The hardcore steelheader is a rare breed. They are a passionate group, who love to get out as much as possible. Mother Nature will throw everything at their way and they'll brush it off with a sneer. They’ll drive in squalls, wade across raging rapids, are oblivious to the cold and will go off the beaten path.
As that famous Christmas song goes, the weather outside is frightful and the holiday is a couple days away. The weather is to go from rain to freezing rain to lake effect snow. For the majority of steelheaders, they'll be deep in the confines of their homes. Not me, I'm at Starbucks getting my coffee and sandwich for the road. The barista comments that I'm crazy to venture out and fish. I shrug it off and smile
"It's always a great day to go out and fish"
I wave goodbye and the rain immediately pelts me as I open the door. The drive out to the Grand is the same as the wipers are going non stop. Many Clevelanders are still in bed or waking up hoping to get the rest of Christmas shopping done. I arrive at the lower section of the river at first light and there's isn't a person out. I suspected that because it started raining around three in the morning. I open the back hatch and get ready to put on the gear. I look at my rod and it's been a while since I cleaned it. I remember like it was yesterday when I got my new rod from Loomis after I broke my old one. The blank was shiny, polished titanium guides and fresh cork. Today, the cork is filthy, the guides worn and the blank not so shiny. The same can be said about my Kingpin reel as its logged countless trips and fish. The hardcore steelheader spares no expense. They don't flinch when the cash register flashes $580.00 for the latest reel or top of the line rods. But I have this indifferent attitude towards my gear. I treat them like crap and not worthy of my attention. For me, gear isn't supposed to be shiny and clean. It's more of a badge of honor, that my equipment shows the wear and tear. There a story behind every scratch and nick on the reel. The only thing that is new is my waders, because the last pair wore out, literally. The last pair of waders I dropped over $500.00 and I abused them. Charging through buckthorns, sliding down banks, busting out ice and leaving them in the tote box wet for a week. No wonder they wore out. This time, I promised myself that I would better care for them. The next item on the list to be replaced are my boots and they look like they've been put through the wringer. Cracked and frayed, the boots are still functional, but I loathed the wire lace system. I'll squeeze another season from them and replace them next year. The last items are my jacket and waist pack. The waist pack is filthy, covered in fish slime and whatever else my hands came in contact with. The jacket which I did wash a couple weeks ago so I could apply some water proofing. But since there wasn't any rain in the forecast, I didn't bother. Today, I sure could have used it.
I make the long walk down and look at my phone, the flow data has the Grand running a little high, but fishable in my book. I reach the river and the flow is great and clarity is still good, but the window is slowly closing. I wade into the river and head down to the tailout above a small feeder creek. I'm in the middle of the river and pick out a pick sac. Even though I'm in the middle, it's only 3' deep. In past years, I've done very well in this spot. Unfortunately, it turns into a grind. I work the entire section, muttering to myself that I forgot my small towel to keep my hands warm.
The monotony is soon broken as I see the float go under and feel the line surge. The fish darts about, I as I perform a pirouette. The stronger flow and the long rod make it that more difficult as I try to grab the line. I finally grab it and pin the fish against my legs. Without hemostats (hear me Santa) I jab my thumb against the fish's tongue and pull the hook out. The fish bolts and I'm left nursing a bleeding thumb. The wind continues to gust and I try to keep my hands dry. I look up and down the river and there's nobody. I blow into my hands and continue to fish. I want to squeeze as much time as possible considering next week, this river will be locked up ice as a frigid mass of Arctic air invades the Alley. A skipper falls for a chartreuse sac and unlike the other fish, I easily pull it in and pop the hook out.
The rain hasn't let up and I check the flow data, the river is inching up but there's plenty of time. The section of river fails to produce any more fish and the rain has switched to freezing rain. The water is 38F and decide to move up to the pool where I can get out the water in case my feet get too cold. I can hear the freezing rain pelting my hood as I labor against the current. Because the flow is stronger, my intuition tells me to go above and fish the tailout.
