Sunday, December 14, 2014

Defending Steelhead Alley

Recently Trout Unlimited named the Lake Erie watershed as one of 10 special places at risk due to "fracking" in the Central Appalachian region. Since no significant fracking is being done in the Lake Erie watershed (yet) reasonable folks can argue with the designation.

But the good news is the announcement prompted Brian Bull, a reporter for ideastream, the Cleveland-based NPR affiliate, to want to learn more about our precious and fragile watershed. A friend connected me to Brian and a few anglers met Brian on the Rocky River this morning to show him a piece of Steelhead Alley. Mike Durkalec, aquatic biologist for the Cleveland Metroparks and author of the weekly fishing report, provided the technical expertise. My friend Terry and I tried to provide a little color commentary.

Brian wasn't equipped to wade -- which is a good thing since he was carrying a digital recorder. But he did walk the bank and demonstrated a high-degree of patience as I took him in search of steel. (I hooked and lost a few; and foul hooked a few more while Brian was with me. Of course, this one came to the bank shortly after he left the river.)

Throughout the morning I tried to put into words how important the fishery is to me and my fellow steelhead fanatics. Fly fishing has long been my best form of mental therapy and the opportunity to catch a steelhead as long as my leg is why I call Northeast Ohio home. More than anything else, it is what has held me here for nearly a quarter century.

While I have decidedly mixed emotions on issues like shale oil and gas drilling, I tried to be clear to Brian that fans of Steelhead Alley need to do more to take care of our land and water. Every property owner along the Lake Erie tribs and regular visitor to our Metro Parks has seen the effects of poorly designed developments and inadequate water drainage systems. When so-called "100-year floods" become annual occurrences, we should all take heed and think more about how and where we build. But issues like storm-water runoff have rarely held our attention. Aldo Leopold's call for a land ethic was prescient but we no more hear his wisdom today than we hear the thumping wings of the passenger pigeon.

Yet, I remain an optimist. I am hopeful that if more of us love our rivers we will do more to protect them. Yes, a consequence will also be that more anglers will crowd our rivers. But the only way that I can think of to protect Steelhead Alley is to have more people love it. I look forward to hearing how Brian captures this story. And I hope the attention will encourage more people to experience and protect the Lake Erie watershed.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Things I Thought I Knew

I haven't fished nearly as much as I'd like this fall. Maybe that's why I've forgotten so many things that I used to know. One full day of mistakes fishing reminded me:


  • Don't leave fish. If you're hooking fish and then things slow down a bit you are better off trying different flies or techniques than you are going for a walk to a new spot. You may never find them again.
  • Set the hook. The most basic fundamentals of fly fishing can be forgotten while one is worried about the ice on the guides or daydreaming of warmer days. Just because you and the fish are cold, doesn't mean the hook doesn't need to be set.
  • Re-tie bad knots. There is nothing more disappointing than having a big fish break your line. There is nothing more maddening than seeing the tell-tale pig tail at the end of your line that indicates the knot pulled out. Frozen hands often tie poor knots (so do warm hands...). I can tell when a knot isn't quite right. But rather than re-tie, I decided to warm my hands and keep fishing. Bad decision.
  • Get down. Steelhead usually are near the bottom. That means your fly has to be there. If you're not catching fish add weight. Yes, it's a pain to add/remove split shot. But the idea is to catch fish not miss fish.
  • Enjoy. The fishing can be slow. The temperature can be cold. But the opportunity to stand in a river is to be cherished. 

Bobber Fishing

The chartreuse styrofoam float bounced down the river carried by a swift current that was headed into a deep pool. I stood on the bank and watched. Ice clung to the guides of the 10 foot fly rod. I was thankful that I could stay out of the 33 degree water.

I would have rather been swinging big flies for steelhead but all of the big rivers that I fish with my spey rod are high and muddy following Friday's rain. This small creek is fishable with a switch rod; but I'm still too cheap to buy one. (My wife observes that I already have more fly rods than I could possibly use, and she's right. But I don't have a switch...) My ability to effectively swing streamers on a single handed rod is pretty much non-existent. I've tried and failed to pick up the feel. Obviously, I haven't tried enough. And trying to learn when the air temp is hovering at freezing as sun rises probably isn't the best idea. Besides I haven't landed a fish yet this season. So I'm bobber fishing.

Of course, fly anglers refer to the piece of foam as a "strike indicator," but that's just a fancy term for a bobber.

I've bobber fished for steelhead for about 20 years. I'm not opposed to it. It's a great way to catch the lake-run rainbows that I love to chase along the shores of Lake Erie. Drifting two flies below split-shot and a bobber is particularly effective in cold temperatures with sluggish fish. The lack of strikes in the first hour of light indicates that the fish are indeed sluggish. I'm sure there are fish in the pool. I've hooked and lost a few already. Out of practice, I guess.

The bobber pauses in the current. I lift the rod and something under the water pulls back. A solid hook set is essential with these fish and I've yet to get it right this morning. I feel better about this one and when the 16 inch rainbow leaps from the water I can see the pink fly stuck firmly inside its mouth. A few moments later the first-year fish is landed. I admire her pink cheeks, silver sides and green back. She's small, but beautifully perfect. Several more fish would follow it on this cold day. But the first fish is always the best. Even if it was hooked while bobber fishing.




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.