November 24, 2011

Calm Before The Storm

Steelhead Alley has its own version of Black Friday. Just like shoppers that cringe at the thought of hundreds of people beating one another just to get the 3 laptop computers listed at $299.00 even though the smart shopper on Cyber Monday can buy online without freezing their ass off waiting in line for hours. The same can be said about the streams the day after when everybody needs to escape from the mother-in-law. The streams are often packed and this is the reason why I often skip Black Friday and sleep well into the morning.

Lucky for me, I have no family commitments, so I can stay out as long as I desire on Thanksgiving. During past turkey day outings, I've often thought about my fellow steelheaders trapped at home with their mother-in-law, going to different grocery stores looking for cranberry sauce or entertaining 10 kids. I'm sure all of them were wishing they were on the river. It was refreshing to have an entire river to myself and after a long day I was the only car left in the lot.

A couple days ago we received rain that bumped the streams up. I was more than happy because I'm off all of next week and the other bonus is both Ohio and Pennsylvania's deer hunting season start Monday. Wednesday night I watched the flow gauge on the Elk start to slip into the "kiss your wife's ass to get out" zone. All of Ohio's streams were still too high to fish, so it was across the border we go. Since the others could only fish the morning, we drove separately as I wanted to stay longer. We pulled in at first light and nobody was there. We walked down and the creek was dirty and somewhere in that murkiness were a lot of fish. The guys fished near the first access and I wandered a bit downstream. The spot I fished cut hard into the shale wall that ran about 50 yards. Off of the main current is where the fish usually hold. Sure enough, that's where they were. It wasn't deep, maybe 3' but deep enough to hide them. It was a mixed bag of fresh and older fish. Once in a while I would look upstream to get the others attention to see if they wanted to move to new water. We gradually moved downstream and started hitting fish in every spot.

As I've said in the past, nothing beats a uncured egg. There is something about an all natural egg. Cured eggs will work but I liken them to somebody seasoning a steak with BBQ sauce or lacing it with secret spices - some people will like it and others not. I tend to use uncured eggs, but I'll carry cured ones just in case the fishes palette changes. Today, I called out my fish when I using uncured eggs. This can be done on the Elk when it's dirty and unpressured. It was a hoot when I placed a fresh sac on the hook, cast out and watch the float go under. Bubba demanded that I stop hoarding my eggs as it was the day of giving. I begrudgingly gave in and tossed him one egg. Sure enough he hooked into a fish and I just chuckled as I handed him another. 

Eventually the others had to leave and I wished them a Happy Thanksgiving and wonder how many dishes they would have to wash after dinner. At least they would have some decent football games to watch especially the Packers and Loins. I wondered upstream and it had been some time since I fished it. I passed a couple of people that lucky for them lived in the Erie area so they were in no rush to get home. I picked up some fish in deeper pools and tailouts along the cliffs and walls. These were definitely places to come back to next week. 

As for Friday, I'll bet the farm that the Elk will be packed as out streams will still be too high. Every person I talked to said the same thing and they too were taking a pass tomorrow. I was happy that I got first dibs on fish and tomorrow I'll be snoring as others will be racing to the best spots.

November 19, 2011

Tale of Three Rivers

All of Steelhead Alley's streams are generally the same. All of them run over shale bedrock, have little to no groundwater sources, and most of them with the exception of the Grand become fishable within 3 to 4 days after rain. But, that where the similarities stop. One river might get a monster run and others might get a wee one. As a rule of thumb, I generally fish farther east and as the season progresses, I start to make my way back west. Even though, I live in the western Cleveland suburb of Rocky River, I prefer the eastern rivers because they're scenic, more rural and tend to get more PA steelhead.

Friday, I fished solo as I decided to take a well deserved day off. Work has been slowing down and this is the time of the year when I start cashing in personal days. The plan was to fish far out east as I was scouting for others for the upcoming weekend. Arriving at first light, there were two cars and every time I've been there, I know where the people are going. Then another car with Ontario plates pulled in across the road and it was packed with guys. Lately, I've seen a lot of Canadians on the Alley and I hoped they were as green as I was 12 years ago. But, I noticed a person jumping out of the car, fully dressed in gear walking briskly to the river. When I got down to the river, as expected he locked up the spot for them. Maybe he was a guide or something, but who cares, because I knew of spot that probably would fish better.

