Spring On Steelhead Alley

Spring literally exploded on Steelhead Alley. Weather records fell like dominoes. For three days we had temperatures well in the 80s. It felt like July instead of March. The trees have started to bud and toads and spring peppers filled the forests with a chorus of songs. It was so hot that I had turn on my air conditioner, which was unheard of for the last week March. Instead of bundling up, I was dressed for summer wearing short and tee shirt. 

With the summer like temperatures, the rivers were a bustling place filled with anglers. Cars occupied every available spot in the metro parks. In any other year, there would be the regulars. But this week, the fairweather fishermen were out in full force. They're pretty easy to spot. Waders in mint condition. Not a blemish on their jackets. They could be models from a Orvis or LL Bean shoot. Whenever the weather is delightful, I go off the beaten path in search of solitude. However, the summer like conditions were thankfully short lived as the temperatures were to go back to normal. That meant the woods be quiet and the fairweather fishermen would retreat to the comforts of their homes and wait for better weather. That would be perfectly fine with me. 


It was refreshing to feel the warmth and abundant sunshine after a long dreary winter. As expected living on Steelhead Alley, the weather can turn at a moment's notice. It was a dreary, foggy and chilly when I left early in the morning. I wanted some normalcy as the weather threw everything for a loop. Many of the fish in the rivers, started spawning when the water got into the upper 40s. The return of typical March weather meant the the fair-weathered anglers would return to their places of comfort.

I pull off the side of the road in one of the metro parks. The surrounding woods was full of bird songs despise the chilly conditions. The air feels crisp and I can see my breath. I'm bundled up trading my tee shirt for a fleece jacket. I dress and start to head over the river. It's a short walk of crossing the road and walking a short trail. Above the river, I see it cloaked in mist. I climb down the bank and enter the water. The river is slightly stained and it's warm to the touch. I suspect that some fish are above spawning, but I know some have finished spawning and dropped back into the pools. 

It didn't take long for the first fish of the morning. A large spawned out hen nailed a pink sac along the seam. She ripped off a lot of line and fought furiously. I slowly pulled her along the shore as she rested on the rocks. She was now long and sleek, but her body didn't really show the rigors of spawning that I've seen in other fish. Other than a few scars on her belly, she didn't show any wear. I popped the hook and she quickly darted back into the pool. 

This section of the Chagrin is popular and it doesn't take long to see others show up. Where I crossed over there's plenty of gravel. There's 3 anglers and from the gear they have I actually know where they're heading. They scan from above and I see the grim looks on their faces. They see a stained river. They call out if I had any luck and I give my usual reponse

"Just got here"

I don't want to give them a reason to hang around. They continue along the bank scanning the shallows. Again they asked if I saw any fish spawning

"Can't see anything"

 However this area is rich in gravel and often attracts a lot of fish. But I really couldn't see any fish on the gravel because the cloud cover was so low and thick. I didn't notice any dug out beds either. That was the case as I walked farther up - no beds or fish. None of the pools or runs produced any and I suspect that the majority of fish had dropped back or the bite was off. As I walk back and fished another run and I could see a group of four anglers. All of them chattering up storm and scanning the water for any fish. I'm thinking just chuck a fucking fly into the water and work the run - quit complaining. But I can still hear them bitch about not seeing any fish. They stood around looking clueless and decide to march on looking for fish. They walk by and one of them yells out "Any luck?" I grunt and give my standard response of nothing. The gang slowly walks around the bend and I have peace and quiet again. But boredom quickly settles in and I feel restless. I must move on to better water and my home waters are calling. I walk across where the gang was fishing earlier and I see one lonely male just waiting. I think poor bastard. 

I hopped back on I-90 and stop at the lower Rock. The river looks the same as the Chagrin did. I sat on the wrong side of the fence and should of fished it. Bubba was fishing below the bridge and I joined him. Not a lot of action and we moved downstream. I suggest fishing the chutes - a long slender run that hugs along the cliffs littered with rocks, holes and trees. It turned out to be a good call as we banged a lot of skippers. Another friend was fishing further up and we joined him. The sacs didn't seem to work and we figured that these fish have seen sac after sac after sac plus the gazillion shiners didn't help either. It was time to think small.

