February 27, 2012

Chag Ching




Another float trip was scuttled as rain blew the Grand out for the weekend, so I was left scrambling for other alternatives. I checked the flow gauge and started speed dialing. The V was still too muddy, the Rock would be crowded as usual and Conneaut was also too high. That left the Chagrin and I hadn't fished it yet this season. However, I would be fishing solo as others much to their chagrin never catch many fish there.

The Chagrin is the eastside equivalent of the Rocky River. It's in the heart of the eastern suburbs of Cleveland and is very popular due to its easy access and much of it runs through metro parks. When it comes to fishing the Chagrin as I call it the "Chag", I prefer to fish high as I leave the lower sections to the Neatherals. Many moons ago, I had no choice but to fish the lower section as the Daniel's Park dam kept the majority of fish from heading upstream. That meant a lot of us had to play nice even though it took ever ounce of self control to not club somebody over the head. There wasn't a lot of spots to fish and I could ring off the names them - Todd's field, soccer field, the power lines, Gilson park and the dome. All of them attracted people like flies to rotting meat. Then in 2004 the dam collapsed and opened new water all the way to Gate's Mills, where another dam held the fish back. That helped ease the crowds as I found the upper sections to be more to my liking - quiet, scenic and entirely devoid of dimwits. The fishing was great during those first couple of years, but gradually the word got out as I started seeing more and more anglers. Last year, steelheaders rejoiced when the Gate's Mills dam succumbed and that opened up 8 more miles of water to fish. Ever since the collapse of the dams, I rarely fish north of Daniel's park. 

Sunday morning, I was the first to roll into the lot and I strolled down the river. This is still my favorite section of the river as it has an excellent combination of long pools, runs and a ton of gravel. It was prime as it could be as the deeper sections were a light green and the flow was perfect. Today, I had both salmon and steelhead eggs. Over the years there has been much debate whether steelhead eggs are better in late winter than salmon eggs. Some people believe that salmon eggs are less effective as steelhead have "lost" the scent because salmon haven't been present for months. I find that hypothesis questionable as I believe steelhead are genetically programmed to eat salmon eggs regardless the time of the year. I've used salmon eggs during the months of March and April and done well. The only reason I use steelhead eggs is because I'm starting to run low on salmon eggs.

It was a beautiful morning as I watched a bald eagle fly over and later in the morning I heard an ambulance in the distance that triggered some coyotes to start howling off in the woods. The fishing however, was very tough as it was one here and there. Nothing to write home about either as most of the fish early in the morning were scraggly malnourished small males which I dub as "junk". I kept banging away and walking further upstream. I reached my final destination and it was another small male that looked like he took a major beating from one of the redd bullies. I started back and switched to steelhead eggs, it was the same - one skipper from a small hole and another small male from a tailout. It was getting late in the morning and I had yet to see anybody on the river. I picked off a couple more fish and to no surprise - small males. I was getting annoyed because I fishing near prime spawning areas. There had to be a brute lying in wait somewhere in the deeper water, the "gut" of the pool. That's where those big males love to hide and often throw their weight around whenever others try to muscle in their spot. Then I finally caught a large hen and I wasn't going to toss her back as I was in need of more eggs. She was dark and large and her belly ripe full of eggs. I bleed her and tied the stringer to a log and resumed fishing. I managed a couple of more fish in several spots downstream. It seemed that the fish were not in large groups. As I was getting ready to head back and fish another spot downstream, I lifted the hen and she started to drop eggs. Good thing I was paying attention because if I hadn't all of the eggs would of spilled before I got back to the lot. I shoved a small stick to prevent loosing any eggs. I stowed the fish into the cooler and headed downstream not to far. Unlike the last spot there were 5 anglers fishing in various spots and there was one spot not fished that I knew from past experience held fish. It didn't take long to hook into a fresh male and further down a small skipper fell for a peach steelhead sac. It was only 2:30P.M and I figured the morning crowd was long gone from the lower section. But I had reservations that the fish could of been pounded on earlier. I arrived to see about 8 cars but this section had holes and pools galore. But by then I was frozen to the bone and my stomach was talking me to head out to get something to eat. After fishing for 45 minutes, the combination of both was enough to get me off and head for some chow.

