Washington’s Premier Spring Creek
Lying in the remains of an Ice Age coulee, surrounded by worn-down basalt cliffs and shards of basalt columns, Rocky Ford creek has been challenging NW Flyfishers since trout were introduced to its spring fed waters fifty years ago. Arguably Washington’s premier– if not only true – spring creek, Rocky Ford is host to some of the largest and savviest rainbows in the country. In a state that seems to have adopted the creed “moving water won’t grow large fish,” Rocky Ford stands out as an excellent example of what activist fly fishers can accomplish given a good natural environment and cooperative efforts between otherwise disparate groups.
Located 5 miles due east of Ephrata, Rocky Ford emerges from the base of a long, wind-worn ridge, and meanders 5 miles through sage and pasture land before flowing into the long and narrow northwest leg of Moses Lake. Nominally a “fly fishing only” water since the early 1970’s, this unique resource languished due to disinterest and lax game law enforcement until a consortium was formed involving several northwest fly fishing clubs, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Trout Lodge, Inc. This led to an intensive restoration effort in 1988. Since then, substantially increased enforcement efforts, spurred by the large numbers of fly anglers that now regularly fish the creek, have allowed the fast growing rainbows to reach trophy size and provide quality fishing on a year-round basis.
As always, the increased attention comes at a price. Weekdays in the spring and early summer frequently draw 20-30 anglers to the 1 mile stretch of stream publicly accessible from the game department access areas on the upper river. Weekends may see two or even three times that many anglers. Add crystal clear waters, a natural diet that consists primarily of size 18 and smaller insects and crustaceans, a strict no-wading rule, and boggy, vegetation choked banks, and you have some extremely challenging fishing!
And it is challenge that draws Rocky Ford anglers here in the first place. Challenge, and the large numbers of very large fish that can be seen constantly cruising and casually sipping #22 chironomid larvae or raking #18 olive scuds from the weed fronds lining the river bed. And surprisingly, many of these huge fish are not shy. It’s not uncommon to see boldly colored 24” or 26” – or even larger – trout holding or cruising within one or two feet of the bank, oblivious to the anglers walking or casting just a few feet away. But bold does not equate with easy. These same fish may refuse hundreds of perfectly placed casts presenting exquisite imitations of their food of choice before lazily swimming off to find a change in scenery.
Anglers who do succeed generally do so because of careful attention to detail, solid technique and some knowledge of the methods that have been developed over the years by those who have learned to fish Rocky Ford effectively.
Perhaps the most effective technique is sight fishing – stalking actively feeding fish and presenting carefully chosen imitations precisely in their path in a manner that lets the angler strike immediately when the fish takes the fly. Small chironomid imitations – sizes 18 and smaller – tied sparsely on heavy wire hooks, using materials that allow the small fly to quickly break the surface film and sink into the feeding zone of the fish can be deadly. I have seen one highly experienced angler hook over 100 of these large trout in a day using this technique.
Small scuds or hares ears – in sizes 14 – 18 – can also be extremely effective, presented either with a dead drift or allowed to sink into the silty stream bottom just in front of the fish. Occasionally a slight twitch of the fly may be necessary to entice the fish to take. Sometimes, for reasons I don’t fully understand, the fish prefer larger flies. I’ve had several banner days with heavily weighted size 8 Gold Ribbed Hares Ears.
Regardless of the specific method, careful attention to the location of the fly and the motion of the fish is necessary to detect the take and strike before the fish ejects the fly. Conventional nymph fishing – using strike indicators or the motion of the line or leader to detect the take – is generally ineffective, since the slow currents allow the trout to eject imitations well before any movement of line or leader can be seen.
Effective sight fishing requires the right conditions: Calm, cloudless days are ideal, and will let you see well into midstream. Even a little ruffle on the water or a passing cloud may restrict your visibility and fishing area significantly. Look for small coves or bends in the river that provide windbreaks. Keeping the sun – whether bright and direct or filtered by overcast – at your back will generally provide an edge in spotting the fish.
When sighting conditions are really miserable, I’ve sometimes had good fishing simply by dapping the fly just inches from the bank where the river undercuts the sides. This can be intense. The sight of a very large fish literally bursting from underfoot, taking the fly four feet from your hand, and bolting at high speed into the middle of the stream often leaves even the most experienced angler shaking.
