Fishing Low and Clear

Low and clear. That's how it usually is on the Alley during the fall. Quite honestly, the Alley's streams generally run low and clear most of the time, because all of them are not spring fed and rely on runoff. On average the larger streams get low and clear a week after runoff. For some of the smaller streams, the window for perfect conditions is so brief it might last less than 48 hours. From muddy waters to crystal clear with the snap of a finger, that's what makes them so unique and also maddening. 

For the record, I'm not thrilled at the prospect of fishing low and clear conditions. When the streams take on the clarity of vodka and I've always wondered where the hell do these fish hide? The larger rivers have enough deep water that fish can find security. In the smaller streams they don't have that luxury and they're completely exposed. A single brightly colored fish might be able to blend into the grooves of the shale bedrock as there's a mixture of light and dark rocks. However, if there's a school of them, they don't make an effort to conceal themselves. They just sit there intently eyeing any possible threat. 

I remember one year on the Elk, a stream infamous for running low and clear. The Elk is also known for having ridiculous numbers of fish. Early on when I was still on the learning curve, I was completely naive that I was going to catch fish. It turned out to be an excerise in futility. I could see bottom and the water was barely a foot deep. But, I kept walking and walking in the hopes I could find a deep hole. During the entire time I didn't see one fish. Then I see in the distance several anglers standing along the river. As I got closer it was a large pool. The water so clear that I could see right to the bottom despite the fact the pool was 5' deep. There had to be almost 100 fish in it. It was like one of those pools loaded with fish at a sportsmen's show. You paid a fee and once you dropped your bait usually a single egg probably from an old jar of Uncle Josh's eggs. You had a better chance of getting struck by lighting then catching a fish. I watched several anglers throw everything but the kitchen sink at them. As soon as whatever they casted out, the fish would casually swim away, almost in a bored fashion. The fish obviously had no interest, but that didn't deter the anglers from trying. I turned and walked away muttering  


That turned out to be the last time I would venture into Pennsylvania when the streams were that low. 

In Ohio, the streams are much larger than Pennsylvania's. But when levels drop, our streams take on that same crystal clear clarity. When everywhere else is too low, I'll venture out to one river, the Grand which is the largest steelhead river in Ohio. Even when it's low, it still holds onto its murkiness that it's known for. 

When fishing low and clear conditions, I will scale back the size of everything from sacs to jigs. I use what I've always used and that's salmon eggs. The only difference is I'll downscale the size of them. I'll tied up the smallest sacs possible, about 5 eggs per sac. I'll use the lightest colors such as peach, salmon, or white. They look microscopic compared to the sacs I tie when the rivers are higher. I know some guys that use a single egg or a bead. I've never been a big fan of single eggs because you have a use a tiny hook. The thought of using a hook the same size as a salmon egg is ridiculous. As for beads, I've tried them but I've never took a liking to them. Others swear that using shiners is deadly in clear conditions, but I don't want to lug around a bucket of them. 

Before I go to bed, I check the flow data and the Grand is running at an anemic 75cfs. That's a far cry from the 700 to 1000cfs that I usually like fishing at. But it's better than Conneaut or Ashtabula as they were running in the low teens. I arrive at the section of the Grand that flows through the seedy section of Painesville. Today there's no homeless people sleeping in the park. No being harassed for smokes or money. I gear up and walk down to the river. I climb down the bank and the water is barely flowing over the rocks. It's so low that the water doesn't go over the top of my boots when I cross over. I could practically sprint across. During typical conditions, the water would be over my knees. I can see the strings of algae clinging onto the rocks reminding me that cold weather is still a long way off. Some of the leaves on the trees are starting to turn color. I can see the yellows, oranges, and reds on the maples and hickories. But there isn't the crispness in the air that harkens another steelhead season. It still feels like summer as I'm only wearing a long sleeved shirt. 

