Rocky Ford Alive with Rainbow In the Dead of Winter
When winter gets its strangle hold on North Central Washington, snow and ice dominate the landscape and chill the ambitions of even the most hardy of anglers. There is a large fraternity of fly fishers that actually look forward to this season. That's when they know they can find open, running water and the best quality fishing for large rainbow the state has to offer. The coldest time of the year is when the action heats up at Rocky Ford.
Rocky Ford is a "Miracle Mile" of small water that draws fly fishing anglers like a magnet from the far reaches of Washington State to try to tempt trout that have a reputation for being so aloof that they give new meaning to the terms "selective" or "finicky". The "Ford" is famous for rainbow that can be seen lazily finning throughout its length, but will ignore anything that is offered to them. Nothing frustrates anglers more than having trout exceeding 20 inches calmly thumb their noses at them. Anglers at Rocky Ford are regularly reduced to near tears; tearing through everything in their fly box, getting not even a refusal, while huge rainbow feed vigorously within inches of the shore.
I know this circumstance well. It happened to me the last time I was on the Ford.
I figured it was about time to hit this water. The weather forecast was for 35 degrees, dropping to 24 with the wind factor. Just right for a trip to Rocky Ford. I picked up Jeremy Kendall in front of the Blue Dun Fly Shop in East Wenatchee at about 9 a.m. on a Monday morning and we hit the road for the sixty-plus mile drive. (Anyone who has fished Rocky Ford on the weekend vows to always fish it during the week. We saw only three other anglers. On the weekend thirty is a light crowd). Jeremy figured this would give the water time to get cooking by the time we got there and he was right. We hiked across the bridge to the east shore and down to the fence that marks the southern boundary of public access and found what we were looking for: feeding rainbow and lots of them.
Boy, were we excited. Boy, did we get our butts kicked.
There was such a large hatch of small Baetis coming off the water that it was hard for the fish to notice our imitations floating amongst all the naturals and matching this particular breed of bug was something we couldn't do with our combined selection of patterns. Ya wanna just scream! (Actually we did more than once).
We both managed to land just one, small rainbow on this piece of water, but as we moved upstream Jeremy actually had several fish on but still couldn't land any. When he finally lost the only fly that worked with some degree of success it was time to take drastic steps!
A fish like this can make your whole day at Rocky Ford.
As it turned out, what I considered drastic steps was something that Jeremy has a habit of using on Rocky Ford when the light isn't right for sight fishing or the hatch is too heavy as it was on this day. One of Jeremy's favorite ways to take Rocky Ford rainbow when they are being particularly persnickety is to toss large leech patterns.
We moved to an area just below the access bridge that is called The Island, and I watched Jeremy get the attention of the rainbow that lay throughout this very "spring creek"-like section of the Ford. Nothing gets your blood running hot on a bitterly cold day like seeing the huge wakes that these fish create as they chase leech patterns.
Jeremy hooked fish after fish stripping in his leeches. He lost fish after fish and a few of his favorite flies. He entertained me with some of the weirdest dance moves I have ever seen while uttering at high volume something close to "gangsta rap" in between the muttering lapses that occurred while he tied on a new fly.
When I had finally lost everything in my fly box that resembled what Jeremy was fishing in the surrounding bushes and cattails I resorted to a large, cactus chenille Wooly Bugger and whoa! I finally hooked and landed a fat, 20-inch Rocky Ford rainbow.
Not long after, Jeremy also landed a nice 16-incher and despite further attempts and many wakes behind Jeremy's leeches, so ended our day at Rocky Ford. For myself this was a fairly typical day on the Ford. Hundreds of casts. Uncounted numbers of flies fished without success and two fish to the net. So it goes.
Jeremy on the other hand was not used to having this kind of day here. In the eight years that he has been fishing the Ford he has learned it well and has developed methods that will take fish on just about any given day, in just about any weather condition. He has fished it every time of year and is as familiar with each yard of this stream as he is with the cab of his battered pick up. So frustrated was he with the day we had here that he rattled on for hours, revealing secrets that most guides would never tell.
Lucky for me and lucky for you. The confessions of a highly experienced Rocky Ford fly fisher follow here. What he shared with me will put you well ahead of the game when you take your shot at the Ford.
