I got the urge to try my luck for steelhead in early September. Not sure what it was about the steelhead, the name sounded so tough. I watched a few youtube videos and read a few blogs describing the freight train take off these guys put on a line. I'm an Ohio boy so large and smallmouth along with some crappie bent the rods of my youth. But as my new addiction took off I knew I needed to experience fly fishing as depicted in magazines (sigh...marketing...) I wanted to catch trout and if I'm going to catch trout I want the largest and hardest to catch. The seed was planted, heres how it all went down.
Step One: Homework
The steelhead trout characteristically travel from the river they spawn to the ocean. After 1 to 3 years these fish again make the transformation from salt back to their freshwater selves. This is where the term "smolts" applies. These fish return back to the river to spawn and boy do they grow out in the big water. The bigg'uns get up 12-15lbs or so. They can be identified by their characteristic shiny blue dorsal regions and trout like mouths. The "chromed" fish is the salt water version and they tend to darken back to rainbow status the longer they stay in the river. They are a cold water variety and tend to be relatively active in the mid forty range of water temperature. Heres the thing, they don't come back to the river until the fall and I live in Ohio. This means for the folks in the east, if you want to catch the chrome bug your accepting the inevability of numb fingers and chapped lips that go with this thing.
What do you bring?
- Insulated waders (Felt Soles!)
- Fly Rod and Reel (Centerpin would be the best bet)
- A couple leader types (go a little heavy here, winter river currents)
- Floats for strike indicator (It needs to be able to adjust to water depth, gran ball or little tiny float is fine)
- Fly Lures: Egg patterns, Roe eggs (uncured would be better IMO), Streamers shiny and flamboyant, and a variety of wet nymphs,
- More clothes than you think you need to keep warm
- Hemostats (fishing forceps) to quickly take out your hook safely and cleanly from the fish
- Backpack or fly pack of some sort to hold your crap and keep it handy in the river
- Patience (This was key for our trip)
Where to fish
I'm sure there are plenty of blog comments erupted in debates about which trib to check into; for this I've only traveled to the Rocky and further I went there because the name popped up in sentences with "steelhead alley" included and it was the shortest drive. I think the Chagrin is on my mind for this spring. The key to placing yourself in a position to win is to ask. There are numerous fly shops around the Lake Erie Ohio border and it's been said that they freely talk about the fish within your trib. This is important because steelies are nomadic and the fish can be here and gone in a day from the stretch your in. The fly shop guys that live and fish the local waters will know where to land your fly, be polite and elbow up to get some insider info.
Go to where the people are. Another way to hack info is to observe. When you pull up to your spot don't expect it to be the secret spot no one has ever touched. If your spot is hitting the fisherman flock will have landed. It's not a total bad thing; use this as an indicator of fishing. If it's hot the fisherman will be there. Find your spot and courteously place yourself among them. Remember to follow stream etiquette and space out appropriately. Most fisherman are willing to share info but if your taking off their hat with your fly then you might be swimming with the steelies for the evening instead of reeling them; once again be polite.
My Steelhead Experience
I can say I learned a lot from our trip to the Rocky. Heres a quick summary of events to learn from. We pulled into our first spot that I marked on Google Maps and got directly into the river. My home made yarn float lasted all of one cast. I didn't rig up very well as the rubber band I used once moistened slipped right down to the hook head making it useless. Either make a tested and true Mcgyver float or just buy a couple of the stinkin things. Once in the river I realized that I needed to add some weight to get my egg mimic down to the steelie depth. I did so but because I had a very "iffy" bobber float, it was just too big. I believe it more or less bounced in and out of the depth zone I should have been in. Hardly believable, let alone to try to fool a steelhead with.
I have bass fished a local stream for years with a lot of success and I always took the easy route of working down stream so the current could carry my rooster tails or jigs out onto the edge of the riffle and into a bass' mouth. Be sure to go against the current here. All bony Osteicthye fish have a lateral line system which enables them to sense water pressure and minute vibrations around them. Work up from behind them to blend yourself into the normal babble of the river. They also can literally see you. I think we anglers sometimes forget that these fish can actually see. If your wearing your blaze orange vest like a pheasant hunter in the prairie the trout will see you, after all they find their food by seeing it in the last few feet of visible water.
We waited in the first spot for all of 45 minutes. I had 3 different points of the river to try depending on what we thought and I got caught up on going to each of them. After all we drove three hours, it's kind of a one shot deal here, curiosity got the best of me. After the day was closing I realized that indeed I should have stayed put and worked my presentation more instead of not knowing what was hitting and traveling the river being wrong in 3 different places. Excitement got the best of me. We left the day behind us with only 2 bites and 0 hook-ups.
The tone thus far may sound defeated, I hope you don't take it that way. It was an all out adventure experience with scheming, dangerous elements, battling river currents, mental toughness... My dad who was very skeptical of this climbing into the river while snowing business, literally asked me when we could go again happy as a young kid. It was a reminder that fishing is really never about the catch. Fishing is about something more and I'm dying to get back out in the cold.