I don't bother fishing the pool below where I crossed. During the summer the Grand had an epic flood, but not like the one in 2007. But it enough that it caused some changes. The first thing I noticed was the amount of sediment along the bank. Last year, I would have been over my waist today it's a little over my ankles. Even at first light, I can make out the shale ledges. If there's nobody fishing it when I come back I might give it a shot. I wade across the tailout and over the riffle. Above the cliff I hear that annoying rooster crowing. For the past 4 years, every time I'm fishing the pool below I hear that annoying little prick crow all morning long. I'm surprised that someone in the neighborhood hasn't killed him yet. I walk along the cliff and there's the huge pool. The locals call it the powder hole. Don't ask me where the name came from. 

Standing along the river's edge, I can see the shale bedrock without the aid of polarizing glasses jutting out into the river. I wade out and I see can see the edge of it. From there I can't see bottom. The water is darker because the bottom is clay mud. That gives the fish a sense of security. The pool is barely flowing as I watch the water move at a glacial pace. Farther out and downstream is slack water and what my fellow steelheaders affectionally call "frog water". I sigh and know it's going to be tough fishing. The wind starts to gust and I noticed leaves are getting blown about. In a few weeks, the streams will be littered in them. 

As with presentations, I go as small as possible with terminal tackle. I'll use the smallest float possible like a Raven SS 2.2 gram and the lightest line about 6 pound test. I tie on a #8 hook and I'm only using 3 split shots to balance the float. I cast out into the current and watch the float creep along. I see it tilt forward, pop several times, move, and slowly go under. I have too much line out and reel in. I adjust it to about 4' deep which would be considered fishing the abyss. I cast back out and watch the float slowly move along. I watch for any takes that can range from a violent dunking to the slightest taps. I continue to make adjustments and I know there's fish in here. About 20' downstream, I see the float starting to do that tap-tap-tap and I immediately start thinking of my nemesis - the creek chub. At first I resist the urge to yank hard and usually I'll flick the float as if I'm swatting them away. After a few more taps, I set the hook and right off the bat I know it's not a chub. Out of the water jumps a small steelhead. I see it zig zag across the bedrock and as soon as it sees me immediately bolts for deeper water. Because it's so small I stop it in its track and quickly horse it in. The fish is probably no more than 16" long and six months ago it was a 8" smolt. The fertile waters of Lake Erie fueled its growth as it almost doubled in size during that brief time period. Because it's so small, I handle it like a bass and place my thumb in its mouth. I popped the hook out and softly toss it out over the shale ledge.

For about 45 minutes, I tangled with several more skippers. Much to my dismay I didn't catch one adult. The adults can be a fickled bunch. Some are very eager to make their way into the rivers and try to cover as much water as possible. Others are content to wait it out in the lake or the lower sections of a river, waiting for the next high water. But it really boils down to genetics. Fish found in the streams in early fall are usually fish stocked by Pennsylvania. That state stocks a fall run fish and just like Ohio, the fishery department will dump them off at the closest boat ramp to the lake. The smolts generally don't imprint well on their streams where they were released. Depending where they are in the lake, they run up what river is the closest. Ohio on the other hand stocks a winter run fish and they tend to run later in the fall or early winter. 

So far I've caught 8 fish and then all is quiet. My options are limited at this spot, so I start to head downstream and I use the time to study the bottom. When rivers run low and clear, that's the perfect time to make mental notes of pools and runs. I can see the where the river runs the deepest or any structure that gives fish a break from the current. I arrive at another pool and as expected is barely flowing. I look downstream and there isn't a person out fishing. Most anglers I I know would rather sit on the sidelines and wait for rain. In past years, it took weeks before any sufficient rainfall raises the streams. The pool is low that 2' is just enough to get my sac at the bottom. It feels like an eternity to see it go more than 20'. The flow is so slow that my centerpin reel barely even moves. I just stare at the float as it makes it voyage out towards the middle section of the pool. I see it bounce a couple times and I almost pull the trigger, but it's the bottom. I reel in and continue to tinker with the depth. Out goes the float and it chugs along. Then I see the tell tale tap - tap - tap of a fish picking up the sac and I set the hook. Another skipper leaps from the water and it's a fairly quick fight. It turns out to be the only fish I caught from the pool. By now the temperature is soaring and I walk further down. I stand on the rocks and I can see right to the bottom. I scan along the shale ledges to see if I can spot any fish. I look at the time and it's early afternoon. My gut tells me to pack in and head back to the car. I can't complain as I caught a decent number of fish considering conditions weren't ideal. 