My hands are getting red and numb. But I shrug it off as there's been plenty of times I fished without gloves or hand warmers. The hardcore steelheader just brushes it off. Just like in the previous spot, it turns into a grind. I watch the bubbles and move the float to where the current drops off. The float drifts along as I tether the reel. I watch the float go under and I react. I yank but it feels like I snagged the bottom, but the snag starts to move. I feel the line surge as the fish moves further out into the river and parks itself in the middle. I patiently wait for the fish to start tiring as I flip the rod left and right and gradually reel in. I'm oblivious to the cold steel as my fingers gently cup the reel. It becomes a drawn-out battle as the fish continues to make a break into the current. I'm perfectly fine with that as the current will wear it out more quickly. But, I'm curious to see how big my antagonist is. I start to get the upper hand and move the fish into the shallow water. It's a pretty big fish as I see it flounder on the gravel bottom. It continues to fight as explodes through the shallow water. Eventually, I get it on the shore and it's a large male. Its head is huge and I'm hoping its 30" because it been a couple years since I've caught one. Sadly, I measure it and it's 29", but a beautiful specimen nonetheless.
I place him in the water and he lingers until finally drifting into the murk and disappears. By now the freezing rain has turned into snow and to the west the sky is dark. My hands are completely numbed as is my face. Had my girlfriend not be coming over early this afternoon, I would have drove to get a cup of coffee, warm up and head to another spot. Begrudgingly, I must pack it in. The snow dances about as I head back to my car. It gradually snows harder when I get to the car. I see a car parked in front of the gate and watch a young man get out.
"Any luck? How's the river looking?"
I reply that it's slow and bundle up. He looks unsure and gets back in the car. I see him get on the phone, probably telling a friend. I wouldn't bother to get out and ask. I would get dressed and head down, regardless if the bite was slow or the weather cold.
I pull my toque off and feel the heat escaping my head. My jacket is soaked and gradually get all of my gear off into the tote box and toss the rod in. I get in the car and crank the heat up. My hands welcome the warmth as does my butt when I turn on the seat warmer. The snow starts to intensify when I pull out and head for the highway.
I look at the flow data and the Grand is on a steady rise. Most likely every river in Ohio will blow out later today. By Christmas, the temperatures are to plunge into the low 20s and into the teens at night. Only the hardiest of the hardcore will venture out to a river clogged in slush and ice. They'll find a way as they usually do. I'll be vacation until the New Year spending time with my girlfriend and her family. Halfway home, I get a text message from her and she isn't taking her son to his music lesson, because of the weather and I can come over anytime.
I arrive home and unpack everything. I hang the waders and jacket and place the boots on the rack. I shower and gather the bags of gifts and my belongings. The snow is coming down hard as I load I pick up a coffee at Starbucks and my barista is still working and she asks how the fishing was. I said it's always a great day to get out and wished her a Merry Christmas. Out of curiosity, I drive down to the Rocky and the river is getting high and muddy. All of the lots are emptied and I wonder how the fishing was this morning.
By the time I get back to work, all of the rivers will be locked up in ice and snow. Even Lake Erie will probably freeze over. Instead of the rivers, I'll venture out the power plant and try my luck there. The hardcore steelheader will always say there's somewhere to fish on the Alley.
I’m an introvert and I’m proud to say it. For years, especially when I was younger, I was never comfortable in my own skin. I always felt like something was wrong with me. I didn't have a lot of friends, I rarely engaged in conversations, and I seemed to be in my own little world. High school wasn’t a particularly fun time for me as I often hid in the shadows. Only when I was in college, I took a sociology class and learned about introversion. I took the Myers-Briggs test and the results came back and I was an INFJ. My personality type was one of the rarest, less than 1% of the population. Reading the description of my personality type. I was creative, altruistic, and insightful. But, I was also highly sensitive to criticism, extremely private, and tended to be a perfectionist. It started to make sense.
But it didn't stop some people from judging me. I was that introspective, reserved guy. I could come off as too serious to certain people and aloof to others. But, for the few people that knew me well, I was the loyal friend who is there when a problem arise or I could talk passionately about things that matter to me the most. That's why introverts are so misunderstood, because many people have a hard time figuring them out.
One thing introverts crave is alone time. Because they get their energy from within. That’s probably why I enjoy fishing so much, because of the solitude and slow pace. Some guys like the camaraderie and bonding. There’s a time and place for that, but it's done in small doses. Generally, I prefer to head out alone. Its good for the soul and mind after a long grueling week at work, which ironically I deal with the general public on a daily basis. The weekends are the time to charge the batteries and disappear into the upper reaches of the Alley’s rivers far from people. There on the river, I can decompress and take in the sounds of nature.
