The mother off all winters. That's what I've been hearing. The older folks of Cleveland telling the youngsters that this was a typical Northeastern Ohio winter of old - snow and cold. The youth today could never hack what the old timers went through. Trudging through the deep snow on the way to school. As a kid I walked to school whether it was -5 or -30, there was no such thing as a "snow" day. If the principal made it to school, your ass better be in the seat after the first bell rung. Kids today have it so easy with global warming and all. I've been here for 16 years and the Alley would get a small dose of a cold winter. It nothing more than a day or two of bitterly cold. Within a week, that cold was a distant memory as most or all of the snow that had fallen was melted. Old man winter over the past few years has lost a lot of his punch.
Then came the polar vortex. Polar vortex? I'm thinking of some massive white tornado roaring down from the deepest darkest regions of the high Arctic, freezing anything in its path. I googled the term and its indeed a weather phenomenon. Back in my native Canada, I've never heard of the term. We called it a cold snap and went about our business. The vortex did come and it plunged the Alley into sub zero temperatures that hadn't been seen since the great blizzard of 1977. I got a dose of what a real Canadian winter was like. The temperature dropped all the way to -13F and the wind chill topped out at -45F. The sound of crunching snow under my feet, the stinging sensation in my lungs and nipping cold on my cheeks. It brought back memories of winter back in Northern Ontario and Alberta. Cold like this lasted for a week or more back home. In Northeastern Ohio, cold like this might happen every decade or so.
The Alley is cloaked in snow and ice. Lake Erie is covered in ice as far as the eye can see in every direction. The forests are silent as are the streams. All of the riffles are locked up as I walked along the trail. Somewhere under the ice, steelhead wait in the deeper pools. We didn't had to wait that long. Monday night it was -13F and Friday morning it was 50F. Instead of wind chill alerts, flood warnings were issued across the region. The rivers shed themselves of the snow and ice. A window of opportunity for me and my steelheading brothers. The window would be brief as more cold weather is heading our way for the weekend. The only chance I get is Friday afternoon and I make the most of it. The river is still stained from the chunks of ice gouging out the clay and mud banks. I head to the "bunker hole" a winter pool that me and select few know about. The bunker hole to the untrained eye is nothing more than a shallow shale bottom pool. But at certain flows, a lot of fish often rest here. The river takes a sharp turn before spilling into a series of riffles. The tail end of the pool is where the fish are. I use a large pink sac and run it about 3'. The large sycamore that fell into the water has been pushed aside so mending the line is easier. Working the tail end, I make adjustments until I catch the first of five fish from here. It's a skipper and despite the water being a couple degrees above freezing, leaps from the water. All of the fish caught are small in size and being on a clock, I head to the next spot farther downstream. I'm less than half a mile from the lake and fish stage here before heading upstream. The day before I got reports that fish were caught in good numbers. There isn't anybody here which is either a good or bad sign. The morning crowd might of pounded these fish or the bite was off for most of the day. The sun is starting go under the cliffs and I have an hour to fish, so I waste no time. I work the tailout and immediately hook into a small dark male. After that a couple more skippers and the encroaching dark forced me off the river. The weather for the weekend was calling for temperature in the teens and daytime highs in the 20s. By the end of the weekend, the window would be more than likely slammed shut.
Sunday morning I head out to the upper Grand. It's a shot in the dark, because I have no idea what the river will be like. On the way out, I cross over the Chagrin River and it's completely locked up in ice. Just three days ago, it was free flowing. I pull into Fairport Harbor and drive over the Grand, there is side ice but no slush. I continue north and turn to head east. I past the first parking lot and there isn't a car. The wind is whipping the reeds all over the place and I don't bother stopping. I pass the next lot and no cars. I'm curious to see what the river looks like over the bridge. I drive over and it's locked up in ice. The decision is made to head to the dam. On the way, I cross the river twice and the open water is clogged with slush. I head onto the interstate and I hope there is open water with no slush. I get off the exit and head south to the dam. Driving down the steep hill, I look over and the river is completely open - no side ice or slush. There are no people as I pull in. I gear up and walk to the first spot. In the distance, I see the rock in the middle of the river halfway out. I often use it was a guide when it comes to crossing over. The halfway mark is considered safe to cross over farther down. But when I step in the water, I'm stepping into anchor ice. The bottom of the river is a carpet of ice. My heart sinks as I know anchor ice means poor fishing. I don't even bother to fish this spot and head down river. I walk along the trail and the banks are littered with chunks of ice. I cross over before the cliffs hoping the deeper water doesn't have any anchor ice. There is slush but it's very manageable. The deck is stacked against me - frigid water , slush, and no sun. The sky is dull and grey with a strong wind from the west. Within a few days this section will gradually ice over. I work the entire section along the cliffs until I reach the bend. The river makes a hairpin turn before spilling into a long series of rapids. I don't even get so much as a hit. I'm stepping in anchor ice and watching it come up. I accept that I'll go home with a skunk and the window has shut once again.
