Fly Fishing the Palouse's Rock Creek

Updated on September 29, 2019
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CS is an lifelong, obsessive fly fisherman who is forced to work as a fish biologist and conservationist in Pullman, Washington (Go Cougs!).

Rock Creek from the Jordan Knott bridge.
Rock Creek from the Jordan Knott bridge.

Rock Creek

Season: Year round

Species: Trout, Bass, Carp

Difficulty: Easy to Moderate

Rock Creek is an interesting option that is off of a lot of people’s radars. In fact, I might make some enemies for divulging details about this spot, but oh well. That’s why we have pen names, I guess.

Rock Lake is certainly not a secret and has fisherman on it nearly every day of the year. Deep and cold, this is the major natural lake in the Palouse area, and houses brown trout, rainbow trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, and the usual assortment of panfish (and carp, naturally). Access is easy but limited to a boat launch at one end of this long, narrow lake, and shore-bound anglers have little room to roam. Much of the lakeshore is composed of sheer basalt cliffs, so if you don’t have a watercraft here, you’re probably S.O.L.

But another option exists.

The outflow of Rock Lake, Rock Creek, is a gorgeous little river that traces through some of the least-disturbed areas left on the Palouse. It has abundant access up and down the river, alternates between the character of a freestone desert creek and a deep, slow irrigation channel, to wide shallow spring creek, and has more surprises lurking in its waters than any other river in the region.

The entrance to riverside at Escure Ranch
The entrance to riverside at Escure Ranch | Source

Trout? Here?

Probably the biggest surprise is that trout live here, and big ones. This is surprising because the river runs through open, hot, exposed country, and the average summer water temps are well above anything a trout could survive. The trout here are therefore seasonal residents by necessity, starting to filter into the river from the lake in fall, and then migrating back up into the lake to shelter in the cold depths through the hot summers. The browns lead the charge in the fall, in their search to find a river to spawn in, and the rainbows follow into the spring.

There’s a catch: a falls exists about 1 mile downstream from where Hwy 23 crosses Rock Creek just west of the town of Ewan, and this is the point of no return for trout. Any fish that gets swept over the falls can’t make it back up to the lake and is most likely therefore a Dead Fish Swimming. It goes without saying then that by far the best trout fishing is upstream (or not far downstream) of this natural barrier. There is a lot of private ranch land around here, so the best way to access this stretch is from the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, which you can connect with from a spur off of Cherry Creek Road in Ewan.

Important Update About Access

The DNR is now requiring special permits for unrestricted access to some sections of the Jon Wayne trail. This may change, but for the time being that's the way it is. This is largely a consideration for hunters, but better to stay on the right side of the law. Check with DNR before you go to stay up-to-date and make sure your permits are in order.

What makes this destination so appealing is a combination of setting, size of the average trout, and technique used to catch them. In the spring when all the other rivers are either too cold, too high, or too muddy to fish, Rock Creek is often fishable and full of large trout from the lake looking for the first warmth of the season. The river runs through open country, so the first rays of sun of the spring can be enjoyed to full advantage here. Sections of the river are riffled and can be fished blind as with most freestone rivers, but there are some sections that open up into slow, wide areas that resemble a spring creek more than a rocky desert stream. It is here that the real fun lives; the best chance of success is sight-casting to specific targets, whether they are holding station or cruising for food. Some of the trout in here are true bruisers, with 15-21” being the general range. Though not as densely populated as better-known locations like Rocky Ford Creek in central Washington, these fish are similarly particular and challenging in the slow-moving water.

At any rate, these trout see far fewer flies than Rocky Ford fish, so a wider range of flies will do the trick. When blind fishing in the faster sections, standard nymphs such as Hare’s Ear, Pheasant Tail, Prince, and WD 40’s will do the trick. There’s often a little color to the water so a bead or some flash isn’t a bad idea. I personally like small wet hackles with bead bodies, as they can imitate anything from a caddis pupa to a scud. On that note, nymphing with scud, leech, and worm patterns are a solid choice too.