Eight or ten hours of such intensely focused fishing can be exhausting, especially when the temps rise into the 80’s or 90’s as they frequently do here in the late spring and early summer. Personally, I find this intensity transfixing, almost a meditative exercise, especially when I’m regularly hooking fish. By the end of the day though I’m frequently too tired to do much more than drink a few beers and relax in the cool evening air by a fire before crawling into bed. That’s fine with me, because the evenings here can be stunning, with broad sunsets washing the coulee ridges in purple and red.
Probably the second most popular and effective method is traditional dry fly fishing. Hatches of small to minute chironomids occur many days from mid-morning through early evening. Matching the wide range of sizes and colors of these chironomid hatches can be extremely challenging. In addition, most days will see at least sporadic hatches of size 14-18 mayflies in a range of colors. Parachutes or no-hackle patterns such as Comparaduns in the right size and color can be productive at times, but it’s rare to find one pattern that is consistently effective throughout the day or even from day to day. As in many places, emerger patterns will frequently out fish dries, but I’ve not found any emerger patterns that work consistently either.
Spinner fishing can also be productive. Late evening and nighttime hatches of small mayflies frequently produce good morning fishing to size 16 and 18 cream bodied spinners. The soft bulging or sipping rises frequently seen here in the first few hours of daylight are often an indication that the fish are feeding on spinners, rather than the duns that may also be flying about at that time.
There is one other method that has been used successfully by a large number of Rocky Ford regulars. Large, dark Wooly Buggers, fished on either a floating line or a medium density sinking or sink tip line can be extremely effective, especially at dusk or even at night when the skies are clear and the moon is full. Casting across the stream and allowing the fly to swing through the current while stripping back at high speed, can produce some jolting strikes.
When the fish are feeding aggressively, you can often see them come to the fly from as much as twenty feet away, throwing a wake as they close in on the fly. It’s also not uncommon to have two or three fish follow on a single cast. I spent one night several years ago fishing this method until 3:00 AM, catching several fish in the mid-20” range – including one that topped 27” – returning to camp only when I had lost my last big fly to the weeds on the far bank. Wooly Bugger fishing is occasionally also effective during the day when it is cloudy or overcast. At these times low to medium density full sinking lines and slow retrieves seem to be the most effective. Takes may often be soft.
Where To Fish
The one mile section of publicly-accessible streamside is bounded by two large hatcheries, both owned and operated by Trout Lodge, Inc., one of the largest rainbow trout egg producers in the world. Through an agreement between the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Trout Lodge, Inc., Trout Lodge operates a large modern facility at the headwaters of the creek in conjunction with their older, smaller operation at the southern end of the public land. In return for use of the upper parcel (which is owned by WDFW) Trout Lodge produces fish for planting in Rocky Ford and many other quality public fisheries. Trout Lodge has been a leader in development of the large-growing sterile triploid strains of trout that have been introduced into Rocky Ford and various east side lakes.
Public fishing begins at the outlet of the upper hatchery unit, where it flows through a narrow pond before running into the large, lake-like area below. Fish frequently stack in this relatively fast-water area, feeding constantly on the abundant scuds in the weeds that line the streambed. Anglers stack here as well. Fishing is tough, due to the pressure and difficulty of getting a good dead drift right into the feeding lane of the numerous large fish that hold here. There is also a wooden bridge crossing the river here, providing access to the east bank. Just across the bridge and up a slight rise, are remnants of old hatchery facilities, predating Trout Lodge. The old rearing ponds,while long abandoned, still hold fish, which can easily be seen cruising the algae infested waters.
Directly below this run is the main body of the river. A wide, very slow flowing section resembling a lake more than a stream, this area holds large numbers of fish, including some very large fish. Access is limited in this area by the dense, wide beds of tules and boggy banks riddled with beaver and muskrat channels. Fish cruise the margins in this area – in addition to the middle of the pond – and tend to be more easily frightened than in some of the other sections. A cautious approach, coupled with quiet waiting will usually bring the fish back to their feeding after just a short wait.
About ¼ mile below the upper run, the upper pond channels through a narrow rocky reef, forming a deep, flowing section studded with large boulders that holds many of the largest fish in the river, and attracts many anglers, day and night. Fishing here can be extremely challenging, as well as rewarding, due to the complex currents and heavily pressured fish. Heavily weighted scuds or small to medium sized nymphs can be productive. This is one of the few areas where strike indicators can be effective, due to the relatively fast flows. There are good hatches in this area as well, but getting a drag-free float in this water can be difficult.
