and head straight away east to Ellensburg, where we were scheduled to meet our guide at 10 a.m.
ZERO HOUR ARRIVED, and three hours later Leo and I found Stefan Woodruff patiently waiting for us. We parked, grabbed some coffee, our fly rods and vests, and jumped in his rig and headed to the launch where he readied his drift boat. One thing that jumped out in my mind about the guide service is how thorough, organized and, above all, competent they were. In no time at all we were loaded up in Woodruff’s boat and drifting the Yakima.
Our guide had a plan: Due to the cooler temps and overcast sky, he opted for us to fish nymphs beneath a float, which he deftly and expertly rigged up and attached to our fly rods. Then in true guide fashion, he headed right for some holes he knew to be choice lurks for lunker rainbows. Remember how I didn’t want any wasted time on this trip? The folks at Ellensburg Angler, especially Woodruff, got it. We were on the water promptly, drifting and fishing one productive hole after another, no wasted time.
Floating the Yakima, Leo Pierson casts a dry fly during an afternoon hatch. (AL SCHULTZ)
“Fish on!” I nearly shouted, despite the fact that the only people around were in the same boat as I. I was amazed at the solitude. It was hard to believe a trophy trout stream so close to Puget Sound would be so devoid of people. The fish I’d hooked had shoulders and used the current to its advantage, bowing my 6-weight fly rod nearly double, stripping line off the reel and causing my drag to whir. I had heard of the quality of fish on the Yak, but to actually experience the wildness and tenacity of the trout that inhabit this beautiful river was something else!
While I played the fish, a beautiful, brilliantly colored 16- or 17-inch rainbow, Woodruff landed our drift boat on a gravel bar. And when I brought the fish to hand, he quickly stepped out, expertly netted the fish, then gently and reverently removed the fish so I could take a quick photo prior to releasing it. As I watched him carefully handle the fish I was struck by how truly special this fishery was to him, and it was apparent how much he loved it and felt responsible to be a good steward of it. I have fished a lot of places all over the world and have never seen anyone exemplify stewardship the way Woodruff did throughout the day, beginning with this first fish. As we drifted there were certain shallow gravel-bottomed pools that Woodruff stated he would rather not fish because the trout were spawning and had made redds there. He didn’t want to drag an anchor or anything through those areas and possibly destroy or disturb the redds.
We continued drifting and catching fish and soon it was lunchtime. The folks at Ellensburg Angler offer hot shoreline lunches and Woodruff turned out to be a grill master! As I cast from shore, Leo settled in to enjoy some fruit and a beverage, while our guide began grilling steaks and preparing a salad. Before long we were all enjoying a delicious shoreline lunch. Afterwards, we helped pack everything back aboard the drifter and resumed our journey downstream in pursuit of more trout. Sometime in the early afternoon the sun broke through the clouds and almost instantly the air seemed to still and warm. Then, one of those magical moments happened: Mayflies began to emerge and in some of the stillwater eddies, trout began to rise. We quickly switched our rigs to dry flies, and while Woodruff worked the oars to keep us in the pocket, Leo and I had a ball catching fish on dries. After a while we resumed our drift and lucked into a few more grand fish before we reached the take-out. We had a terrific time and I learned a lot about the fishery and fishing, and how to be a good steward of the river, all simply by watching and listening to Woodruff, a man half my age. Our Eastside fishing trip was already awesome and it was only day 1!
LEAVING ELLENSBURG, WE headed towards Day 2’s destination: Ephrata for dinner and camping along Rocky Ford Creek. Rocky Ford is a shoreline fishery only– no floating or wading. Bank access was good, but, as ever in the Columbia Basin, the wind and brush can wreak havoc on novice fly anglers’ casts.
Next stop, Rocky Ford, where a young angler brings one of the creek’s rainbows to the net. (AL SCHULTZ)
As daylight broke the horizon, we rigged our rods with Czech nymphs (scuds) and plied the spring creek’s warm waters for huge rainbows. Rocky Ford is known far and wide as a trophy catch-and-release fishery, and fish 24 inches or larger are not uncommon. But hear ye, hear ye, lest ye think that it is like shooting fish in a barrel, understand that these trout have been caught and released who knows how many times and they have the scarred noses and lips to prove it. They know every fly by its catalog number and they’ve seen every presentation, good and bad. They are not easily fooled. To catch one of these behemoths is not only a reward but a validation of one’s competency with a switch and string! Leo and I wandered our separate ways in pursuit of our own dreams (and validation!), and later in the afternoon we returned to the camper where we had a late lunch and shared respective stories of monsters lost and minnows landed.
As an update, more water is flowing in Rocky Ford this spring, so places we were able to stand on shore last April may be flooded now. With increased current, anglers are also reporting a need to use more weight, per se, in the form of a beaded fly and dropper setup to get their offerings down to the level of the fish.
WE PACKED UP in late afternoon and motored to our next destination, Four Seasons Campground and Resort along the west end of Sprague Lake. We checked in with our hosts Scott and Jane Haugen and hastily set up camp to get a little fishing in before dark. The resort has wonderful campsites and a good launch, as well as ample dock space for bank anglers.
Fishing here has benefited from the lawsuit settlement between the Wild Fish Conservancy and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. As it prohibited releasing most of the 2014 crop of early-timed winter steelhead smolts into Puget Sound rivers, 369,000 of the young fish went into Sprague, which has no access to the sea. After just a year in the rich lake, many of those steelhead were over 2 pounds and 16 or 17 inches in length, and they’ll be even bigger this spring. Leo and I fully intended to capitalize. The evening of Day 2 found us trolling Rapala Minnows, and within 30 minutes of launching I had landed a 4½-pound rainbow that I promptly released after taking a quick picture.
That night we had moose steaks for dinner and the conversation was filled with excitement and anticipation about the fishing we would find in the morning. We were both pretty excited after catching such a nice rainbow after trolling for only half an hour.
Day 3 found us on the water after a delicious breakfast of ham and eggs. I frequently marked fish on the Hummingbird Fish Finder and we regularly caught cookie-cutter steelies in the 15- to 17-inch range. Actually, we landed so many that I got a little bored and began pursuing other fish that inhabit the 1,800-acre lake, like largemouth. Running a deep-diving crankbait over a submerged boulder field, I managed to hook a nice 4-pound bucketmouth. After releasing the bass, I took a moment to look around and absorb the sun’s rays. I couldn’t believe there were only four other boats in view on the lake. Amazing!
Sprague Lake anglers like Cye Logsdon and friends not only benefited from the release of nearly 370,000 steelhead smolts into the landlocked Channeled Scablands water, but from the 2007 rotenone and restocking of rainbows and largemouth bass. (AL SCHULTZ)
We resumed fishing, but as it turned to afternoon, my hall pass was about to expire, so we motored back to the launch. There we met three amigos also wrapping up their day after limiting on nice steelhead and rainbows off Four Seasons’ dock. As I spoke to them, a family arrived to take their kids fishing on the dock. It was wonderful seeing everyone enjoying this remarkable fishery.
When Leo and I got ready to leave, I noticed the wiring harness pins on my boat trailer were broken and my trailer didn’t have working lights. Haugen went into his shop, found a replacement plug and all the necessary tools to make the fix, and assisted as I spliced the wiring and replaced the plug. He and his wife define hospitality for sure!
Once the repair was made, we thanked our hosts for another tremendous time and made for home. It had been an amazing 72 hours! NS
Between Seattle and Spokane, I-90 provides access to a number of great trout fisheries, and none may be more productive than Sprague Lake, where author Al Schultz caught this nice rainbow on a Rapala. (AL SCHULTZ)