The river was slightly stained and had a nice flow. It was cold with the temperature in the 30s and that meant - tailouts. I could see everybody at the spot downstream. From past recon trips during the summer months, I knew there was a shale ledge towards the tailout. The recon paid off as I started yanking fish out of that spot. During my time fishing, I would look downstream and see the group of anglers not doing a lot. Sooner or later they start getting antsy and start heading up or down. I was hoping to they would head down. Then  one by one they started to come up. I tried to be coy as we exchanged greetings and watched them walk up and around the corner. It was back to fishing and I did very well catching a lot of fresh fish. The bottom of the pool was littered with a lot of sore jaws, so it was off to another spot. This section was a long sweeping pool. Farther down it was nothing but what I dubbed shit water as it holds nothing but shit. There were plenty of fish from top to bottom and like the last spot, it was polluted with skippers. Satisfied with the results, I gave two thumbs to the working stiffs that were anxiously waiting for Saturday morning.

The plan for Saturday was the same place. One person that tagged along was Michael from Germany who comes to Ohio on business twice a year. Micheal is an avid angler in his home country and when he was in the Cleveland area several years ago, he stumbled onto Erie Outfitters. He was interested about fishing the alley and the owner of the shop - Craig helped him out. Saturday morning we drove east and the game plan was to lock up one pool near a popular spot. Locking up a pool involved getting up fairly early. On the drive out, I called a local bait shop that leaves a recording of lake and stream conditions. I got a chuckled when I heard that the fishing was tough on Friday and they were puzzled at the lack of fish caught. When we arrived there were several anglers gearing up and once again, I knew where they were going. I got dressed quicker when other cars started rolling in and told them I would grab the spot. Sure enough, everybody was clustered in that one spot - ha! The water had cleared considerably from yesterday. The fishing was slower then yesterday, but we all caught fish. I suggested that we head to the other spot I fished yesterday. As we walked out, there was about 20 cars scattered along the road. We pulled into the next spot and it wasn't hard to figure out what type of angler was fishing. When we arrived at the next spot, there was a Prius, Subaru, and a Toyota Highlander. All of them were plastered with Patagonia and Trout Unlimited stickers. Foreign cars and uber high priced outfitting manufacturers logos = yuppie, green weenie, fair weather fly fishermen. I figured when they walked back and looked at my piece of shit Jeep, they thought meat hunting, pool hogging, smelly spawn sacing dirtbag. We did well in that spot and I had another one another farther up. As we walked across to the other spot, all of the other cars were gone except for one truck. 

We hit some fish out of one hole and I could see two people fishing upstream. This was a spot I didn't have to fish the day before. The one angler greeted us and we started fishing, only hear the other angler start complaining about us fishing between them. We looked at each other like is he kidding? Ask anglers their definition of low holing and you'll get answers ranging from 10' to the entire length of a football field. This curmudgeonly loser was 50 yards upstream and he thought we were too close, I say Mr. Magoo needs to get his eyes checked. Of course, we could of been assholes and walked up started fishing in his hip pocket. His pissing and moaning session, thankfully was short lived. The morning crowd probably worked the hole over and we the left the miserable crank alone.  

Sunday we fished a river that often ranks at the bottom of my list - the Vermilion. I wasn't thrilled, but two days in a row driving out east was putting a hurting on my sleep and wallet. The Vermilion has one major problem - it constantly runs dirty. Years ago it never had that problem and nobody knows why. The only thing that the V has going for it is a lot of gravel and the majority of people I know have giving it up for dead. The fishing was terrible as I was the only one to hook into fish - 3 in total and the others were ready to throw in the towel. When we returned to the cars, I was waffling on whether to go home or continue fishing. Mike on the other hand wanted to cram in as much fishing as possible since we was to return to Germany on Wednesday. I don't blame him and I told him we could fish the Chagrin. On the way back I had second thoughts about fishing the Chag, it was almost noon and I didn't want to make the long drive out there or take Mike on one of my death marches. I elected to fish the Rock and I wasn't thrilled at the prospect of driving to see every lot full of cars. But I still had some cards in my hand and knew where to find fish. It was well past noon and I figured the early birds were long gone and the second shift were at the fords. I took Mike to several spots and we caught some fish. The only excitement was when we watched 4 does running across the rivers and then a large buck following briskly. Another buck wanting to cashing in tried to head off the other by crossing further down. I gave Mike some pointers for tomorrow and wished him luck and safe trip back home.

