Sunday, April 19, 2015

Rocky River Solitude

More than 4 million people live about an hour drive from the Rocky River so when I walked down the well worn path toward a favorite spot a little bit before 8 a.m. today I had to be prepared for disappointment. But I wasn't. The pool, run and riffle above were empty. Indeed, as far as I could see both upstream and down there wasn't another soul.

As I munched on my granola bar and took in the scene, I could see a few aggressive geese doing their water dance about a half mile upstream. The wind carried their angry shrieks elsewhere. The water -- which has often been brown this spring -- flowed clear through the pool. The low sun rising above the willows and sycamores on the far bank was shrouded by a thin veil of clouds. Eventually, I'd have to cross the stream to get the sun at my back so I could see under the surface better. For now, I was content to watch the river flow north and listen. A woodpecker drilled for food nearby. A distant train rumbled to the south. And in front of me the water crashed over rocks and pressed against a downed tree.

The pool looked promising and the run in front of it looked even better. With the clear water, I assumed the fish would be more comfortable in the deeper runs than the riffle. I was wrong. Fifteen minutes of prospecting produced no hits and an occasional splash in the riffle made it clear something was working the skinnier water.

I worked my way up the run, casting as I went and watching the riffle. Last week the conditions were similarly promising farther downstream (and up), but the steelhead were elusive. I was hoping for something different today. Perhaps no one else was here because they knew the fish were elsewhere. I stuck with it partly because no one else was around. Five fishermen were in the parking area when I arrived, and several more were visible from the road as I drove along the river. My goal was to fish in solitude. Not an easy goal to achieve in Steelhead Alley, but usually a 15 minute walk will get you away from most anglers. If I had to trade fish for solitude, I'd take solitude. But I was betting the fish were present. I just had to find them.

Since I needed the sun at my back, I walked across the tail of the riffle to the far bank and then slowly started moving upstream. I watched more than I walked, which turned out to be a good strategy. A steelhead moved across the shale bottom in about three feet of water, its dark body visible against the pale blue shale. I stopped, stepped back and waited. It's easy to start seeing things when trying to peer through moving water. But after awhile, the brain begins to discern the boulders, rocks and shale that make up the bottom, and the wave of a fish's tail is easily distinguished. Wait. Watch. No one else is here, so there's no need to rush. I stand tight to the bank, and drift my egg and minnow pattern through the deepest part of the riffle. Four fish are hooked from the run before I step away from the bank to check out how many males are behind a female spawning in a shallower piece of the riffle.

Aggressive males are easy to entice to eat a minnow fly when they are waiting their turn behind a spawning female. Three males did what I thought they would do, and I was ready to call it a morning. But before heading back to the car, I decided to check out the head of the riffle. A school of fish were hanging together in the fast current just below the lip of the pool above the riffle. Apparently they weren't interested in making the long trip through the shallow pool to the next stretch of good holding water. They held in the fast water, nearly nose to tail. It looked like at least six fish, but there were clearly more than that as my first drift attracted a large silver female that I didn't even see. A dark male quickly followed.

A few drifts later I broke off on the bottom. Since the fish were so aggressive, I figured I'd try a dry fly. I've been fishing these rivers 20 years or so and I've never even tried to get them on the dry. It was worth a try. I tied on a large stimulator -- at least it's large for stream trout but probably not large enough for steelhead. The fly looked tiny drifting over the heads of trout approaching double digits. God must have been amused. He unleashed a ferocious downpour. The fly disappeared in the millions of divots the rain created on the river's surface.

I could tie on a streamer or call it a morning. As I walked back to the car along the river, I saw one man walking his dog. Otherwise, I enjoyed the solitude.

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