I ended up with a great day - 15 fish from 15 different spots. I covered a lot of water fishing 3 sections of the river. When I took my boots off nearly all of the cleats were gone. That was a testament of the distance I walked in search of fish. When I got home, I sliced open the hen and I watch the eggs pour out. None of the eggs were attached to the skein membrane. This fish was so close to spawning, ready to hit the gravel once the temperature hit the opitmal range. I cut up some nice fillets and prepared one of my favorite steelhead recipes - panko crusted steelhead cooked in olive oil and served with rice and asparagus and I washed it down with some Great Lakes Dortmunder beer........ah bliss

February 20, 2012

High or Low


The Grand finally came down! I couldn't believe it and I had to pinch myself. The law of averages finally kicked in as we didn't get any rain. It took some time for her to come down and I was pumped at getting first crack at fish that hadn't seen a sac or fly in months. I was hoping that the river would fish for the next couple of weeks, as I had a lot of holes and pools to get reacquainted with. The other added bonus was I had my faithful G Loomis rod was back with a brand new upper section. Unfortunately, they didn't buy the snagged beaver broke my tip story and I had to cough up $40.00 for the repair. 

This time of year I'm always debating whether to fish high or low. By now, the fish are usually spread out. The upper sections are more remote, scenic, and plenty of room to fish, but numbers can be sporadic. The low section is more urban, not as scenic and less room to fish. But, there are more fish staging waiting to move up. That's the dilemma I face every week - where to fish. But, since I prefer the peace and quiet, I'm more bias of fishing the upper sections of the river.The first outing was one of my rolling of the dice and it was fish high. The river was running 800cfs on the gauge - borderline wading conditions. 

The weather was beautiful for February - blue sky and warm temperatures. But I knew
several spots that I could cross over without being tripped up and swept away. I've fished the river at this level in the pass it was either outstanding or absolutely dismal. That morning it was dismal as I had only two small hens to show for. Luckily it was still early and I baled for the rowdy lower sections of the Grand. As expected I rolled in and got the last spot in the lot. I walked down and looked up and down stream. Both pools were as expected occupied except for that tailout that everybody seems pass up. Last March, we hammered them in that spot all morning. I started crossing over and I was grateful for being tall as the water got up to my waist as I shuffled along the gravel bottom to the other side. Anglers on the bank watched me to see if I was going over my head. I started to head for the tailout and I noticed another angler starting to walk towards that tailout. My pace started to quicken and then I noticed the angler was elderly. He took his time slowly walking and waved to me as I near the spot. I greeted him and he asked if I could fish this spot. Of course I would never say no to a old person. He seemed harmless as he had a large surf rod and spinning reel and that huge plastic float with the metal pin in. It turned out we both spanked them pretty good and we exchanged fishing stories. I was amazed that he was 78 years old as he handled the cold and current pretty well. Since the tailout flowed on the opposite side, we had to fish it in the middle of the river. That made trying to land fish, especially large ones, very difficult as I don't carry a net. Once the bite shut off, I got the case of happy feet and I bid farewell and wished him luck. Downstream, the morning shift left and I managed to pick off 6 more fish before calling it a day, getting home in time to prepare dinner for the Superbowl.


During that week the Grand slowly kept going down but the biggest concern was a blast of cold arctic air was coming to town for the weekend. The nighttime temps started to dip into the teens and low 20s and for Saturday a ton of snow was coming. Sure enough I woke up Saturday morning to hear the wind howling and I looked out the window to see a whitewall of snow. Even for this diehard a good day in bed was better than fishing. Later in the morning to my disbelief I get a call from Bubba that he's on the Grand. At first I though he was bullshitting me. He braved the elements and despite the frigid wind, slush and snow he managed to get into fish albeit a very short outing. I gave a thumbs up for his spirit and quickly pulled the sheets over my head.



