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.
When I'm fishing low and clear, I'll go small on everything. 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.