Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Confounding Conneaut

I hooked my first Ohio steelhead on Conneaut Creek two decades ago, and I've caught plenty of fish from this scenic river near the PA border over the years. But that doesn't mean I have a clue as to how to fish it.

I was reminded of that reality as the sun rose behind thick gray cloud cover on Saturday. A steady drizzle fell. As the morning lightened it became clearer that the river wasn't. The Conneaut often carries a tannic tinge -- particularly in the fall -- that hides the creek's rocks, ledges, runs and (of course) its fish.  On this morning the river was making the transition from tanic to muddy and the leaf hatch was heavy. Usually it takes the Conneaut a little longer to muddy up than the other rivers along steelhead alley. Usually. Just not this morning.

But the current still had a good pace to it and I thought the high water might attract a fresh push of steel. I fished my way upstream checking out a few promising holes and skipping those that were occupied. Nothing. I admired the yellow oaks, the red maples and always green pines as I kept moving upstream; succumbing to the belief that something different would be around the bend. Nothing. Nothing but leaves that is. Some casts I'd hook three, one on each hook and one attached to the split shot. I watched a few other anglers catch nothing as well.

I returned to my car and decided to give the spey rod a try. The good news was that I didn't hook a leaf on every cast. After some trial and error (mostly error), I was able to get some decent swings as I fished down a long, relatively straight stretch of river. My casts were passable. A steelhead rolled about 30 yards downstream. I worked my way down. And then kept going as no fish decided to interrupt the swing. I watched a spin fisherman sling a spinner across the river. He caught leaves too.

The rain kept coming. So did the leaves. The fish didn't.

I'd like to say that the Conneaut confounds me because I don't fish it very often. And there's some truth to that. But mostly, the Conneaut is just one of those rivers that holds its mysteries better than most. That is why I like it so much.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Thank You Simms

Quality customer service is a wonderful thing, particularly with new year's right around the corner (in Steelhead Alley the new year starts in September with the first run of the season).

Back in 2012 I posted a positive review of the Simms Rivertek Boa Boots that I bought to replace a pair of old Simms boots that had held up well on the outside, but provided no support for my feet. By this summer one of the Rivertek boots was splitting along the toe-box seam pretty bad and the second one was headed in that direction. I put my wading boots through a lot during the steelhead season, but the boots should have held up much better.

While out in Colorado in late May, guide Brandon Soucie of Taylor Creek Fly Shop took one look at my boots and said, "Send them back to Simms and they'll send you a new pair." I thought to myself, sure they'd do that for a guide, but not for a sport. At minimum I figured they'd charge me a fee to repair them and charge me more for shipping. After reviewing the Simms web site I wasn't overly optimistic, but I sent them a picture of the boots and asked whether they would indeed consider replacing them as Brandon suggested.

Nick Krueger with customer service responded quickly, assuring me that Simms treats all customers the same and that it looked like my boots would be covered under warranty. I wasn't certain what being "covered" meant, and I sent the boots off to Simms without much optimism. A week later I got a note saying they'd replace my boots. A few days after that I got an apologetic voicemail from customer service saying that there'd been a delay in the shipment by a few days. I called back and got right through to a real person (no automated phone system). I said that I appreciated the heads up, but had a few questions.

Would they be able to ship me a size 12 rather than the old size 11? Sure, not a problem, the rep said. What about the HardBite Cleats that were in my old boots? Could I get them back? (Yeah, it was stupid to ship them with the cleats still in...) The customer rep said there was no sign of the old cleats, but he'd be glad to include new cleats with the new boots. I assumed he'd want a credit card number, but he never asked and after double checking the order with me he said to expect the boots by the end of the week.

And sure enough, they arrived as predicted.. Size 12. With 20 HardBite cleats. Not a bad way to get ready for the new year. I had been thinking about trying out a different brand of waders when my G3s finally give up the ghost, but now I'm committed to Simms. Quality customer service is hard to find, and I'm sticking with Simms.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Selective Trout, Selecting Flies

Selective trout fascinate and frustrate.

They fascinate partly because I have such limited experience with them. The Lake Erie steelhead I fish for are many things, but they're definitely not selective. These stocked fish will -- on the same day -- munch on everything and anything ranging from a tiny nymph to a six-inch leech pattern. In contrast, selective trout will feed (at least it appears this way) on one type of fly and one type only.

On Saturday, I sat on the grassy bank of the Frying Pan River and watched rainbow trout suspended just under the surface rise up and sip blue winged olives as they drifted downstream. The trouts' green backs helped them blend into their environment, but their rainbow pink stripes made them stand out. Evolution isn't perfect, I guess. The smaller ones simply poked their heads out of the water, opened their mouths and inhaled, barely disturbing the surface. The larger fish tipped up and would then tip back down, their broad tails breaking the surface as they returned to their holding spots. Sometimes the tail would appear more than a foot behind where the mouth broke the surface.