Three more days until vacation time...........

November 13, 2011

Cat's Meow

Working the pool in the Zoar Valley
Every angler has a dream destination to catch their favorite fish. For me it's British Columbia's Skeena River and it's magnificent wild steelhead. I've often dreamed of fishing either the Kispiox, Babine or Buckley rivers, standing in the cold pristine waters looking up at the mountains cloaked in mist. Both my parents and sister live in that province, unfortunately it's a 700 mile drive from Vernon to the Skeena. So I had to settle for something a little closer to home and that was the Cattargarus or known by local steelheaders as the "Catt". Many years ago, I was suppose to go there, but high water made fishing all but impossible. For years, it sat on the back burner and I could never get anybody to go for a variety of reasons - work, rather fish the Rock or being denied by the warden errrrr wife.

Lower section of the Catt
This past weekend I finally made it there and it's another notch on the rod. The Catt is considered the jewel of Steelhead Alley as it's the largest steelhead tributary that runs into Lake Erie on the American side. Steelhead can run as far as Springville Dam, which is 34 miles from the lake. The lower end of the river is flat and wide and loaded with gravel. There are many deep pools and holes that will hold fish. This is the most popular section of the river and is considered a pinner's dream. But, nearly all of it runs through the Seneca Indian reservation and you need to purchase a special licence. The middle section runs through the Zoar Valley one of the deepest gorges in New York. It's a wild, scenic place full of wildlife, numerous waterfalls and old growth forests. If you want seclusion and are anti-social, then the Zoar's your place.

High cliffs - Zoar Valley
Several buddies went up several weeks ago as all of Ohio's streams were running low and clear. I received the call that the four of them nearly landed 30 fish. I course, I love to bust their chops and called bullshit. Kidding aside, I knew it was possible as the Catt was nearly unfishable this fall due to rain. Finally a break in the rain and it was enough time for the river to finally come down. Timing is the key, because when it blows out, it can take weeks for it come down. That's because it drains a huge area, a lot more than the Grand River. I've heard that some springs the river goes unfished because of the snow melt and rain. 

Catt Steelhead
Earlier in the week, I talked with a friend about going. I was game and nothing was going to stop me from getting there. The river was at a perfect flow and I wanted to get away from Ohio as the fishing here has been pathetic. Hoping to get to bed early turned out to be another late night as I had a lot of things to do - tie sacs, watch the football game, and trying to purchase a licence online. I didn't hit the sack until almost midnight. With a little over three hours of sleep, I knew I was going to have my hands full with the drive out to New York and back. We left at 4:00A.M and it would be about a 3 hour drive. We finally got off the turnpike and the tripometer was over 170 miles if we drove another 40 miles we would be at the border. Not wanting to spend over $40.00 for a licence, we opted to fish outside of the reservation. The first place we stop was in the town of Gowanda. We parked practically next to the river and fished one spot the guys did well a couple weeks ago. The river had a chalky color and the visibility wasn't that great. Farther up there was a mix of bait and fly fishermen working one pool. I was pumped to hook into my first New York steelhead. The fishing was very slow as only one fish was caught. We fished several spots downstream and nothing was happening. This theme would be replayed over the day.........ugh

Angler dwarfed by the cliffs
Due to limited time and not wanting to make the 3 hour drive back in the dark, we made the decision to fish the Zoar Valley. The Zoar wasn't very far from town, about 10 minutes south. We turned onto the road and the first thing I noticed a large sign greeting people by stating that nobody and I mean nobody will get any permission to hunt my property. To make his point clearer, nearly every tree along the road had a posted sign. We continued down the road and there were more signs and I wondered how much money this person spent on signs, probably thousands of dollars. I figure he would be the type of person to greet you with a shotgun pointed in your direction when knocking on the door. We dressed and started the descent down into the Zoar. When we finally made it down, I was awestruck at the height of the cliffs. These cliffs were 4 times the height of the ones on the upper Grand. The river itself was a mixture of blue and green colors. It mainly ran over shale as I could make out the ledges and cuts. It reminded me of a giant Ashtabula river with a lot of flow. Because there are limited gravel areas in the gorge streambed, fish push through it rather quickly. As a general rule, steelhead prefer to hold and rest over gravel, but there is fishable pocketwater and many shale ledges in the valley where fish pause temporarily on their upstream journey. The river was low enough that we figured some fish stopped to rest and waited for the next high water. 

