Thursday, April 6, 2017

Yellow, Green Brown and Silver

The combination of persistent rain, extended flu and the demands of a new business have made this a frustrating spring steelhead season. There are plenty of fish to be caught, but on those rare days when schedule and health have permitted me to fish, the rivers have been raging.

Last weekend, I fished a small tributary with a young man I mentor and he was fortunate enough to land a small steelhead on his first outing. His smile says it all, although I will always remember his look of disbelief after a steelhead cartwheeled downstream on him and through the fly before he knew what happened.

On Wednesday, I decided to take a break from preparing for a speech the next morning and visit the Rocky. The gauge warned that the river was unfishable, flowing at about 1,000 cfs -- twice as fast as I'd ever fished it. But the height had dropped below 2.5 feet, so there was some hope -- but not much. Through Berea, the east branch flowed heavy and brown. Below the falls, nine cars lined the parkway and anglers stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the muddy water creating a gauntlet along a tight turn in the river. Unappealing in more ways than I care to count.

No anglers were visible in the main river as I drove north. After parking, I wasn't even sure I'd fish. I left my gear in the car and walked into the woods. I admired the yellow flowers rising above the green leaves that carpeted the forest floor. April showers bring April flowers. Aldo Leopold tracked spring by the returning geese. Our geese never leave. I measure spring by the explosion of ramps and the burst of yellow flowers along the banks of Steelhead Alley streams. I walked the trail, knowing that at least I'd have a nice walk in the woods. I cut over to look at the river and was immediately greeted by a small, dark male steelhead porpoising out of the muddy water along the bank. A few more fish showed themselves and I promptly returned to the car.

The spey rod was rigged up with a double marobou spey fly, black and purple, with a red head. The bigger the better for muddy water. I hiked back to the river and stepped into the shallow, swift water and started to slowly strip out line testing the bank for fish. No fish showed and I extended my cast out 10 yards from the bank when a fish interrupted the fly's swing with an aggressive strike. I was lackadaisical on hook set and soon lost the fish. I kept working out toward a mid-river depression that would provide some shelter from the fast moving current. 

During the dead of winter, steelhead generally strike as the fly slows down or dangles at the end of a swing. When the water is above 50 degrees, fish often strike early in the swing as the fly begins to speed up. An early strike is usually aggressive and is often followed by a line peeling run downstream. High water inspires longer, even more powerful downstream runs. I thought about this while a female steelhead jumped from the water 35 yards downstream, my tube fly hanging from her mouth. Just a few seconds earlier she'd crushed the fly almost directly across from me shortly after the fly had landed.

I cranked down the drag, thankful for the 25 pound test line and used the leverage provided by the long rod to pull her upstream. I brought her close to the bank, grabbed the line, dropped to my knees and cradled the fish in one hand while trying to pull out the hook with the other. It wasn't graceful, but eventually the fish was freed and quickly swam away into the muddy water.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Steel Sunrise

The sun to the southwest hadn't yet cleared the horizon down in the river valley. But the trees hanging over the 50 foot bluff across the river were painted yellow by the day's first light. The blue sky brightened. And paired up geese honked angrily at a third party trying to interrupt their fun. Eventually the third goose flew off, quieting the pair. The only sounds were caused by water from a small feeder creek cascading down the cliff and water from the river rushing down the rapids at the end of the 20 yard pool that I was ready to step into.

Dawn is the best time to fish. It's also the best way to get a day off to a good start. Solitude is what I seek. And it's available at dawn. On this morning, no other fish cars were pulled off to the side of the road near where I parked and no anglers could be seen up or downstream. The fish had a relatively warm night to move upstream. Based on experience, I expected a few fish to have chosen to take a break from their upstream journey in the pool.

The water carried a green tint as it flowed past me at about 200 cubic feet per second -- according to the USGS gauge. The water was warming up a bit, but still well under 40 degrees, so the fish would be holding in the softer water. I tied on a black and purple marabou tube fly with a little flash and a chartreuse collar. Black and purple are often effective in cold water carrying some color. The leader was looped to a Rio Mow Tip, five feet of floating line and five feet of T-11 sink tip to get the fly down to the bottom in the slower water.