During the steelhead season, I’ll be on the road, driving in the dark. The music playing in the background as I drink my coffee. It sounds like a peaceful morning, but inside my head, I’m trying to figure out where to go. You would think I would have this all planned out the night before. I have plenty of information to go on such as experience, flow data, weather, and reports from friends. Over analyzing is an introvert’s kryptonite. I call it analyse paralysis. Like a massive connect the dots puzzle, my brain links everything to everything else. I want to make sure that I’m not missing any facts and I’ve considered all the possibilities. That I’m making the absolute best decision possible with the information I have. Usually, it goes like this
“Grand, Conneaut or Ashtabula?”
“The Bula might be too low, Conneaut might be too crowded, Grand still might be off color.”
“But I heard the fishing was better on Conneaut”
“Hmm, what if I started there and if the number of people is too much, I’ll head to the Grand”
I check the flow data
“Uh oh, the flow on the Grand is a tad too high”
“Maybe the Chagrin?”
Classic introvert dilemma and if I was taking someone else, they would probably strangle me. You would think with almost 20 years of fishing the Alley’s streams I could pick a river and be comfortable with the decision. Sometimes it’s easy when all the other rivers are too low and clear, the most logical choice would be the Grand or if it’s really cold out and there's a chance of slush, the Rocky would make sense because it’s so close to home. If I’m going with a couple of friends, we make a decision the day before. But in my head, I’m thinking of other possibilities and at times I try to change their minds. But if every river is fishable, I'll agonize whether I'm making the right decision or not. Now you can see why I prefer to fish alone.
What introverts lack in decision making, they make up for it in attention to detail. Introverts process everything in their surroundings and pay attention to all the sensory details in the environment. When I’m on the river, I’ll carefully read the water. I watch the bubbles and the texture of the water. In my head, I’ll ask myself if I was a fish, where would I be? It can be a long pool or a tiny section of pocket water. I’ll analyze it before I cast it out. Even when I go to a section that I never fished before, I have a knack for getting on fish. Call it intuition because introverts have this uncanny ability to go on hunches and gut feelings. My intuition will tell me when its time to throw in the towel, pass up a spot or tossing the float into a small run.
Even when I'm fishing a remote section, I'm always looking over my shoulder. I what I'm looking for if any other people are coming. I'm a very private person and I generally don't like fishing around other people. Why? Because I hate small talk. Small talk is meant to be light and fun. It flees from depth and meaning. Personal questions are considered inappropriate. From my point of view, I see small talk as not authentic. This is where some people will take it as me being standoffish or cold. This is frequently misunderstood as introverts hate talking. However, this is not so. Introverts like the right kind of talk. So what is the right kind of talk? Things that matter to me and that are important. I can talk for hours about steelhead, environmental issues, the food scene in Cleveland and music. But, talk to me about meaningless topics and I'll probably look up with a blank expression on my face. Even when I'm fishing with the guys, I'm more focused on my float then engaging in relentless banter. They understand that I'm not the social butterfly, that I'm a passionate angler who loves to go out regardless of the weather or the time of day, I'm always game.
I've accepted that I have limitations. I still struggle having to fish around a group of people and in most cases, I'll pass up a good spot in order to get away. If you fish next to me, I'll be cordial and that it be the end of it. I generally won't engage in starting a conversation. I'll be too focused on fishing. It's nothing personal. Even if I start hitting fish, eventually I'll start thinking about where's the next place to fish. My gut will tell me, that I should head down and fish that tail out where I seen five people pass it up. Sitting on a spot all morning is a waste of time.
So the next time, you run into a person and ask "Any luck?" and that person turns to you and replies "Not bad" and turns their back and resumes fishing. Chances are you've encountered an introvert.
When Donald Trump became president, there were three groups that knew they would be in his cross hairs - illegal immigrants, Muslims, and the environmental movement. Well, come to think of it, anyone who dares cross his path would feel his wrath. But, that's a whole different topic, that quite frankly is too taxing to write about. I've said it all along that Trump isn't a politician, he's a ruthless businessman right down to the core. If there is one that people high in corporate America really hate, it's regulationsFor most Republicans, when they see smoke belching from a stack or raw sewage flowing out of a pipe, the American economy is doing great. As the for the environment? Too bad, just hold your breath and don't swim there.