I head back to the parking lot and before I cross over, I'm standing high on top of the bank. I look down and by now the sun is out and I see everything. I see the shale bedrock goes about halfway out and from the edge of it, I see a long snaking trench. It follows the bedrock and eventually ends near the tailout. When the river is higher, I can pretty well know where that trench is as I watch the speed of the bubbles. If the bubbles are going fast, that means the water is flowing over the bedrock. I don't bother fishing it as I can see numerous footprints in the mud. I'm sure over the past few weeks this spot has been pounded pretty hard. 

Fishing low and clear isn't for everyone. It requires a lot of patience and persistence. Depending on what stream you fish, holes will be few and far between. If that's the case, it's better to fish down low. Fish tend to stage in the deeper waters. The problem is the lower ends are often inaccessible for the wading angler. The water is either too deep or the flow is virtually non existent. You're probably better off using a small boat and trolling. The other problem is fishing pressure. When fish have to pile into whatever deep water they can find, they'll be targeted unmercifully. When that happens they can very difficult to coax a bite from them. Best thing to do is get to the spot early, because it will become very crowded as soon as the sun comes up. 

Or do a rain dance and hope something happens.

The Smolt

The float pops and goes under. When I jerk the rod, I immediately know it's a smolt. It breaks the surface and tries to imitate the leaps that the adults are famous for. Despite its small size, it fights tenaciously. I calmly pull it in and gently grab it. In my hand is a 10 inch steelhead. It has all the features of the adult except for the cartoonish like eyes that are huge compared to its head. Not wanting to cause any injury, I pull the hook out delicately. They're the future of our fishery. I quickly release it and watch it dart back into the depths. 

What will become of that smolt? According to the state's fishery biologist, the odds of them reaching adulthood are not great. Lake Erie is the not the best nursery for them, considering over 40 million walleye and other gamefish generally don't pass up one of these juicy little smolts. The state releases over 400,000 of them into seven streams along the coast of Ohio. All of them are unceremoniously dumped into the river at the nearest boat ramp to the lake. There's no fanfare or press release. The truck is backed up and the hose is attached and out they go. It's a big change from the hatchery where they were nutured and feed with the greatest care. Now they're on their own. They will have the run the guantlet of predators and feed themselves. The fertile waters of Lake Erie will fuel their growth and the following year, they'll come back as a feisty 20" skipper. If they buck the odds even more, one of them might be that trophy steelhead that we dream about. 

I've always wonder what does the smolt do once they're dumped into the river? Will they linger? Or immediately head into the lake? Most of the smolts are content to hang out at the lower sections of the rivers, but some are more adventurous. I remember one year I was fishing the midsection of the Rocky River for carp in late June. I was standing on a gravel bar waiting for a carp to take my bait. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched a small fish herd a small school of minnows. At first I thought it was a young smallmouth bass. Then I noticed it was a smolt. I watched it methodically cut off any path of escape as it slowly moved the tight ball of minnows towards the shallow water. Despite its young age, it acted like a wily adult. The smolt slowly got into position and with lightening speed rushed the ball and grabbed one of the minnows. Instead of darting back into deeper water, it proudly swam off with its prize. That day the temperature was almost 80F and I'm sure the river was close to 70F. In their native habitat, they'll stay in their river of birth for a couple years before heading out the ocean. Ohio streams are not spring fed so they can't regulate their flow or temperature. If the summer is too dry, the river gradually slows to crawl and the water stagnates. The water temperature will go into the upper 70s which is pass their threshold. Was this smolt foolish to head too far upstream? Probably, but it has no clue. All it knows it needs to eat and grow. I eventually leave and wonder if that little fella will make it. 

I've often have this love/hate relationship with the smolt. They're crucial for the survival of the fishery as Steelhead Alley's streams can't sustain a natural reproducing fishery. But there's been times when I've cursed under my breath as I caught one smolt after another. I've liken them to a school of voracious piranhas. They will recklessly hit anything that resembles food. In most cases, I'll go upstream to get away from the aggravation. But most of the time, I'm usually done with steelhead as many of the smolts are released in late April. 

