The Savvy Steelheader

  1. shrewdness and practical knowledge; the ability to make good judgments.
    "the financiers lacked the necessary political savvy"

    Shrewd and practical knowledge? Yes, I have plenty of that. The ability to make good judgements? Well, the jury is still out on that as I've made some questionable decisions over the years. After 20 years on the Alley, I can say confidently that I'm a savvy steelheader. From knowing the habits of my quarry, the pulse of the fishery, and my attention to detail. I can pretty well dial in where my best chance of getting fish. But from time to time albeit rarely, I've done the walk of shame after getting collared with a skunk around my neck. These fish can still school the best of the best. 

    It's the week leading to Christmas and I know that high school and college kids are off. Some anglers I know have took the week off as well. The weather has been unseasonably warm. That's a recipe for crowded conditions. I've heard through the grapevine that the rivers have been a busy place all week. I'm planning on fishing Friday which happens to be Christmas Eve and everybody pretty well has that day off.

    I've made my decision to fish the upper stretches of the Grand River days in advance. Early in the week, I labored in my kitchen mixing up a cure for my salmon skein and loose eggs. On the counter I have several skiens and eggs on paper towels. Over the years, I've tweaked my cure recipe of Borax, sugar, salt, and added scents that would make Colonel Sanders proud. We'll see if my latest batch turned out to be a success so I wrote down the measurements and store it in the vault. 

    Christmas Eve and I'm on the road. The interstate is a dead place and in a few hours many Clevelanders will be racing to the malls to get last minute gifts. Just as I'm savvy when it comes to fishing, I'm the same when it comes to shopping. I avoid the malls like the plague even before Covid hit. Why deal with the traffic? Aimlessly driving around for a parking shop and only finding out that size you need isn't in stock. Having some pimpled face kid pushing more clothes for you to buy. Shopping was done online weeks ago. Done in the comfort of my place, drinking a beer and shopping in peace and quiet. All the gifts await me when I get home later today.

    I get to the upper section of the river and I'm the first person in the lot. As I dress, I hear two foxes in the distance calling each other in the dark. One is across the river high above the cliff and the other is the woods farther downstream. I can see the first glimpse of light to the east. I have a good feeling that I'll have a stretch to myself.

    I start my walk along the trail and today will be a warm day. Sadly there will be no snow this Christmas. As a matter of fact, we've barely had any snow so far and that's very unusual for the Alley as it's in the heart of the snowbelt. I reach the crossing point of the river and start wading across. I make it across and don't even bother fishing the first spot. I continue along the river and disappear into the woods. The trail snakes throught the woods and I veer off it towards the beginning the cliffs. This is where I'm going to fish. I promised my girlfriend that I would only fish until noon. It will take almost an hour to get home and pack and drive to her house south of Cleveland. 

    I've been fishing the streams along Steelhead Alley for nearly 20 years, ever since I moved here from Western Canada in 1998. Back then I wasn't as savvy I was today. I fished back in Canada, but steelhead wasn't my quarry. The nearest steelhead river from my home town of Sudbury, Ontario was the St. Mary's River which was 195 miles to the west. I was content to the fish the local lakes and streams for pike, walleye, and brook trout. 

    But, I quickly caught the steelhead bug after hearing stories of the abundant numbers of fish in the local streams. Over the years, I learned from trail and error, voraciously reading books and articles about Lake Erie steelhead, and studying maps of the rivers. I fished as much as possible and hiked countless miles along the Rocky, Chagrin, Vermilion, Conneaut, and Grand. 23 years later, I have a little more gray in my hair, wrinkles around my eyes, and I can tell nearly every hole, pool, and cut from Harperfield dam all the way down to the Fairport Harbor. 

    From my starting point I look up river and I can see 2 anglers fishing the first spot. I don't think they'll venture down where at I'm this morning. The number of people fishing for steelhead has exploded over the years, much to the chagrin of the veterans who reminisce about the good ole days of rarely seeing other anglers. I don't have pity on those who complain about the crowds and are unwilling to venture past the first pool or riffle. Others have complained that social media has ruined the fishery. I have mixed feelings on that one, because without social media the rivers would still be crowded due to word of mouth and plus there's over 2 million people living around and along Steelhead Alley. But, I'm not the one to plaster my outings on Facebook and I'm very tight lipped on who I share my trips with. The best steelheaders I know can keep their egos in checks. 