Trump has released his 2018 budget and he's ready to slash and burn the EPA right down to the ground. Trump has made is clear that he's isn't a big fan of the agency. After all, he has gone on the record that climate change is a Chinese-perpetrated hoax and called the Paris Agreement "ridiculous." I read an article about all of the cuts he's seeking and it left me numbed and outraged. One of the programs that slated to be eliminated is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The initiative was created to clean up decades of misuse from toxic wastes, the introduction of invasive species and restoring wetlands.
Prior to the initiative, the lakes have benefitted from the enactment of the Clean Water Act and changing attitudes from the general public. However, one of the lakes is starting to show signs that its health is declining is Erie. For the past several years there have a series of large algae blooms popping up on the western basin of the Lake Erie. I've witnessed this massive green carpet stretching for miles in every direction as boats have to plow through it to get to open water. Then there was the contamination of Toledo's drinking water from the same algae and it made national news. A lot of the older people along the shores of Lake Erie remember all too well seeing the dead fish washing up on shore, the extinction of the blue pike and the Cuyahoga River catching on fire. This generation could very well see the same things happen again if attitudes don't change.
But the one that scares me the most is the Asian carp getting into the Great Lakes. For years, politicians have kicked the can down the road on what to do to prevent them from getting into the lakes. When Obama was president, he never addressed the problem during his entire time in office. The electric barrier isn't a 100% and it's a matter of time before they start getting into the lake. Just last week I read an article that carp have breached the barrier and are caught just 9 miles from Lake Michigan. But Trump won't release the study plans to stop the potential invasion. Why? Because it hurts business interests. It's that typical short-sightedness that politicians are famous for.
Because if the carp get into the Lake Erie you can pretty well kiss the sports fishery goodbye because they'll practically clean out the lake of any plankton that younger gamefish rely on. We'll be sitting at the bar when we're old and gray talking about the good ole days when we caught walleye, perch, bass, and steelhead all day long.
The reality is that Lake Erie and the Great Lakes don't belong to Donald Trump and the Republican party, they belong the American people and it's up to every American to do whatever they can to protect them. His budget isn't set in stone and the politicians from Ohio, both Republican and Democrat have already said they'll fight the cuts. I'm pretty confident that both the Congress and Senate will sound a loud message that Donald Trump ignorance and greed are not acceptable. Four years can't come fast enough.
I always get mixed emotions when it comes to the last trip of the year. After a season of stumbling out of bed early, driving to the far ends of the Alley, pounding the trails, and dealing with the extreme elements. Both my body and mind needs a break, but I feel a sense of sadness whenever I make the last trip. Blurry eyed, I make the trip, usually by myself. I want it to go on my own terms. I'm not going for a couple hours or sitting at one spot. I'm hitting one pool after another. Kicking over every stone and working as much water as possible. The only thing that will stop is when it becomes too dark. By the end of the day, I'll be wiped out. My back and shoulders will ache. The walk back will be slow and deliberate. I have no hurry to get home. What I know is that the last walk from the river, I'll look back with fondness even if the day doesn't go according. That's how I view every last outing, it's bittersweet, but I know eventually the rivers will be calling in the autumn.
The last trip today is out east. The weather today more like June as the temperatures are to be in the upper 70s. The sights and sounds of spring along the Alley are everywhere. The willows and Manitoba maples are sprouting leaves, robins singing in the dark and chorus of frogs and toads are heard in the woods. For the first time, I won't be alone as my girlfriend is making the trip. It's a later than usual start as I'm on the water at first light. That's another thing I'll miss are those early morning starts. Walking along the river in the dark and all I hear is the running water and the rocks under my boots.
I have no idea how many people will be out. Over the week as I drive through the Rocky River Metro park on my way home, nearly every parking spot is taken and I can see anglers everywhere. During the week, I've wet a line before heading into work. That's a benefit of living five minutes away from the river. Even though I have an hour to squeeze in, the morning outings have been nothing short of fun as I've hooked into a handful of feisty skippers that fight with reckless abandon. There were plenty of times I was tempted to call in and I would an hour late or blowing off the day completely.