Switching to beads and the color of the hour was what everybody calls "snot". For the record I'm not a big fan of beads. They belong on jewelry not on a line. Do they work for sure but I'm old school and I prefer Poor Richards singles cooked in their secret recipe of muric acid. But I forgot my singles and I save them for special occasions - super clear water. The guys banged them pretty good considering the water was murky and the flow was ripping hard. These fish had a nano second to grab them beads as they flew by. I was very impressed.

Because of the warmer weather, the other residents of Lake Erie started making their runs -the smallmouth, channel cats, and white bass. But all of them were also following the moveable feast - shiners. But smallies are not a finicky bunch as I had one hit a white sac of steelhead eggs. The fish of the day was a small brown trout that hit one of Bubba's beads. A refugee from Pennsylvania and sporting one of the nastiest head wounds. Not sure what caused it as we had theories such as mergansers, gulls or some jerk that decided he wanted to mark the fish by chewing into its head. 

Hard to say how much longer our season will go on. This hot weather over the past 10 days hasn't helped and I fear that the majority of fish are done. We won't know until the next high water whether another run has commenced or all of them had bid us a farewell until this upcoming fall. 

The Skipper

The skipper or jack as they’re known have a place in my heart. They’re small, scrappy and aggressive. They’ll hit a fly, sac or minnow with reckless abandon. Once hooked, they show their youth with athletic leaps and runs. I liken them to a gang of rambunctious wayward kids. One minute they wreak havoc and you have your hands full, then the next, their gone. They love to show their toughness by egging the larger males on the redds. During the spring, I’ve witness them  slowly moving into position just out of sight of the largest male. They’ll get as close to the hen as possible. The male seeing the smaller antagonist often gets enraged and will give chase. This game of cat and mouse is often drawn out and the end result is the jack always escapes from the jaws of the larger male. During the salmon runs, skippers often play the same game as they pick off eggs just feet way from the massively kyped males. 

Skippers can be caught throughout the season and spring is when skippers are the most abundant here in Ohio. Skippers are generally between 1 to 2 years old as Ohio stocks them as smolts. Once they reach Lake Erie, they feast on the bounty and some can double their size in one year. Skippers are either sleek or morbidly obese. The ones at the power plant gorge themselves on the endless supply of shiners and shad. I've caught some that resembled footballs. During the annual run, some will join the adults making the journey upstream to spawning grounds and some are content staying in the lower sections feeding on bait fish. When the bite is on, the action can be fast and furious. Unlike some of the older and wiser adults, skippers don’t discriminate when it comes to an offering. There have plenty of times when the float trots downstream in peaceful fashion when its taken down in sudden fashion. No teasing taps or boggles, just a hard takedown. When the hook is set, the water erupts with sleek silver missile being launched. In its attempt to free itself, the fish darts up and down stream. But I have seen skippers snap the line due to their hard fights or as I like to say “should of checked the line” with a slight smug grin. 

During the spring run, the majority of steel headers are found upstream seeking out the gravel sections for the larger fish. While I do like fishing the upper reaches for drop backs, I often prefer the lower sections as late arrivals and skippers often found here. Skippers often prefer faster water and seek out the runs, riffles and pocket water. In most cases, you’ll hear the smacking of water as they give chase to shiners. One year when the Rock was running low and clear and the shiners had finished their spawning run. There was hardly anybody out except for the larger pool upstream. Whenever conditions are low and clear in the spring and favorite of mine are single eggs. Single eggs can be either salmon or steelhead egg cured in muric acid. The muric acid gives the egg a rubbery feel and hook piercing it will not burst it. Due to the small size of the egg, I often use either size 16 or even 18 hooks. Some anglers prefer to have the entire hook inside the egg.

There was a run that ran along the shale cliff and there was downed trees in the water. The shale bottom had several grooves and ledges. Even though the water was clear, fresh steelhead can often blend into the surroundings. I knew where the fish would be hiding - the dark water.  The dark water was probably no larger than a loveseat, but big enough too hide some fish. With a single egg and a small BB shot. I gently tossed the float and watched it slowly drift downstream. The float inched closer and closer to the tree and gradually moved under one branch. The float popped and I set the hook. The water erupted and skipper leaped from the water with a smack. Several people walking along the trail above the river stopped and watch the battle ensue.  The battle was fairly short albeit furious and I released the little fella and watched dart back under the same tree. I repeated the same process working the darker water using a fairly small unassuming egg. 

