Rocky Ford Frustrouting: then…and now?
Two weeks ago I went steelhead fishing to the Olympic Peninsula with the boy, Schpanky. I talked in that two part series about how I desperately needed to get the boy on a fish because he had suffered many Frustrating Trout Outings (Frustroutings) with me over the years. I explained how he needed to catch something that would kick his arse and rekindle his faith in fly fishing with the old man. Well, we succeeded in that. Now steelhead fishing is behind us for a while, and we look forward to trout fishing. Or at least I do.
I may be going fishing for trouts this week, although with nearly all rivers out of shape on both sides of the mountains, my destination is yet to be determined. The one remaining possibly is Rocky Ford Creek, the infamous Central Washington spring creek that is known for scuds, giant hatchery rainbows that have seen every fly pattern imaginable, scores of other angling folks and
some of the finest natural scenery the eye has ever had the pleasure to behold a healthy supply of ticks.
I’ve been to Rocky Ford only once before. That was almost exactly 5 years ago and it will be remembered as perhaps the frontrunner of many great Frustroutings I’ve shared with the boy. Schpanky was in 6th grade at the time, I think. He’d only been fly fishing with me a couple times prior, but he liked to fish, showed impressive patience as an angler in general and was already fairly competent with a fly rod. I had planned to take Schpanky to fish the Yakima River during his Spring Break, but weather was unfavorable that year so we took our camper a bit further east and introduced ourselves to Rocky Ford.
The first mistake we made was not stopping in Ephrata at the Desert Fly Angler to find out exactly what color scuds the fish were eating that day. I’ve since learned that yes, they can be that picky, and pity the fool who offers them a pink scud on a day when they fancy the olive variety: you may as well jump in the stream and try to grab the fish by their tails. But don’t do that, because wading is not allowed in Rocky Ford Creek. Still, I recommend wearing hip boots, if not full-on waders.
So east we headed, the 12 year-old Schpanky and me, in our camper, destined for Grant County. No stranger to this general part of the state, I’d duck hunted nearby on countless occasions so I had no trouble finding the place. Like so many other destinations in the Central Basin, it’s out in the middle of nothing. We went out of our way to stop in Moses Lake for a visit to the Dairy Queen, which is owned by my wife’s sister and husband (not my wife’s husband, to be sure–but her sister’s husband). I love visits at the Moses Lake Dairy Queen because it’s the one place I can get away with dining and dashing.
We pulled the F350 dually and Bigfoot Camper into the vast gravel parking area overlooking Rocky Ford and claimed our spot. There were other rigs present, but we had plenty of elbow room and our own private fire pit. We both looked forward to a good campfire that night, sitting beneath the clear skies (it very seldom rains in Central Washington) and staring into the flames as we contemplated our origins and how hot we could get the soles of our boots before they actually started to burn. Men are, by nature, pyromaniacs, and that fascination with open flame had been passed down to my son. But before we could preoccupy ourselves with fire, we had fish to catch.
Armed with 5 and 6 weight rods, we hoofed through the cattails that line the banks of Rocky Ford, careful not to step in deep holes carved under the mud by muskrats (thus the recommendation for hip boots). The day was overcast with, amazingly, no wind (a rare thing in Central Washington this time of year). It was very comfortable weather for fishing and it felt good to be there– father and son. A man’s outing. And a campfire that night.
The first thing we both noticed were the huge trout, cruising slowly within just a couple of the bank in shallow water as they slurped a multitude of tiny fresh water crustaceans from the weeds. These were big fish- 25 inch hog rainbows and bigger. It was the kind of stuff that gets a Rocky Ford first-timer’s blood boiling instantly, and both the boy and I frantically tried to toss a scud in front of the noses of these fish, expecting an easy hookup. The fish responded by simply moving out of the path of the fly and giving us a sideways glance as if to say, “Wrong color, dumbsh_t.” We were not discouraged. So we’d have to work it a little harder. No big deal—we had all afternoon and the entire next day to catch a few of these slabs.
We spread out along the bank, Schpanky taking up casting position on a point of mud that afforded maximum clearance behind him. At Rocky Ford, clearance for backcasts is not to be taken lightly, as a wall of cattails
can will sneak up on you while you lose yourself in your casting. Lest you remain vigilant, that wall of cattails will grab your fly and not let go. I seem to recall telling the boy to shorten his casting stroke, stopping high so as not to offer any more flies to the cattails than absolutely necessary. Apparently it was necessary to sacrifice plenty of flies to the cattails before the abbreviated casting stroke became committed to memory, and frustration began to set in–mostly on the part of the parental angler whose responsibility it was to wage battle with the cattails, untangle and cut away the leader and tie on a new fly every few minutes.
As the afternoon wore on and the big cruisers continued to swim slowly under our noses and refuse our offerings, we tried a variety of different techniques: Casting farther out and stripping woolly buggers, tossing and twitching small dry flies…nothing seemed to work. We saw trout rising, just not to anything we offered them. We covered some ground, moving up and down the creek in hopes of improving our luck. To his credit, Schpanky was a patient angler and seemed to be enjoying himself even though not a single fish touched his fly all day.
I did land a small trout of about 13 inches on a mayfly emerger, but a 14 inch trout in these waters was almost worse than a skunk, and the fact that I caught a fish and the boy did not served as a bit of salt in the wound as far as he was concerned. But it got worse. At one point another fly fisherman set up on the same bank about 50 yards from us. On his first cast he hooked up with a very nice fish which Schpanky and I both watched him land. On his next couple of casts he hooked nothing, but over the course of the next hour he must have landed no fewer than 10 fish. Big fish. Looking to his father for sage words, Schpanky asked what this other guy was doing differently than us, to which I may have responded, “Probably using bait.” Anything but fly fishing is of course illegal on Rocky Ford, but I had no better answer than to lash out critically. “I bet I could beat him up,” I added.
As evening approached and the boy’s blood sugar plummeted, we decided to call it quits for the time being and grab some dinner. After refueling and rekindling our outlook fishing and life in general, we decided to ply the waters for one last hour before dark. Not surprisingly, the evening hatch yielded nothing and it started to rain hard as we retreated to the camper. We could live with a slow day of catching, but we’d looked forward with great anticipation to our campfire. That was not to be as the rain increased and pelted the roof of the camper. Still, we managed to enjoy the evening by each drinking several beers before hitting the sack. We needed a good night’s sleep because tomorrow there were fish to catch.
When we awoke early the next morning the first thing I noticed was the sound of the all-too-familiar Central Washington wind, which had replaced the Central Washington rain that had fallen most of the night. After breakfast we geared up and headed back to the creek. The air temperature was no longer quite so comfortable and the wind made casting considerably more difficult. None of this would have mattered had the boy been catching fish, but that was not the case for the first two hours of the day. At one point I glanced toward his location only to find him seated on a rock, his fly rod laying the ground next to him and a blank expression on his face. He had hit a wall. Stuck a fork in himself. He was done. The logical thing to do would have been to send him back to the camper for some juice and cookies while I continued to fish, but frankly I was kinda done myself. As I reeled in my line one final time, a 30 inch trout cruised by within 3 feet of where I stood and gestured with it’s pectoral fin as if to say, “So long, sucker…” As it slowly swam off I could swear I hear the muffled sound of underwater laughter.
I haven’t been back to Rocky Ford since.
I may be going back, and in fact may be there by the time you read this. But I’m not taking the boy. After his successful steelhead outing on the Hoh River two weeks ago, I’m not sure he’s ready for Rocky Ford just yet. I’ll give him a few months to savor the memories of his last fishing trip before I take him on a yet another Frustrouting.