From time to time, I like to read fishing articles from magazines at the library. One particular article caught my attention was from the latest issue of Fly Fishermen. The article's title was Confessions of a Guide and it was written by Karl Weixlmann. It's a cautionary tale about greed, big money, and throwing your ethics aside. For those who don't know, Pennsylvania's steehead fishery is under siege. The state stocks an obscene number of fish and their small creeks are clogged with them. The huge number of fish attract hundreds upon hundreds of anglers and they descend on the creeks during the season. Some acted like a herd of unruly cattle as they trample through people's properties with no regards. Over the past decade posted signs start popping up. Looking to seize on this golden opportunity are the guides and fishing clubs. It's tough enough to get clients on fish and it's worse when every piece of water is occupied. One club started leasing property and it was no other than Darth Vader - Donny Beaver. Beaver's club lured Karl to the dark side with the promise of steady gigs, good money and personal use of the playground. At the time, it sounded like a sweet deal.
Karl was once the president of Pennsylvania Steelheader Association and board member of the Erie Advisory Committee. He was considered one of the top guides in Erie. He did a lot of good work in promoting and developing the fishery. Beaver's club started to expand and they viewed Erie's streams as another playground for the corporate fat cats. Streams filled with massive numbers of steelhead - all paid for by Joe Steelheader. He used Weixlmann's connections with landowners to secure leases on the Elk and Twenty Mile creeks. Club members would never have to worry about rubbing elbows with the neanderthals. He was warned that going over to the dark side would do away all of the good he did and he would never been seen in the same light again. But over he went and the entire Erie steelheading brotherhood turned on him. He was called a sell out, a scumbag, a corporate weasel and some dubbed him as Karl Waxworm. His other title was club enforcer as he had to boot out fishermen and some of them were friends. But the money was far too good to pass up or so he says. Times were good in Beaverville.
But eventually in the corporate world, everybody becomes expendable. Weixlmann lost his gig to another guide (which he failed to mention) and got the boot from the playground. Now Karl was one of us, looking in from the outside. Many felt he deserved what he got and quickly became a pariah. In the article he mentions that money had bought him and now the money shoved him out. Karl learned the hard way and wanted to share his experience and the plight of the fishery with others.
After reading the article, I'm glad that Joe Steelheader's dilemma is getting exposure, especially from someone who's been of both sides of it. Do I feel sorry for Karl? Hell no, he knew of the consequences and it was all about the money. On FishErie's website, he disputes that charge and a lot of the members called bullshit. His tone through out the article reeked of "poor me".
But if I'm going to point the finger it's at the PFBC for creating an amusement park by stocking far too many fish into streams that really can't support their numbers and nearly all of the streams run through private property. Build it and the hordes will come. They also failed to secure enough land to ensure that everybody could enjoy the resource. Instead more and more people are crammed into what little sections are left. I've witnessed the circus on the Lower Elk and Walnut during the fall. It's a clusterfuck of epic proportions. Now add Beaver into the mix and he's locking up more water by throwing money at landowners who are more than happy to take it. This makes a lot of people resentful as they feel they're getting the shaft because they pay for the stocking by purchasing the stamps. The PFBC is finally trying to get public easements and they have secured some sections but it's a long way to go.
It's a shame we don't have the same laws like Michigan has, where anybody can wade the streams without worrying about some landowner calling the cops or even worse getting shot. I can't see that ever happening here in Ohio or Pennsylvania as politicians will kick the can down the road. The only solutions are offering property tax incentives for public access or purchasing the land outright. It's a proven fact that less and less Americans are fishing and it's even worse with the younger generation. That means less revenue for the stocking of fish and securing access. I don't want to become like some European countries where only the rich can afford to pay for the right to fish on some of the best lakes and rivers. Because if that happens I'll turn in my pole.
What I love about banner days is you never know when they'll happen. I've fished when conditions were absolutely perfect. I was pumped and hit the water hard. At the end of the day, I was lucky to catch one or two fish. My back and feet were sore after banging away hole after hole. I drove home pissed wondering what the hell happened? Then there's been times when I woke up and the weather was awful. I debated whether to go back to bed. I sucked it up and made the drive out. I get the to river and it's a little high. I sigh and try to make the best of a possible bad situation. I couldn't keep fish off the hook. I'm like a kid in a candy store - whooping and hollering. I have a shit eating grin on my face when I tell the others what they missed. I've poured through almost 14 years of entries in my journals to see if there was a pattern. Unfortunately, there wasn't really one. I did well whether the river was high, prime or low. I checked to see if temperature played a role. The best range was between 36F to 45F, but I've done well when the water was barely above freezing. The time of year also didn't matter because, I'll fish out east in the fall and in the spring I'm primarily in Ohio. I guess it's one of those when the moon and stars align and having a little luck. Just like reporting the weather, trying to figure out a banner day is still an educated guess.