    I settle in and the river is flowing lazily. The hemlocks and icicles along the cliffs give off a festive vibe. But it's the quiet that I enjoy the most. There's times when I enjoy fishing with the guys, but most of the time I prefer to go solo. Today is one of those of days. Somewhere in the murky depths, there's steelhead hugging the bottom. I watch the speed of the bubbles. From knowledge, I have a good idea where the shale ledges gradually fall off. Where the bubbles line is the slowest is where I want to target. Since the flow is slower and the water is colder, I want to use a fairly thin float. I reach into my side pack and it's bursting at the seams with boxes, jars of sacs, and floats. The savvy steelheader has a complete arsenal of tackle. I have jigs, beads, soft baits, and of course sacs. Anything to give me an edge. 

    But, I mostly use sacs and I put on a white one. I'm curious to see how this latest batch of cured eggs will work. This batch I used brown sugar instead of white and I have the line set to 4' deep and I gently cast half way out. I mend the line and move it in more to get it into the zone. I work the front section along the cliffs and I'm constantly making adjustments. I chuck the white sac for a pink one and I'll continue the process until I get a take. So far white, pink, and red haven't worked. So grab a chartreuse one and I know that color often works well in colder water. The bright hue will often shake a steelhead out his winter stupor. I cast out and 20' downstream I see the float pop and eventually go under. I set the hook and I feel the rod throb. Eventhough the water temperature is in the mid 30s, the fish rips off across the river. The fight is fairly quick and I steer the fish along the rocks. It's a male in his spawning colors. The dark charcoal hues mixed with reds along his body and rosy cheeks. He's very stout and athletic looking. After the spring spawn, he'll be a former shell of himself. Unfortunately, I lost my hemostats, so I have to use my fingers which isn't fun because of the fishes needle sharp teeth. Hope there's a new pair of hemostats tomorrow morning. I gently push the fish out and it bolts back into the depths. 

    I've dialed in where exactly the fish are and it' the classic winter holding spots. Working along the edges of the currents and towards the tail end. It's a mixed bag of males and females, all of them on the large size. For the past few years, the division of wildlife has been stocking the Chambers Creek and Ganaraska strain from Wisconsin. Before that it was the Manistee strain from Michigan. I've noticed that the latest strain seems to head up river a lot sooner than the previous strains. From my journals I've noted catching steelhead on the upper stretches as early as October. The mindset of many steelheaders is to fish low early in the season and go high in the spring. 

    I've moved farther down and here the river moves a little faster. Here I can get relief from the cold water as I'm standing on the bank. During the warmer months, the sedges can be taller than 3'. There's no trees to hamper my casting. I continue to pick off fish at the tail out. I look at the time and it's 10:30, I have another hour and half. I'm almost at the end of the cliffs before the river makes a 90 degree angle and flows down to another set of cliffs. This last spot was great years ago, but now it rarely holds fish because of changes to the bottom. This is life on the Alley as many spots come and go. The constant erosion of banks and floods move gravel, clay, and trees. It's a constant relearning that will never end. 

    As expected I don't get a take and I start heading back upstream. The walk is fairly easy as in past years I would be huffing and puffing through a couple feet of snow. As I come out of the woods I see two anglers fishing the flat that I past up this morning. It's a decent spot, but it depends on the flow and today it wouldn't be ideal. The other spot above that is vacant and I decide to give it a shot. The other two anglers are gone and who knows if they were savvy and the bite was off or just a couple of greenhorns who didn't know where the fish are. I give myself 20 minutes to fish and I manage to catch 3 fish in that time. I can't complain about the outing as I got into double digits.

    When I first started, I rarely got into double digits. I was lucky to catch to couple fish here and there. Most of the time I would go home skunked. But I continue to plug away learning from mistakes and picking the brains of the old timers. I credit a lot of that to Don Mathews a long time Steelhead Alley guide that I meet on the Elk twenty years ago. He was a wealth of information and was a mentor. Today, Don lives and guides in Florida after he retired from GM several years ago, but he stills guides along the Alley during the spring. From time to time I run into his long time partner Jeff who still guides on the eastern streams. However, it's my attention to detail that I credit to my success today. 

    I pull out of the parking lot and see about 6 anglers fishing at the base of the new dam. The dam is lower, but it's still too high for fish to make it over. I head up the hill and it's a short drive to I-90. On the way back I cross over the Chagrin River and I can see people lined up along the river down to the old dam. The skies are bright and you ask for a nicer day. I'll be off next week and most likely head back to the Grand. 

    I hope I do get those hemostats because my finger and thumb are a mess.