Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How High is Too High?

Like those wacky hoarders on reality tv, Steelhead Alley anglers are obsessive creatures. Share a beer with an Alley angler and you'll hear more than you ever wanted about CFS, turbidity and river height. We our obsessed with river levels and we're constantly asking questions like: "Is it too high?" or "Is it fishable?"

Rains wash the clay soils of Northeast Ohio into the Lake Erie tributaries, turning the clear waters a mocha brown and the gentle grades into rushing torrents -- fueled in part by the unrestrained development patterns plaguing our region. High, fast water is problematic for steelhead anglers. The fish tend to hang out in deeper, slower water, where they are hard to reach and murky conditions make them unable to see the fly or unwilling to eat or both.

There is a fine line between when a river drops from "too high" to "fishable." The line varies from river to river, and as I learned on Sunday the line can move a lot higher if one is willing to swing big flies.

When drifting with nymphs and eggs I usually consider the Rocky River "too high" when the flow exceeds 400 cubic feet per second. But a seasoned two-handed rod angler shared with me that he'd hooked fish in the winter in the 600 cfs range. On Sunday afternoon the Rocky began dropping fast and fell below 600 cfs by the time I got on the water in the afternoon. I could see the wakes of a few fish in the shallows, but they were hidden in the murky water. I tied on a black and purple marabou spey fly and started swinging. I was surprised that I didn't need the conehead to get to the bottom. I was excited by a hearty tug on the fly, but disappointed when the sucker rolled to the surface.

After a few more suckers, I hooked into a steelhead that sent my reel screaming in reverse. However the fish threw the hook quickly and I was soon regretting that I had recently bragged about my relatively good hook-to-land ratio with the Spey rod.

Finally, a smaller steelhead came to hand. Yep 550 cfs is definitely fishable. And by Monday morning the water seemed low -- even though it was still flowing at 400 cfs -- when I landed this giant female after a long, pre-dawn fight in the fast current. She and I were both exhausted at the end. After snapping this picture, I righted her and she swam quickly upstream. I headed for the car and into work wondering how high is too high now.

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