Spring Steelhead

fishing Rocky River

The lifeless landscape starts to slowly awaken after a long winter. The trilliums, skunk cabbage, and bluebells are the first to poke through the forest floor. As the days get longer and warmer, the entire forest floor is a carpet of green. The willows and dogwoods are usually the first trees to sprout their leaves. Long gone is the bitter cold and waiting for the rivers to unthaw. I rejoice that the days are getting longer. But, it also signs that the season will eventually come to an end.

Spring is a time when I'm starting to get burned out by chasing steelhead. Getting up early, making the long drives out, and walking the endless miles to sate my appetite for them. My SUV reeks of musty waders and boots. The floor is littered with wrappers from the endless supply of protein bars I've eaten. It needs a good cleaning and detox when I finally call it quits which honestly I can never give an answer. Trips are often close to home as I really don't have the energy to make the drive to Conneaut or Ashtabula. I'm content fishing the Rock after work. There's always plenty of room because the majority of anglers are raking the redds. Yes, I hate the practice of flossing fish. But, it certainly frees up a lot of spots.

Dropbacks are my primary target. After spawning, they're lean and mean. They'll aggressively hit any offering you throw out at them. Despite looking famished and beaten up, they fight incredibly hard. They'll rip off line with relative ease. Many times I have had drop backs launch themselves out of the water and recklessly charge downstream.

With the days getting longer, I can now make the trips out east after work. But spring brings unpredictable weather along Steelhead Alley. Temperatures one day can be in the 40s and a couple of days later rocket into the 70s or even the 80s. With wild fluctuations, that usually means thunderstorms. Severe storms can quickly turn a lazy flowing river into a torrent of raging muddy waters. One river that is susceptible to unpredictable weather is the Grand. I've seen in past years, the Grand going the entire spring unfished because the river could never make down to fishable levels. It would tease us as the level would gradually go down. At times it was so slow, it was maddening

"She might fish in a couple of days.............I hope"

I would be frothing at the mouth at the number of fish to be had. But, then a storm would dump rain and she would go out of her banks and another week was shot.

Knowing that my window of fishing would be closing for the Grand, I made the trip out after work. My home river was low and the resident fish were beyond beaten up either by spawning or repeatedly being caught. With my unpredictable work schedule, I was hoping to finish at three so I could beat the traffic heading out of Cleveland. It turned out I left work at four, but the flow of traffic heading to Lake County was steady without any delays. The weather report was calling for rain later tonight and there was enough that it probably blow the Grand out for the rest of the season.

Rocky River metropark

When it comes to fishing dropbacks, I'll head to sections that have gravel. They tend to linger off the beds and recuperate. I arrive at one of the metro parks and as I head down to the river I see a couple of fish in the feeder creek. The creek is barely six feet wide and gin clear. They bolt for cover under a downed tree. It's not a far walk and I see the mud littered with footprints. The feeder creek barely makes to the river. The water here is cleaner as the two bodies of water meet. The Grand with its clay-based stain meeting the clear waters of the two feeder creeks. The two mix the water into a light tea colored stain. The bottom of the river is mostly rocks mixed with gravel. It's a prime spawning spot and a magnet for spey fishermen as the river is wide enough and fast flowing for them to swing their streamers.

I see a cluster of anglers fishing the shallows, there's plenty of open water downstream. I walk past a couple of them and wade halfway out. The river is flowing at a good rate as the water here is well oxygenated. Dropbacks prefer slower deeper water, but there's isn't any here. From knowledge, I know that dropbacks will hang near the high bank. The speed of the bubbles is a dead giveaway. I adjust the float and pull out a pink uncured salmon egg. They've been tearing up salmon eggs for the past few weeks and it doesn't take long to hook into the first fish. The float gets ripped under fast and I set the hook. The fish surges and the fight is over quickly as the fish tosses the hook. I make some more adjustments and I feather the float back to have the sac is in front. Another lighting fast take and the fish tosses the hook. The flow is strong enough that it often tears the hook out. I continue to lose fish as I'm either too fast or too slow setting the hook. But I really don't care, because I don't want to stress the fish and secondly I lost my hemostats.