Without smolts I would most likely be stuck at home during the winter months growing fat and longing for the days of spring when I can go out and fish for bass or walleye or carp. That's why I take great care whenever I caught one. I whinch when I take the hook out. The odds of them reaching to adulthood are stacked against them.

Diehard Steelheader's Day


The alarm goes off and I reach around in the dark for my glasses and the phone. I fumble in the dark looking for the lamp switch and suddenly the room is flooded with light. I gather myself and sit at the edge of the bed. Blurry eyed, I put on my glasses and take a deep breath. But before I get up, I do what any diehard steelheader does, I check the weather and flow data 

Partly cloudy and the current temperature is 29F with a high of 34F and sunny conditions later
Flow data, the river is currently running at 300cfs

In my book, it's a perfect day for fishing. I don't linger in bed or try to sneak in another 15 minutes of sleep, as a diehard steelheader never does that. When I was younger, I never thought of myself as a diehard angler. I was very fickled when it came to the weather. During my college years, I would never imagine myself getting up so early as I was just getting to bed after a long night of clubbing and playing euchre until the wee hours of morning. Other times, I was still shit faced or too hungover to wet a line. Only until when I moved to Ohio, I caught the steelhead bug. I spent countless of hours on the water honing my skills. I never spared any expense when it came to equipment. I dedicated myself to becoming the best steelheader that I could be.

I dress and head downstairs. Still groggy, I manage to count out 6 scoops for the coffee maker. While the coffee is brewing, I fire up the stove and prepare to make an omelette. I chop up some onions and red peppers and saute them in the pan. I mix the 3 eggs in the bowl and I add some Frank's red hot sauce and salt and pepper. Then I add all of the ingredients into the pan. Most of the guys I know wouldn't even bother and skip breakfast all together. For them that's a waste of time as they need to hit the road. Once the eggs are almost cooked, I add some shredded cheese and fold the omelette over. For me breakfast is important because I'll be on the move and it will be cold out. I need a hearty breakfast to fuel me for the morning hours. My girlfriend is in Washington DC at a conference and I'm watching the dogs. I feed them and let them out. I enjoy my cup of Joe and wolf down the omelette. While I'm eating I and read the news on my computer. The cornavirus is making a mess of things.


I'm on the road heading up I-271 and in the dark as I sip my coffee and listen to music. I never blast the stereo. The sound is halfway and I'm not listening to any upbeat music to get me pumped up. I always seem to listen to music that slow and somber. One of my favorites is listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan. His slow melodic riffs and voice gets me. The sound of his guitar isn't harsh but it's powerful. I tap the wheel as I listen to Cold Shot. The river is about 90 miles, so it's a little over an hour away. I can see the faint glimpse of first light on the horizon. The highway is a desolate place. I past a few trucks and cars as I-271 merges into I-90. The music is interrupted as phone rings. One the display screen, it one of my fellow diehards and I answer it. He's calling to see where I'm going. I say I'm heading east today to get away from the circus on my home river, but I'm not confident that this particular river will be less crowded. The funny thing is we're always vague on where we're going, but we always have a good idea what stream we'll be at. During the past couple of years I've been fishing mostly solo. Several guys I've fished with have been plagued with injuries or old age has finally caught up with them. None of them could hack an outing with me. I could never sit on a hole for the entire morning or fish the first spot from the lot. Word is getting around that fish are pushing into all of the rivers. We talk for about 30 minutes about various things and he has to take another call. Early mornings for the diehards can be busy and there's times I wished cell phones were never invented. I resume to going back to finishing off my coffee and Voodoo Child comes on. It's first light and I'm 20 miles from the exit. I haven't fished this river since January and that day I crushed them despite the number of people out.