First of all, I'd like to explain a bit about some special circumstances that contribute to making Rocky Ford the special place that it is. The water source for the stream comes from under ground and surfaces near where the public access begins. That's why the temperature remains fairly constant. It varies maybe ten degrees from the heat of summer to the cold of winter, ranging from the mid-forties to the mid-fifties.
Also, the stream nearly originates on the grounds of a large commercial hatchery operation. Trout Lodge, Inc. is the hatchery that produces the triploids that are raised in the pens at Rufus Woods and are sold to the state for planting in many waters now. Since the property on which the hatchery operates is partially on state land, part of the rent is taken out in fish. There is a built in supply of fish for Rocky Ford right at its source.
Some of the rainbow here are bright and beautiful.
There is some natural spawning here, but not long ago there seemed to be a decline in the numbers of rainbow at Rocky Ford. There was a one-fish limit on this fly fishing only water, but numbers have improved since the rules have changed to catch and release fishing. It is also important to note here that wading is not allowed at Rocky Ford. This also leaves large portions of water where rainbow are undisturbed.
Rocky Ford (Creek and Ponds as it's listed in the regulations) is actually about seven miles long, but the public access and best fishing water is found in the top, more or less mile-long section. The top end of the stream starts off with water that is big, slow and wide. The middle section has a moderate flow and it varies from about sixty to eighty feet wide. At the bottom end, below the large bay at the foot bridge, the water narrows and increases flow and is broken up by stones and weed growth. It finally widens again just above the fence line where the public access ends.
Rocky Ford is also open to the public after it passes through some miles of private property and enters Moses Lake. The water quality is different on this stretch and is largely ignored by anglers, although some large fish certainly exist here.
Throughout the most popular area of the stream the banks are lined with cattails and reeds and behind these sage and other brush. Anglers can find the most often-used accesses to the water by following the well-worn paths, but due to the no wading rule, casting can be very difficult. Even when the wind isn't blowing, anglers not in the habit of keeping back casts very high are going to be leaving lots of feathers in reeds here.
As I mentioned earlier, Jeremy Kendall has spent a lot of time on Rocky Ford at every time of year. He has found that hatches can vary with the water in the spring and fall particularly, but things settle down in the winter to the point that aquatic activity is pretty much the same throughout the stream.
The days like Jeremy and I had, where the hatches are so heavy that they actually work against you, become fewer and the bugs get smaller. We were fishing flies with hook sizes from 20 to 22. As winter advances the bug sizes will shrink to 26s and even smaller and the hatches also decline in frequency.
When the really cold weather settles in, the fishing at Rocky Ford for Jeremy Kendall takes three basic forms: scuds, chironomids, and leeches.
Scuds are mentioned first as Kendall finds sight fishing with scuds one of his favorite methods for taking big rainbow at Rocky Ford. In North Central Washington there are many bright and clear days throughout the winter, which offer conditions that are ideal for sight fishing. Fish the size of those found at Rocky Ford are easy to spot, but must be approached with caution. Low profiles and even clothing that blends with the background colors are advised.
The first trick is to spot fish that are obviously feeding or cruising for food. Kendall likes to place his scud in the path of these fish, but about eight to ten feet ahead of them. The scud is allowed to settle to the bottom and when the fish is within a foot or two, move the fly slowly and only about an inch. This is enough to get the trout's attention and in many cases you will see the fish move to the fly and take a tail up position. The fly isn't visible, so you have to watch the behavior of the fish to be prepared to set the hook. Kendall usually doesn't until the fish is coming off the bottom with its head up and he can see the white of the jaws as the monster munches the fly. When conditions allow it, this method is not only highly exciting but very effective.
Another good way to fish scuds is below an indicator. This requires slow to still water and there's plenty of this just below the access foot bridge. The scud should be fished just above or on bottom and weighted for control and to help you know right where you are below the indicator. Weighted scuds are also advised for sight fishing and better use 3X leaders or tippets.
There are both very small and very large scuds chugging around in Rocky Ford, and they can range in color from a dirty olive to a brown and even light cream.
Anglers can also sight fish with chironomids, but the size that is required in winter are so small that it makes this technique difficult. Anglers can also fish these under an indicator or even with a greased leader and a three-inch length of pound to pound-and-a-half test tippet material. This will put your chironomid just below the film. This will attract takes, but good luck landing fish over 20 inches cutting through the weeds.
