It's a chilly late winter morning as I'm helping Don Mathews unload the pontoon boats below Harperfeild's dam on the Grand River. Don is an auto worker at GM who also moonlights as a fishing guide. He's been guiding for many years along the Alley long before I moved here in 1998. I first meet him on the Elk. What we shared was a passion for steelhead. How he does it is a remarkable feat in itself. Don works the 3rd shift and once he clocks out, he heads over whatever river his clients want to fish. It can be Conneaut, Ashtabula, or the Elk. Don rarely ventures over to the western streams preferring to be closer to his home. Don performs this from October until April. Working his 3rd shift, guiding for eight hours, heading home and sleeping for a few hours, and then heading to work. You would think the guy would be cantankerous and the verge of a breakdown from burning the candle from both ends. But he's alway been approachable and in a good mood.
Over the years, we would go out on several outings and he told me that one day we should float the Grand. I found that intriguing as I wanted to experience traveling a river where a lot of anglers rarely venture. Several times I've fished the upper Grand but I always ran out of time and I would often look down river and wonder
"What if I went a little further?"
It was tempting, but knowing myself, I continue to walk as I wanted to explore these unknown stretches. Unfortunately, my body can take so much abuse and I would run out of time.
The Grand River is the largest of the steelhead rivers in Ohio. Rising from Geauga County, it meanders along the rural areas of the northeastern part of the state and then makes a sharp turn west just south of Geneva and continues west through the urban areas on Lake County and gradually empties into Lake Erie. Harperfield's dam is located about 20 miles from the lake and according to many is as far as steelhead can go. Personally I think a few do make it over, but that's another story. The covered bridge spans the river and gives the dam a rustic look. The upper section flows through some heavily wooded areas. There's very little evidence of human activity. Once you're past the most popular pool, you enter a place that is peaceful and scenic. Along the river are stands of sycamores, ashes, and maples mixed in with sedge meadows. On the cliffs the hemlocks growing precariously on the edges. During the spring, in the early mornings you'll hear the gobbling of turkeys or a pilated woodpecker hammering on a dead tree. White tailed deer often forage along the meadows and sometimes a bald eagle will soar over. What you don't see are other anglers and that can be for several miles.
There's some metro parks scattered along the upper section, Some have trails leading to the river and others don't. If you plan to walk the river, you need to be in top shape. I've done it couple of times and at the end of the day my back, knees and ankles were shot. Several times I would see several anglers in small pontoon boats or canoes and I thought to myself I wished I had one of those because I could cover some serious water.
Don has two types of boats. One is his Clackacraft boat that he uses primarily on the Grand. When he has a single client or fishing a smaller river, he'll use the smaller inflatable solo pontoon boats. They're perfect because they can float over shallow sections without the fear of hitting rocks or debris. Since they're smaller they can fit in the back of a pickup or on top of a SUV. Lightweight they can be carried to and from the river with relative ease.
It's just past eight in the morning and we're starting to inflate the tubes. It doesn't take that long to get them filled. We check for any leaks and we start loading everything up. I place my cooler behind the seat and I have some sandwiches and a couple thermos filled with chicken noodle soup and the other hot chocolate. I tighten my wading belt and strap my rod to the side. I step into the water and several blobs of anchor ice come up. I wince at the sight of it, becuase that usually means the water is very cold. But since it's shallow here, I'm hoping the deeper holes are free of it.
The flow is at a nice pace where we really don't need to paddle. Due to time constraints we're only floating to the county line bridge some 4 miles downstream. During the spring, Don will float all the way down to Hidden Valley metropark and that trip is about 8 miles. If he was adventerous he could float all the way to Mason's Landing off Vrooman road, which would be in my estimation another 6 miles. The river is a tea colored stain which is the norm for the Grand during the winter. It's looks like it's on the verge of taking on that emerald green color that the smaller rivers have during the winter months, but it never does. It's alway that drab muddy color which its famous for.
We make through a series of riffles and float over the infamous "walleye" hole. The upper Grand does have a resident population of walleye that stay in the river all year long. The hole is also one of the best spots for steelhead. Usually there's some anglers fishing, but since its a weekday and it's cold, there's nobody out. After the walleye hole the river flattens out and in the distance I see the cliffs and the sides of them are covered in snow and ice. The stands of hemlock that grow from the sides of the cliff give off a vibrant green against the white. The stretch along the cliffs holds plenty of steelhead waiting to make their migration. As we slowly float we discuss the upcoming spring run. So far this year, the Alley has experienced a banner run of fish. Nearly every outing I've gone well into double digits and last November I had an epic outing on the Elk. It was a day that I'll never forget as I had my hands full all day as I caught fish after fish. It was literally shooting fish in a barrel as I lost count of fish catch, but I do remember my shoulders paying for it the next day. Hopefully today we can get into some fish, but I think it will take everything we have to get them to bite.
