October 28, 2011

Pennsylvania Steelheading and the search for ID

Pennsylvania's steelhead fishery is one of a kind. I liken it to some mad fishery biologist's experiment gone bad. Take over 1 million steelhead and dump them into small streams and ditches. The state stocks the lion share of steelhead into Lake Erie, while Ohio, Michigan, New York and Ontario throw in a few. In 2008, the Pennsylvania fish and boat commission stock over 1.1 million steelhead into 11 tributaries. During that same year, Ohio stocked a little over 465,000 steelhead into 5 rivers. If you want big numbers of fish then Pennsylvania is your destination. If you absolutely hate crowds, I would give you about 30 minutes before you lose it.

Nearly all of Pennsylvania's streams are very small and all of them run over freestone shale. When ever there is rain or snow melt, the streams can blow out very quickly going from low and clear to a raging torrent. As with all flash floods, the water level can drop very quickly. The window for prime fishing conditions can be brief as within a couple of days, the streams will return to low and clear. Since the shale is light in appearance, darker fish stick out like a sore thumb and some of those fish have no choice but to seek out shelter. Some on the other hand are forced to stick it out and dodge the endless numbers of flies and bait drifted by them.

I had a full slate of work on Saturday because I lost 3 days to rain. I wasn't complaining since I was going to make a boat load of money. Later that day, I heard the Elk was on fire because of the stained conditions. When ever their creeks have a hint of mud in it, you be surprised at the low the number of people. Anglers in Pennsylvania love to sight fish. Personally, I can't stand it as I don't find it challenging. Saturday night the plan of action was to fish the Elk. The only concern I had was the river was dropping big time as the flow was at 7 on the gauge. That meant it was running gin clear, but nearly all of Ohio's streams were still too high to fish and I wasn't going to waste a day.

I heard that there were hardly any people out Saturday. Sunday it was the opposite as we rolled into the lot before first light. There were about 8 cars ahead of us and I knew it would be a busy day as the weather was beautiful, the creek was lower, and the Steelers were playing a late afternoon game - a perfect recipe for elbows and assholes. I noticed a lot of fellow Buckeyes were here because they had no where else to fish. As we crossed, I looked down and the water was very clear. We continued downstream to one spot that I knew would hold a lot of fish because it was the only deep hole in the entire section. It was first light and we started banging them on small sacs. Unfortunately the ruckus attracted a lot of attention as the scavengers started to make their way to the pool. One guy fly fishing below started to inch over as he asked what they were hitting on, I told him small peach sacs. The hole wasn't that big but it was dark and somewhere in that darkness, fish huddled tight against the shale ledge. The fish were on the large size and most looked like they've been in the creek for some time. Dave had his hands full with a large fish, after hauling it in he held it up and it was a dark male with broad shoulders - a beautiful specimen. We worked the pool some more but by then they shut down and we left the others to fight over the scraps. As we walked I found the water too clear for my liking as I'm not terribly keen on fishing water that resembles the clarity of a bottle of vodka. We decided to go upstream and we could see about 10 anglers clustered around the pool. I can imagine what the fish would be seeing - flies, boots, and hearing a lot of swearing.

As expected I started getting crabby because I can't stand crowded conditions. I watched people fishing water a foot deep and it was obvious there wasn't anything there. It just boggles my mind why people do that. I looked upstream and there were people everywhere and I couldn't take it anymore. I had to leave and we decided to jump back across to our yard. We drove farther downstream to see how many people were fishing. Nearly every available parking spot was taken and of course some of the dolts ignored the no parking signs on private property. Some people just love to learn the hard way.

As we drove over to Ohio, we stopped at one river and it was still too high. We continued on to the next stream and it was as a perfect as it gets - a nice tea stain with a mellow flow. Even though the small lot was full and a couple of cars parked off the road. We didn't see anybody and one of my favorite spots was vacant. This river has the same characteristics as a Pennsylvania stream - shale bottom with a lot of ledges and cuts. All we did was drift over the dark cuts and that's where the fish were holding. Over the years, I've seen plenty of anglers simply walk by these cuts and chutes because they believe the majority of fish are holding in deeper slowing moving pools. That might be true, but during the warmer months those spots are often pounded mercilessly by the morning crowd. Just in one large cut we managed to hook into over 10 fish. For us, Ohio saved the day and we wondered how our fellow Buckeyes were faring across the border. Satisfied with the results, we drove home and listened to the Browns laying a beating on the Seabags, the score late in the 3rd quarter was 3-0.