Another round of the bitterly cold comes and the Rocky is once again iced over. I've never seen the river freeze over three times in one winter. But, instead hanging my head, there is another option - the power plant. The power plant is the last option for the steelheader. There is the Cuyahoga and Black rivers, but neither are stocked by the state. I've the Cuyahoga a couple times and I've never fished the Black. But with the plant, my chances of getting fish are very high. Work this winter has been very slow and I've been going home in the early afternoon. I head out one afternoon and the temperature is 10F. I pick up about 3 dozen emerald shiners from the bait shop. I pull into the lot and there isn't a car. I'll have the entire place to myself. The stacks are blowing and I can see steam coming off the water. As far as the eye can see, there is ice. It looks like a lunar landscape devoid of life. In this frozen wasteland, there is an oasis. The open water is full of birds. Hundreds of gulls, ducks and geese. I walk along the beach and I hear the cries and calls. The news reported that over 95% of Lake Erie is frozen over. This is probably the only open water for many miles. I walk along the beach and the gulls scatter. I see the bodies of several mergansers and ducks, victims of avian botulism. I walk around into the plant and I see a couple of mergansers huddled on a rock, weaken by the botulism. They make no attempt to fly away. I eventually make it to the discharge. Steam is rising from the water and I stick my hand into the water, it's very warm. Mergansers, bluebills and scoters are diving into the water seeking food. The warm water attracts large numbers of gizzard shad and emerald shiners. The shad themselves are too big for the birds to eat. I must be mindful not to cast near the birds as they're fast enough to dive after the minnow. I place a couple of egg sinkers and cast out into the current. The sinkers drop fast and I can feel them bounce along the sand bottom. The line is tight against my index finger and I feel slight taps as sinkers roll. I pull off the bottom slightly watching the tip of the rod. Then I feel the line tighten and the rod slams. It's a violent take and the fish charges. The current from the discharge is strong enough that a small fish can feel like a monster. The drag starts to scream and I gain the upper hand getting it out of the current. I watch in amusement as several mergansers dive after the steelhead only to realize that it's too large for them. The number of fish caught made up for the dreary winter that most steelheaders are sick and tired of.
I lose track of time, but the elements are starting to take a toll on me. My fingers become numb from constantly getting shiners from the bucket. The air is dense and I start to shiver. I look in the bucket and there's probably five shiners left. I've lost count of how many fish I caught and lost. It's starting to get late and I feel the pangs of hunger. I dump the remaining shiners into the water. The shock of being dumped into warm water momentarily stuns and they slowly swim. One of the mergansers nearby sticks its head in the water and quickly darts after one of the shiners and swallows it. Walking back large numbers of gulls take to the sky and I as I turn the corner I feel the full effect of the wind. Nobody is fishing off the point, not when the wind is gusting. My face starts to numb and my waders stiffen from the cold. By the time I reach the Jeep, my waders are completely frozen. I sit the Jeep and wait for them to unthaw. I'm sure I would get funny looks from people at the restaurant when I walk in fully dressed in fishing gear to pick up take out. The waders finally thaw out and I undress. I'm looking forward to eating some of Joe's Deli chicken matzo ball soup and a hot sandwich. The deli is located up the street from where I live so it's a quick drive home. I sit on the couch and put a blanket over me. The soup and sandwich hits the spot. I watch the local news and there is more cold weather on the way. This winter is testing the patience of even the hardest of Clevelanders. Many will stay inside and wait for spring. For others like me, I take winter in stride. I've learned to deal with it and I've said it many times there is always somewhere to fish along the Alley.