Steelhead Alley In The Winter

The Alley got its first significant snowfall of the year. There's something about the first snow of the season. It ushers in the winter steelheading season. This the time of the year when only the most hardy anglers venture out. The Alley can get tremendous amounts of snow, especially along the eastern shore of Lake Erie. Lake effect snow as we call it, is produced  when a cold air mass moves across long expanses of warmer water, warming the lower layer of air which picks up moisture from the lake, rises up through the colder air above, freezes and is deposited on the downwind shores. That's why the eastern side of the lake gets more snow, because of the lake's position. I live in the western suburbs of Cleveland and we rarely get lake effect snow. Where I live we can get 3 inches of snow and out by Ashtabula they can get 3 feet of it. 

Today, I'm on Conneaut Creek and they got dumped on. As I drove east, I hit several bands of snow coming off the lake. A few flakes would flutter about and gradually it got more intense and finally I would hit a squall. I had to pretty well go to a crawl and hoped motorists behind would slow down. Generally, squalls are short lived and I was back to good visibility. I reach the exit on the interstate and head for one section of the creek. The roads are snow covered and my Jeep handles it well. I drive down a country road and turn off onto snow covered dirt road. The hill going down to the creek is fairly steep. My Jeep Cherokee has BF Goodrich mud terrain tires and they grip the road hard as I make my way down. I reach the end of the road and I'm the only person there. 

I step out the Jeep and I'm standing in about a foot of fresh snow. The temperature is about 28F and the winds are light. I dress and I'm snug as a bug. I use a balaclava to keep my neck warm and a toque cover my head and ears. In both pockets are hand warmers and I carry a small micro fiber towel to dry my hands. The walk to the first pool isn't far, just across the campground. I trudge through the snow and in past years I've walked in deeper snow. I see the creek and the surrounding landscape is a winter wonderland as the trees and bushes are covered in it. Hard to believe that just 3 months ago, the leaves on the trees hadn't turned color and I was complaining about the heat. The creek is emerald green in color and I start at the head of the pool and work off the main current. 

Flakes of snow swirl about and very soon a band of snow will be going through. I look to the north and the sky is dark. The snowfall becomes more intense as I strain to see the float. Flakes pelt my face and my hands are getting wet. I pull my hood over to keep my toque dry. I keep my head down so my face isn't getting the full effect of the snow. It becomes so bad, that I reel in the line and wait it out. I get out of the water and sit on log. Eventually, the snow stops and I enter the water and start fishing.

The pool I'm fishing is small. but always holds fish. It doesn't take long for the first fish of the morning as I land a small female. She looks like a recent arrival as she's bright silver. The next fish is a large male and he's more dark. He has a mixture of charcoal, silver and red. The pool gives up a couple more fish and I start to head downstream to another one. As I walk down I brush along the willows and snow falls off the branches. The flakes appear again and another band of heavy snow hits. I hear the flakes land on my hood and look across the creek. The falling snow dances and once it hits the water instantly disappears. With this much snow, I can't see anybody making the long drive out. Most of them wouldn't dare attempt going the hill where I'm at. If we get anymore snow, I'm concerned I might get stuck.

The snow relents and I scan the pool. I watch the current hug along the opposite bank and follows the bank and it curves and eventually tailouts at the next riffle. This pool is deep and long and I slow down my presentation. The float drifts along and slowly goes under the classic winter take. Due to the cold water the fight isn't very long in duration. I see a large female come to the surface and she doesn't offer any resistance. I gently pull her along the edge of the rocks and I use the hemostats to pop the hook out. I use my boot to push her back and she slowly swims off back to her resting place.

With the colder temperatures coming next week, it won't take long for the streams to ice over. The sides will freeze over first and the water temperature will eventually reach freezing. When that happens, slush appears and it makes fishing virtually impossible. I've seen streams clogged in slush and that's why I don't get up early. Every season, when I get my morning coffee, I'll drive down to the Rocky and see guys fishing in vain in the morning hoping to get a drift off. If the sun is out, I'll wait until afternoon and by then, most of it is burned off and the added bonus is those guys that fished in the morning are long gone as they succumbed to the cold.

I hit a few more spots along the river and the fishing for the most part has been slow. But that is expected in the winter as it can be very challenging. The foot and half of snow when I arrived is over 2 feet deep. I lug my wet waders and boots into the tote box and close the hatch. I start the Jeep up and back up towards the gate. The Jeep is in four wheel drive and start to accelerate when I hit the hill. The Jeep's tires digs in and the engine roars. It goes through the snow like a tank and with little effort makes it to the top. Before getting on the interstate, I stop at McDonalds for a scalding cup of coffee. It hits the spot and I get on the interstate. The highway is free of snow and ice as crews have been out all day clearing snow. The weather report isn't calling for any snow for the rest of the day. I set the cruise at 70mph and enjoy the ride home. 