As we drive along the road, I strain to see how many cars in the lot ahead. I see four cars and I figure there should be plenty of room to fish. With the Easter weekend, many probably elected to take the time off. The one section I want to fish is a long pool below an area where the fish spawn. After a week of high water, I wondered if most of the fish dropped all the way back to the lake. I felt the water and it's cool, hopefully, there's some in here. It turns into a grind as we start the long drawn out process of working the pool. With the exception of the two elderly anglers downstream, we have the entire pool to ourselves. I've learned from experience, that when these areas are empty by mid-morning, the earlier anglers either did well or struck out. As we finished with the lower of the pool and didn't even get a hit. The pool is eerily quiet as we see nor hear the sounds of fish. We move up to the section of the pool where the current is a little faster. The warm south wind starts whipping up as the temperature starts creeping up. My girlfriend takes a break and I continue to hammer away. I finally get a take and I feel the surge from the fish as it heads upstream. Usually, with drop backs, they'll fight with reckless abandon leaping and thrashing about. The fish bolts upstream and gets close me as it swims quickly by me. But with the snap of the line, my fish is gone as I inspect what happened. The knot failed and I'm left with a disgusted feeling because it was 8-pound test. It turns out to be the only fish from that spot. But that's late spring fishing as it can be a case of hit or miss. In past years, I had banner days and others only one or two fish.
Its almost noon as I watch angler after angler slowly walks away. With their heads slung low, they have nothing to show for. We both decide to head to another spot. Driving over the bridge I see no anglers fishing the pool below. We make our way down the hill and I hope that this spot will pay off. Again we grind it out and there's nothing. I'm left scratching my head as to why there isn't any fish. It turns out to be a bust. I see another angler above throwing lures and he catches a decent sized smallmouth, another sign that the run is almost over. Further up, I watch a guide with clients working the faster water and they don't even register a hookup. My gut tells me that this day is not going to work out.
After a brief downpour, the clouds part and the sun comes out. I make the call and we leave. The last spot is even further down and we pull in there isn't a car. In the morning before sunrise, it's always packed. We make the long walk down and I watch the turkey vultures soaring above. I'm sweating, becoming thirsty and hungry. We work the stretch and it's the same thing - nothing. My girlfriend decides to get an early start on her tan and lies on the rocks. I continue to grind away, determined to get at least a hit. Downstream, I watch another angler flaying his spey rod in vain. The sun is high and I know what the outcome will be. After an hour, I throw in the towel.
I feel a sense of disappointment because I had high hopes that we would get into some fish. But, that what happens when there's an early spring. During the last week of March, I was catching post-spawn fish. The also didn't help as it rained nearly every week. By Easter weekend, I knew the window would be rapidly closing.
I pull the rods apart and look back. I still have plenty of bait and it won't get dark until at least another five hours. But I know that girlfriend couldn't do it and I would never subject her to never ending searching of fish. I feel a pang in my stomach as we walk back and I look back for the last time. It will be another six months before I'm back here. Once we get to the car, I pull my waders off and I see all of the water marks on my pants. My patching job wasn't enough and I know it's time to replace them. I tried to squeeze another season out of them, but I know I must replace them. My boots look even worse, as they frayed and cracking. More money to shell out this summer I suppose.
I check the temperature and it's almost 80F and the wind feels hot, the weather for the rest of the week to suppose to be in the upper 60s and lower 70s. The water temperature by then will be dangerously high. Hopefully, by then most if not all will be gone, retreating to cold dark depths of Lake Erie.
I'm parched and dying for a cold beer. I know of a small tavern tucked away in Lake County, that serves some of the best wings in the area. I take a long satisfying sip of beer and glance over at the TV to watch the Cavs game. I know that the summer will go by pretty fast and eventually those cool winds of September will blow across the lake, summoning another season.
There's something about going off the beaten trail. Walking into the unknown and seeing what's lies ahead. While some are content with sitting at their favorite hole, I prefer not to rub elbows. That can be difficult on some of the Alley's streams as solitude is practically impossible. After a hectic week at work, I need to unwind and I prefer not to listen a person complain about the latest Browns loss or politics.
