The wait was finally over during the past weekend when I caught the first steelhead of the season. It came on November 7th just before first light and it was one of those "it's about friggin time" moments. The wait was more about the lack of rain and warmer than usual weather than anything. The rivers blew out way back in early September which felt more like a distant memory. Back then I wasn't concerned because I figured ( how naive ) that we would get more rain. It turned out that we waited for weeks and weeks and weeks.
To make matters worse, the salmon runs in both Michigan and New York were absolutely dismal. In my freezer I had about two pounds of eggs left. It was a case of break only in emergency. I called the bait shop and the owner would give the grim news.
"Sorry dude no eggs"
Shit, shit, shit. In past years, he would have buckets full of eggs and my freezer would be crammed full of them. Finally, I cracked in late October and pulled out some eggs. I had to get out before I went insane. I carefully thawed them out and I actually counted out every single eggs putting exactly six per netting. I gingerly handled them like if they were made of nitro glycerin. I broke out in a sweat as I gently wound the netting and tied on the thread. I winced if pulled too hard and breathed a sigh of relief when the thread broke. I placed one precious spawn sac after another on the newspaper. It was so pathetic.
I drove out east and it was Conneaut or bust. I knew the crick was barely flowing and probably had the clarity of a bottle of gin. I had to get out as no fish in October was unacceptable. Last year it was the first time I didn't catch a fish in the month of September. Now I was under incredible pressure not to post a goose egg for this month. I arrived at the creek at first light and there was seven cars parked along the road. I dressed and started to walk upstream where I could see everybody piled into the two favorite spots. I crossed over and the riffle was reduced to a barely audible babble. The deeper water had a nice dark tea color so I had at least a fighting chance.
I started to work the holes and lumber and didn't so much get a nibble even from my biggest nemesis - the creek chub. I started to head upstream and I continued to grind away and I watched another angler head up. I ignored him as he passed by I carefully watched him out the corner of my eye. I had a couple more spots to hit upstream. I quickly reeled in and started to skirt along the trees. But the fat bastard spotted me and started to head upstream. He had a large start and I watched him huff and puff. I knew where he was heading. Thoughts start going through my head
Launch a rock at his head and hopefully it knocks him out
Just start running and maybe he'll keel over from a heart attack
Wishful thinking and then I him see stop at the spot
That's what I get for dicking around in that one spot. But at least there's another larger pool above ripe for the picking. I start working the pool and it becomes obvious that there's isn't any fish in it. Upstream I see a clan of anglers at the train tressel bridge. They probably banged the hole since first light. Then I see them pack up and head downstream. They pass by and I start to head up. It's worth a shot as I'm thinking maybe they're green at fishing for steelhead. The water is so low that I can walk across and stand on the bridge support. I can see the shale ledge and I beat the hole like it owes me money. Nothing absolutely nothing. I'm convinced there's at least one fish in there. To add insult to injury, I see the other angler downstream land a fish in the spot I wanted to fish - shit.
I eventually give up and I'm resigned that I'm going to have my first fishless October. As I walk back, I see one of the clan's member fighting a fish in one of my favorite spots - assholes. The drive home felt longer than usual.
October turns to November and I'm heading out to the Grand with the gang. We're all pumped because we all share something in common - no fish for the new season. I haven't heard anything about the Grand but it's worth a shot because everything else is barely trickling. The wind is cold and the sky is a dark gray. It's first light and we take position at the head of the run. The river is slightly off color and I work my section. It doesn't take long to shake off the rust as I watch the float go under hard. I set the hook and a skipper flies out of the water - finally! It almost six months since I last felt the rod tug. For the next few hours we start getting into fish and some of the large and full of piss and vinegar. The action is furious as the others farther downstream were probably kicking themselves in the ass for not fishing further upstream. The stragglers start walking in but by then its too late - the bite shut off and all three of us end up landing close to 30 fish.
We end the morning eating lunch at some Painesville dive not too far up the road. My stomach doesn't give a damn, it wants food. I wolf down a monster club sandwich and wash it down with some of the most god awful coffee. The wait was well worth it and I can laugh about after the fact of how I worried over nothing. Was November too long? Yes for a hardcore junkie like me. But there's times where certain factors are out of our control. We just have to wait it out.
Every spring, we witness the practice or depending on others opinions, the massacre of fishing redds. I've seen the circus on the rivers where people camp out in the wee hours in the morning to secure a spot on the prime spawning beds. We see them every spring, the guys scanning the shallows looking in vain for any fish. The sight of them and in some cases, very large ones, is just too hard to pass up.