Right off the trail, there was a pool that held a lot of promise. It was fairly long with large rocks. Along the river, it was littered with rocks and at times it made walking difficult. As I walked I knew both boots were spitting cleats. Upstream I could see the typical V shape of the cliff that announced where the main and south branch of river meet. Even though on the flow gauge the Catt was slightly under 300, it had a pretty good flow. For the insane whitewater kayaker, this section would be a blast at higher flows. As for a drift boat, I would be hesitant to use it through here, because the shale bottom and ledges and many large rocks were barely underwater. One wrong move and the boat would suffer a lot of damage. As for a pontoon boat, I wouldn't even dare use it. I could see the breaks and seams were fish could be holding. We started working the pool and nothing was happening. I moved downstream working the tailouts and still nothing. I surprised with the sheer number of rocks in the water, that I didn't snag bottom. The only action was when Dave hooked into a large fish only to have his  leader break due to a large rock. Dave mentioned that yesterday, a local angler told him the fishing was better downstream. We heeded the advice and started to walk down to the cliffs. 

Main and South branch of the Catt
We made it down and I looked up, the cliffs were incredibly high and steep. Several trees were precariously hanging on the edge. The cliffs themselves were chiseled and scarred by thousands of years of rain and runoff. The entire section along the cliffs were a pinner's delight - a long slow moving pool that eventually tailed out about 200 yards down. But before we fished the cliffs, we worked a pool below a large set of rapids. I finally hit my first fish of the day as I watched the float popped twice and go under. I set the hook and felt the rod throb hard. The fish hit at the tail end and then I noticed the leader was wrapped around it. The fish started to drift into the rapids that spilled into another large pool. As the fish tried to fight, I had to hold the rod high to prevent the leader from fraying on the rocks. By then the fish had unwrapped itself and was trying head back into deeper water. I guided the fish between two large rocks and managed to beach it. It was nice large hen and her bottom caudal was worn - a sign of a repeat spawner.

Looking downstream from the south branch
After that there wasn't a lot of action. Maybe there wasn't that many fish here. As we walked down, we could see two anglers fishing the lower end of the pool. Both were using spey rods. If there was a place to swing flies then they were in the right place. The river here wasn't that deep, maybe three feet deep, but it had a lot of places for fish to hold. We shuffled down stream, pulling off some Olympic distance drifts. But we had no takers and I was puzzled at the lack of action. The two people fishing told us they only caught one fish. It was a little after 12:00P.M and we had about a couple more hours before heading back. We tried another spot had promise - a long deep pool below the island. It was fairly deep over 6 feet deep, but nothing was biting. Due to high winds, there was a lot of leaves in the water and it made drifting at times difficult as the float would get lost in all of the litter. We had one more spot below the two branches of the river. We passed 3 other anglers and they had no luck either. We made it to the spot below the branches and it was a large shale ledge. The water here had a nice green tint and the low water above probably prevented any fish from making it over the series of stair cases. As with every other spot we didn't get a hit. I walked up to the south branch and it was barely flowing over the shale bedrock. It was almost 1:30 and we decided to call it a day.

The drive was brutal as I fought to stay awake. Only after filling up in Erie did the cold wind knock some sense into me and the steaming mug of coffee saved me from dozing off. Even though we didn't have the number of fish we hoped, I was very impressed with the Catt. It's a beautiful river and very challenging for either the pinner or fly fishermen. It's a long haul from Cleveland and if I was going to fish it again. I would purchase a reservation licence and spend a night at a hotel. If you have the time and money, I would add this place to your list.

November 8, 2011

Has The Internet Ruined Steelhead Alley?

A subject that is guaranteed to rile up debate here in Steelhead Alley - has the internet ruined the fishery? I say no. Any resourceful angler will find the necessary information, whether the internet existed or not. If it were to shut down tomorrow, I'll bet that most of the streams along the Alley would be full of anglers. If you asked them where they got their information from it would be from a bait shop, a buddy or they lived 10 minutes from the stream. The haters scoffed at that and this is what I would hear or read.

