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.