I stood at the head of the pool and slowly stripped out line and swung the fly through the top of the
head of the pool. After pulling the entire head shooting head off the reel, I took one step downstream, cast and watched the line swing deeper into the pool. One more step, one more cast. The fly's swing came to a sudden stop and the tip of the 12.5 St. Croix two-handed rod started to bounce and line  spun off the reel. I set the hook and watched a second-year steelhead thrash the surface of the pool. The fish fought hard, but the leverage of the long rod and a long-handled net allowed me to end the fight quickly. I snapped a picture of her in the net, hoping to capture the morning glow reflecting off the water. No such luck.

Three more steelhead grabbed the fly within the hour, the last one a silver female pushing 10 pounds. The sun shined through the trees as I walked back to my car with a silly grin on my face. Several anglers were rigging up in one of the parking lots as I drove back through the MetroParks. I'm sure they caught their fair share of fish. It was going to be beautiful day on the river. But dawn is the best time to fish.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Ice, Steel, Baldy and Woody

As I walked down to the river, the only tracks in the snow were from the squirrels; a good sign. I live within an hour's drive of 4 million people but I prefer to fish alone. And I'm blessed to do so on a regular basis.

The sun made a rare appearance in February and warmed the air temperature near 32, but the the bank. I pushed them into the current and slowly I was able to clear the pool of enough ice to swing. The ice flows groaned and cracked as they headed over the rapids below the pool.
morning had started out at a crisp 18 degrees so the pool was lined with ice. The ice shelf extended half way to the far bank at about the middle of the pool. Tough to swing a fly through an iced up pool. The ice sagged and broke under my weight as I walked off the bank. I had to break through about five feet of ice to get to flowing water. As I busted through the ice, large cracks extended out and large chunks broke free from

I waited for the pool to settle and then headed back to the head to begin swinging a Kevin Feenstra Grape Fruit Head Leech through the pool. Feenstra says he likes to use this fly whenever snow is on the ground. I agree. Branches from a sycamore tree hang over the pool. The tree's trunk is nearly split in half. Some day soon I will walk to the pool and find the tree submerged in the pool. Then I will need to find another place to fish. But for now I just have to keep my spey rod out and fly of the branches as I set up my cast.

The water flows smooth and green past the 100-foot high cliffs on the far side. Ice chunks cascade down the cliff, sending two mallards scurrying for safety. Step, swing, step.

As I near the middle of the pool the ice extends farther out. As I contemplate breaking more ice, I feel a pull on my fly as it dangles at the end of the drift. Sometimes a steelhead will hit the fly and drop it. Sometimes the fish will hit the fly and keep going. This one kept going. He stripped off about 10 feet of line before I could set the hook. He burst onto the surface when I pulled back on him. He then ran right at me, producing enough slack in the line to make me wonder if he had thrown the hook. He hadn't. Instead, he swam under the ice shelf. Using the leverage of the long rod I pulled him out and finally coaxed him into the net. I put the net on the ice shelf and snapped a quick picture. In the picture, the fish's head is buried in the net. Oh well, I know what he looked like.

The hook popped out before I could remove it and the fish slid out of the net and back into the pool.

A few minutes later a bald eagle glided toward me from the north, cruising over the tree tops. He ignored my plea to land in a tree so that we could watch each other fish. I turned and watched him follow the river's path south. A pileated woodpecker gave his Woody laugh from his perch behind me on the bank. The bird sat in the branches of a large vine that wound half way up an even bigger
sycamore. Growing up, I used to hike the woods of the Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin and listen for the pileated pecking away at hollow trees. Their racket would echo through the forest, but rarely would I see one in its red-headed glory. They are less shy in Ohio. This one seemed to enjoy laughing at me.

I didn't mind. I was laughing too.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Ghost Fish

When in that mysterious place between being awake and asleep it's not uncommon to feel a tap on the shoulder. Some attribute the tap to a ghost. I've never seen a ghost. But I've felt that tap and I think of it every time I get a tap from a ghost fish.

