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.

False Positive

My flies weren't even wet yet when Gerry hooked into a fish while drifting one of his new, bright pink minnow flies (tied up during Open Vise Night at Backpackers Shop) through tail of a pool we often fish when our time is short.

I headed downstream to net his fish and congratulate him on ending his 0 for '16 streak. It really wasn't much of a streak since our trips to the river were few and far between since New Year's as a combination of weather, work and other responsibilities kept us off the river.

As Gerry slid the long, slender female into the net, the bait fisherman drifting spawn through the heart of the hole dragged a dark buck onto the bank. All the signs pointed to a great late afternoon on Steelhead Alley. The river flowed high, but green. Visibility was more than a foot. The water temperature was rising, although the snow melt would keep it well below 40 degrees.

But early signs can be misleading; just ask the ground hog.

The promise of clearing skies remained broken (unlike the cloud cover) as a cold wind blew through the valley. I was dressed way too optimistically and returned to the car for gloves and a balaclava mask. They helped, but nothing warms a chilled steelheader more than a tug on the end of the line. I drifted my flies through a slow seam and lifted a sucker off the bottom. No warmth in that.

The bait guy headed home with his buck. Gerry and I shivered. We each tried the head, the heart and the tail. I tried the riffle down below. Nothing. We could have fished until dark. But the signs were clear. Gerry got his fish, and that would be all. But even a cold afternoon on the river beats the alternative; whatever that may be.

Monday, January 4, 2016

4 Lessons from 4 Days

I ended 2015 and began 2016 by visiting the same big pool on a Lake Erie tributary for a few hours each day for four straight days. Four things I learned (or re-learned):

  • Line Control is Key -- Swinging flies with a two-handed rod is still more much more art than science for me; and I'm a terrible artist. But I'm learning. There are three ways to get a swung fly to the right depth: alter the weight of the fly, change your sink tip or use the rod's length to adjust the swing speed. When it's 30 degrees changing flies or sink tips is not an attractive option. More importantly, the best way to manipulate swing speed and depth is to mend, adjust the rod angle and walk downstream during the swing. It's easier to simply cast and let the current do the work, but when the water is high and current speeds varied that's not a very effective technique. On New Year's Eve the water was high and my fly wasn't touching the bottom through the heart of the pool. Even after big mends the fly swung through the pool without disruption. I tried to slow the swing by keeping the rod high and slowly lowering it. Then I added a few small steps downstream to create a little more slack and give the sink tip more time to find the bottom. Finally the purple and black marabou tube dragged along the bottom early in the swing. My hope was that as it moved into the main flow the fly would stay close to the bottom and entice a steelhead into striking. Two drifts later I felt the tug I had been waiting for.
  • Nymphing Works -- I'm hooked on the swing, but drifting nymphs and eggs under a strike indicator is deadly. A friend joined me one day and three other anglers joined us in the pool (including two spin fishermen rude enough to squeeze in and dumb enough to risk their lives by fishing under a rock-slide prone cliff on the far side of the pool) so swinging was out of the question. My friend and I each hooked a fish within our first few casts and while the action wasn't hot, it was steady. I'd still rather swing.
  • Wait for the Weight -- Nymph fishermen learn to set the hook at the first sign of a strike. That approach doesn't work so well when the steelhead hits a swung fly. Raising the rod too quickly simply pulls the fly away from the fish long before the hook finds its way into into the fish's mouth, particularly when the fish are moving slowly in cold water. Instead of reacting quickly to set the hook, the angler needs to wait a moment for the fish to grab the fly and turn to return to its holding spot before setting the hook. It takes awhile to get used to waiting.
  • The only bad thing about fishing four days in a row is not being able to fish five days in a row.
   Happy New Year.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving Silver

The low lying sun hid behind a train trestle and cast a deep shadow across a fast moving run on the lower Grand River this afternoon. The air temperature said September, the water temperature said November. The water flowed green through the run.

Surprised that the run was empty of anglers when I arrived, I waded through the ankle deep water, stood on a boulder the size of an ottoman and tied up a nymph and egg combination. All the things that had kept me off the water -- work, responsibilities and such -- drifted downstream.

Minnow fishermen showed up and fished the tail of the run, which had earlier been disrupted by children skipping rocks. I focused on the fast water hoping that the bridge's shade would appeal to steelhead still acclimating to the ecology of the river after spending the summer in Lake Erie. I was hoping to hook my first steelhead of the fall. Three earlier brief outings were unproductive.