When sight casting, I rely heavily on three patterns to get the job done: scuds, small black leech patterns, and damselfly nymphs. With all of these, I try to lead the fish by a few feet to allow the fly to sink to near the fish’s level, then retrieve them with long, very slow strips. Unweighted flies generally look more natural, and it’s shallow enough that there’s no need for beads and lead usually. Depending on hatch activity, a small nymph like a pheasant tail can be deadly when dead drifted just under the surface. There are plenty of caddis, midges, and a few mayflies here too, so come prepared in case a hatch occurs and you see rise forms.

This is what you want to see...carp "clooping" on the surface
This is what you want to see...carp "clooping" on the surface

And...not Trout...

Trout are far from the only thing in this creek though. Carp and bass are able to survive the heat of the summer here, and are in large numbers all the way down to the Snake, as well as occasional surprises like panfish and Northern Pikeminnow. Below Rock Creek Falls, there are miles of access along the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, and a visiting angler can throw small streamers for bass or nymph for carp as far as they want.

Yes, I said nymph for carp. Rock Creek is full of carp, and in a lot of ways they act just as you would expect ultra-selective tailwater trout to act. They hold in similar places where you would see trout, they eat all the same things, and can be similarly picky and selective, perhaps even more so. The major difference is the size: whereas an average trout in many rivers might be 10-12”, many of the carp in this small creek are 10-12 pounds. Even when fishing in the “trout water”, it’s fairly likely that you will set the hook on what feels like the trout of a lifetime, only to realize that it’s actually a carp. In much of the creek, the carp are also just as happy to feed on the surface as trout are, depending on what food is around.

While a fair number of anglers might be disgusted at the thought of small-stream carping, I would argue that that’s probably because they’ve never tried it. Fighting a carp in still water is one thing, but a carp in a small stream with some decent current can easily introduce you to your backing. They don’t take to the air very often, but they are certainly capable of it, and they are equally capable of using their broad bodies, weight, and the current to empty your reel before you manage to put the brakes on their initial run.

Carping season starts as the water begins to really warm up in June and continues all the way to fall (before the middle of June or so, the fish will be spawning, and are too preoccupied with sex to think much about food). After the spawn tapers off, they settle into a summer rhythm, with the best time of day being near dawn and dusk, as per usual with fishing. Sight casting, nymphing the same holding water you would for trout, or watching for risers are all productive at times. My favorite is targeting “clooping” carp (in other words, “rising”) in the early evening along the grassy or brushy margins of the creek, where they might be eating anything from mayflies and caddis, to ants or grasshoppers, to grass seeds or cottonwood fluff!

If you’re still wrinkling your nose at the thought of small creek carp, all I can say is, GOOD. If more people believed me about how fun this creek is, I’d have way too much company on one of my favorite spots to spend a summer evening on the Palouse.

Fly selection doesn’t have to get fancy, but all usual carp advice applies (for a bit more detail on fishing for carp, check out my article on the Illia Dunes). Worm patterns, standard nymphs, damselfly nymphs, leeches, crayfish, and scuds are the bread and butter for carp, just as they would be for trout. If for no other reason than sheer novelty, you may want to tie a couple of cottonwood fluff flies for cloopers, which essentially consist of a large wad of white CDC on a size 12 hook. Other than that, in Rock Creek, the flies for carp are the same you would use for giant, picky spring creek trout.

Far and away, my favorite spot for this type of fishing is the area upstream and downstream of Escure Ranch. Accessible from a turnoff on Jordan Knott Road southwest of Ewan, Escure Ranch is also a trailhead for Towell Falls, and a good option for camping. The road in can be a bit dicey in wet conditions, and is rough even in the best conditions, but the reward is stunning prairie scenery, solitude, and miles of river access in a little-travelled corner of the Palouse. You will almost certainly have it all to yourself, and there are plenty of bass and carp in here to keep the open-minded angler occupied for days.

This is far from an exhaustive list of access points for Rock Creek, but it’s a good start. Definitely take the time to explore anywhere you can find roads or a bridge (see if you can find “The Bridge To Nowhere”), but be respectful of private property. If you go, be mindful that you’re in a semi-desert, so lots of sunscreen, water, and a hat are essentially requirements. The creek also hosts more than a few rattlesnakes, so be very careful where you put your hands and feet as you chase a hooked carp downstream.

And if you’re still wrinkling your nose at the thought of small creek carp, all I can say is, GOOD. If more people believed me about how fun this creek is, I’d have way too much company on one of my favorite spots to spend a summer evening on the Palouse.

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