I continue to shuffle down working the lumber and I have another take and this time I have a solid hook up. The fish launches itself out of the water numerous times. With 8 pound test, I quickly muscle it in. The fish turns out to be small spawned out hen. She has all the signs of spawning. Worn out tail, scars on her belly and of course a couple flies stuck on her. I pull the flies out and quickly let her go. I make my way farther down and pick off some fish. It doesn't seem there's a lot of fish here. It's been a major complaint this season that the numbers are off and the size of the fish have been small. There's been plenty of bitching about this latest strain of steelhead that Ohio has been stocking. We all fell in love with the large brutish Manistees for several years. But then the state switched to the Chambers Creek and Ganaraska strains. The newest strain was generally 22" to 26" in length and anything over 30" was extremely rare. I can't remember the last time I caught a fish over 30". We have our theories and I suspect that the numbers are low and the size of the fish smaller is the result of a lack of forage out in the lake. This season, I haven't seen one emerald shiner in the streams. Usually, in the fall or the spring, massive schools of them head into the lower sections. You can blame the gazillion zebra mussels that compete with the shiners for food. Also there's a record number of walleye in the lake now. That 1-2 combination is enough to knockout the current shiner population. Those record numbers of walleye also have a hankering for smolts.

I continue to plug away as I pick off some fish until I finally reach the end of the line. The river here is too shallow to hold fish. I cross over and fish another section below the cliffs. I bemoan this spot because, in past years, it held a lot of dropbacks because it was deeper. Today, debris has filled it in and altered the flow. This is life along Steelhead Alley. Mud banks get dug out and gravel and sand move about. It's a constant relearning the rivers. We all share stories of about our favorite holes and pools. But over time we find new ones. Last month I stumbled onto it and found it held a lot of fish. Due to the gravel and rocks above, the river turned slightly and dug out a channel along the bank. The flow was ideal and the depth was enough to conceal fish.

There were plenty of dropbacks here and it was a mix of acrobatics leaps and sizzling runs. I check the time and it's past 6:30, I have about another hour, but there's rain heading my way. I cross over and fish another spot. This is also new as when they rebuilt the train trestle and removed all of the lumber and the support stands. Now the river has flattened out. I cast into sections that flow around the numerous rocks in the water. I have two more fish fall for pink sacs and I catch the first male. Just like the females, they show the rigors of spawning. In the past, I've caught some large males sporting nasty wounds from fighting with other males of equal size. This smaller male had some sores but not from fighting as he would be severely wounded if he did get caught in the jaws of the dominant male.

Rocky River metropark

As expected there's no fresh fish caught, probably because I'm farther upriver. Late arrivals often spawn at the first gravel they find. The fish I caught last fall, probably spawned weeks or even last year. Whatever the case, they're long gone. When the rivers swell, they lazily ride back to the lake. But it's still late April and there's always the last minute spawners that sneak into the rivers. I wouldn't be shocked if there were still fish in the rivers well into May. As long as the weather stays cool and the waters don't warm up too fast. By now most of the steelheaders I know, have stowed the gear away for the season. Only the diehards remain out, fishing until the very last days. For me, the true sign that the steelhead season is over is when the gars start showing up on the lower sections. By then the waters are too warm and the steelhead will retreat the depths of Lake Erie. There they eventually return to their silver color and roam the vast distances in the lake seeking food to replenish the lost weight. Only until the days start getting shorter do they start to come back to the rivers.

The skies are getting dark and the wind is whipping around. I check the weather and I can see the rain just west of me. The entire western part of the state is covered in dark green and yellows on the rain band. I have a feeling that it enough to blow the river out and who knows when I'll get another chance to fish the Grand. There was another spot that I wanted to fish, but there isn't enough time, it will be dark soon. As I walk back, I see that everyone is gone. The rain starts to pelt me as I walk up the feeder creek. I undress quickly and the rain falling harder. It's almost dark when I get on I-90 and head back to Rocky River. The ride is quiet as the only sound is the wipers and the rain. It's a time to unwind. This will be most likely to be my last trip to the Grand.

In another week it will be May and I'm sure there will be fish. My supply of eggs is getting low as I have just enough to get me through until the bait shop gets salmon eggs in October. There have been times when I can't resist and I'll break out a pack of eggs.

"Just one more trip"

Famous last words from a diehard

As I said, the weather is so unpredictable. Next month can be cool and the conditions might be enough to keep some of the fish in the rivers. But that also means the state will be stocking smolts and I'm very reluctant to fish because I don't want to harm the next generation.

But my passion is too strong and I'll fish to the bitter end and curse the sight of the gars.

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