The steelhead is sleek and silver. Much like the contours of an exotic sport car that was painstakingly created. The body is sturdy, the upper back is a gun metal grey and pure silver along the sides. The tail, is oversized and powerful, as exaggeratedly proportioned to its size as are the fish's speed and power.
Out in the vast expanses of Lake Erie, the steelhead searches for food. Gaining the weight necessary for the long duration in streams found along the lake. Some enter the river in early fall and others in the spring. During that time, they under go changes. The females darken and their bellies get bigger as the eggs inside develop. The males also darken, their cheeks turn red, their bellies turn charcoal, and their jaws elongate. During that time they patiently wait in the depth of the pools. They endure the frigrid temperatures of winter. There they wait for the longer days when the waters warm enough for the females to move onto the gravel and spawn.
When I first moved to Ohio in 1998, I didn't even know the state stocked them. Back in my native Canada, I never really fished for them as the closest steelhead streams were the ones that flowed into Lake Superior. That was a little too far for a college student that had a less than reliable car and the lack of funds to make the journey. I watched several anglers on the Chagrin River and they either employed a fly rod or used a spinning reel. I opted for the fly rod because that's what I used for brook trout back home. It took a lot of trail and error and picking the brains of the more seasoned anglers. I still remember the first steelhead I caught, which happened to be a small skipper. There was this great sense of pride that this little fish took my feeble looking zonker. That planted the seed and overtime grew into a life time of passion.
A steelhead fights with a ferocity that other fish can't rival. The walleye is a slug and the smallmouth bass is more a scrapper. With sizzling runs, steelhead will often wreck themselves jumping from the water. But others are more methodical. They'll stubbornly stay on the bottom, refusing to yield. When we bring them in close, they unleash a powerful surge back into the river. It becomes a battle of attrition. Sometimes the battle is won by a simple head shake or a in your face leap and we just stand there either miffed at loss of focus or we tip our cap.
The steelhead can be a puzzling creature. Despite our decades of knowledge, these fish can be maddening. Conditions can be perfect and we didn't even get a bump. We tirelessly work the water. Going from pool to pool, we change colors and patterns and still nothing. The day ends with one or two fish and we head home scratching our heads at what did we do wrong. Then there's the times when aggressively strike at anything you offer. It doesn't matter what you offer them, they'll eagerly take it. The numbers start to pile up and you're in disbelief at the number of them landed. There seems to be no middle ground with them.
It's been nearly 20 years here on the Alley. I was the green steelheader that no experience. During that time, I've logged countless of hours on the rivers. There was a lot of frustration but I was determined. I studied the rivers with great attention. Lost count of the miles I walked through the woods or along the streams. It didn't matter if it was freezing cold, lake effect snows, or blistering heat. I was always somewhere starting from September until May. I've develop a great respect for the steelhead. It's a worthy opponent that has humbled me numerous times. The steelhead is truly a magnificent fish.