Despite there easiness to catch and willingness to bite, there are times when I prefer the skipper over the larger adults. Yes, the adults are much stronger and more wily with age. But they can’t match the intensity and playfulness of youth. 

A Mouth Full

Today was another sign that our season will eventually come to an end - warm weather. Today it felt like May with sunny skies and temps in the upper 60s. The willows starting to bud, insects emerging, birds singing in the woods and of course the fair weather fishermen. On the Alley there are two types of steelheaders - the diehard and the fair weather. Diehards are easy to spot, they'll fish in some of the worst conditions and their gear often looks like crap. The fair weather steelheader looks like he or she is on a photo shot for either LL Bean or Orvis. There isn't a speck of dirt on their waders or jackets and they all of them excel in personal hygiene. Whenever they look at me, they think I must live under a bridge and have a drinking problem.

The plan was I would fish high and the others would be low. They were only fishing half the day and I wanted to make it an all day affair. The Grand was still running high just under 900cfs but it can still be fished at those flows. I pulled in to see nobody as that was to be expected and the others called that anglers were few and far between. The same could be said about the fish. My trusty old rock that I use for a gauge was barely poking out of the water. That meant wading across was out of the question. I banged several spots and the only fish of the morning was a bright silver hen that felt like a 15 pounder when she bolted into the faster water. But it was the only fish and it had been two hours. The others doing slightly better and that was enough for me to head downstream. I arrived to see them fishing off the bank and both of them caught 6 fish in the faster water. Unfortunately both would be leaving soon so I only fished briefly with them. I crossed over at one section that is relatively shallow. The crossing was challenging as my boots spit out the latest number of sheet metal screws I bought yesterday. I was hoping that #12 by 1/2" screws would be the trick. After all they were the largest ones you can get, but nearly all of them were gone. It felt like walking on roller skates as I slipped often on the rocks. I can't wait to toss these boots after the season. As I walked along the river, I could see hundreds of emerald shiners moving along the shallows. Too bad the water was so stain as any minnow pattern would be the hot ticket. But I didn't sniff one fish and it was almost noon. The only option was the Chagrin as it was the closest and was more clearer. However it was a huge gamble as the nice weather meant that every Tom, Dick and Harry was fishing.

Unlike the past two trips to the Chagrin, where I was the only person on this section of the river, only because it was a hell a lot of colder. I would be rubbing elbows with a lot of others. That was evident when I pulled in around noon and there were about 20 cars. I was pretty well expecting that. I looked at the cars - BMW, Cadillac, Subaru and an Audi but not all were high priced and luxurious. There were some beaters including yours truely's dirty Jeep Cherokee. Once I reached the river there were about 8 guys fishing the small run. I careful negotiated and timed the back casts of the people working the run. I thought and later regretted bailing on the Grand as I looked up river - more people. I started the long and laborious process of working water that hopefully most of these people over looked. The fair weather anglers couldn't ask for nicer day - sun and nearly 70F for early March. I was greeted with friendly smiles and waves. I tried to grin and bear it the best I could as I had to leap frog over angler after angler. Whenever the rivers are that crowded, I leave no stone unturned. I picked away at some of the smallest pocket water possible. That's were many anglers often pass up for the typical spots. Several times I watched some anglers scanning the skinny water looking for spawners. I didn't even see one fish on gravel or a redd, which was surprising considering the water was over 40F and that usually is the green light.

An old nemesis also showed up too, the creek chubs. I caught one that tried to inhaled one goober sized sac. Too bad he didn't and I should of cut the line and watched him choke on it. At least I only caught a couple but it was incredibly tough considering the sun was high and the fishing pressure intense. At the end of the day I managed 4 shitty looking males. I was more than happy with that and the party of eight was still banging away at the same run. I dodged the back casts and made it back, soaked in sweat and parched. Only later I found out it was an Ohio Central Basin Steelheaders tourney and I guess most of the members decided to pick the Chagrin.