Ghost fish hit a swung fly, but they don't get hooked. The ghost usually taps somewhere near the mid-point of the swing. Does the fish hit the nose of the fly and miss the hook? Or is it a sign that the fish is more curious than hungry? Hard to say, as I've also never seen a ghost fish. Sometimes the tap comes with a brief tug. But often, it's the equivalent of a gentle tap on the shoulder. By the time the signal is transmitted from the fly, up the leader, to the skagit line, through the running line to my hand the ghost is long gone. At times the tap is so subtle I second guess whether it was real or a figment of an overly optimistic imagination (or perhaps I had nodded off to sleep while standing waste deep in the run).

The ghost tap can be followed up by a real take on the next swing. More likely, the ghost tap simply serves to keep me in the run a little bit longer. Ghost fish are better than no fish.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Christmas Steel

The temperature gauge on the car read 39 as I headed home after a morning of meetings. I don't think the gauge had been above freezing since I returned to Ohio from a brief trip to warmer climes in early December. I had mentally prepared myself to not fish again until 2017. But perhaps the fish gods were going to give me an early Christmas present.

I decided to take the long way home and drove through the Rocky River Reservation. As I crossed the river on the Puritas Avenue bridge, a spin fisherman downstream was fighting a steelhead. A good omen. A few fish-cars were parked in the likely spots as I headed south. The flow and color of the water looked perfect. Ice covered the water on the edges of the largest, slowest pools, but most of the river was clear of ice.

After failing to persuade friends to join me on the river, I decided to head back north with the spey rod. Another spey guy pulled into the parking lot behind me. We talked briefly, comparing notes on sink tips. I had chosen to go heavier than his rig because the melting snow was starting to fill the river. We wished each other luck as he headed upstream and I walked downstream.

Wading cleats are meant for rocky river bottoms; they make icy trails manageable, as well. I'm still trying to figure out how to walk through the woods with a 12-and-a-half-foot fly without catching either the rod or the line in the brush and trees. I ducked under a few trees, made my way to the bank and crossed the river to swing through a a long, deep run that I hadn't fished in several years. I had never swung a fly through this stretch, but had often picked up winter fish using nymphs. The water flowed through at the pace of a brisk walk and the depth ranged from shin deep to a few feet.

I tied on a Feenstra Grapefruit Leach that had seen better days -- very little of the green head remained. Dark skies and stained water called for a dark fly. The rushing water covered the sound of the jets coming in over the bare trees to land at Hopkins to my right. The Rocky doesn't provide a wilderness experience, but it still is relaxing. Snow and ice melting along the banks would frequently shift or collapse, making it sound like deer or other creatures were nearby. But it was just me and what looked like a baby merganser on the water.

As I reached the middle of the run I mistook a tug for a drag. A drag is when the sink tip drags the fly across the bottom. For less-than-skilled anglers like me, it's common to think that a fly dragging on the bottom is a fish. The really less-than-skilled angler will sometimes assume that the pull they are feeling is a drag, when it's really the tug of a fish. That's what happened to me. I can blame it on a sluggish fish in 32-degree water. Or I can simply fess up and acknowledge that one of the reasons I enjoy using the spey rod so much is I have so much more to learn. The tell-tale head shake of a steelhead was quickly followed by nothing. No tension. No weight. No fish.

Expletives were expressed. The duck didn't respond. At least I knew it wasn't just me and the duck.

A few swings later a more aggressive tug interrupted the lines journey across the current. The fish kindly hooked itself and then put up a spirited fight, despite the cold water. A large male thrashed on the surface several times before coming to the long-handled, but undersized net. After years of beaching steelhead, I'm trying to use a net to keep them in the water as much as possible and off the bank. The male showed signs that his journey south from Lake Erie had already been a tough one. His broad tail was marked and scarred. His belly was scraped up. But he otherwise appeared healthy and quickly swam off after I pulled the hook from his mouth with a forceps.