I pull off the exit and head north. As I look at up the road, I see a SUV starting to slow down near the bridge. He's not sure as I see the brakes lights tap and he pulls off. I sense he's going to turn left and he does. He goes across the highway and then turns right. He's the first car in, which is surprising because there's times when I've seen 4 or 5 cars there. I pull in and noticed he has California plates. That seems to be a far drive to get a steelhead fix. As I pull in, I call my friend who's 20 minutes behind and let him know that's it's me and another angler. I guzzle my remaining coffee and pop the hatch. I have dressing down to a science. Less than 2 minutes I'm geared up and I exchanged pleasantries with other angler, who's stunned that I dressed so fast. I don't shoot the shit as the diehard steelheader doesn't dick around. I wish the other angler good luck and immediately head upstream. I know some guys that actually dress before leaving home, that's dedication.


As I walk along the bank, I can see river is slightly off color. It was high earlier in the week and yesterday's weather was downright awful. Somewhere in the murky depths are steelhead hanging off the ledges or at the tailout. Nearly every diehard steelhead has their perfect flow or conditions. Since I primarily fish with eggs, I tend to like off colored conditions. Nearly every streams has their "sweet spot" and in most cases that window can be brief as the next day it can be gin clear. I reach the pool and it runs along a shale cliff. Like most Steelhead Alley's pools, it's no more than a couple feet deep. On the bottom are scatter rocks mixed in with shale ledges. The visiblity is probably a foot and a half.

I pull out my huge jar of eggs. Inside there's a variety of colors to choose from. From experience, the four go to colors for me when the water is stained are pink, chartruese, white, and red. I shake the jar and out comes a pink sac. On the first drift and boom, fish on. That's how it usually goes on certain days on the Alley. Back in my native Ontario it would be rare to hook up that fast. The water boils and the fish races upstream. The fight is fairly quick as I beach a bright silver hen. Probably a week ago she was at the lower end patiently waiting for higher waters. I release her and wonder how much further will she go? A couple drifts later and I hook into a large male. But I eye the other pool upstream as it's bigger.  My gut tells me to go and after releasing the fish, I head up. My friend calls and I tell him I already have 2 fish but I'm moving upstream. He says the other guy is under the bridge. I tell him I left the spot for him and he says thanks. The diehard always looks out for their buddies.


It's a fairly quick walk to the next pool. Over the years, I've honed my ability to read water. I watch the bubbles and I see where they're moving slower. I'm fishing a river that is fairly shallow. The fish tend to utilize any cover they can find whether it's submerged trees, rocks, or shale ledges. Along the bank there's a large tree in the water. I watch the bubbles race along the tree. A little farther out, they move considerably slower. I can see the current swirl around the submerged rocks. I pick my spot and  cast out. I feather the reel with my finger and the float starts to trot. It will give the fish just enough time to take it. The float pops and goes under. Despite it being cold and the fish gives a nice run, pulling out into the current. I land it and it's another of those "cookie cutter" Lake Erie steelhead about 24" and 4 pounds. I beach a hen that has some color and her belly is still tight full of eggs. This is the time of year when I catch fish that are dropping back or heading upstream. It seems the fish are holding in the middle which is unsual considering it's cold. The pool continues to give up fish and I call my friend downstream to see how's he doing. We tend to do that, getting a pulse on where the fish are or what color they prefer. Other times, we often save a wasted morning on certain stream that isn't giving up fish. He tells me they're tearing into them. I'm content to stay put for the time being.

8:00A.M to 11:30A.M

The pool is giving up a lot of fish, so far I've hooked into 15 fish. As I fish I continue to look over my shoulder to see if any people are coming up or down stream. It's something that I always hated, because I crave having solitude. Diehard steelheaders rarely have to content with crowds because they know the rivers like the back of their hand. During spring, they'll be miles upstream from everyone. But, today I'm happy with fishing low and near easy access. I look downstream and see one of the guys fishing. Satisfied that I caught my fill, because I never liked beating a hole to death. I walk down and see the guys. They've been picking away at them. We're surpised at the lack of people. It's almost like there's something wrong, but we're not complaining about it. We fish the run and catch a few more fish. We decide to head downstream to another spot and as expected there's nobody there. Before crossing over, I head to my car and grab a turkey sandwich and wolf it down. The diehard steelheader rarely has time to eat, because they usually have their hands full with fish. I cross over, cast out and boom, fish on. I have a feeling we're going to lay into some serious numbers of fish.

