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  Great Washington Getaways Home  |  Upper and Lower Yakima River
Photo: Scenic photo of boat fishers in Yakima River Canyon, Washigton
A float down the Yakima River Canyon between Ellensburg and Roza Dam often results in catching chunky rainbow trout from 10-20 inches. Bighorn sheep, mule deer, golden and bald eagles, beaver, mink, and river otters are common sights along the gentle floats available in this stretch of river. Photo courtesy of Red’s Fly Shop
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Local Attractions
  Snoqualmie Pass
  Lake Easton State Park
  Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest’s Kachess Campground
  Cle Elum River Campground
  Salmon La Sac Campground
  Alpine Lakes Wilderness
  Bureau of Land Management Campgrounds
  Yakima Sportsman State Park
  Tri-Cities Visitors Bureau
  Yakima Valley Visitors Bureau
  Kittitas County Visitors Bureau
From Mountains to Valley: Yakima River Basin
The Yakima River Valley is a land of vast farms, orchards, vineyards and ranches, which thrive in the summer heat and the cool water that flows from the east slope of the Cascade Range. That cool water, stored in reservoirs and released into the Yakima River when agricultural demands reach their peak, also supports some of the best trout fishing in the state.

From mountain lakes to the Yakima River below, anglers can find rainbows, kokanee, browns, cutthroat , brook trout and burbot ready to take their hook. In the warmer, lower river closer to Tri-Cities, smallmouth bass and channel catfish dominate the catch. Up and down its length, the Yakima River Valley is easily accessible via Interstates 90 and 82 and features some of the best camping in the Central Cascades.

“Stump Lake”

Photo: Scenic photo of old stump at  Keechelus Lake, Washington.
Keechelus Lake’s depths hold much more than stumps.  Kokanee, burbot, and rainbow and cutthroat trout live in Keechelus, which is the source of the Yakima River. Photo by Jim Cummins

Keechelus Lake, the source of the Yakima River, is one of the state’s most-viewed and least-fished bodies of water. It parallels I-90 east of Snoqualmie Pass, and features wildly fluctuating water levels and a partially stump-covered lakebed that becomes exposed by the end of a long summer as it’s drawn down for irrigation. Locals sometimes unofficially refer to Keechelus as “Stump Lake.”

While Keechelus is a natural lake, a large earthen dam was created to increase water-storage capacity. From autumn through mid-spring, the lake is difficult to access via trailered boat due to decreased water levels. But from late spring through late summer, access to the lake’s abundant kokanee becomes easy, and a generous bag limit of the 8- to 12-inch-long landlocked sockeye salmon provides both opportunity and incentive to load up on these sweet-tasting, red-fleshed fish. The lake also holds smaller populations of cutthroat and rainbow trout.

Keechelus is one of the rare Washington lakes with a decent population of bottom-dwelling burbot, which are revered as table fare as well as their voraciousness. They gobble kokanee and crawdads whole.

Lake Easton State Park: A base camp for other lakes

East of Keechelus on I-90, Lake Easton offers only fair trout fishing; nearby Easton Ponds and Hanson Ponds at Cle Elum are better bets for put-and-take trout. But the small reservoir is home to Lake Easton State Park, an excellent place to establish a base camp for fishing any number of waters, including Kachess Lake. Reservations are strongly recommended at the Lake Easton and all state parks; many visitors book their spaces as far in advance as eight or nine months.

Photo: Two kokanee, landlocked sockeye.
Kokanee are one of Washington’s most prized food fish.  These landlocked sockeye are light biters with soft, sensitive mouths, so anglers use light-action rods and play kokanee to the boat with care to avoid losing them. Photo by Larry Phillips

Kachess lies less than a mile north of Lake Easton on the north side of I-90, and offers the same species as Keechelus under similar regulations. Its cutthroat trout fishing is notably better, however, and its kokanee can run slightly larger some years. Kachess is home to the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest’s Kachess Campground, which features two boat launches.

Cle Elum Lake, five miles east of Kachess, is no longer stocked with kokanee due to an effort to restore ocean-going sockeye here, but naturally reproducing kokanee provide decent action for fish from 8 to 12 inches. In an effort to protect rebounding stocks of sockeye salmon that will hopefully lead to a sockeye salmon fishery in the future, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has set the daily combined trout and kokanee limit at five fish. Juvenile sockeye remain in the lake for two or more years before migrating to sea and are nearly indistinguishable from kokanee. Reducing the kokanee bag limit reduces impacts on sensitive sockeye smolts.

Illegally introduced lake trout, or Mackinaw, were set loose in the reservoir years ago, and fish of more than 20 pounds have been taken. Deep-water trolling and jigging produce fish throughout the summer, but the species of char runs deeper and becomes less active as summer progresses. The Department encourages anglers to keep lake trout to help reduce predation on native bull trout and sockeye. The lake features the Forest Service’s Cle Elum River Campground and boat ramp at its north end; however, launching can be difficult in late summer and autumn due to drawdown. The Wish Poosh Campground and boat launch are situated on the lake’s south end and offer better boat access.