What's For Dessert?

spotted dick

The Brits love giving hilarious names to their foods. My mother is British and I remember as a teen visiting my grandparents in England. One time we were at the grocery store and there was a package of faggots ( pork meatballs ) and I started snickering. Luckily, my grandparents never forced us to eat them, as I thought British cuisine with the exception of fish and chips was absolutely horrible. But it would of been great to hear my grandfather say at the supper table "I've got nothing against faggots, I just don't fancy them."  

Tonight, I was at World Market browsing the food section and came across cans of spotted dick. Spotted dick of course is a British sponge pudding. If I had a Christmas party next week at work, I would of bought it and baked the boys a lovely cake.

spotted dick
Photo Credit -

600 Miles For Steelhead

600 miles for steelhead

Anglers will go to extremes when comes to chasing their favorite quarry. I know some guys I fish with making long journeys to chase steelhead. Some will go to Indiana for skamanias in the summer. Others will go in the fall to Salmon River in New York or the Manistee in Michigan. And others go north into Canada on the Nipigon or St. Marys for early summer steelhead. That's the allure of our passion, going to a place that we never fished before or dreamt about it or we simply need our fix.

Rain has pretty blown everything out here in Ohio as I see the huge spike on the flow gauge for all of the rivers. Tomorrow I start my vacation week and I'm not going to sit on the sidelines. I'll be heading over to Pennsylvania tomorrow morning to fish Elk Creek. Pennsylvania didn't get as much rain as we did, but enough to blow out the creek out. Pennsylvania's steelhead streams are much smaller than Ohio's and can come down to fishable levels in a matter of a day. The creek on the gauge had peaked and started to drop. I was pretty confident that tomorrow I would have decent conditions.

Monday morning I'm at the gas station filling up my Jeep. I love my 1991 Cherokee Laredo. Even though she's old, she's in great shape. Over the years, I put on a lift kit and got off-road tires. But she has a thirst for fuel. The pump clicks and I look at the amount $50.00 and I'll probably go through more than half a tank there and back to Elk Creek as it's a little over 200 miles round trip. I'm on the road before most of the minions are heading to work into Cleveland. I arrive at the upper section of the creek and there's nobody at the campsite. Over the years, I've had a love/hate relationship with Pennsylvania. I hate the crowds and I don't find the streams all that challenging. But the number of fish landed can inflate one's ego.

600 miles for steelhead

The creek is running dirty and it doesn't take long for me to start racking up the number of fish caught. It's a quiet morning except for the odd crack of a rifle as its deer hunting season. With my orange toque on, I'm pretty sure that I stick out like a sore thumb against the grey landscape. I continue my way downstream hitting fish and I'm concerned that I burning through a lot of sacs. The high water brought in a lot of fish. I take full advantage of the conditions because the window for prime fishing conditions can be brief. By tomorrow, this section will most likely be clear. I'm down to my last container of sacs and I've reached the cliffs. This section at times will hold the mother load of fish. The creek runs along the cliffs swiftly and right off the current is the shale ledges and fish pack themselves like sardines. A novice could slaughter them in the current conditions right now. By the time, I'm out of bait, I've lost count of how many fish I caught, probably well over 50 and for some of the diehards I know, they would consider that an "average" day. I start to walk back and I feel the drops of rain hitting my jacket. I look at the weather on my phone and more rain is coming. I suspect that tomorrow the Elk could blow out. On the way home, the rain comes down harder. I get home and I see the Elk is on the rise, heading for a blowout.

Tuesday morning I wake up and see the Elk has blown out. Today will be spent at home chilling and tying sacs. This time, I took an extra pack of eggs out. I toll at the table as I tie one sac after another. It's a tedious process that at times I start to hate, because of the monotony. Wednesday morning I'm back on the road and I stop in Ashtabula to fill up. The pump clicks and its $55.00, nobody said chasing steelhead was cheap. I continue on I head back to the same place, but instead, I head upstream from the campsite. The creek is a little higher than it was Monday but still fishable in my book. I walk along the empty campers parked near the edge of the creek. I see the bridge and there's nobody fishing there. The water swirls about around the supports and the pool runs along the cliffs. I toss the float out and move it to the seam. It chugs along and quickly goes under. The first fish of the morning is a dark male and I have a feeling it will be another "average" day. The pool gives up a lot of scrappy fish for the taking. Within an hour, I'm over double digits. Pennsylvania stocks the lion share of steelhead into Lake Erie. They annually stock over 1.1 million smolts into their streams that run into Lake Erie. Compared that to Ohio that only gets to stock 400,000 smolts annually. Then you wonder why so many anglers go to Pennsylvania. Personally, I think it's excessive, but I'm not complaining this morning. I move farther upstream to another section after getting my fill. It's refreshing not having to rub shoulders with others. I cross over and start at the tail end of the pool. The creek runs along a series of small cliffs. The hemlocks hang over and are still wet from the rain. I watch the bubbles and toss the float out into the middle. The float moves along and goes under quickly. I watch a bright silver fish leap from the water. It thrashes about and with the heavier tippet I land the fish quickly. So far on this trip, I haven't seen one person. That in itself is amazing as there's always someone coming up the creek. I can relax and fish the entire section without having to worry. The pool gives up quite a few fish as I shuffle upstream. There's another large pool farther up that I want to go to.

