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.

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