11:30A.M to 3:00P.M

The two other guys I'm fishing with are considered diehards. Both share the same passion as I do. We fish below the bridge and spread out. The number of fish continues to pile up. The river got an incredible push of fish. Between the three of us, we've caught close 80 fish. There's been times when I've caught epic numbers of fish. That's why the Alley get the reputation as one of the finest steelhead fishery's in the lower 48 states. Yeah, it might be an artifical fishery and the streams are far too small to support that many fish. But, Lake Erie is fertile enough to support the millions of steelhead stocked. We continue to work our downstream and I have a hankering to head to another spot. I leave the guys and head downstream. It's not a far drive and I see the bridge and there's five cars parked along the road. Most of the early morning crowd is long gone. There's only a few stragglers farther upstream at the most popular spots. For the diehard steelheader it doesn't matter if the spot was worked over. He's skilled enough and know his quarry's habits. He knows that fish move from one spot to another. He knows that sometimes the bite could have been off earlier in the morning when it was colder. Or he knows that spot was fished by anglers that lacked the skills he possesses. 

I look downstream and there's nobody fishing. I walk down and the first thing I notice is how high the water is. Lake Erie's water level has been at a record high this season as the lower sections are deep enough that some anglers can take their boats upstream. I look for the chunks of concrete as that's where the currunt flows to the left and the fish like to hold off the shale ledges. The boulder downstream that I often use to guage the flow is underwater. For the entire time there I never see it. Unlike the other spots I fished earlier, the flow here is pedestrian. This spot is popular in the early fall as fish stage and wait for higher waters. The float chugs along as I watch for any signs of abnormal movement. The floats starts to pop and I wait for it to get completely go under. It finally goes under and I set the hook. I feel the rod throb as the fish moves upstream. The jumps a couple time and I steer it towards the bank. It's another bright silver fish. The flow ebbs and falls as I fish and I pick away at them. I've lost count of how many fish I caught, but I always do. One of the guys call to see what's going on and I say there's enough fish here to spark my interest. I tell them the most popular spots are probably occupied or been worked over by the morning crowd. They decide to head upstream and I tell I'll have to leave around three. 


The diehard in me would want to fish until dark. They never really think about time. The only thing getting them off the river is either running out of bait or darkness. There's been times when I've fished from first light until sunset. Walking back as the light starts to fade and the shadows creep in closer. In the distance I only see my car and no other. The ride home allows me to rest my back and knees. When I get home, I know I'll sleep good. But today I have the task of getting back to my girlfirend's house and feeding the dogs. I leave the river around 3:00P.M and head to McDonalds for dinner. Lunch felt like it was ages ago and my stomach is growling for something big and hearty. I get a quarter pounder, large fries, and a large hot chocolate to warm me up. Before I head out, I go through my Spotify library and select ZZ Top. The music is a little more upbeat maybe to help fight off tiredness as it will be a long drive back. The hot chocolate hits the spot and I'm grooving to Gimme All Your Lovin'. Once I get back, the dogs greet me and I inspect for any accidents. I feed them and let them out. I could kick back and relax, but I know that would be a mistake as I would most likely crash there for the night. I set the newspaper out and get the eggs from the fridge. In an hour I have the eggs all tied. I make something light for dinner and after eating, I head upstairs to read and eventually fall asleep. The clocks go forward and I'll have an extra hour to fish in the evening just what the diehard wants. I set the alarm and tomorrow I'll have to figure out where else to go.

My Other Hobby

For years, people told me that I have an eye for photography. What amazed them was that I took pictures with my iPhone. Cameras on phones are limited and I wanted to see what I could do with a camera. Last fall, I purchased a Sony A6000 which was a great camera for a beginner. I researched and read the basics of photography. But, I usually learn from trial and error.

Last week, I went into Cleveland. The city was virtually a ghost town. I parked my car and walked the city, randomly taking pictures. I did all of them in black and white to get the sense of how the pandemic has affect the city.