Later I found out that I wasn't the only one to have a tough day. The only river that seemed to do well was the Rock and that was shocking considering I heard nearly every part of the river was occupied. I've seen the Rock on spring weekends and I want no part of the circus. This current weather pattern could wreak havoc on the spring run. For next week it suppose to feel more like June with temperatures in the 70s. Instead of seeing fish running in April, we'll be seeing fish dropping back before the end of the month. I wish for cold and snow.........

Will It Be The Lion or The Lamb?

I remember as a kid hearing the old saying about the month of March. It comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. Growing up Northern Ontario, the lion had the entire month to itself and at times well into April. As for the lamb, it never stood a chance. Since I’ve been in Ohio, March can be bi polar as it can usher in spring quickly or a week later dump over 2’ of snow courtesy of Lake Erie. 

The Alley this year has barely experienced winter. Snow was far and few between. Unlike past years, where I trudged through the deep snow to get to various spots out east in the snow belt. I huffed and puffed as my boots, waders and jacket made negotiating over downed trees and logs a herculean event. This season, it was a leisurely stroll through the woods and I barely broke a sweat. 

Once again the pontoon boats were left in the garage as the Grand went back up after another round of rain came by - just in time for the weekend. I was  beginning to wonder if we'll ever be able to float down the Grand ole gal. I watched the gauges climb for all of the rivers and several peaked early Friday. The two that looked like they might fish for Sunday were the Rocky and Chagrin. Both started dropping fast as we had colder weather move in. Whenever the rivers drop fast, the sediment load often lags behind for a couple days. Late Saturday afternoon, I drove by the Rock and it was extremely dirty. The Chagrin was also coming down quickly and I wondered what it would be like.

After much debate, I decided to go back to the Chagrin. I wasn't in a hurry to get to there. During the drive out, I thought about how many more weeks of fishing do we have. Due to the milder winter and high water, I wondered how many fish would be ready to spawn? Over the past couple of weeks, I've caught numerous hens that were spawned out. I was pretty sure that most of Ohio's fish were still trickling in and in the weeks to come more would make the push up. But when will that push stop? Who knows and we haven't hit spring yet and that's considered the wettest time of the year. Last spring, we set the record for the most amount of rain. The month of April we received nearly 5" and once the waters receded, the number of fish was dismal. The spring run ended with a whimper and once again the debate started about Ohio stocking a fall run strain. 

 The day before we received snow and colder temperatures and I was hoping for some sun. For Sunday, the weather honks were calling for sunny conditions, but when I left in the morning the sky was low and gray. The cloud cover was so thick I was wondering if the sun would ever have a chance to come out. It was barely above freezing as I started walking towards the river. The water was stained, but not terribly dirty, it was perfect conditions for running sacs. I fished the same stretch of river and the plan was to fish the prime spots. 

I pulled in the lot and I was the first car there. I guess a lot of people thought the rivers were too high. A lot of people here still insist the best time to fish is when the water is green. I don’t have the luxury to wait for “optimal” conditions. Unless the rivers are a roaring torrent, I’ll fish whether the water is 6” visibility or the color of Gordon’s gin. I hit the first spot off the trial, a small run that eventually flattens out. It felt like a hot pink morning and I had plenty of those sacs in the jars. I casted out the float right off the seam near a drop off and the float tapped and went under. The first fish of the morning was a small spawned out hen. It was most likely a refugee from Pennsylvania. It was the only fish out that spot and I wasn’t in the mood for hole beating, so it was off to the next spot.

The fishing was dull as I worked the pools and nothing seemed to worked. I tried a variety of colors and I had no takers. I constantly looked to the sky hoping that the sun would make its appearance. Eventually, it peeked out and the clouds started to part. I felt the warmth of the sun's rays and hoped they would penetrate into the murky depths and get the fish into a playful mood. It seem to work as the fishing got better as the morning progressed. The same spot that coughed up a monster hen last week, turned out to the spot where another big fish lied waiting. This was a classic winter lie as the pool ran along a rock wall that was placed by the landowner to help prevent bank erosion. Over time the current cut out a nice hole and it gradually tailed out at the next set of riffles The fish hit right near the tailout and it was another large hen in her winter colors sporting a big gut. It was getting close to noon and my stomach started grumbling trying to get me to the Jeep. But I had one spot to fish. I quickly got into a couple of fish in one run that is the last spot before heading back to the lot.

