Big fish, tiny fly

Fly fisher Don Childress, of Sandpoint, Idaho, used a very tiny Size 20 scud to catch and release this 30-inch rainbow at Rocky Ford Creek in Grant County, Washington.

Don Childress is lucky he hasn’t had a garage sale in the past few decades to clear out unused fly-fishing gear.

The Sandpoint, Idaho, angler says an old, soft, fiberglass rod was the ticket to landing the Central Washington trout of a lifetime out of Rocky Ford Creek this month.

Childress caught and released a 30-inch rainbow from the fly-fishing-only stream while sight-fishing with a size 20 Scud pattern on 5X tippet.

“Had to be a lot of luck involved to land it,” he said. “The real secret was a very soft Winston glass blank leftover from the 1980s that I never got tied up because graphite came on the scene.”

Rocky Ford, about 20 miles north of Moses Lake, emerges from the ground in the drylands as the product of irrigation runoff. The stream offers fly fishers a three-mile spring creek experience. Because the water surfaces at roughly 52 degrees at Troutlodge Hatchery, the stream doesn’t freeze, making it particularly attractive to anglers seeking open water and active fish in winter.

Fly fishing is allowed year round with single barbless hooks and no bait.

But with no wading allowed, it can be tricky to land rainbows of any size from the tule-lined shores, especially in the glassy flat sections where fine tippets are used to avoid spooking fussy fish.

“After fishing the stream a few times and breaking off good fish because of my a fast-action rod, I had the blank tied up just for Rocky Ford,” Childress said. “While it’s not a great casting tool it certainly protects light 5X and 6X tippets.”

Childress described the 9 1/2-foot fiberglass rod, which was popular in the '80s, as a really soft, almost wimpy 5-weight.

“Put it next to one of the graphite rods and wiggle them together and you see three times the flex — you can feel it down to the handle in the glass rod.”

He said the virtues of the soft rod were immediately apparent. “I was breaking off fewer fish at hookup and even as I manipulated the fish round the weeds.

“You give up a lot of casting punch. I’m throwing a big open loop. I can’t cast 70 feet with it, but I can cast 50, and that’s enough.”

Patience and discipline are required to hook trout in the shallow waters of Rocky Ford Creek regardless of the rod choice. After spotting the huge rainbow, Childress said he made about 30 casts. He was using a 12-foot leader and casting about 20 feet upstream from the fish to let the gentle but sometimes squirrely currents naturally drift and deliver a fly about the size of a mosquito.

“The Scud had no weight and there was no indicator, so I couldn’t actually see the fly,” he said. “I try to get it down close to the bottom by the time it gets to the fish. I only had a rough idea where the fly was.

“Rocky Ford is almost like fishing in a laboratory,” he said. “I’ve seen fish move out of the way of a fly and I’ve seen them open their mouths and chomp on a fly.”

In this case, the lunker rainbow didn’t even seem to open its mouth. “It just moved over a little bit and shuddered,” said Childress, who’s fished for trout, steelhead and salmon around the world. “I’ve seen that before, so I set the hook.”

There’s an art to setting a hook on a 10-12 pound trout with what amounts to a thin, curved barbless wire attached to a fine tippet that tests to less than 5 pounds of strength.

“I lifted the rod without holding the line,” he said, noting that he let the fish set the hook against the flex of the rod and faint tension of the free-spooling reel. “At Rocky Ford, that makes all the difference. I’ve seen big fish break off against just the tension of the line when you’re out to your backing.”

The rainbow reacted to the hook in its lip with an immediate long sprint. “I let it run on the spool,” he said. “Even when the fish got in the weeds, the soft rod allowed me to free it up without breaking off.”

About 20 minutes later, Childress guided the rainbow to shore. “It was way too big for my net,” he said.

Fishing partner Julie Kallameyn helped him land the trophy, where they measured it at 30 inches before snapping a photo and releasing it to test the rod skills of yet another angler in Rocky Ford.

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