Along the Alley, you really don’t need to hike from one spot to the next. You can simply hop in a car and drive from one section to the next. That’s usually the case on the lower ends of the rivers as they run through urban areas. If you want to experience a hike than you need to go out far east or west. When it comes to epic hikes, the upper Grand is where I do it. The Grand is one of the longest of the Alley’s rivers. The upper reaches are rural and remote. Access isn’t easy and you need to be top shape if you plan to pull it off.
When I’m doing a hike, I’ll be on my own. The old sages I fish with, couldn’t handle the rigors of it, with bad knees and all. If I was in my 20s, I probably couldn’t do it, because I was woefully out of shape. Late night clubbing, drinking, smoking and sustaining on a diet of fast food, I probably couldn’t make it more than a quarter of the mile before I would have to sit on a log hacking and wheezing. I started getting into shape in my earlier 40s after my divorce. I went from 240 down to 195 and I started running, lifting weights and eating better. I’m in the best shape and I’m as fit as a bull. Today, I can leave the youngsters in my dust.
I love looking back at some the hikes I did and one of mine is a trip I did in late February several years ago. The eastern part of the Alley got a lot of snow during the week and the Grand had come down a fishable level. I leave home in the dark and make the drive to Harpserfield's dam. I exit the interstate and head south. I turn off to another road and make my way down the hill. It's first light as I drive down the hill and I can't see the river. As I turn the corner, the covered bridge going across the river is cloaked in a fresh coating of snow. The river above the dam is covered in ice and snow. I look over and the river is as prime as it can be and there's no slush. I’m stoked for a day on it. I park along the road and get dressed. There are a couple of cars in the lot and I can see a couple anglers below the bridge.
When going a hike, I dress light and warm. I use an Under Armor cold base 2.0 shirt, long underwear and fleece pants. My feet are covered with polypropylene and wool socks. Anything that can wick away sweat from my body. I wear both Goretex waders and a jacket. I never wear a vest as that can weight me down. I bring along the bare necessities - hip pack with a small box of hooks, sinkers, and swivels. A tube that holds my floats and a couple of containers of spawn sacs. Despite it being chilly, I have a bottle of water in the side pocket and a couple of protein bars and some almonds.
I begin to walk across the field and the snow is deep. The air is crisp and I can see my breath. I’ll probably be blazing a trail through the woods. A couple of anglers are fishing a spot close by. I can tell they’re not dressed for an all day event. We exchange pleasantries and from the way, I'm walking, they know I won't be low holing them. I continue downstream where I cross over. The river is at a perfect flow as I don’t have any difficulty crossing over. In the distance, I see the cliffs and hemlocks covered in snow.
The snow is fresh and powdery, probably got about 2’ of it during the week as the area was hit with wave after wave of lake effect snow. I’m breathing a little harder, but if I was with another person, I could carry on a conversation with no problems. When it comes to doing a hike, you need to pace yourself. Depending on where I’m fishing on the Grand, sometimes I’ll walk 2 miles before fishing a section and others I’ll start fishing a half mile downstream. I continue down the trail and I veer off into the woods. It’s a little more tricky here as the snow covers downed trees and branches. I huff and puff as I climb over them. My waders restrict my movement as several times I have to sit a tree and swing my legs to over. I climb down a bank and there’s the river.
I’m at the starting point as I’ll start working the entire stretch. Even thought I walked almost a mile in the snow, I haven’t worked up much of a sweat. The river has a tea colored stain and it moves at a leisurely pace. The air is crisp and I proceed to start fishing. I slowly get into fish, but it’s a long drawn out process. The number of fish this season has been low. This is the latest I’ve fished upstream and in better years, there would be the sounds of snapping twigs and voices behind as others make the trek downstream. Not today, with the exceptions of chattering chickadees and jays, the woods are a quiet place.
As the morning progresses, the bite starts turning on. The pools produce some beautiful fish in full winter colors. I could be content to sit in this spot, but I have the hunger to see what lies ahead. I’m at the last pool before the river makes a sharp turn. Now that I feel I’ve caught enough fish, I’m ready to cross over. As I step in, I feel the power of the current pull at my legs. Just 10’ down, the river narrows and the turns into a small set of rapids. I know the spot well enough that I walk slightly upstream towards the tail out. Years of running through the metro park back home, my legs are strong enough to buffer the current. I slowly cross over and step out. No time to waste as I quicken my pace downstream. It’s another spot that I’ve done well in past years. The river here is very narrow as it runs along a shale cliff. I work the inner seam and hook into a male. He’s dark with a mixture of reds, silver, and charcoal. The spawn is not far away, probably another month, depending on the weather. It turns out to be the only fish from that spot. The river farther down flows too fast to hold wintering fish.