Cooper Lake

Cooper Lake is one of the best bets in the upper Yakima basin for campers and anglers who favor smaller lakes where all motors are prohibited. The lake sits northwest of Salmon La Sac, a “pothole” in the Cle Elum River, and is accessed via a Forest Service road. Cooper is heavily stocked with catchable-sized rainbows and larger triploid trout and also harbors brook trout and some very large brown trout.

Browns running 14 to 20 inches are commonly caught, and occasionally much larger specimens as well. Particularly in the bright light of summer, browns stay deep during the day and rise to feed under cover of darkness, growing fat on the lake’s small brookies. Rainbows are the main draw, though, and WDFW began stocking larger catchables and jumbo trout in the lake in 2013. Bull trout swim in the lake and are closed to angling, as elsewhere in the basin.

Cooper has a small campground and is also in close proximity to a number of other camping opportunities, including the Forest Service’s Salmon La Sac Campground. This area and Snoqualmie Pass to the west are both jump-off points to a myriad of trout tarns in the well-trailed Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Free backcountry permits, generally available at trailheads, are required.

Cle Elum River

Photo: Man holding trout caught in the catch and release, selective-gear fishery on the Cle Elum River, Washington.

The Yakima River’s cutthroat trout are most abundant in its far upper stretches and in the Cle Elum River, its tributary. While still outnumbered by more aggressive rainbows, some of the Yakima’s and Cle Elum rivers’ cutts can top 20 inches, which is very large for westslope cutthroat trout. Photo courtesy of Red’s Fly Shop

Upstream of Cle Elum Lake, the Cle Elum River falls under general regulations, but the tailwater section below Cle Elum Lake is a catch-and-release, selective-gear fishery. The lower Cle Elum runs high during the summer to provide irrigation water, sometimes making wading tough, but careful fly and spin anglers using single, barbless hooks can do well on rainbow, westslope cutthroat and even a few escaped lake trout.

The river’s cutts can grow very large, up to or above 20 inches, and it shares the upper Yakima’s chunky rainbows, the species that has made the Yakima River the state’s most famous trout stream. In its upper reaches near and above its confluence with the Cle Elum, the Yakima is small and calls for careful wading, but some very large cutthroats and rainbows can be caught on a variety of single, barbless lures and flies.

Spinners and minnow imitations are effective, as are large dry flies that mimic grasshoppers and golden stoneflies. Some anglers fish a wet dropper fly 12 to 24 inches below their dry fly. Copper Johns, San Juan Worms, and Pheasant Tail nymphs work well as droppers.

Upper Yakima

These same flies and lures are sure bets throughout the upper Yakima, including in the famed waters closer to Ellensburg. In what locals call the Farmlands stretch – from Thorp to the Yakima River Canyon south of Ellensburg – the river flows through mostly private ground. In summer the Yakima runs high with irrigation water, making it a dangerous float. Strainers, side channels and a spillover dam create treacherous obstacles. However, a number of guides in and around Ellensburg offer floats through the Farmlands, and also downstream in the famous Canyon stretch above Roza Dam.

The latter reach offers more than 20 miles of easy floating access for rowers of multiple skill levels with numerous public access points and pull-offs for shore anglers to fish the Yakima’s fishy banks. When the river runs high during summer, the water velocity pushes trout to the banks where they can hold and feed in gentler currents. All summer, a smorgasbord of ’hoppers and stoneflies draw the river’s rainbows to the surface.

Whether in a raft, pontoon or drift boat or on foot, do-it-yourself and guided anglers alike do well on gaudy grasshopper and stonefly imitations that fish would never rise to except in heavy water. Food flows past their faces so fast that they have to react or lose a potential meal. Almost all of the trout in both the Farmlands and Canyon stretches are rainbows, which regularly stretch between 10 and 20 inches. Camping opportunities can be found at the Bureau of Land Management’s Big Pines, Lmuma Creek, Roza and Umtanum Campgrounds, and at Yakima Sportsman State Park at the south end of the canyon.

Lower Yakima

Photo: Man on boat holding a smallmouth caught while fishing the Yakima River, Washington.
Smallmouth bass from the Columbia River enter the Yakima to spawn in April and May, and many of those fish stay in the Yakima throughout the summer. They are typically quite easy to catch, as are the river’s channel catfish. Both species will gobble lures, especially smallmouths, but channel cats are best pursued with baits like nightcrawlers, chicken livers, and commercially prepared catfish baits. Photo by Jim Cummins

It’s a common misconception that all of the good trout water on the Yakima is above Roza Dam, but summer fishing for rainbows can be excellent from here as far downstream as the Sunnyside-to-Granger stretch. Also, during late June and sometimes into early July, the Yakima is open to spring Chinook fishing. These very popular salmon are difficult to target and require specialized tackle, but strong numbers have been returning in recent years, providing a popular fishery for salmon diehards. Be sure to check the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s emergency rule-change notices for the go-ahead.

As the Yakima flows east toward its confluence with the Columbia River near Tri-Cities, the water warms and slows due to intense irrigation demands in the lower Yakima Valley. Viable trout water gives way to smallmouth bass and channel catfish habitat, especially below Prosser Dam. The lower river is a popular and gentle stretch to float and fish. Its bass and catfish are numerous and hungry during summer, and campers can find places to stay through the Tri-Cities, Yakima Valley and Kittitas County visitors bureaus, which offer comprehensive resources for planning a trip to the area, known for its wine tours.