There's some who will say they can fish redds without foul hooking fish and I'll call bullshit. The reason why I'm skeptical of is that most of the time, the rivers run low and clear. Fish are visible from a distance. If I can see them, I'm pretty sure they can see me and they most certainly can see your fly or bait. These fish have seen it all. I've watched much to my amusement on top of banks, seeing anglers repeatedly cast over and over. They're determined to get a take and most of the time the fish move away. They're not stupid, they know what's going on. Whenever a fish is hooked, it got flossed. There's no way you're going to change to my mind and I'll think you're the biggest piece of shit also.
I frown upon it because I consider it unethical. I don't buy the excuse that because there's no natural reproduction, it's perfectly fine to fish redds. It's the equivalent of a canned hunt. Fish are packed tightly together and the urge to spawn is so great they're reluctant to move. The end result is they get foul hooked. I've caught dropbacks that are adorned with flies in their tail, stomach, head, and fins. It's really pathetic as I'm pulling out, in some cases about 10 flies out and yes the majority of guys that are raking gravel are fly fishermen. It's sad because I know several fly fishermen that hate it and they unfairly get lumped in with those losers. But, I've also seen bait fishermen or other anglers tossing lures routinely fish redds.
What even angers me more are the idiots that fight a foul hooked fish. They have no control over it and the fish is stressed to the point that might not survive if released. They don't have the common sense to snap the line. I've seen the casualties late in the spring of fish that probably died from repeatedly being caught as they spawn. It's heartbreaking because they died a needless death.
Currently, the states along the Steelhead Alley don't have any desire to stop the practice. They're not going to close the season, because it's a put and take fishery. Neither the park rangers or the game warden will do anything, because it's not illegal. Policing it amongst ourselves? Fat chance of that ever happening. It will go in one ear and out the other. They couldn't care less and wouldn't hesitate to tell you shove your opinion up your ass. As for the guides, I've seen plenty of them on the redds. You would think they would be the voices of reasoning, but you won't hear a peep from them. I guess the money is just to good to pass up. If I see blatant snagging, I'll say something, but it's not worth getting into a scrap over it.
I just have to accept the fact that this part of fishing here on the Alley.
It's a bitterly cold morning as I walk out from my apartment building. The sound of the snow crunching underneath and the sharp needles of cold invading my lungs. It brings back memories of my native Canada. This is the second consecutive cold winter here on the Alley as the majority of streams have been locked in ice since past December. Last winter was one of the coldest since I've been living in Ohio and this winter wasn't too far behind. Fishing the streams seems to be a distant memory and I long to fish them. The plant is the only option and I'm not thrilled at the prospect of fishing it. But if I don't get out, I fear I'll go insane.
One of my fellow tenants, Mike looks at me with surprise
"Dude, where the hell are you going to fish? Everything is frozen over?
Smiling, I tell him I have a little oasis and the water is warm there.
He gives me a puzzled look and said "Dude, you're crazy and stay warm"
Mike gets in his car and leaves for work.
Driving west on the interstate, I can see the stacks in the distance bellowing smoke. The water should be very warm as the plant has been running non-stop for the past few days. For once, there isn't any wind coming across the ice. I pull into the lot and dress. Some passing motorists stare at me probably thinking I'm crazy. I dressed warm from head to toe and I look like I'm ready to explore the dark side of the moon. I waddled off towards the beach.
I walk along the shore and there's gulls, ducks and geese everywhere. Hundred of birds scatter as I walk. I see nothing but ice as far as the eye can see. This is probably the only open water for many miles. The steam dances along the surface as I can barely see the point. Halfway there, my cheeks are starting to burn from the cold. I check the phone and the temperature reads 5F. I turn the corner around the point and enter the plant's discharge pool. I can see waterfowl everywhere and several birds take flight as I wade through the water. There's mergansers, buffleheads, redheads, scoters, scaups and coots. All of these birds are after one thing - food. The warm water here attracts baitfish. But even with all of the fish, some of the birds have died of starvation. I see a redhead duck huddled on a rock shivering. The plant has nothing offer him and I feel pity for it as I know it will probably not survive the night.