The hike is far from over as I’m past the two-mile marker. There’s another spot where I must cross over. This is the trickiest place as the river runs over shale bedrock and the bottom is littered with rocks. Because it’s more narrow here, the current is strong even when it's at fishable levels. I slowly wade across making sure I have a good foothold. The current is pushing hard as I try to gain traction. I use the larger rocks as a buffer and I’m halfway across. The cleats dig into the shale and I shuffle around the rocks. I finally make it over and my legs are burning slightly. There’s a tail out below and I hook into several decent sized fish. So far this hike is paying off, as I’m hooking into fish at every spot and I haven’t seen one person so far.
It’s late morning and I resume the hike. In some sections of the Grand, it can be an easy hike, because whenever it blows out the surrounding woods are scoured cleaned of vegetation. I climb up a steep hill and there’s a road that goes through the woods and right up to the river. Once again I cross over and this is a relative cakewalk. I plow through the water and over the bank. The cliffs here cloaked in snow and glisten in the sun. Huge shards of ice hang from the rocks and the sun is strong enough that they’re starting to melt. I intend to work the entire stretch all the way beyond the cliffs. I’m more than 3 miles from my car. I work the stretch and the fish are plentiful, I’m having so much fun that I start losing track of time. In this section of the upper Grand has some of the finest spawning gravel and fish often hold in the deeper pools. Once, I get done with that section, I look at the time and it’s almost three o’clock. I look downstream and there’s one more pool to fish. It doesn’t get dark until six. I have plenty of time.
The pool produces more fish and I’m down to last of my sacs. I’m well into double digits and I more than happy with the results. The sun is slowly descending among the trees and cliffs. I take a drink of water, eat a protein bar and look at the time, almost 4:00 and I’m a little over 4 miles. If I was with the other guys, we would be lucky to make it the one mile marker and we would be at home resting on the couch. I disassemble the rod and take a deep breath, time to head home.
Because it turned out to be such a great day, I have a little more pep in my walk. In order to conserve energy, I walk along the river. At the end of the day, every step on the rocks is a little harder on the back and legs. I feel a slight jolt whenever I step. My knees are getting a sore as I negotiate my way along the banks. I arrive at the crossing and I remind myself that I have three more before making it back. My legs are a little rubbery, I take a little more time wading across, the next one will be a killer.
My breathing is heavier as I slough through the snow. By now the shadows grow longer and the sun is starting to slip behind the cliffs. I’m working up a good sweat and I’m thankful for the years of exercising and eating right. If this was me 20 years ago, I would be huffing and puffing and sitting on a log trying to catch my breath. I reach the 2nd crossing and I gingerly move around the rocks. The cold water is a welcome relief on my knees. I make it across and I’m halfway there.
I see my tracks from earlier today and I was the only person to make this far down. It’s a quick hike up along the river and around the bend to the next crossing. It’s getting darker now and my stomach is growing. I hasten my pace some more. I cross over at the tail out above the bend. I’m sweating and breathing a lot heavier, because I still have a distance to go before the last crossing. My legs are starting to feel cramped and I can see the river and the last crossing. I get to the water’s edge and I take a deep breath. There’s no need to rush and I take my time wading over.
Its dark by the time I cross the field and there’s my car. Everybody probably left hours ago. I have no one to share what a great day I had on the river. The only thing I hear is the water going over the dam. I pop the back hatch and sit down. I grab a water from the back and guzzle it. I catch my breath and take my toque off, I can feel the heat escaping my head. I slowly take off my jacket, waders and boots. My back is aching when I stand up, it took a beating today. I’ve often wondered how much more can my body take? My mind is willing, but my body? I can’t imagine doing this in my 60s.
I sink into the car seat and it start it. I drive through the covered bridge and head up the hill. I stop at the gas station and buy some water and beef jerky to snack on. I seriously doubt I’ll have the energy to cook when I get home. I will be stopping at Chipotle for a burrito bowl. I get on the interstate and it will an hour drive home. I know I’ll sleep good tonight.
