YAKIMA RIVER CANYON — By the time my winter-numbed brain turns to trout fishing in the spring, the Yakima River is usually blown out by spring runoff, which means waiting until things dry out a bit later in the year.
Silly me. Late winter and early spring can actually be a great time to fish on the Yakima. The water is usually low and clear, the fish aren’t as smart as they are later in the year after seeing many flies, and recreational rafters have yet to clog the river. If you’re lucky, you’ll time it just right and hit the Skwala stonefly hatch.
I also wanted to check out Canyon River Ranch, the Yakima Canyon’s sole lodging and dining option, and chat with folks from venerable Red’s Fly Shop, next door. This is not the only way to experience the canyon — the Bureau of Land Management maintains four public-access sites with basic campgrounds there — but it’s the easiest and definitely the cushiest.
The ranch grew from Red’s, which started out as a mere campground on this same spot decades ago and morphed into a full-time fly shop. It’s just one of many knowledgeable fly shops and guide services in the area, but its riverside location allows it to capitalize on the Yakima’s designation as Washington’s sole blue-ribbon trout river.
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Condos and cabins
Canyon River Ranch’s lodge-style condos and rustic-chic cabins are the most prominent features on that plot of land these days, but Red’s was there first. The ranch’s owners took over after Red (actual name: Loman Blankenship) and his wife, Sharon (nickname Marlene), decided to retire in 2002.
The new owners, friends Steve Joyce, Tony Robins and Richard Leide, built the 10-condo lodge and a handful of cabins next to Red’s. The development has a high-end but low-key feel. Surrounded by public land, it’s a rare interruption along the scenic drive through the canyon.
Most of the condos are privately owned, as are the cabins, but anyone can rent one for a night or two. They’re decorated in a high-end, Western rustic theme — think wood floors, stone fireplaces and full kitchens with stainless-steel appliances.
There’s a pool and a hot tub and a game room (for owner and guest use only — you can also buy an annual membership for access any time), and even a winery on the premises. The ranch’s newest addition: Canyon River Grill, housed in the same building as the fly shop and open to the public daily for lunch and dinner. Chef Patrick Garmong’s menu is unexpectedly cosmopolitan, with a locally sourced menu and a carefully curated selection of regional wines.
Fishing is the thing
But of course the ranch’s biggest draw is its position on the banks of the Yakima. We stayed a night in a condo and were ready to give fishing a try the next morning.
But first, I decided to drop in on a learn-to-fish class through “Red’s University of Fly Fishing.” I’ve fished for years without taking a formal class, but in retrospect, I probably should have at some point.
The fly shop also offers instruction in rowing, spey-rod casting and other subjects. Beginners and more advanced anglers also might want to check out Red’s Rendezvous on April 12, a daylong fly-fishing festival with demonstrations and competitions.
During the class, Mike Milligan, a retired elementary-school teacher from Ellensburg, went through the basics of equipment. “You’re really getting a lot more for your money than you used to,” he told the dozen or so students. (This, plus a recent tour of the Sage fly-rod factory on Bainbridge Island, solidified my decision to buy my first brand-new rod after years of hand-me-downs.)
Milligan explained the kind of water most likely to contain fish. He showed how to make knots and de-barb a hook. He talked of etiquette (never fish immediately downstream of another angler), safety (always wear eye protection) and responsibility (touch fish as little as possible before releasing).
Then came the iconic part: the cast.
“A lot of it is timing, and if done well, it seems like no effort,” Milligan said. After practicing out on the lodge’s back lawn, the group eventually headed down to the riverbank for lessons in fly selection and real-world casting.
Game despite a cold snap that held temperatures to below freezing, the students all seemed to master the basic cast by the end of the day.
Aubrey and Keith Moss, who came out from Bremerton to spend one last “babymoon” weekend away before their new baby arrives, had done other kinds of fishing but had never fly fished. As they packed up at the end of class, they were enthusiastic about what they’d learned. “I can see how it could become an addiction,” Keith said.
Meanwhile, I joined guides James St. Clair and Luke Hoisington for a float down the river. We might have been out longer, except for the cold. And we might have been able to pull in the fish that nibbled at our flies if we’d been able to feel our fingers.
Still, it was a beautiful day on the river — really, any day on the river is beautiful, isn’t it?
Fly-fisher Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.