I climb over several rocks and I make it to the discharge. I see several scoters diving and popping up with crayfish in their bills. When I'm fishing the discharge, I bottom bounce. My rig that consists of an egg sinker and a 3" gulp minnow. The pattern doesn't really matter because the fish will attack anything resembling a baitfish. I cast out into the current and let the sinker hit bottom. I feel it tumble about and I jig the minnow several times to entice a fish into biting. During that time, I watching for mergansers that might catch a glimpse of my minnow and dive for it. Last winter the number of mergansers in the back were so numerous, I couldn't even fish. Whenever the minnow hit the water, a dozen of them would dive after it and cut the minnow in half or even worse get hooked. It's not fun trying to haul in a bird as its flapping about. If I was lucky they would get hooked in their hard bills and it would easily come out. The biggest pain was whenever a bird got snagged in the wing or neck. To prevent injuring a bird, I would push the barb down so removing the hook would be quick and painless.
The plant is a bustling place as I hear trucks blasting their horns, loaders hauling coal and odd person barking over the loud speaker. This year, the loud speaker has been quiet. In past years, I remember constantly hearing somebody telling us to stand back from the buoys. We would stand there and ignore them. Several times the police would be called but there wasn't anything they could do as we where standing the lake. The lake bottom by law is public property. The police officer didn't like making the walk through the snow. He would try to explain that the plant was concerned that we would drown. We assured the officer that the water was clear enough that we could see the drop off. He checked for fishing licenses and with that he left.
It's cloudy this morning and the number of birds is very low, maybe a couple of dozen or so. From what I heard, the plant was slated to be closed down in the spring as new EPA emission rules made the plant obsolete and expensive to run. It had been a fixture on the lake front for over 40 years. Lucky for us, the federal government kicked in some money to upgrade from coal to natural gas, so that meant our precious oasis was saved from the wrecking ball.
The number of baitfish in the plant this season has also been very low. But it hasn't stop some of the steelhead from returning. I begin the process of working the discharge. So far this season, it has been feast or famine. So far, I'm hungry for a hit as my fingers are getting cold. I jig the minnow and I feel a tap and then a surge. I set the hook and feel the fish charge. In the distance I watch a skipper leap out of the water. The fish darts about in the shallows and I corral it into the rock. The larger hook makes it easier to pop it out. I watch the fish bolt for the deeper water. Then it turns into a long drawn out process as I cast over and over. Something isn't right. I figured there should be more fish in here. In past years, I would of reached double digits by noon. So far I have two fish and I'm thinking the point might be better. I switch from bottom bouncing to a float with a jig.
For decades, the current has dug a long trough along the breakwall and goes out to the lake. I tie on a white jig and set the float for about 7' and cast right along the ice. I wade out as far as I can go before the crystal clear water turns into a deep green drop off. A small flock of mergansers cruise along the rocks and periodically stick their heads in the water looking for any bait. I cast out and watch the float drift out into the lake. Due to the cold, the line on my spinning reel has stiffen and I have to yank the rod to get the line through the guides that have iced over. I strain to see the float and nothing happens. I repeat the process over and over and I'm making adjustments. I wonder the bright sunshine has moved the fish under the ice. I finally get a fish and I watch it leap from the water. It's another small bright silver skipper and I quickly release it.
Then it turned into a grind as I worked along the ice. Boredom begins to take over and the only thing that sparks my interest is canvasback duck that is bold enough to swim up to me. Something doesn't look right as the duck patiently lingers as if he's expecting me toss out some food. Whenever I reel in my minnow, the duck darts towards it. The warm water discharge is an oasis for waterfowl, but appearances can be deceiving. For some species of ducks, the lake bottom offers very little to no food for them. Mostly likely it was starving and probably wouldn't make it when the ice melted from the marshes. I watch the duck gradually swim off.
In the distance, I watched what I though was another angler walking along the beach. He had two box like objects in hand and net on his back. As he walked closer I didn't see a rod on him. He stopped and took out some binoculars. I figured he was a birdwatcher. I looked over and he was trying to coax the canvasback to come near him, but the bird wouldn't come and he motioned to me to come over. Bored with the fishing, I wade over to see what he wanted. He introduced himself as volunteer for a wildlife rehab center and he was trying to rescue sick waterfowl. He told me he noticed the duck would come near me whenever I tapped the rod in the water. He went on to say that he and others would nurse as many birds back to health as possible. He seemed genuine and concerned about the well being of the birds. I took his net and lured the duck in. He paddled close enough that I was able to swipe the net and get him. He gently took the duck out of the net and placed it in the cardboard box. I told him about a heron and other ducks in the back that were weak. However he didn't have any waders so he couldn't help those birds.
The cold and lack of fish was enough for me call it a day. It's early March and spring seems so far away. I'm longing for the rivers and the warmer weather that will free the rivers of ice and snow.