There are other patterns that will fish well that can be used instead of scuds or chironomids, and these require moving water. Anglers should have a selection of nymphs along, and a range of sizes of Pheasant Tails, Zug Bugs and Hare's Ears would be the top choices. These should also either be weighted or have a bead head. Another good trick to have up your sleeve is the egg pattern, and Kendall favors the apricot color, weighted with a tungsten bead. Sizes 8 to 12 will work here, particularly in early spring.
Not all the fish are huge here, but a bunch like this is a barrel of fun!
Another option is the one we reverted to on our recent trip, and it's one that Kendall has learned to love. Leech patterns can produce some whopping hits. Even when the rainbow don't take, just watching the wakes they create as they chase these patterns through the water can make your heart pound.
The leeches are typically a size 6 or 8 and differ from the Wooly Bugger. They tend to have a more unstructured look and are a simple tie. There are four colors to try with this type of pattern: white, red, black, or olive.
These patterns can be cast and swung with the current or dead drifted. Anglers should also experiment with retrieves. Sometimes a slow, short strip will motivate the trout, while other times a fast, ripping strip will make 'em come running.
Wooly Buggers tied with marabou, rabbit or mohair are also known to be productive on Rocky Ford. These are fished in sizes 4 to 8 and retrieved at various rates, depending on current and mood of the fish. Zonkers have also claimed a fish or two as well, but are relegated to the deeper holes. These are best used in the early spring when there is some evidence of spawn.
Most fly fishers who would like to make a trip to Rocky Ford should find what they need in their armory. An eight-and-a-half to nine-foot rod is recommended and should be a 5 or 6 weight. Leaders should be 3X to 4X. Also suggested as are three- to six-foot tippets. Kendall also believes that fluorocarbon as a leader and tippet material will give anglers an edge.
Most anglers are already set up with weight forward lines, and in some cases a clear sink-tip can be an advantage to get down in some of the deeper water. There are holes eight to ten feet deep at Rocky Ford. Have some strike indicators in your vest, too.
I want to remind anglers that wading is not allowed on Rocky Ford. You will still see anglers wearing them here, though. It's mainly because footing can be tricky here. The banks can be a mixture of greasy mud and ice and very slippery. The edges can crumble from under you, and there are places that look solid but are merely the root systems of the reeds. One misstep and you can be up to your waist in ice water. There are also some nasty muskrat holes all along the shores of Rocky Ford.
Rocky Ford is about 60 miles from Wenatchee, and those traveling from Seattle should take I-90. Look for the exit to Ephrata and take highway 283. As you enter the town of Ephrata look for highway 282 on your right. Take this out to the junction with highway 17. Take 17 north, and in about four miles you will see the sign that directs you to Rocky Ford. Hatchery Road leads to the parking areas and pit toilets. There are three parking areas, and the trail that reaches the footbridge and bottom end of the public access is south of here.
Anglers heading here from the east can take I-90, or the northern route, Highway 28. From I-90 take the junction with Highway 17 at Moses Lake. Highway 17 leads directly to the access road to Rocky Ford. From Highway 28 turn south on Highway 17 just as you reach Soap Lake.
To get current conditions and information on the fishing at Rocky Ford, call the Blue Dun Fly Shop in East Wenatchee. Either Darc Knobel or Jeremy Kendall will be on duty here and can tell you what you need to know. Jeremy is also available as a guide on Rocky Ford for a fee, (the dancing lessons are free).
Anglers should also be prepared for very cold and often snowy weather when packing for a trip to Rocky Ford in winter. A good pair of warm boots is required, and if you plan to wear waders, you'll find out why they now make the breathable variety after tramping around all day. A good hat, a poly neck warmer and some fingerless gloves are also recommended, as well as some high tech long johns.
It always surprises me, as it did on my most recent trip to Rocky Ford, that even on days that are anything but the kind of day you would expect to see fly anglers out, the fishing can be very good. Or at least you'll see more big fish in one day than you will see all season on other waters.
Winter time is actually the most popular time at Rocky Ford. Fly anglers who are plagued with cabin fever flock to its banks even when the weather is foul. The lure of open, moving water full of fat rainbow is all it takes to get them to travel for hours to practice their sport.
And hey, what day that offers the prospect of having a 4-pound rainbow pounce on your fly isn't worth the trip? Its no mystery that the "miracle mile" of Rocky Ford is lined with fools with fly rods when most sensible folks are safe at home. No other water can offer the quality of angling that is waiting at Rocky Ford. It's alive with rainbow in the dead of winter.