The next morning I slept in as I was in no rush to head out. I leisurely made breakfast, sat down and watched Sportscenter and had a cup of coffee. I knew a lot of anglers took this weekend off and had a lot of excuses not to go. I hit the road at a unheard of 10:45A.M and drove out to the upper Grand. I figured slush might be a problem but it wouldn't be as bad downstream because of the dam above. I pulled in around 11:30A.M and there wasn't a car in sight - nice. It was cold probably in the 20s but the wind made it feel like it was in the single digits. There was always the threat of lake effect snow as the wind was coming from the west. As for the river you couldn't ask for perfect conditions. The Grand ole gal was running with no slush, the water was slightly stained, flow was perfect and wadeable. But there was some side ice.

The plan was to fish the first mile as there was plenty of pools and holes. The clouds were low and steel grey and the wind gusting from the west. I could see rocks and shale ledges that are usually hidden when the Grand is higher. Unlike the last outing, the Grand was running much lower. The rock that I use as a gauge for wading was 3/4 out of the water. The lower flow made fishing easier as the river ran in different directions and it was easier to fish the seams and cuts. The first fish of the morning was a small hen near a tailout. I started to shuffle downstream and it was a treat not worrying about falling into a unseen hole. I had another fish on near a tailout and I had muscle it out under from the ice shelf. It wasn't big - a small male. I kept working down to the section that I generally fish first when the river is higher. I could make out rocks and reading the water was a piece of cake as I watched the current and bubbles slow down near sections that shallowed out. That's where another fish was lying as I set the hook and it was a large male in full winter colors. 




I walked down to section that we call the "shuffle alley" as we often shuffle our way down the cliffs. It was still slow as I had no hits and I had to battle ice on the guides and line. I made it down to the last spot that I going to fish before heading back. I checked the time 1:45P.M, no time to head down low. The phone rang and it was Bubba who decided to sit this one out and was curious to see how I was doing. I gave the dismal news - 3 fish and I was getting cold. I gave out all of the details - river looked great, flow great, but the fish were not in playful mood. 

It was 15 minutes after I talked to him and it was like the switch went off. I adjusted the shots and started drifting more towards the slack water that flowed towards the hard bend and spilled into a series of rapids. The float when under and I felt the rod throb. I watched a very large hen come to the surface. She was big and fat enough that I kept her eggs. I whipped out the stringer and cut her gills to bleed her out as I only had a couple of hours left to fish. Back home I was down to 12 packs of uncured salmon eggs and 3 lbs of cured eggs. I left the fish to bleed out and I walked up to another spot. It turned out to be where the fish were hiding and in less than an hour I caught 6 fish from that spot.

Before heading back I cut the hen open and inside her eggs were ripe. The skein was loose as this fish was close to spawning. I suspect that we'll have a early run as we've had very mild winter with sufficient amounts of rain and snowmelt. The water temperature is close to the optimal spawning conditions and we're almost to the month of March.

February 1, 2012

Pennsylvania - An Exercise in Self Indulgence


Early October Steelhead
The definition of self indulgence is the excessive indulgence of one's own appetites and desires. I'll admit I eat, breath and shit steelhead. It's the only fish I pursue and if I won the lottery, I would build a log cabin on the upper Grand and live the life of a fishing hermit. One indulgence is Pennsylvania and over the years, I've fished it more to expand my steelhead palette. The only differences between Pennsylvania and Ohio is the size of the streams and the number of fish. PA's streams are much smaller and the number of fish in them can be mind boggling when compared to Ohio. 

When I moved to Ohio in 1998, I stuck to fishing the Chagrin and Grand rivers as I lived in Lake county. I was still on the learning curve as I spent countless hours learning both rivers. After a couple of years, I moved to the western suburbs of Cleveland and it was the Rocky and Vermilion rivers. I content with fishing those streams, but when ever they blew out, I was basically stuck at home, patiently waiting for the water to recede. 

