Northwest Fly Fishing

By Josh McLellan

One early spring day while walking along a game trail on the rim above Homestead Creek—the feeder stream for Homestead Lake—I peeked over a lip of basalt and instantly startled a flock of some 100 mallards. The entire flock noisily took flight, and as the mayhem quieted with the departure of the ducks, I spotted a coyote, well disguised, that had apparently been stalking along the bank in hopes of a mallard dinner. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I’d swear the coyote looked disappointed. Further, he sure seemed to be eyeing me with reproof for blowing his cover before he turned tail and casually ambled away.
   I climbed down through the rocks to the creek, picked a likely glide, and made my first cast of the day downstream along the grassy bank. A hefty rainbow aggressively smacked my Woolly Bugger and after a spirited battle, came to hand in the shallow water. The real prize lay ahead: Homestead Lake, which has big rainbows as well as brown trout and a few tiger trout.
   But the opening moments of that beautiful spring morning had already justified my choice in destinations in a region richly endowed with great trout waters.
   Homestead Lake sits within the 10,982-acres Gloyd Seeps Unit of the North Columbia Basin State Wildlife Recreation Area, much of which surrounds Crab Creek midway between Moses Lake and the small town of Stratford to the north. A second parcel to the southwest encompasses a portion of famous Rocky Ford Creek. Throughout the region, wetlands, ponds, and seeps are surrounded by shrub–steppe uplands and basalt scablands. Where fires have burned away desert shrubbery, grasslands flourish. Areas of development include about 18 acres of shrub plots, four ponds formed by dikes, four water-control structures on four tributary creeks, and several access roads and parking lots.
   An important place for waterfowl and myriad other kinds of wildlife, the Gloyd Seeps Unit is even home to greater sage grouse, a species imperiled in Washington, and a state-designated threatened species. So too, this unit supports one of the two remaining populations of northern leopard frogs in Washington.
   The hike to Homestead Lake covers about 1 mile by either of two routes: a road (closed to vehicles) leads directly to the dam on the south end of the lake, and is the easiest option, especially if you are hauling in a pontoon boat or other watercraft; and a narrow trail departs the northwest corner of the parking lot, crosses the road, and continues along Magpie Lake (carp fishing opportunity). This trail gets a bit vague in spots, winding through the brush, but eventually leads to the southeast side of Homestead. A berm at the south end of the lake is the best for boat launching. Keep your eyes open in the fall, though, because this spot is also popular for waterfowl and upland game hunting.
   Homestead Creek, which flows into the lake, is narrow and tricky to fish as well as crowded with cattails in many places. But it can be well worth your time. You need to cover a lot of water on the stream to find decent-size fish, and you need waders because of the marshy riparian corridor, not to mention to keep ticks at bay.
   Homestead Lake itself is long and narrow, covering only about 12 acres. Fairly shallow, it allows prolific aquatic vegetation and, in turn, robust populations of aquatic invertebrates. Moreover, the weeds make great cover for trout. Damselflies, Chironomids, and Callibaetis mayflies hatch profusely.
   The shoreline is easily approachable and fishing from shore is quite effective into May—and can be refreshing for anglers who want a break from the usual gear-laden boat outings on eastern Washington lakes. Plus, fishing from shore makes it easy to take breaks and explore. And, of course, the scenery around Homestead always competes with the fishing for your attention: from afar, the landscape may appear flat and featureless, but upon closer inspection, you find that the shrub-steppe environment tends to hide the lakes and streams within coulees and canyons rimmed with columnar basalt tinged with showy green lichen.
   Ideal timing for fishing Homestead is difficult to predict. The best strategy—if you have the chance—is to fish the lake several times during the spring to make sure you don’t miss the most action. Some years there is a small window of opportunity when midges hatch from late March into April before the lake turns over. If early spring weather is mild and not too breezy, visit the lake often before the aquatic weed growth becomes profuse sometime in May. Homestead can turn over earlier than most lakes in the region and may turn over multiple times.
   I fish exclusively from the bank until the shore’s weed growth mandates use of a float tube. Usually, I wind-drift Chironomid pupa patterns 4 to 6 feet below the surface over and along underwater ledges and basalt walls forming the shoreline, using an indicator to track the drift and detect strikes. Once weed growth makes a personal floatation device the way to go, the key is to fish your flies just above the tops of submerged weedbeds or in the openings and channels in the weeds. Clear intermediate lines and slow retrieves or floating lines with indicators work best. If midges aren’t hatching, damselfly nymph patterns often do the trick. With damselfly nymph patterns, an ultraslow retrieve, in which you alternately twitch the fly and then pause, is often very effective. Sometimes adding a small split shot 16 to 20 inches above the fly will keep it from getting caught in the weeds.
   Heavy weed growth during the hot summer months makes fishing Homestead very difficult; plus, the warm water with low oxygen content stresses trout, and they may not survive being caught and released. For those reasons, I don’t fish the lake again until fall, by which time the trout that survived the summer have grown big, sometimes huge. Once the weather starts to cool and the weeds begin to die off, Homestead’s brown trout especially become active. In the fall, they congregate toward the upper end of the lake near Homestead Creek. In low-water years, the fish may not be able to ascend the creek, but in most years they can swim up the stream and you can target them with Woolly Buggers fished downstream against the grassy banks. In the lake itself, retrieve Woolly Buggers parallel to cattail stands and basalt columns.
   The future of Homestead seems bright. The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) has requested funding from the Washington State Department of Ecology to evaluate the feasibility of raising the earthen dike located at the south end of the lake, and WDFW is partnering with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) because altering the dam was identified as a potential recreational fishery enhancement project within the 2009 Final Environmental Analysis for the Potholes Reservoir Supplemental Feed Route. The Feed Route will divert water from Billy Clapp Lake through middle Crab Creek and out into the Potholes Canal to service farmland within the Columbia Basin Project area. As irrigation season gets rolling, some of that water will contribute flows to Homestead Creek, helping to increase and stabilize flows.
   Additionally, raising the dam at Homestead would increase the overall water depth in the lake by 2 to 3 feet, increase the amount of habitat, and improve water temperature profiles for trout, thereby enhancing the overall recreational fishery. The WDFW is currently developing a conceptual plan for this project, though currently no formal timeline has been created for completion. If funded, the WDFW will schedule an engineering survey this summer to evaluate the integrity of the earthen dike and work directly with BOR staff to identify the logical next step for enhancing the trout fishery in Homestead Lake.
   Fly fishers who remember Homestead Lake from years ago might think it has had its glory days. It’s hard to ignore the big-fish tales from the 1980s, when Homestead was at its best. But lake fisheries, especially those in eastern Washington, tend to be cyclical—trout face tough winter and summer conditions; fisheries managers must often contend with unwanted species, such as sunfish and carp, whose populations can explode to the detriment of trout populations. Homestead is actually doing fine. Trophy-size trout haunt its depths and while catching them may not be easy, it’s nice to know the possibility of a massive fish is ever-present.
   I approach Homestead with the same strategy I apply throughout the Columbia Basin: if I find that my favorite lake is no longer as productive as I’d like or if it becomes too crowded, then it’s time for me to discover another lake. I like the adventure and challenge of learning different waters. Regional WDFW biologists can be great sources of information and, likewise, feedback from anglers is valuable to fisheries managers—your insights may lead biologists to continue stocking efforts in locations where forgotten trout survive or adjust management strategies for certain waters.
   For now, though, Homestead remains one of my favorite waters, a place of intrigue, promise, and natural beauty.

 

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