My quiet pool on the Frying Pan.
Trout seem to love blue winged olives, a tiny mayfly that come in multiple variations. The fine folks at Taylor Creek Fly Shop had set me up with a few variations of the most popular versions for the Frying Pan, and each version worked. However, they each only attracted a singular rise. Each rise resulted in a hook set and shortly thereafter a lost fish. No repeat business. I also struggled to spot the fly after it landed on the water -- inexperienced eyes and gusty winds were a killer combination. And it didn't help that the meadow pool I had chosen was home to multiple currents as the river pushed up against a downstream island. The 7x tippet would get caught up in the competing currents, dragging the mayfly imitation across the surface in the most unnatural of drifts. I chose the pool not because it was easy, but because a.) it was devoid of fishermen on a holiday weekend b.) fish were rising. I rarely get to cast to steadily rising fish. The fact that I couldn't get them to rise to my fly really wasn't that important. At least that's what I tried to tell myself as my frustration level kept rising along with the trout.

I have read all too many stories from better anglers about their struggles to identify the right fly for selective trout. These angler/authors write in fine detail about how they chose between the fly with a tuft of blue-green feather vs. one with a tuft of green-blue. But I rarely have more than a few versions of a particular fly in my box, so my selection process is rather simple; picking between a single style of emerger and a single style of a dun. But over the years I've accumulated a variety of blue winged olive patterns, and the guide I fished with on Thursday, Brandon Soucie, had encouraged me to give any of them a try if I encountered rising fish.

I picked out an emerger pattern that would ride low in the film, but could be spotted thanks to a small piece of yarn sticking up out of the fly's back. I'm not sure of the fly's origin. It may have been from Blue Ribbon Flies for a Yellowstone trip which featured few rising trout (and a lot of leftover flies) or it could have been from a fly shop in State College. I just know I didn't tie it -- my clumsy fingers cannot handle something so delicate.

I coated it with floatant, stripped out some line and cast it to the edge of the current on the near side of the pool. Nearly instantly a chunky rainbow rose up, inhaled the fly and returned below the surface. I set the hook and quickly landed the fish. I blew the fly dry, cast again and as soon as it landed another rainbow inhaled it. Another quickly followed, and then a few missed rises. And then a small brown trout. The fish made up for what it lacked in size with its colorful orange spots. Soon the mayflies stopped hatching. The fish stopped rising. But I really didn't mind. It was time for me to begin my journey back to Ohio. I remain fascinated by rising selective trout; but for once I didn't leave frustrated.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Shrimp, Morons, Libraries and Good Times in Basalt

The guide asked a simple question. Do you see the fish?

The guide, Brandon Soucie, is one of the best competitive fly fishermen in the country (yes, there is such a thing as competitive fly fishing). His client (me) rarely fishes crystal-clear waters with tiny flies for really big trout. Even in the clear water of the Frying Pan River, on a stretch of the river known as The Flats, my inexperienced eyes could only see rocks and moss along the bottom. Eventually, the red stripe of the 14 inch rainbow became visible to me and Brandon showed me how its done on the Pan. One cast with a tandem mysis shrimp rig and he hooked the trout. Oh, if only fly fishing was so simple for us mere mortals.

Brandon, who guides out of the Taylor Creek Fly Shops, spent the morning pointing out sizable brown trout and rainbows to me and I slowly learned how to spot the red tails of the browns (a distinguishing characteristic of the browns in this section of the Frying Pan) and the red stripes of the rainbows. He taught me the moss toss, which is technique to remove annoying moss from your flies. And he helped improve my clumsy casting. Most importantly he kept a close eye on the fish as I concentrated on controlling the drift -- when he told me to set the hook I did so. In the first two hours we caught more than 10 pounds worth of fish, including two bruising rainbows that were easily the largest fish I've ever caught on size 20 flies. The Frying Pan rainbows gorge themselves on mysis shrimp and literally get so fat that they are too overweight to put up much of a fight after getting hooked. Of course, it doesn't hurt when the guide is willing to move quickly downstream to net the fish.

After a few hours of nymphing we headed downstream to the M1 hole. The M stands for moron; as in "even a moron can catch a fish in this hole." The M1 hole offers a unique fishing experience. Half of the hole is on restricted property -- owned by the principal of a large outdoor retail chain that no angler should frequent (support your local fly shops!). No trespass signs remind of us his wealth.

A fly cast in the upper (public) half of the pool can be drifted (very carefully) into the lower (private) half of the pool where the wealthy retailer's stocked trout gorge themselves on blue winged olives. I was able to use this long downstream drift technique to hook several chunky browns and one rainbow that topped 20 inches. Of course, the biggest one broke off. So it goes.

Brandon and I finished the day fishing on the Roaring Fork River in Basalt, Colorado. The Frying Pan flows into the Roaring Fork, which this time of year is filled with water from the melting snows from the surrounding mountains. The high water meant that the fish had to hold tight to the bank in spots were the current was slowed by obstructions or bends in the river. We ditched the small flies that worked on the Frying Pan for large nymphs and a set-up that basically looks like a worm tied to the tippet.

The trout were eager to feed on both the worm and the nymph and we caught several browns and rainbows. At one point we fished in front of the public library. I cannot imagine a public library with a better view than the Basalt Public Library. I'd go to the library a lot if I lived here. At least I'd park near the library a lot and walk down to the river to hook into some feisty trout.