"I'm sick and tired of these assholes asking to be spoon fed, get off your lazy ass and do your own leg work"

"I can't find solitude anymore"

"More and more property will get posted"

"I hate people that give out specific locations, because that's where I like to fish"

"Our fishery will be ruined by out of towners"

The internet has made fishing a lot easier for today's angler. All the information is available with the click of the mouse - state fishery departments, USGS flow data, weather channel, blogs, e-magazines, websites dedicated to steelhead and even Uncle John's webcams at his camp on the lower Elk. The majority of anglers still use fishing websites to find out what the pulse of the alley is like. I never post a report on the two most popular sites for Lake Erie steelheaders - and, because I've been banned from both. I'll admit for shits and giggles, I loved to stir the pot and rattle the moderator's cages. Both have declined in membership over the years because of the constant bickering and accusations. That biggest complaints are spoon feeding and naming locations on the rivers. The haters will attempt chase off any newbie or out of towner that dares to ask the question "Are there any fish in the river?" or "Where can I go to catch them?"

The internet has created a certain angler, the lazy inept steelheader. Instead of going out and learning from trail and error, they'll post question like "Are there any fish in the rivers?  or "Where are the best locations?" They'll start breaking out in a cold sweat Friday night and go into full panic mode when they get up Saturday morning and there are no reports. They come up with all of the excuses - can't risk wasting gas because they live a couple hours away and there isn't enough time to figure out where the fish are. I call bullshit because I go through a lot of gas in pursuit of steel. That's part of the game and I'm willing to shell out the dough.

I pretty well use the phone and the USGS flow data - that's all I need. I have the flow data down pat and know what's fishable. I've told people there always somewhere to fish on the alley any given day. Over the years I made a lot of contacts and those contacts are on speed dial. Every week we're on the phone with the latest information and in a lot of cases it's saved a day that could of been terrible.

The internet hasn't ruined the fishery because that cat was let out of the bag a long time ago. The main purpose of state agencies that stocks fish is to generate revenue for the state. Revenue from licences, lodging, food and gas all go into the state's coffer. Steelhead Alley has more steelhead per mile than any other streams in the lower 48 states, so word is bound to get out. Big numbers of fish equals big numbers of people. So don't panic when the latest person posts his latest outing and notice that 100 people viewed it because more than likely it's a bogus report to deflect pressure off his river ;^ )

Bluebird Day

When rivers are low and clear, I often dread "bluebird days". Bluebird day is defined as clear blue skies, bright sun and warm temperatures. I on the other hand prefer low grey skies, zero sun and temperatures hovering in the 40s. Today, it was a bluebird day and I wasn't going to stand on the sidelines. Fishing time is precious and I'll try to deal with the conditions the best I can.

Daylight savings couldn't come at a better time. No more stumbling around in the dark and it's only 7:00A.M and for this hopeless sleeper, an extra hour is what I need. I really didn't feel the need to get up early because the word out was the fishing has been terrible ever since the rivers came down. Not a lot of fish made it in and they're spread out. Many steelheaders used the beautiful weather to score points with the wife in regards to raking leaves and tossing the patio furniture in the shed.

It was first light when I was halfway out to the Grand, driving at a leisurely pace as I listened Rush's Exit Stage Left. This would be the second trip out to the upper stretches and I hoped it would be better than the previous one, but I wasn't holding my breath. I crossed over the covered bridge below the dam, the final stop for steelhead about 20 miles from the lake. I could see several anglers clustered around the bridge. I knew from past experience that the fish will move downstream whenever the water the gets lower.

When ever the rivers are low and clear, I'll fish the Grand. The Grand was one of those rivers that never runs clear. It always has that murkiness to it. A cloak that hides fish very well and makes it very challenging. I know the Grand very well, but there are times that she doesn't want to reveal her secrets or her fish. The upper stretches is where I'm at home - the long shale cliffs, lazy flats, and the remoteness. As I pulled in to the back lot, there wasn't anybody fishing downstream. The large rock that I use as a gauge was halfway out of the water. That meant the river was low but perfect for wading as I had plan to fish the 2 miles downstream. Unfortunately, I looked across to see a large drift boat being loaded. I wasn't in the mood to out run a boat. With the lower water that meant the boat would spook a lot of fish. Even though the Grand is the largest stocked steelhead river in Ohio, it's a very shallow in nature.