What should of been a relaxing evening was cut short when I received a phone call as I was watching the Sunday night game. I answered to hear a women on the other end telling me that she found my wallet. I was caught off guard and had to ask twice. I checked my fleece jacket and there was no wallet. I groaned and it was almost 9:30 but I had to get my wallet as it had all of my important ID including my green card. To make matters worse the lady lived in North Kingsville which is outside of Conneaut. I wasn't in any condition to make the long drive there and back. I filled the coffee mug and drove as fast as I could. I arrived and my wallet was handed over. The first thing I noticed was both my driver licence and green card were missing. She told this was all she found as it was lying on the road near the top of the hill. I thanked her for finding it and making an effort to track me down. It started making sense as I drove out. When I placed my jacket on the roof and removed it, my wallet fell out. When I drove out it flew off and everything fell out. I arrived and it was pitch dark as I parked off the road on top of the hill. It was chilly enough that the crickets could barely chirp. I took out my headlamp and started to scour the side of the road and ditch. I couldn't believe how the  lady could of seen it on the road as most people fly up and down it. I gradually walked down the hill painstakingly looking for a small black folder. I continued to look and then off to the side I found it - thank God! Because it would of been a major headache contacting the INS and going through the endless bureaucratic hassle of getting a new card. I also found my Ohio fishing licence and my state applicators licence. I mutter to myself how stupid I was to leave the zipper open, but I breathed a huge sigh of relief that I dodged a bullet. I got back into the Jeep and it was almost 11:30 and it would be another hour before I got home. I was beat and I had to refill the mug at a truck stop. Nothing like industrial strength truck stop coffee and I kept the window open as not to nod off. The last 20 miles were hard as I fought to stay awake, sticking my head out of the window as the blast of cold air reinvigorated my senses. I made it home and basically fell on the bed and I didn't move until the alarm when off at 7:00 starting yet another day.

October 20, 2011

Run for the Border

Last season nearly every steelheader did some type of rain dance, prayed at church, or secretly performed some type of sacrifice behind the woodshed. Unfortunately the fish gods would have none of it. Once in a while we got a sprinkle and we were thankful for that. This season, the opposite has happened -  rainfall by the buckets. So far to date, we've nearly broken the record for most precipitation in one year here in Northeastern Ohio. Since September, we've received rain nearly every week. The majority of steelheaders are not complaining and many will say bring more rain.

With heavy rainfall also meant a lot of days lost to rivers blowing out. That's where a PA license comes in handy. So far, my license has been paying dividends especially during the first time out. When Friday rolled around I could see another large green blob invading Ohio on the weather channel and the weather honks were calling for 80% chance of rain. The honks got it right as it started raining late Friday, as I watched the flow gauges creep up and finally spike into the "your fishing for the weekend is toast" category. I clicked on the Elk's flow and it was in the "go fish" zone.

Amish Farmhouse - Middlefield
Saturday morning I woke to see that almost all of the Ohio tribs out east had blown out. The only rivers that escaped the rain were the Rock and Vermilion. During the early fall, I'll avoid the Rock like the plague as it attracts some of the dumbest anglers in the area and the Vermilion is off my radar during the month of October. But when I checked the weather for Erie, I could see a large green blob parked over the lake. I hoped it would be light rain and the flow gauge was starting to crept up. That afternoon, I decided to go for a road trip out east. I often like to drive the rural roads where ever I go. One of my favorite drives are the country roads of Geauga and Ashtabula counties. The drive was much better as I replaced the shocks on the Jeep. Prior to that it had the handling characteristics of a boat riding on choppy water.

The fall colors were bright against the dull grey skies, the weather on the other hand was down right nasty - gusting cold winds and low clouds. I brought the camera along and snapped some pictures of old barns and farm houses around Amish country in Middlefield. Whenever, I'm there I'll stop at Middlefield cheese for their great Swiss cheeses. I drove north towards to the sleepy hamlet of Thompson as many wineries that found in that area. I crossed one feeder creek that ran into the Grand and it was ripping pretty good. After several hours of driving the roads, my stomach started talking and I stopped in Willoughby's historic downtown and eat at one of the many restaurants found along that section of the street. Dinner was bummer as I had a pulled chicken pizza. It should of been called the tossed lettuce pizza because chicken was far and few between.

Geauga County Farm
 When I arrived home, I checked the flow for the Elk and as I expected it shot up to nearly 140 on the gauge. I wasn't too worried even though the Elk was a raging torrent it can drop 2 feet overnight so I was confident enough to tie some sacs for tomorrow's trip. I called Dave and he agreed that the Elk would fish and if it didn't we had other options to go to.