To have a banner day you need factors that go in your favor. The weather is the biggest of them all. A lot of people here on the Alley don't like the cold and snow. Only the diehards will go out and some will venture to far ends of the Alley. For the upcoming weekend, the price of gas is at an all time high for the winter. Lake effect warnings were issued for the snow belt and there was always the threat of slush. It was no brainer and I had one stream in mind. Sure it's a gamble and luckily I have deep pockets and a Jeep to boot.
I load up the Jeep and head east. I punch through a series of squalls coming off the lake. Not for the faint of heart as the truck in front of me is swallowed by the squall. I sip my coffee and the stereo is playing Kenny Wayne Shepherd - no problem. As I pass one exit I noticed the price of gas at Travel America is going for $3.75. I have a feeling that the stream is going to be a lonely place. I pull into the sleepy town and drive down what's left of main street. A lot of empty store fronts and the street is deserted. As I head down the hill there isn't a car in sight. To my relief there is no slush and the water is slightly off color. The banks are littered with massive chunks of ice in both directions.
It's a grey morning and it starts to snow. I reach the first pool and fish the tailout. It takes all but two minutes to hook into the first fish - a bright silver hen. Then its another and another and another. I shuffle farther upstream and its the same as I quickly get into fish. I have a feeling I'm onto something. I check the weather and it's 28F, light wind from the west and cloudy with snow. For many, it's not the most favorable conditions, but in my book it's just fine. I cross over to another pool and the snow starts to fall heavier, to the point that I have strain to see the float. The first fish of the pool produces a large robust male. The fish are parked under a tree along the seam that spills into a long sweeping pool. Despite the water temperature being 34F, the fish rip off line and have their way. It's a little after 9:30 and I'm already well into double digits. I could of been a douchebag and call the guys telling them I'm hammering the snot out of them. I could imagine the response and I have no time to call because all of the fish I'm catching.
I release another hen from the tailout and I've worked the entire pool. I look downstream and there isn't a person out. I start to head for a spot that usually on a Saturday has people fishing it. The snow has tapered off when I reach the run. The current flows hard along the opposite bank and there is nice hole that runs about 40' and the fish hold in there. It's late morning and the sun starts to peek out. As it was upstream I immediately get into fish and all of them are fresh. No stinking skippers as some of them are pushing over 8 pounds and full of piss and vinegar. The numbers are piling up and I can't contain my glee. Then there is one take. It wasn't a hard one but a lackadaisical one. The fish basically stuck itself on the bottom. No hard run or anything. I started to horse it in and then I watched its back come out of the water - my heart stop as it was massive. The fish started to head out into the current and I was mindful that I had a 4X tippet on and I hadn't check the line for over an hour. Numerous fish were caught previously so I had no idea if the knot would hold up. The water temperature was my friend and foe. The frigid water didn't drain the fish of energy but also prevented it from blasting downstream and possibly shredding the line. The battle wore on as the fish stubbornly refused to come in. I gradually gained control and I move it in slack water. It was a massive hen as I slid her onto the gravel. I could barely get my hand around her tail. Her was stomach was bulging from the large number of eggs inside of her. I moved the rod along her as there is a small gold ring on the blank. From the ring to the bottom of the handle is about 33" and she was a little over an inch. I figured she was about 34.5" and probably pushing over 15 pounds - a trophy Steelhead Alley specimen. I gently released her and watched her slowly swim off. She was at the lower reaches of the river and there was long distance for her to cover. Where she would spawn? Who knows I was lucky that I chance to catch her.
It's a little after twelve o clock and I can't imagine anybody making the drive from Cleveland. I looked back at the pool and the bottom is littered with sore jaws. But even on banner days there are times when the fish turn off. I struggled for an hour to get a bite. Wading was difficult as the huge chunks of ice had buried the trail. Boredom quickly settles in and I get that nagging feeling of heading back to the previous spot. In the distance, I see another car parked behind me and I doesn't take much to figure out where they are. Sure enough two of them are at the hole where I caught the huge hen. They look at me with puzzled looks and continue to fish. I could of told them but why bother? They struck me as the types that fish the most popular spots and never venture further. I was out of sight when I started fishing and the mid of the section started coughing up some more fish. I had finally ran out of bait and that was a good enough reason to head home. On the drive home, I thought about my day. Why did I have such a great day? Was my experience? My knowledge of the river? Or was it just my lucky day? I may never find a truthful answer.