600 miles for steelhead

It's already late morning and the bite has slowed down. I stand in the middle of the creek working the ledges along the cliffs. I've already noticed that the water visibility is getting better. By tomorrow, it will be either green or clear. Fishing clear conditions on the Elk is difficult. The fish really have nowhere to hide. Some will squeeze tight against the shale ledges hoping they blend in. For the brighter fish, it might help. As for darker fish, they're a sitting duck. Most anglers will resort to a single egg. The problem with that is the hook is so small that a light tippet will only work. These aren't the 12" trout that the state stocks in the spring. Most steelhead will shred a light tippet with little effort. Whenever Pennsylvania's streams run clear, I'll be in Ohio. The bite starts to pick up again and I'm down to one container. I've pretty well cleaned out the pool and I start fishing pocket water and small runs.

By mid-afternoon, I'm out of sacs and I start the long walk back. As I'm walking back, I'm trying to figure out where to go tomorrow. There's no rain in the forecast, the streams here will be most likely clear. The only option I have in Ohio is the Ashtabula. It's the smallest of the Ohio streams and usually runs a day or two behind the Elk after a blowout. I hit the highway and I look over at as I'm crossing Conneaut Creek, it's still running high and dirty. When I see the exit to Ashtabula, I pull off and head to Indian Trail. It's not a long walk to the river as I walk down the hill and along the trail. I see the river and it's a little dirty. By tomorrow it will be better and I make the decision to head there in the morning. Before I get on the highway, I see that I need to fill up. I stand by the pump and I know what the dollar amount will be $47.50, I'll probably go through a quarter tank by the time I hit Cleveland.

Wednesday night I have another date with the kitchen table as I slave over a pile of eggs. I grind it out as the days of getting up early, driving, walking and tying sacs is taking a toll on me. I finally finish and hit the sack. The alarm blares as I stumble out of bed. This will probably be the last trip for my vacation, but I've said that before as the guys will twist my arm to go out. I'm surprised I haven't received calls from them about the fishing. The drive to Ashtabula is about 70 miles. I get to the river at first light and there's nobody there. The Bula as we call it is small compared to the other streams in Ohio. The river isn't stocked, but there's talk of eventually stocking. Back in heydays, Ashtabula was a thriving industrial community. It was common back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s to dump wastewater in the river. The result was decades of sludge that accumulated on the bottom. It became so bad that the EPA declared it an "area of concern" That's why the river was never a candidate to be stocked by the ODNR. There is news that in 2013, the lower section of the river will be dredged to remove contaminants.

I'm far upstream from the city. This section of the river is primarily shale and I know this section very well. I look for shadows in the water as that's where the ledges are. If it was clear all you see is a flat rock bottom with a few deep cuts. The number of fish here is significantly lower than Pennsylvania. I have no idea how many steelhead come upriver. I pick away at some fish, but it's a couple here and there. I have to really work the water, unlike the Elk where I can toss a float out and predict with great accuracy that a fish will hit. I plug away as I head downstream seeking out long pools and runs. It turns into a grind as there are a couple spots that don't give up fish. Ohio can humble the best of steelheaders. My back is aching as I stand in a run as all week I've been walking miles of water. My phone rings I see it's one of the guys. I answer and tell them it's a grind on the Bula. He asks if I'm going to Conneaut and I tell him doubtfully as it's getting late in the day and I'm tired. We do make plans to go out this weekend as I'm taking Friday off to rest.

I end the day and it's been a decent one. Friday will be spent sleeping in and relaxing. I fight through rush hour traffic and I see the yellow light come on telling me I'm low on fuel. I've driven a little over 600 miles this week and spent close to $200.00 in fuel. For a lot of the hardcore steelheaders, 600 miles is a drop in the bucket. I've probably driven thousands of miles during the season going to the far reaches of the Alley. I've probably dropped a couple thousand dollars in fuel in that time also. But, that's the price of pursuing my passion as money is no object. But this upcoming weekend, you can bet I'm leaving the driving to others.