I woke at 4:30 and the Elk as I predicted dropped back down to respectable 30 on the gauge - a tad high, but great for goober size sacs. We made the drive out and arrived at first light. As expected there wasn't anybody around and we walked down to the creek. It was high and the visibility wasn't great, but it was fishable in my books. The only thing that concern me was the flow as I thought it was a little too strong for my liking, as the bottom here lacked a lot of structure. We fished breaks in the current and nothing was hitting. I walked down to fish some pocket water and stirred up a fish resting at a tailout. I watched four anglers walk down and mill about debating whether to stay or go. I could see the looks on their faces that drove a far distance and conditions were not what they expected. It probably didn't help that they had spinners and flatfish. We planned a move and I planted a stick in the water to see how far down it would drop if decided to come back later.

Winery off the Grand River
We drove farther down and the number of people was a lot lower than the previous time out. We were practically at the lake's doorstep and the water here was even more dirtier. Most of the angler were using lures and all of them were a little cranky that nothing was hitting. I could barely see pass my knees, however in Ohio, I fish this type of water all the time. We banged away and nothing was hitting. We figured maybe the lake was rough that the fish didn't push in as the crashing surf would of pounded them into patties. It was two hours in and no fish so I made the call to head up river, figuring the creek was a little cleaner. We pulled in the lot was almost empty, about 2 cars which for a Sunday is unheard of. The creek here was a lot cleaner, but had a slight stain to it.

Even though Pennsylvania stocks a gazillion fish, the fishing can be either boom or bust. As I mention before, many locals feel a 10 fish day is lousy, even pathetic. Today was a tough day in steelhead Shangri-La as we had to work for them. All of the fish we caught had been in the river for several weeks and I figured most of the fish were in the mid and high sections. Nothing was crammed like sardines in the pools and runs. We was two or three fish here and there and you had to pound the pavement so to speak if you wanted good numbers. We returned to the same spot that we fished at first light and the creek dropped about 4" in a period of 7 hours. Just shows you how fast Pennsylvania's streams can drop and in a couple of days all of them will be low and clear.

October 19, 2011

The Skunk


Every angler experiences it from time to time, the dreaded skunk. In my case, it was literal as I came upon a dead one lying in the water on the lower Conneaut. It was waterlogged and ripening, and the smell was overwhelming. Which made me think, was he responsible for the all of the non-action downstream? It was morning and early in the steelhead season. I had pounded several holes and pools downstream without much success. The dead skunk should have been taken as an ominous sign that things might not be fine and dandy today. But, I'm a half glass full kind of angler. I looked at him one last time and wondered if any of the critters in the woods or water would have to the courage to feast on his filthy rotting corpse. 

It was unseasonably warm and the creek was running low and clear. Deep water was few and far between. The only action I was getting was fighting off the repeated hit and run attacks of the resident creek chubs. I would watch with great disdain as the float popped up and down. It was wasn't that violent take that is often associated with steelhead. I would flick the float as if they were that annoying fly bothering me. When I reeled in the line, I would see the sac nibbled down to the last few eggs. By now that glass that was starting to get a little more empty. 

But that's early fall on the Alley as fishing can be either hit or miss. In Ohio, it's more of a case of misses and frustration. I finish up at the last spot and the riffle above is barely registering a gurgle. I stand on one of the train trestle supports and look over at the shale ledge. It relatively dark and could possibly hide a pod of fish. I work the spot and my gut tells me there probably isn't any fish. I half ass it and I quickly start to get bored. I use my growling stomach as an excuse to call it a day.

We've all had our fair share of the skunk. Lucky for me, my skunks are few and far between. On the way back, I see my old friend baking in the sun and not a single fly is hovering around, go figure. 

October 9, 2011

I Love Lousy Weather

Lousy weather brings a smile to my face and it's even more special early in the season. Last week, I was discussing plans for the upcoming weekend. The outlook for later in the week was calling for rain and below average temperatures. If the rain blew out the streams in Ohio, then we would skip over the border to Pennsylvania. I'll only fish Pennsylvania out of desperation because I don't play well with others. Maybe old age has mellowed me out, but it made sense to have a back up plan when things here are not so great. In the past, I've often resisted getting a Pennsylvania license because of the cost, distance and most of the time the streams there often run low and clear. But Pennsylvania has ridiculous numbers of fish and when conditions are primed, you can hit double digits in less than an hour.

Friday came and so did the rain. Work wise it was a washout as I had to rescheduled several jobs. To kill time I drove along Chagrin River road near the village of Gates Mills. The Chagrin was starting to rise as I could see several small feeder creeks pumping in silt laden water. I knew fishing in Ohio was out of the question for Sunday. Saturday morning it was still raining and I checked the flow gauges and found the rivers had blown out. Pennsylvania's on the other hand had peaked and were starting to drop. Unlike Ohio's streams, Pennsylvania rise and drop like if somebody flushed a toilet.

