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.





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.