A Late July Day on Two Blue Mountain Streams

I grew up in northeastern Oregon and consider the South Fork of the Walla Walla River to be my home stream. In contrast, I’ve had a long-standing love affair with the North Fork of the Umatilla River, which flows through a designated Wilderness Area less than 2 miles from our family cabin. I had the good fortune to fish both streams in mid-July, attired in wading sandals and shorts. Orvis outerwear is for wimps. (ha) Here are some highlights:

North Fork – Umatilla

The narrow trail that leads you upriver is over-crowded with shoulder-high bracken fern, snowberry, thimbleberry and ocean spray. The gradient is gentle but there are few places where the river is visible. Fishing involves busting through the brush and wading up the middle of the river. I found cobble not so slick from growth of summer algae and that flows had dropped to where I didn’t need a wading stick. Plus it was 95 F and I couldn’t think of a better place than to be.

Umatilla rainbow trout are small. A 9-incher is a good one and a 12-incher is a giant. I caught mostly 5 to 7 inchers on a #10 Stimulator. Switching to a #12 Light Cahill and then an Adams yielded more strikes, but smaller fish. No bull trout appeared to grab a small trout on the end of my line, however an occasional 10-pound spring Chinook salmon showed in the bottom of the deepest swirl holes and logjams where I imagined a giant rainbow would be. I returned to the cabin an hour later than I promised (nothing new there), but with satisfaction knowing I had fished as long and as hard as I wanted.

South Fork – Walla Walla

The upper SF is no secret. It’s a pleasant stream to toss a fly in the summer and early fall. A well-managed trail follows the course of the river the first 3 miles or so upstream of the trailhead, but the best fishing is on the other side of the river where access is more difficult (unless you are willing to hike another 3 or 4 miles). Large trout are difficult to find in July and August when pre-spawning adult spring Chinook salmon take over big holes. Wading is not for the faint of heart.

I generally find trout in transition water this time of year: deeper troughs, current edges, pocket water. Deeper holes will produce again in the fall after springer carcasses collect in shallow riffles. If you only have one fly, I suggest tying on a White Stimulator #8. You won’t hook all the trout that show but the ones you catch will be larger. Other effective patterns include Royal Wulff, Parachute Adams and Renegade. Part of the challenge is being able to see your fly in swift current (as well as managing your drift speed so that trout have a chance to grab the fly). Admittedly, I often set the hook where I imagine a trout will strike and my batting average ain’t bad.

Ken and I managed to land several nice trout up to 13 inches over the course of 5 hours of hiking and fishing. He left his wading shoes in the back of his truck at the gas station in Pasco where we meet to ride-share, but the Goodwill Store in Walla Walla delivered a pair of tennis shoes that got him through the day. I did not razz him because I once left my reel at home and, another time, my waders.