The fishing was outstanding; the guide was better and the scenery was the best. I'm fortunate to have two more days here in the Roaring Fork Valley. Thanks to Brandon and the gang at Taylor Creek for providing me with such a wonderful day of fly fishing.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Product Review: Kast Steelhead Glove

The large female shook her head and turned downstream in the rapid current. I used the leverage of the 10 foot Scott rod to keep her from running around the bend. She had already taken me downstream 30 yards from where she attacked the purple egg sucking leach as it swung through the tail of the pool. If she kept heading north it would have been a long hike to find a spot where I could land her.

I normally don't mind losing a fish, but since I hadn't landed one yet this year I was eager to bring this 8 pounder to hand. Or in this case, to the glove. The evening temp was 24 degrees and dropping and my Kast Steelhead gloves were keeping my hands very warm. But that was only half the challenge. Could the glove -- advertised as waterproof -- help me land the fish? My plan was simple -- at least it seemed simple: slowly work the steelhead back upstream, swing the rod upstream to pull the fish just ahead of my feet, drop to one knee,  plunge my left hand into the 38 degree water and grab the fish just in front of its broad tail.

The question was would the gloves have enough grip to hold the fish. I had used the gloves in December and knew they were indeed waterproof, but I had never tried to tail a fish with them on. And tailing a fish in fast water is never easy.

The steelhead wasn't interested in coming upstream, but eventually I worked her close enough to give the glove a try. As the picture shows, the glove worked perfectly.

Steelhead fishing means being cold more often than not. Merino wool, fleece and Gore Tex are a steelheader's best friends. Fingerless gloves -- either wool or fleece -- are required gear. But when the temperature is well below freezing, having a pair of Kast Steelhead gloves available can make all of the difference. I really hope I won't have to use them again for awhile, but if this winter sticks around for a few more weeks I know my hands will be warm, dry and able to land a fish.



Sunday, March 9, 2014

Birthday Sucker

Old Man Winter is slowly easing the death grip with which he has held the 2013-14 season. Today -- the day before my birthday -- I was able to fish for the first time in 2014. The rivers of Steelhead Alley started freezing in December and there's been little fishing since. A more persistent angler would have spent time on the Cuyahoga River this winter. But not me; at least not yet.

Much of the Rocky River remains choked with ice and undoubtedly the wisest of fish returned to Lake Erie before the river was covered in ice. But Mike Durkalec's weekly fishing reports offered hope that there were a few fish hanging out in the open water. Sunshine and mid-30s created even more hope, so I dragged the gear from the basement and headed to a spot that I knew was open and normally holds winter fish.

The trampled snow along the bank indicated other anglers had the same idea I had, but they fished the morning shift. The hole was empty when I arrived. Snow blew off the trees and landed harmlessly in the water as I rigged up. Small explosions -- set off by melting ice -- sent dirt and rocks cascading down the side of the 100 foot cliff on the far side of the hole. Shadows of seagulls moved across the cliff face.

The water carried a winter-green color -- snow melt doesn't carry with it as much debris and particles as runoff from a rain storm. My casting reflected my two-month plus layoff. And with air and water temperature hovering around freezing, my body wasn't exactly thrilled to back on the river. But the sun provided some warmth and the wind was minimal. All I needed to complete the experience was a willing steelhead.

But the only tug I got was from a sucker who picked up the grapefruit leech I dead-drifted through the hole. After a long, tedious winter I will take the birthday sucker and keep dreaming of better fishing ahead.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Swing Failure

Experienced swingers -- fly anglers who regularly chase steelhead with two-handed rods and large flies -- will tell you that within any pod of fish there are only one or two aggressive enough to move to a swung fly. And sometimes none of the  fish are in the mood to swing. This is how steelhead developed the reputation for being the fish of a thousand casts.

I'm not obsessive enough to count the casts, but this fall/winter I am 0-for-whatever. Not a single tug has come at the end of a swing. After a relatively successful spring of swinging and a great experience on the Naknek River in Alaska in the summer, I was expecting more fun on Steelhead Alley this fall. However a combination of weather and work limited my outings when the conditions were right for swinging flies.

This past Sunday conditions were perfect on the Rocky River as the water flowed strong and green through a deep, empty pool. A light drizzle fell and occasional gusts pushed arctic air down through the river valley. I swung a black and purple marabou tube fly through the head of the run and slowly worked my way through the hole. Nothing. I switched to an olive sculpin, returned to the head and tried again. Nothing.

I was confident that the hole held fish and I succumbed to the temptation to prove it. I walked back to the car, pulled my single-handed rod from the back and grabbed a few fly boxes. Within an hour I had hooked four fish.

I went back to the spey rod and tried a white rabbit fly with an orange head. Ssome argue that orange flies work well on the Rocky, I'm not yet sold on the theory. I swung through the back half of the hole where the fish had eagerly taken eggs and nymphs.Nothing.

I will resume swinging in the new year searching for that aggressive fish willing to give me the first tug of the season.