During that time, I meet people and talked about the fishing. The word Pennsylvania came up a lot and I heard a lot of glowing and not so glowing reports of the fishery across the state line. My curiosity got the better of me and one of the first things I did was I got John Nagy's book Steelhead Guide - Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead. Nagy is a guide from Pennsylvania and a lot of the book is devoted to his state's streams. The book was pretty well straight forward and I came to the conclusion that even an idiot could have a great day on their streams. I booked off some time and downloaded some maps and made the drive to the Elk. I heard several people tell me that a campground named Folly's was a great place to fish, plus it had a fly shop on the grounds. I stopped a tackle shop called Poor Richards and talked to the owner gleaning anything that would give me the upper hand. I purchased a three day licence since I was staying in town for 3 days. I checked in a hotel off of I-90 and charted out my plan of action.

Fishing the "Tubes"
When I arrived the next morning, I found the creek was small. It reminded me of the small brook trout creeks I use to fish north of Sudbury when I was younger. The only difference was instead of muskeg, granite and alders. There was mud, shale and maples. The creek was on the verge of clearing as the shallow section had a slightly chalky tint and the deeper water had a very greenish color. I remember reading in the book, the green color was from the suspended clay particles in the water. That also meant whenever the water was considered green it was prime and that's where the fish usually hold. I consider myself to a have a great eye when it comes to reading water. The first spot was a riffle that spilled into a section that ran along a small shale wall. Off the seam was about 15yds of dark green water that provided cover for steelhead.

I tied on a #12 white sucker spawn and casted out along a seam. I mended the line and watched the indicator bob along the current - nothing. I made some adjustments and casted out again a little farther and watched the indicator stop dead in its tracks. I quickly set the hook and felt the rod throb - my first PA steelhead. It wasn't large maybe a couple of pounds. I continued to work the creek downstream catching fish in nearly every spot and after my first day, I caught 20 fish. I wondered if the water was higher and more turbid and fishing sacs, I probably would of done better. The next two days it got progressively more difficult was the stream gradually turned crystal clear. I didn't even need glasses as I could see the cuts and ledges in the shale stream bottom. Deep water was virtually non existent and I could see fish hugging the bottom trying their best to blend in. The number of fish caught dropped and I had to use very small patterns and light leaders. It was stealth fishing  at it's worst. For the record, I hate fishing low and clear unless it's for carp. 

The "Nut" and the crowd is light
PA steelheading has a love and hate relationship with many of my fellow steelheaders. Their creeks hold numbers bordering on the fish in a barrel category. It can be so easy that a first time angler with no prior experience can catch a decent number of fish especially when conditions are prime. Those few outings during prime condition can inflate the head of the newbie steelheader. Then a reality check smacks them upside the head the next outing when conditions are low and clear and the newbie goes home empty handed. That's how Pennsylvania's streams generally run - gin clear and low. In some cases, there is no where for fish to hide. I've seen 30 to 50 fish just hold off the bottom and virtually ignore every offering thrown to them. It's tough to go from a lot of fish to very little, because the fish can see you and in most cases they're not interested because they been harassed within an inch of their lives.

The biggest complaint about Pennsylvania are the crowds and during the peak of the season it can be elbows and assholes. As with a lot of fish so comes a lot of anglers. They are all after the same thing and when conditions are low and clear or the weather warmer, sit back with a bag of popcorn and watch show called Da Nut. The Walnut or the Nut or the Wall of Nuts as it known to locals has the dubious distinction of being the armpit of steelheading on the Alley. It's the worst of the worst and you'll see the book of good manners floating downstream littered with hooks in it. It's not for the faint of heart or for the person with a short fuse. I fished it once many years ago when the Elk was still too high and I was waiting for the creek to drop. The nut itself was high and off color, but fishable. I started at the famous stop sign hole - the baptism by fire for the new steelheader. If you can survive the stop sign hole then you can pretty well fish anywhere. I managed to find a spot and I surprised that everybody worked well together. Like a well oiled machine, we casted at the same time, nobody crossed line and when ever a fish was on the line everybody pulled their lines out. I was very impressed and we were hitting fish at a good rate. That's until some moron walks in and starts a clusterfuck. The happy faces quickly turn to scowls. There were numerous times I wanted to bust the two guys on either side of me upside the head because they gave me a lot of grief. That was the ugly side of PA steelheading that I wanted nothing to do with it. It turned out to be the only time I've fished the nut and I never been back since. Over the years I fished Pennsylvania, but I never made it a major destination. By then, I was so familiar with the Ohio streams. The only time I would fish it was when our streams were blown or in early fall. But it was hard to resist not going back. 