That morning I drove over to Gander Mountain to get my license. What should of been a couple of minutes turned into an ordeal as the clerk had trouble processing my information. It kept kicking back my social security number as an error. She called the Pennsylvania boat and fish commission and they finally corrected the problem. It turned out that my Ohio drivers license, when swiped still had my old address and the computer got confused as it thought I had another file opened. Got to love the state government! After 20 minutes, I looked over to see the monster line up I created. I opted for the annual license and with the Lake Erie permit it cost me $62.00 and I was going to make sure I got my money's worth before it expires at the end of the year.

Pennsylvania's steelhead program has it's fair share of critics and supporters. For the supporters, it's a ton of fish and most of the locals are spoiled rotten with the bounty. For them a 10 fish day is a disappointment. When I first moved here I heard stories of people catching a 100 fish when conditions were right. I scoffed when I heard that as there was no way creeks that small could hold that many fish. It sounded like one of those tales of some far off land filled with mythical creatures. My skepticism of those insane numbers of fish was quickly put to rest when I fished the Elk several years ago during the month of November. When I arrived the stream was high and dirty. There wasn't a soul there and I annihilated nearly every spot I fished. I lost count but I figured I was well over 50 fish as I usually carry about 100 sacs give or take. The critics on the other hand feel that the state overloads streams that couldn't support that many fish in natural conditions. But I'll bet those same critics will have a shit eating grin on their faces when they're nailing fish.

The evening was spent stinking up the kitchen tying sacs and watching Wisconsin blow out Nebraska. I didn't get to bed until 12:30 and I knew I would pay for it as I rarely get a good night of sleep anymore. The alarm blared at 5:00A.M as I groggily crawled out of bed. I checked the flow gauge and the stream was perfect. I brewed some industrial strength coffee and wolfed down some eggs and bacon. I packed up the gear and carried everything outside. When I opened the door the crisp cold air jolted me. Even though it was October 2nd it felt more like November 2nd. The wind was howling and the temperature was barely out of the 40s. The boys showed up just as tired as I was and Dave was the chauffeur as Bubba needed to cop a few more z's.

We got to the river around first light and couldn't decide where to fish. We stopped at the access closest to the lake. We could see about 30 cars in the lot and a large cluster of people sitting on the rocks and others in the water. We could hear the waves crashing into the shore and the wind was roaring. The flow was barely noticeable and the action was uneventful. We changed and got back into the truck headed down stream. I've never fished this low as I preferred to the upper sections to get away from the crowds. This was also the first time I fished in Pennsylvania on a weekend.

We picked one section that is popular but then again every spot on the river is popular. When we arrived there were two vehicles. But that would change as the morning progressed. We walked down the trial and we could see four anglers - two bait fishing and the other two fly fishing. The other guys walked up and I fished a riffle below. The key to fishing Pennsylvania's streams is not overlooking the tiniest spots because hiding spots are at a premium. I tossed the float and drifted along the seam. It boggled and I set the hook. The rod throbbed and it was the first fish of the morning. This fish raced downstream, full of fight. It was a nice chunky hen that fell for a pink sac.

 I quickly got into another fish and after that I didn't get another hit. Bubba got a couple of fish but it was slow. Nobody was banging them as I had no idea how early the other anglers got there. I walked up to join the guys and it was still slow. I used cured and uncured eggs and still got no hits. I started getting antsy and I needed to move. I can't help it as I'm not one of those guys that can stand in one spot for hours on end. I made the move downstream and wanted to explore to see what lied ahead. There were several fly guys fishing fast water. None of them were hooking up and I noticed a large tree lying in the water. I knew somewhere in there was some fish. Sure enough the spot coughed up a couple of fish and I got freight trained by another as it snap the line before I could even react. But after that all was quiet and I wondered how the others were doing upstream.

We moved back up to the same spot and then it was like the switch went off. We started hooking up like crazy. It was like a conga line as one of us was walking a fish downstream to be released followed by another. The hot ticket was uncured eggs and the fish had a hankering for them. As expected whenever others are hooking up, the level of douchebagginess starts to come out from the other anglers. One young angler fly fishing started to muscle in on our spot, but his attempts were futile. We were still banging them as he moved from spot to spot. Sorry dude, but dirty deep water, #14 sucker spawn and fish holding tight along the bank equals zero hits. He slowly slinked off to more shallow water in hopes of catching a fish. The action tailed off and we decided to hit one more spot before heading home.

It was nearly noon and there were a lot of people out fishing. We fished yet another popular spot and the action was slow, but I didn't care as I had my fill and was happily sated. So far this is fall has been far better than last year and hopefully we've turned the corner. Glad to throw that nasty ole skunk off my neck.