I immediately walked down to one of my money pools and quickly hooked into a male - bright in his fall colors. I kept looking up stream and I could see the boat making its way down. In this section it was wide enough that the boat could drift on the opposite side without disturbing any fish. As the boat drifted by I noticed they all had fly gear. That meant they probably wouldn't fishing the lazy pools but I was concerned because most of those pools and flats are shallow and the hulking shadow of a boat is enough to scattered and shut down fish. I figured since I was halfway down I stop at the first mile and give it a shot. I managed one more fish and that was it.

Walking back it was evident that a lot of people took the weekend off as nobody was fishing upstream. It was very odd not seeing people fishing during the first week of November - the prime month of steelheading on the Alley. I drove downstream to another spot where the high cliffs would provide fish with cover. It was the same result - not a lot of action. A couple of anglers walked passed both with grim looks on their faces. One them asked if I fished upstream and said yes but it was slow. Both were not from here and I was hard pressed to give them any info that would help them.

I hope that this November doesn't turn into the one we experienced last year - very low numbers of fish. I believe there are more fish, but they are very spread out. You will need a lot persistence and willing to walk the extra mile. Parking at the closest hole and repeatedly casting over and over won't yield a lot of fish. Time to look ahead for the next adventure.

November 2, 2011

Fishing Solo

When I moved here 12 years ago from Alberta, both me and my wife at the time, didn't know a soul. It took time to meet and gradually built friendships. My first years on the alley was mostly spent fishing alone. But over time, I meet people and started some great relationships. Many of them shared my passion for chasing steel. But there are times when I enjoy going solo. I can fish at my own pace, explore new water, going the extra mile and leaving whenever I feel the need to.

Today I would be fishing solo and it was a good thing because I kept waffling on where to fish. Both streams were not too far from one another. But one was fishable albeit a little low and the other was still considered too high from other sources. The plan was to fish the lower river and if the fishing was slow, I would head over the other. Knowing me, if the fishing doesn't pan out in a couple of hours, I'll be bombing down the interstate to the next river.

It was a fairly chilly morning out as the temperature was hovering a few degrees above freezing. I wasn't in a hurry today as I arrived at first light. Walking down to the ravine I could see the signs of the first frost of the season. It was eerily quiet as there were no sounds of insects or the rustling of leaves. I could see the my breath as I looked to the horizon waiting for the first rays of sunlight. Looking down the water had that dark tea color and I wasn't terribly thrilled by it.

As with every fall the trees litter the streams with leaves and in some spots the piles in the water can be measured in feet. As the leaves start to decompose, they release tannins and the water starts to get that dark tea color. Some steelheaders believe that tannic conditions can affect fish as it effects the PH level in the water. I started believing that as I fished several spots that hold a lot of fish when the water is lower. I plugged away working the deeper cuts and ledges. A few hours into the morning, I managed one small hen. The day before I got a report that the fishing was outstanding but that window of prime conditions closed Sunday morning. As the morning progress, I could see bottom in a lot of spots and that same spot we fished the week before and caught over 10 fish when the river was higher was visible right down to the bottom. I checked the time and it was almost ten and I knew I needed to make a move.

I drove over to the next river and it was in much better condition color wise but the flow was still strong. Usually when flows are strong, steelhead generally don't tend to hole up. Even though there was a lot of leaves in the water, it had more of a clay based stain, but the visibility was good. The first spot didn't produce and usually when nobody is there at eleven - the fishing sucked. I knew it was going to be one of those days of banging spots all the way up river. That was the case as I worked seams and tailouts and it was one or two fish here and there. I guess I was one of the lucky ones because a lot of people I talked to got shut out. As I drove back back home I stopped at Harpersfield dam to see what the Grand looked like. As expected it was high and unfishable, but I wondered how many fish made it up as last year it was dismal. Last season was the first time I didn't fish that section of the river because of very low numbers of fish. With no rain for the rest of the week, it looks like I might make a visit there this weekend.