We all exactly remember the place and time when we caught our first fish. Mine was on a dock on a small lake east of Parry Sound at my mother friend's cottage back in the summer of 1977. Her friend's husband put a worm on a hook and helped me cast the bobber out. Within a few minutes, I caught my first fish, a sunfish and that laid the foundation of my passion and love for fishing.
My father wasn't the outdoorsy type. The closest he got the outdoors was the golf course. I was left to own devices on how to fish. I was a voracious reader as I spent hours reading books and magazines. With a cheap rod and reel from Canadian Tire, I would ride my bike down dirt roads fishing the lakes, river, and creeks nearby home. As I got older, that’s when I took a great appreciation of nature and the environment.
Today was my turn to introduce a kid to fishing, my girlfriend's son Cameron. Since I've never had children of my own, I was thrilled at the thought of it. It was the Monday after the Thanksgiving holidays and we were driving out to the Ashtabula River. The "Bula" was the perfect place for introducing a kid to steelhead. The river is smaller and had plenty of easy access. We arrive at one of the metro parks and I knew of a pool that generally holds plenty of fish. As we walked down, we hear gunshots in the distance as it's deer hunting season in Ohio. The river should be a quiet place today.
I set up Cameron's rod and reel and instruct him on the basics of float fishing for steelhead. I keep it as simple as possible - if the float goes under, set the hook. I watch him and his mom fish and I take up a spot farther up as I probe the pool for fish. I catch a fish and Cameron sees his first steelhead. It's an average size Lake Erie steelhead in fall colors. I tell him it's a female by the shape of its head. I take a break from fishing and continually check their sacs and make adjustments. After an hour, that fish I caught is the only one. The hardcore steelheader in me would have them go on a death march in search of fish, but I have to be mindful that I don't know Cameron's threshold. I still try to keep it simple and we head another spot further downstream.
This section is much different than the other spot as the river here runs entirely over shale bedrock. Fish like to hide in the cuts and along the ledges. When the water is stained, this makes fishing even more challenging. Fortunately, I know where the spots are and we start to shuffle our way out. I use the overhanging tree on the opposite side as my guide. Now that we're in the right spot, I help him cast out and guide the float as close as possible to the ledge. The float goes under but the sac hit the bottom. He reels in and I make some adjustments and I cast out to see if we're at the right depth. I tell him about mending the line and then the float goes under and I tell him to set the hook.
The rod bends and throbs as we watch the water boil as the fish comes up. It's a small chunky male, the fight is brief and I grab the line and pull the fish towards the bank. Mom is the on the bank with the camera ready. I pull the hook out and hand the fish to Cameron. He holds it out with a huge smile beaming on his face much like I did back in the summer of 1977. Mom takes a few pictures and Cameron drops the fish back into the river.
I figure there might be more fish in that hole and we bang away. After 20 minutes, we hook into another fish and this one a little larger. I see the flash of silver in the murkiness and tell Cameron to keep the rod high and let the fish tire itself out. This fish has a little more fight than the other one. I steer the fish over in the slack water and it's a female about 25" long and roughly five pounds. I hand Cameron the fish and mom takes another picture of him. We continue to fish and there isn't that much action going on. While it wasn't the day I envisioned as we ended up with 3 fish, I couldn't be happier as Cameron caught his first steelhead. We wrap up the day with a drive back home and stopped at the Willoughby brewery for a nice lunch.
Will this plant the seed of fishing or an appreciation of the environment? It might, but over the past few decades, the number of kids fishing has decreased. You can blame it on a variety of reasons and mine is electronics. Personally, I see too many kids spending a lot of time on their phones and playing video games. This generation is not going to respect or protect the environment if they don't spend time outdoors. If that's the case, nature itself will start to suffer. Fewer people fishing means less revenue for states to help protect and enhance fish habitat. Also, the lack of revenue means less for stocking. I've watched Ohio's steelhead program grow by leaps and bounds. Winter was once a time of waiting for warmer weather. But, with the stocking program, many anglers have the opportunity to fish during those months. I would hate to see this program get affected if the next generation decides that fishing isn't worth their time.
So if you're out fishing and you see a kid struggling, give him or her a helping hand, the future our fishery depends on them.