Pennsylvania Steelheading and the Unexpected Phone Call


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 the rest. 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 5 minutes before you lose it.

Nearly all of Pennsylvania's streams are very small and all of them run over freestone shale much Ohio's. 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 vultures 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 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 antsy 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 Seahawks, 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.

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.


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.


 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.


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.

The Skunk

 

Every angler experiences it from time to time, the dreaded skunk. The times, when we throw everything in vain, cover endless miles of water and look to the sky in frustration. 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. 

The skunk happens when we less expect it. The conditions can be perfect. But, whatever reason, the fish won't bite. There's noting we can do, but scratch our heads. It can be maddening, because there's been times when I thought I would gotten skunked and I couldn't stop the fish from biting. But there are certain times when the skunk will rear its ugly head and that usually early in the season here along the Alley. 

It was unseasonably warm and the creek was running low and clear. I knew before heading out and I knew there would be a pretty chance of me getting skunked. The other option would to be sitting at home and doing nothing but thinking about the better days ahead. When I arrived at the creek at first light, its warm enough that I don't even need to wear a jacket. The Alley was experiencing a beautiful Indian summer. You couldn't ask for a nicer day and I figured most of the guys I knew would be out on the lake, getting in the last perch or walleye outing before the winter winds would usher in the end of the season. 

I walked down the train tracks and my boots kick up dust, It's been another dry fall, but weeks before the stream blew and there were reports of fish moving in. Conneaut is practically on the state line with Pennsylvania and the creek does start in that state. Both states stock steelhead in it and Pennsylvania's fish are a fall run. That's why Conneaut is a popular stream because it gets good runs of fall and spring fish. When I get the bridge, the stream is barely flowing. I see two angler watching their floats, barely move. They could go for lunch and come back and the float would have probably moved half the length of the pool. 


I don't even bother to fish above them, because most likely that spot has been pounded for weeks. Deep water was few and far between on the lower section. 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 half full, is gradually getting a little more empty. In most spots, I can see right to the bottom. I'm starting to run out of deep holes and pools. It's almost late morning when I finish up at the last spot and the riffle above is barely registering a gurgle. I stand on one othe train trestle supports and look over at the shale ledge. It relatively dark and could possibly hide some fish. I work the spot and my gut tells me there probably isn't any in there or they've been caught repeatedly. The glass is empty and I'm resigned that today isn't going to be the day. I chug some water, hang my head and head back downstream.

We've all had our fair share of the skunk, even the most experience steelheaders have had those where they have nothing to show for. 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. 

Lousy Weather


For the record, I love lousy weather, the worse, the better.

Sleet - No Sweat

Snow - Bring it on

Cold - Love it

Rain - Just deal with it

I'm not the type to sit at home and wait for the April showers that bring May flowers kind of weather. I'll be on the road punching through the squalls coming off Lake Erie in December or January or I'll be that guy busting out huge sections of ice to open up some water. Sitting at home doing nothing isn't an option. Lousy weather has its benefits and biggest one is crowd control. The majority of anglers along the Alley are generally considered the fairweather variety. They only venture out when it conditions are perfect. There's nothing wrong with that, as I welcome the days when I don't have bundle up and constantly blow on my frozen hands.

Weather along the Alley can turn at moments notice, especially during the winter. The biggest culprit is lake effect snow. Cold winds from the north or west blow across the warm waters and as they often do. Along the way moisture gets picked up. It's a unique phenomenon, because certain areas along the lake get more snow than others. I live on the westside of Cleveland and we usually don't get as much snow because of the winds. Drive 20 miles east towards Lake County and they can get socked with a ton of snow. That's the case pretty well all the way to Buffalo, New York.

When one of these lake effect snow hits, it can be a white knuckle drive, even in a 4X4. You can barely see in front of you and then 20 minutes later, you come out it out and the sun is out. The same can be said when fishing as there's been times when I can barely make out the float. As for people? Most of time, I'll have entire stretches of the river to myself. Nothing is more satisfying then working a stretch and not having to worry about someone encroaching in your spot. That's probably why I enjoy winter steelheading, because it separates the boys from the men.

The same be said about rain or even the threat of it. I have the luxury of living 10 minutes away from one of the rivers. Depending on when it rains, I simply hop in the car and drive down. Someone living 2 hours away, isn't going to roll the dice and make the drive out. When it's raining, the window is just open enough, but it will close quickly if it becomes. The smaller streams will be the first to blowout. That's where the USGS flow data comes in handy. It can be used a tool to determine what's the best option to fish. If the rain has occurred in the early morning hours, then I'll fish the Grand. The Grand is the largest of the rivers in Ohio that get steelhead. It takes sometime for it to completely blowout.