A couple years ago, I had list of the types of people that annoy you when fishing and I forgot to add this one - the clueless steelheader. I was fishing that run right next to the trial that takes you back to the parking lot. I see a guy walking down the trail. I assumed he would figured out I was the only person since I didn’t see anybody all morning. Plus, he would seen that I was fishing the first spot off the trail and he would of thought I just got here. Most people, including myself, would walk by, exchange greetings, and kept on walking. After all it wasn't a long pool and it was a small run. So what does he do? He decides to fish above me. I was stunned and somewhat annoyed. I looked at him and he asked "how's the fishing?" I gave my standard response "nothing", hoping he would start walking, but he didn't take the bait. Then I decided to have fun with him and said "there's plenty of water upstream". I guess he didn't like my helpful comment and he sneered "This is a productive run for me and I catch a lot fish here", translation - I'm too lazy and stupid to find new water. I'm beginning to wonder if some of these guys have a micro chip embedded in them that prevents them from walking 50' from the trial. I just made that “you’re an asshole” smirk. If there's credit due, he respected my space. I caught a couple more fish and I was wasting valuable time as I had more spots to hit. I had no time to play the dick and mess with him.

I made a quick pit stop and wolf down a couple of cheese burgers. That's the nice thing about the Chagrin, it's a 10 minute drive from any fast food joint to river. I drove downstream to another spot that I love. As I drove there was about 10 cars parked along the road. That seemed like a lot of cars for a couple of spots, but it turned out to be bunch guys playing flag football. The field was a mess as the most of the snow was melted. But these guys were hardcore and the lousy conditions didn’t faze them. I walked down to the river and from the bank I could see 3 guys milling about. I crossed over and it seemed they weren’t familiar with the river. All of them stood in front of killer hole but all of them had fly rods. It was a tricky spot to fly fish because the fish generally held on the opposite side. The current ran all over a series of rocks and mending the line would have been a chore, plus there was a ton of snags at the bottom. They looked at me and started to head downstream. I knew exactly where the fish were holding. 

I made a cast out into a seam that ran along a downed tree. From past experience, I knew there was a large rock about 10’ off the last 20’ of the tree. That’s where the fish love to park themselves. I positioned the float about 5’ off the tree and started to trot downstream. The float made its way down to the tail out and right near the rock. The float shot under and I felt the rod start to throb. This fish fought a lot harder than the other I caught this morning. The 3 gyus downstream looked up and one them pointed that I had a fish on. The fish hugged the bottom with a stubborn tenacity. As I got it closer to the shore, I caught a glimspe of the fish and it was as bright as a silver dollar from the mint. It was a  sign that the spring is around the corner because it was a Manistee. When I beached her, she shimmered in the sun, not a blemish on her body. But, it turned out to be the only fish from that spot and I really wanted to head further up river, far beyond the dam into the land of unknown. 

Last spring and summer, I scouted the upper Chagrin and found it chock full of gravel, small pools full of lumber and deep holes on the bends. The river above the now defunct Gates Mills dam runs through some the wealthiest communities in the Cleveland area - Chagrin Falls, Moreland Hills, Hunting Valley and Bentleyville. Luckily nearly all of it runs through the metro parks. Because if it wasn't there would thousands of posted signs everywhere. I pulled into one of the many lots found in the south Chagrin reservation. The section I was fishing was loaded with lumber and resembled the steelhead ditches of Indiana. I hooked into a nice fish only to see it tear off line and bolt for the nearest downed tree. The end result was the tippet got shredded and that was the only the action I had. I hit a couple of spots and nothing was happening, it was almost 4:00P.M so that was the perfect excuse to head home.

When I got home, I looked at the calendar when I placed the keys on the rack. There was about 7 weeks and we're almost at the end of April. With this mild winter and longer days, its only a matter of time before the fish in the rivers start spawning. I wouldn't be surprised that some fish are spawning as I'm writing this. How many fish are staging in the lake? So many questions and I hope the weather stays a little colder and cross my fingers that the Grand will fish for next week. Might have to start cashing in those unused sick days from last year.