After breaking off early I switched to a minnow and orange egg. I worked the run, first drifting the slower water on the inside edge and then working toward the middle. About 30 minutes into a beautiful afternoon on the water a tug reminded me what had lured me out of the office. A moment after setting the hook the fish ran 20 yards downstream, and I followed. I walked carefully across a shallow riffle and tried not to worry about losing the fish as I regained line and worked at getting leverage. With each run my nerves frayed a little more. I've caught plenty of fish. Lost even more. Landing one more isn't that important, but the first fish of the year is always special. And this fresh hunk of silver made me work for it. Eventually the large male with a fat stomach full of emerald shiners and a pink stripe along his side came into the shallow water. I pulled the orange egg from the corner of its mouth, snapped one more picture and then watched the fish swim back to the run.

A few drifts later, up in the head of the run, a slightly smaller steelhead smashed the minnow fly. I didn't worry about losing this one. And I didn't have to. She came to shore as well and a little later I headed home; thankful for a good start to another steelhead season.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

One and Done in PA

Sometimes one trout is enough. Or, more accurately, it has to be enough because that's all that time and situation will allow.

After a wonderful family camping weekend in the woods above the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania my wife agreed to allow me to fish a small creek we would drive by on our way back home. The small freestone stream tumbles out of the Laurel Highlands and runs alongside a country road before ultimately trickling into the mighty Yough. I had driven past the waterway on my way to and from the Yough a few times, but had never stopped to explore it. The creek had the tell-tale signs of a freestone stream that gets too much pressure, despite its remote location. Every mile or so there was a gravel parking spot or two along the side of the road. The first two stops produced unappealing water as a week without rain had taken its toll on the flow. My patient wife rolled her eyes as I pulled into a third spot. Braided water upstream wasn't promising. If downstream didn't offer hope, I was headed back to Cleveland without even breaking out the fly rod.

The threads of the creek came together downstream and cut through a wide bedrock shelf. The water tumbled down the shelf and the main flow turned right into a small pool the size of a love seat. A separate, smaller thread of water flowed straight from the shelf past a rock before reuniting with with rest of the stream down below. As I stood back from the aquamarine pool a 12-inch brown trout rose up from the bottom of the pool to consume some flotsam in the foam line.

I quickly walked back to the car, talked my wife into joining me and assembled my 3-weight rod.

While I love small streams I rarely fish them. Bigger rivers are a little more predictable, and predictability is important when a multi-hour car trip is required to find trout water. Small trout streams are challenging for clumsy anglers like me who don't practice often. Tight quarters demand casting accuracy and low water requires stealth. I was down two strikes before my first cast. The angle of the sun through the trees made it hard to spot my fly on the water as it drifted through the pool. (Strike three.) However, I could see the bottom of the pool clearly and the brown trout that rose earlier was missing. (Strike four.)

The forest canopy kept the air and water temperature 10 degrees cooler than out on the road, yet beads of sweat poured down my face as I tied on an elk hair caddis to replace the tiny, invisible Adams. Ideally I would spend hours stalking trout and exploring the tiny pools downstream. But every few minutes the sound of my wife swatting a mosquito on her legs reminded me that both patience and time were running short. The sweat increased with my determination to hook a fish.

I decided to try the narrow ribbon of water that flowed straight out of the shoot. While most of the current headed to the pool to the right, it looked like the secondary flow would be sufficient to hold a trout. From a distance I couldn't see below the surface to judge the water's depth; and I figured at least a fish in the tiny run couldn't see me either.

Casting from the shelf I placed the caddis on the outside of the shoot and the current carried it straight downstream. Just before it went behind the boulder a small splash made the fly disappear. I set the hook and was pleased to see a small, but healthy brown trout flash in the water. My wife kindly netted the fish and let me know my mission was accomplished and it was time to go.

The memory of that one small brown trout on a small stream will have to hold me for a bit. But there's another family outing ahead in another place where trout like to hang out. And if I'm lucky, I won't be one and done in Montana.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Hot Week on Steelhead Alley

Every spring on Steelhead Alley there is at least one hot week. A week where each riffle and run seems full of steelhead either making their way up from or back to Lake Erie. A week when aggressive males and hungry drop-back females will crash through a riffle to catch up to a swung minnow fly.

This is that week.

This week the steelies carry every color in the rainbow, and a few more, on their bodies. The old fish are black. The
fresh fish chrome silver. Green backs, pink sides, red gills, yellow eyes and white mouths.

This week pods of new fish enter a run every 15 minutes or so. Anglers laugh with joy and give thanks with each new arrival.

This week the fish, powered by warm water temps, leap from the river, sending thousands of tiny water drops into the air. The fish make reel drags sing and 10 foot rods bend into giant capital "Cs."

This week the catching is almost too easy. This week the arm will tire before the sun goes down.

This week makes one almost forget about the frozen feet, iced eyelets and fishless days of December; let alone the iced over rivers of January and February.

This week the wild ramps cover the forest floor. The buds on the trees are beginning to pop. The geese are more aggressive than the steelhead. And the mallards are paired up.

This week likely won't last a full week. But it is hot week. Fish on.