Floating with Barry

A chance encounter on the Yakima

A couple years ago, new to Washington, I made my first trip to the Yakima River—a Columbia tributary in the southcentral part of the state. I arrived after dark, with moonlight revealing glimpses of the river as I neared the campground. By the time I got there it was pushing midnight, yet most of the campers were still awake. As I organized some gear, I overheard my neighbors discussing the day's fishing. Their campfire was burning so I wandered over.

Scattered around the site were four beatup tents, a half-dozen rickety camp chairs, a stack of rafts, a truck-bed trailer, and Barry, the site's occupant. I asked about the fishing and Barry gave a lengthy report.

Born and raised in Yakima, Barry claimed to have floated the river more than five hundred times. He said he mostly fished a modified Roostertail to satisfy regulations, and he didn't care for flyfishing, since the goal of fishing was to catch as many fish as possible. I couldn't decide if he was drunk, stoned, or worse. After chatting a while, Barry offered to take me on a float the next day—a tempting proposal considering my inexperience there. I envisioned catching three fish on flies to his one. Or worse, his twenty on Roostertails to my zero. I politely declined, saying I'd prefer to wade my first day.

The next night Barry appeared at my campsite. Over the next couple hours we talked about fishing, life, and women. Apparently, Barry used to be regarded as a "top snagger" in his hometown. He told me how he once spotted a large steelhead from a bridge, snagged it (from the bridge), fought it to its death, then hand-lined it up to his perch. Despite this story and my misgivings, I decided to join him for a float after all. I'd see some new water in any case.

At the put-in the next morning, Barry pumped up his "raft"—which looked like a fifty-dollar Walmart model—while I tried to look unaffiliated. He said he'd found most of his gear in dumpsters or along the river and was very pleased with these acquisitions. Shortly into our trip, he spied a beer can on the far bank and rowed over to it. I assumed he was collecting them for supplementary income, but Barry was more interested in the contents. The can was empty, but he assured me that rafters often lose full beers, and ten minutes later we were on shore again. On our sixth beer-can stop, Barry found a full one and promptly drank it. A belch of satisfaction echoed off the canyon walls.

Soon Barry hooked his first rainbow and I thought I was about to be outfished. But he wasn't about competition; he was about having a good time. Despite his constant profanity, Barry was in great spirits, and when I got my first fish he became ecstatic, asking what and where it ate. "I knew we'd both catch fish, man!"

The next time Barry began rowing toward shore, it wasn't for a stray beer can or to land a fish. "I gotta take a shit… you got any TP?"

I said I didn't, and a moment later Barry was twenty feet upstream, a couple yards from the river's edge, squatting with his pants around his ankles. I looked away and prayed that the drift boat we'd just passed did not come around the bend. When he got back to the boat he pushed us off into the current before holding out his hand and offering me a Tootsie Roll.

Barry had a rather relaxed view on rowing. We spun three-sixties, drifted through prime runs, cut off drift boats, bounced off rock walls, and zigzagged our way downstream. At one point we approached good-looking water and I was in the midst of a decent drift. "Get ready," Barry said. "I always get one in here." Sure enough, a few seconds later I was tight to my biggest fish of the weekend. Barry skillfully rowed us into slack water where I landed a gorgeous wild rainbow. I smiled as the fish swam off. Barry hollered. I suggested he take up guiding.

We finished the day with ten fish (Barry six, me four), two beers, one raft and a Frisbee—which came home with me. We said our goodbyes and I took Barry's number and promised to call him next time I was around. I've yet to call, but I do look for Barry every time I'm on the Yak.


Jesse Lance Robbins writes from his home on Bainbridge Island, Washington, though often finds himself elsewhere.