I'm sure he would have preferred not being an early Christmas present. But I said thank you, nonetheless.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Pocket Water Steel

Stretches where rivers turn white from the oxygen generated from the water tumbling over boulders and pushing through narrow slots is called pocket water. The abundant obstacles in the river channel create a traffic jam, forcing the water into eddies and slicks, trapped and unable to rush downstream despite the sharp gradient. Of course, the water eventually finds its way downstream, rushing even faster trying to make up for lost time. Pocket water is where rivers are most alive. There is not an abundance of pocket water on most of the low-gradient, shale-bottomed streams and creeks in Steelhead Alley.

But there is one stretch on one creek where the channel narrows, the gradient sharpens, boulders abound and the water's force has turned the shale bottom into a series of steps, rather than the more common playground slide. And when the water drops low enough to push the fish out of the runs, but remains high enough to provide shelter in the pockets; well that's when it gets interesting.

In March, we hit the creek when the conditions for pocket steel were just right. The runs were devoid of fish while we made our way downstream. The pool above the pocket water was empty too. The pockets looked too small to hold 20 plus inch steelhead, but looks can be deceiving. One step below the pool, a few boulders pushed the water tight against the far bank, filling the cut with with dark water adorned by a bubble fringe. The small cut ended when another boulder pushed the water back toward the middle.

Pocket water is relatively easy to fish. As long as you can place your fly into the pocket and get it to sink quickly you are in good shape. The drifts are short so mending is simple. Casts are short so line management is relatively easy. Pocket water is binary. The pocket holds a fish or two or it doesn't. And you know the answer quick.

I dropped a black stonefly above the cut, it drifted into the cut and before it bumped into the boulders below it stopped. I raised my rod and a small steelhead rocketed out of the pocket and started climbing upstream, then turned around and careened back down the steps. With little room and not much water, the fish was at a disadvantage and came to the net after a few minutes crashing around the rocks.

A few more fish were found hiding in the pockets below. And another fish was pulled from the first pocket during our return trip upstream. Nothing quite like pockets full of steel.

Monday, March 7, 2016

30 Years of March Madness

After 30 years of fishing for steelhead on the Great Lakes you'd think I'd be able to handle March Madness a little bit better. Nope. For me this a season of high anxiety and irrational emotion. As I walked outside today to grab some lunch from the food truck I couldn't enjoy the sun's warmth. While others soaked up this first sign of a pending spring, I wondered how many fish others were catching. I wondered how many more days like this -- days when the rivers flowed green, cold and full of steelhead -- there'd be that I'd spend walking past office towers rather than shale cliffs.

As I stood in line waiting to order tacos and empanadas I looked (for the umpteenth time) at the calendar on my phone. Four more meetings; the last one scheduled for 4:30. Last night I had thought briefly about fishing before work; madness given the amount of work that needed to get done before 9 am. Instead I said a quick prayer as I loaded the waders into the car at dawn. The wader bucket went next to the rigged up Scott, 10 ft., 7-weight. Maybe if I got lucky I'd be able to visit the river for 30 minutes before dark and that might be enough to treat the latest wave of March Madness.

A welcome email arrived after mid-afternoon. My 4:30 appointment asked if we could meet via phone instead. Sure. By the time that call ends, I am in the Rocky River Reservation. Usually just being on the water is enough therapy for me, but not during March Madness. I need to catch a fish. This makes no sense as I've caught hundreds of steelhead over the years. But really, I need to catch a fish now. I didn't catch one yesterday. And I won't be able to fish tomorrow. And rain is in the forecast and it might make the rivers unfishable for the rest of the week and beyond. Yes, this is March Madness. I tell myself to relax as I cast along the edge of the fast water. My self-advice works too well. I'm so relaxed that I fail to set the hook on a subtle take at the end of the drift. Now the madness really builds as I obsess over what I did wrong and whether I'll get another chance.

Fishing is supposed to be fun, not madness. But better writers than I have been driven mad by trout. The good judge compared fly fishermen to drug addicts that "dwell in a tight little dream world." More like a nightmare. The judge was wise enough to retire early and feed his addiction early and often.

Thankfully there is a cure for the madness. The tug is the drug. And a young, fresh steelhead tugged my fly and was kind enough to hang on until I slid her into the net. A slightly larger male followed a few drifts later. The madness passed, for now.