The lazy river makes a sharp turn and funnels itself through a narrow section. The speed of the water is fast as we shoot down the short series of rapids. An experienced kayaker would yawn at the sight of this water. The pontoon boat handles it will as I move the oars to steer it away from the rocks and overhanging trees. The river makes another turn and narrows along the cliffs. A series of rapids are easily handled before spilling into a pool. The river widens agains and reverts back to it's lazy self. We're past the first mile marker and many steelheaders rarely make it this far down. That's in part due the treachous rapids above the first pool. I've crossed over it only when the river is fairly low and loose rocks can make it adventrous. The river makes another turn and we see another section of cliffs in the distance. The current starts to speed up and there's another set of riffles and we're not far from our first stop.
From the river I see posted signs plastered everywhere. This section belongs to a local ethnic club. The road to the club is private so people aren't allowed to park. Don has permission to fish here and told me the landowner doesn't have any issues with people walking downstream and fishing here. But it doesn't stop certain club members from acting like enforcers as Don and some of his guides have had several encounters with them. But today there's nobody here to yell and bully us. We pull the boats on the gravel bar and start fishing the pools.
The cold weather all week has definitely put the bite off. Despite our experience we only have a couple fish between us. This is the weather that separates the boys from the men. Had I not been floating, I would most likely be at the walleye hole, grousing about the lousy fishing. I start going with different colors to see what excites them. In my jars I have hot pink, chartreuse, white, red, and orange. The eggs are really juicy and give off a nice scent. But I'm grinding it out, working the pool in a grid pattern. I work the slots, along the banks, the tail outs, and off the bubble line. I watch my float stall and barely go under. In these conditions, I immediately set the hook. There's a thud and a slight head shake. The fight is brief and I land a small dark male. His entire body is dark, mixed with charcoal black along his belly and bright red cheeks. He's just weeks away from the spawn. Unfortunately due to his small size, he'll never have that opportunity as the dominant male will make sure of that. Somewhere in these pools is a dominant male or two.
After several hours of banging away we have about 8 fish. We break for lunch and I pour a cup of hot chicken soup. It hits the spot. If I wasn't floating, I would must likely be up at the walleye hole grousing about the lack of fish and trying to eat a frozen protein bar. I probably would venture downstream, but I would stop at the bend. I wouldn't want to waste time walking from spot to spot. Instead I'm sitting on the boat seat laughing and enjoying my time. Floating definitely takes the stress off.
Even though the Grand is one of the largest steelhead rivers in Ohio, it shares a trait common with the other rivers, it's very shallow. Anything over 3' is considered deep. If I wasn't in a boat, I would be covering a lot of ground to get from one spot to the next. There's plenty of dead water, as I refer to where steelhead generally don't hold. Riffles and gravel beds are few and far between on the upper Grand. Other than the ethnic club spot, there's another set of riffles downstream. That's our last destination as shove off and head there.
The next spot is a prime spawning area, probably one of the best on the Upper Grand. The river runs through a series of sedge meadows with some sycamores mixed in. The river over time has carved out riffles around it and there's plenty of gravel for steelhead to spawn in. Below the riffles there's a long pool. The pool isn't very deep probably a couple feet deep. As it was like at the last spot, it turns into a grind. We manage to get some fish and all of them are have the signs that they're weeks away from spawning. The hens were fat from the ripened eggs inside of them and some of the males had the dark spawning colors. These fish have probably been here for months. With the next high water, many more will make the journey to get here and beyond.
Don beleives there's more fish and is happy with the results. He's pretty confident that next month will be very good if the weather cooperates. His calendar is booked with trips well into April. We head off and let the river take us to our final desination. There's noting quite like floating a river. There's no worries or having to storm through the woods to beat the others to your favorite spots. You simply sit back and let the river take you to your destination. In the distance, I see the bridge and my Jeep parked along the road. Above the bridge is another prime spawning area, but we don't have time to fish. I drive back to the dam to get Don's truck and follow him back to load up the boats.
Floating rivers in Ohio is generally done on the more rural rivers such as the Grand, Vermilion, and Conneaut. Many of these areas especially on the upper sections are often inaccessible or go through private property. There's nothing refreshing than sitting back and enjoying the scenery. There's no sounds other than nature.