The morning started early -- 5 a.m. alarm. The plan was to scout Conneaut Creek in Northeast Ohio for some early season steelhead. But as is often the case when it comes to steelhead fishing the plans changed. Thanks to the wonderful world of the Internet and the onlineUSGS flow charts, Juris was optimistic that Elk Creek in Pennsylvania was worth a visit. (Brandy Run, a tributary of Elk has a stream gauge. You can monitor it here.) The forecast called for high winds and maybe some rain. The sliver of a crescent moon rising due east (just ahead of the sun) signaled that the morning would be clear, not cloudy. But the bowing trees and blowing leaves showed that the other part of the forecast was accurate.
Steelhead fishing in October means leaves. Oak leaves, birch leaves, maple leaves, every kind of leaf ends up in the river ... and ultimately attached to the angler's hook.
Juris and I connected near the mid-way point to Elk and I dumped my gear in the back of his Toyota. We drove fast, headed toward the brightening sky. Daylight was streaking over the horizon as we pulled off I-90 and headed north to Girard. One lone angler could be seen below the bridge over Elk Creek as we made our way to the Legion Hole. By the time we arrived, shortly after 7 a.m., dawn was in full bloom and the parking lot was three-quarters full.
Elk Creek is full of fall run steelhead, but that means the river is often full of even more fishermen, particularly on weekends. As we rigged up, six more cars joined us in the lot. Morning mass was going to be a little emptier than normal, I guess. We hiked down to the river and marveled at the shoulder-to-shoulder angling going on upstream. Why would someone get up before dawn to stand next to a perfect stranger on a river? Fishing is meant to be done with close friends, new friends or alone. It should not be done with a mob. We hiked past the mob and were pleasently surprised to find no one upstream of the first bend. Just upstream of the bend there were two deep slots full of dark water - stained by the decaying leaves. The fish couldn't be seen in the low light, but the runs looked promising. I rolled a gray ghost out of the run on an early drift, but it was gone before I could set the hook. A small female was foul hooked and landed, and a few others broke off before the first big male was landed. Throughout the day the steelhead took turns eating nymphs and chartreuse eggs. I took turns landing fish and breaking them off.
By noon steel fatigue had set in. My right arm was cramping up. My hands were sore and bleeding -- chewed up by tippet and hooks. We hiked back downstream and before heading back to the car I decided to try one last run that was holding three nice fish. On the third drift a fresh male took the egg and was off to the races. A fierce battle ensued between a fresh fish and fatigued angler. Fortunately, I was able to land him after several reel screaming runs. The hook was firmly planted in roof of the fish's mouth. I reached into his mouth, removed the hook and returned the fish to the river. Exhausted, I hiked back to the car. October steelhead fatigue is a great feeling.