The flow smoothes and the river widens below the rocky run, meandering between tule lined banks bordered by alkaline flats. The reed beds limit access here as well, but paths beaten to the stream provide access along the way. At the end of this slow flowing section, the river abruptly turns east, deflected by an old earthen weir (now abandoned). Many fine fish can be seen here as well. As elsewhere on the stream, these are heavily pressured and rarely caught.
A broad aluminum footbridge provides access to the east bank just at the head of the old weir, allowing the angler to fish down along another large placid pool, leading to the lower hatchery. Small midges cause intensive feeding by the large fish residing in this section. Personally, I’ve never been very successful in this area; the naturals tend to be extremely small and the fish highly selective.
At the far end of this pool the river is diverted by a concrete weir to supply the lower hatchery unit. However, at higher flows a portion of the water is allowed to bypass the hatchery into a narrow and relatively high gradient rocky run. Fishing here is markedly different from anywhere else on the stream. Fast flows, with fish holding throughout the current, have created a 100 yards of a very odd, freestone-like creek. When fishing is slow above – and flows permit – I’ve spent hours here hooking – and losing – fish after fish on heavily weighted Hares Ears and other fast sinking nymphs. Dense streamside weeds complicate the already difficult task of landing 20+ inch fish in fast water.
Crossing the bridge also provide access to the entire east bank area back up to the main hatchery. Fishing on the east side is similar to the west side, and maybe even better. Angling pressure is similar, but structure and access seem better and for whatever reason, I seem to catch more fish here.
Where To Stay
Camping is permitted (or at least tolerated) at game department parking areas near the middle and south ends of the 1-mile public access stretch. Pit toilets are provided at both locations, as well as the parking area near the north end of the public access area. There are makeshift fire pits. There is no running water available anywhere in the public access area.
Lodging, food and other supplies are available nearby in Ephrata, Soap Lake or Moses Lake.
I prefer 4 – 5 weight rods, with moderate to slow actions to cushion the shock to the relatively fine tippets required here. Nine feet seems ideal for most situations. Floating lines are the norm, unless you want to try your hand dredging Wooly Buggers. Small flies require small tippet diameters; however, I rarely use anything below 5X, since landing large fish can be difficult (and harmful to the fish) with finer sizes. For sight fishing, keep the leader short. This is a close-in game; generally you’ll only be casting the leader and a foot or two of the fly line, since the fish will be within a few feet of your rod tip. Ideally, you’ll want a foot or so of the fly line extending beyond the rod tip, to allow short, dapping casts with a minimum of fuss. With longer leaders, any attempt to “cast” will result in the leader and fly line collapsing back into the guides.
This is rattlesnake country. Long pants and knee-high boots are useful, not only as snake protection but also to deal with the thistles and wet, soggy soil. While snakes are most commonly encountered by anglers on the east side, they are occasionally spotted on the west side – including the camping areas as well. Several years ago I had the unsettling experience of accidentally grabbing a small rattlesnake while removing the leveling blocks from beneath my van’s wheels. Fortunately it was still early in the morning and the snake was dormant from the cold night. Now I’m careful to sweep beneath the van with my wading staff and shake out all the gear that I’ve left on the ground before packing up.
Trout Lodge is private property and is posted No Trespassing. In general, they do not welcome visitors. Most of the land below the aluminum bridge is also Trout Lodge property (there is an ownership notice posted along the way) and use of the property is by permission of Trout Lodge only. This section has been periodically closed in the past due to litter and poaching problems and may be closed again at any time. Be courteous when using this area and pick up any trash you see, or we may lose access to this section (including the fast water section) again.
Water levels at Rocky Ford vary significantly and somewhat inexplicably. The water level does not typically rise following rainfalls. Indeed I’ve seen some of the highest water levels in early autumn, following months of near drought. Whatever the cause, water level fluctuations can affect the fishing markedly. High water levels flood the already bog-like bank sides, restricting access to a fraction of the areas accessible at lower water levels. Flows increase appreciably in many sections of the river, requiring more heavily weighted flies to reach the feeding zones. On the plus side, higher water levels usually provide the best fishing in the lowest, “freestone” section of the river.
Algae blooms are common from mid-spring on and can disrupt fishing by early afternoon on bright sunny days. Large clods of brown or brown-green algae float to the surface in the upper pool area, forming extensive floating mats and are carried down into the lower stream, fouling both nymphs and dry flies along the way. In addition, strands of filamentous algae and other weeds break free, adding to the dense debris flow. This problem seems to have increased over the last 15 years and is believed to be related to nutrient enrichment from local agricultural practices but may also be exacerbated by effluent from the upper hatchery.