PA puddle fishing - the Nut of course
Then one day in late November of 2007 is a day I'll never forget. It was a Wednesday during my vacation week as all of the streams in Ohio were blown out. Not wanting to waste an entire week of sitting around, I had to find some water. According to the flow gauge, the Elk was still considered high. Since my options were limited, I had really no choice but to cross the border. Tuesday night, I probably tied over 100 sacs and crammed them into 3 containers. I drove early Wednesday morning and stopped at a tackle shop to purchase my licence. I waited in line and overheard the clerk telling some people that the Walnut was a better bet as the Elk was still too high. I left the store with a smirk and drove to the mid section of the creek.

The creek was running off color with a decent flow. There wasn't a car in the lot and it was the week of deer hunting season. It was a cold morning and the water temperature was hovering the upper 30s. It was barely first light and the first spot I fished was a small pool that eventually flatten out. The hole wasn't that large maybe 2o to 30 feet in length. I had my centerpin and uncured King salmon eggs. I started drifting along the seam and quickly got into fish. It wasn't an hour and I was all ready into double digits. I had this feeling I was going to have an amazing day. I was familiar with this section as I knew where all of the ledges and cuts were. Everything was in my favor - fresh aggressive fish that were unpressured, dirty water, excellent flow and not a soul in sight. In one pool, for every drift I caught one fish and I could called and made bets when the float went under. It was literally shooting fish a barrel. It wasn't even noon and I knew I was close to 40 fish. It made sense as I caught about 10 fish in the 4 spots I fished and I wasn't near the section that usually holds the mother load of fish. I eventually made it down there and the creek ran along a large towering section of cliffs. There were multiple ledges and pools that spanned nearly 200yds. It was the same results more fish as I couldn't contain my laughter. It was so mind boggling that I couldn't comprehend the number of fish stacked in the pools. None of my friends would believe me, they would call bullshit and demand proof on film.

I finally reach the last spot, a long shallow pool that was considered a go to spot. I was down to two dozen sacs and by then I lost count. I figured I was close to 50 fish and I was determined to see how many more I could catch before dark. I remember hearing tales of people fishing in groups hitting the 100 mark under favorable conditions. I thought guys were pulling my leg, 100 fish in a small creek that is fished intensively from September to April - no way. I caught more fish and I was finally out of sacs. I looked at the time and it was 3:30, far too early to head home. Luckily, I brought my flies along as the creek over the day started to drop and clear. I started to use egg pattern such as sucker spawn, clown eggs, estaz eggs and blood dots. I would soak whatever juices were left at the bottom of the containers. I started to head back and the number of fish caught dropped. By the time I returned to the lot it was getting dark and I lost count, but it was a lot of fish, more then I've ever caught. It was a day that I'll never forget because I might never have a day like that again. It turned out that the season of 2007 - 2008 was one of the best runs the Alley's had ever seen. After a day like that, I could torn up my Ohio licence and made the trip out every weekend, but I knew conditions like I had today were very rare - everything fell into place. To fish the Elk without people trying to crowd you out is unheard of. Within a couple of days the creek would be low and clear, the fish easily spooked and shy and the anglers numerous.

Pennsylvania is perfect for the angler who rarely gets the chance to go out and wants to get into big numbers of fish. With personal commitments and work, I've purchased an annual licence. It makes sense because it was another card in the deck and this season with all of the rain, Pennsylvania saved a lot of weekends that would of been spent at home. It's a destination that the Great Lakes steelheader should experience. Over the years, I've seen a lot of plates from Michigan, Ontario, New York and even Wisconsin. It's a very unique fishery and your elbow and shoulder will get a workout.