April 30, 2017

The Last Outing

I always get mixed emotions when it comes to the last trip of the year. After a season of stumbling out of bed early, driving to the far ends of the Alley, pounding the trails, and dealing with the extreme elements. Both my body and mind needs a break, but I feel a sense of sadness whenever I make the last trip of the season. Blurry eyed, I make the trip, usually by myself. I want it to go on my own terms. I'm not going for a couple hours or sitting at one spot. I'm hitting one pool after another. Kicking over every stone and working as much water as possible. The only thing that will stop is the sun setting. By the end of the day, I'll be wiped out. My back and shoulders will ache. The walk back will be slow and deliberate. I have no hurry to get home. What I know is that the last walk from the river, I'll look back with fondness even if the day doesn't go according. That's how I view every last outing, it's bittersweet, but I know eventually the rivers will be calling in the autumn.

The last trip today is out east. The weather today more like June as the temperatures are to be in the upper 70s. The sights and sounds of spring along the Alley are everywhere. The willows and Manitoba maples are sprouting leaves, robins singing in the dark and chorus of frogs and toads are heard in the woods. For the first time, I won't be alone as my girlfriend is making the trip. It's a later than usual start as I'm on the water at first light. That's another thing I'll miss are those early morning starts. Walking along the river in the dark and all I hear is the running water and the rocks under my boots.

I have no idea how many people will be out. Over the week as I drive through the Rocky River metro park on my way home, nearly every parking spot is taken and I can see anglers everywhere. During the week, I've wetted a line before heading into work. That's benefit of living five minutes away from the river. Even though I have an hour to squeeze in, the morning outings have been nothing short of fun as I've hooked into handful of feisty skippers that fight with reckless abandon. There were plenty of times I was tempted to call in and I would an hour late or blowing off the day completely.

As we drive along the road, I strain to see how many cars in the lot ahead. I see four cars and I figure there should be plenty of room to fish. With the Easter weekend, many probably elected to take the time off. The one section I want to fish is a long pool below an area where the fish spawn. After a week of high water, I wondered if most of the fish dropped all the way back to the lake. I felt the water and it's cool, hopefully there's some in here. It turns into a grind as we start the long drawn out process of working the pool. With the exception of the two elderly anglers downstream, we have the entire pool to ourselves. I've learned from experience, that when these areas are empty by mid morning, the earlier anglers either did well or struck out. As we finished with the lower of the pool and didn't even get a hit. The pool is eerily quiet as we see nor hear the sounds of fish. We move up to the section of the pool where the current is a little faster. The warm south wind starts whipping up as the temperature starts creeping up. My girlfriend takes a break and I continue to hammer away. I finally get a take and I feel the surge from the fish as it heads upstream. Usually with drop backs, they'll fight with reckless abandon leaping and thrashing about. The fish charges upstream and gets close me as it swims quickly by me. But with the snap of the line, my fish is gone as I inspect what happened. The knot failed and I'm left with a disgusted feeling, because it was 8 pound test. It turns out to be the only fish from that spot. But that's late spring fishing as it can be a case of hit or miss. In past years, I had a banner days and others only one or two fish.

It almost noon as I watch angler after angler slowly walk away. With their heads slung low, they have nothing to show for. We both decide to head to another spot. Driving over the bridge I see no anglers fishing the pool below. We make our way down the hill and I hope that this spot will pay off. Again we grind it out and there's nothing. I'm left scratching my head as to why there isn't any fish. It turns out to be a bust. I see another angler above throwing lures and he catches a decent sized smallmouth, another sign that the run is almost over. Further up, I watch a guide with clients working the faster water and they don't even register a hookup. My gut tells me that this day is not going to work out.

After a brief downpour, the clouds part and the sun comes out. I make the call and we leave. The last spot is even further down and and we pull in there isn't a car. In the morning before sunrise, its always packed. We make the long walk down and I watch the turkey vultures soaring above. I'm sweating, becoming thirsty and hungry. We work the stretch and it's the same thing - nothing. My girlfriend decides to get a early start on her tan and lies on the rocks. I continue to grind away, determined to get at least a hit. Downstream, I watch another angler flaying his spey rod in vain. The sun is high and I know what the outcome will be. After an hour, I throw in the towel.

I feel a sense of disappoint because I had high hopes that we would get into some fish. But, that what happens when there's an early spring. During the last week of March, I was catching post spawn fish. The also didn't help as it rained nearly every week. By Easter weekend, I knew the window would be rapidly closing.

I pull the rods apart and look back. I still have plenty of bait and it won't get dark until at least another five hours. But I know that girlfriend couldn't do it and I would never subject her to never ending searching of fish. I feel a pang in my stomach as we walk back and I look back for the last time. It will be another six months before I'm back here. Once we get to the car, I pull my waders off and I see all of the water marks on my pants. My patching job wasn't enough and I know it's time to replace them. I tried to squeeze another season out of them, but I know I must replace them. My boots look even worse, as they frayed and cracking. More money to shell out this summer I suppose.

I check the temperature and it's almost 80F and the wind feels hot, the weather for the rest of the week to suppose to be in the upper 60s and lower 70s. The water temperature by then will be dangerously high. Hopefully, by then most if not all will be gone, retreating to cold dark depths of Lake Erie.

I'm parched and dying for a cold beer. I know of a small tavern tucked away in Lake County, that serves some of the best wings in the area. I take a long satisfying sip of beer and glance over at the TV to watch the Cavs game. I know that the summer will go by pretty fast and eventually those cool winds of September will blow across the lake, summoning another season.

February 19, 2017

The Hike

There's something about going off the beaten trail. Walking into the unknown and seeing what's lies ahead. While some are content at sitting at their favorite hole, I prefer not to rub elbows. That can be a difficult on some of the Alley's streams as solitude is practically impossible. After a hectic week at work, I need to unwind and I prefer not to listen a person complain about the latest Browns loss or politics. 

Along the Alley, you really don’t need to hike from one spot to the next. You can simply hop in a car and drive from one section to the next. That’s usually the case on the lower ends of the rivers as they run through urban areas. If you want to experience a hike than you need to go out far east or west. When it comes to epic hikes, the upper Grand is where I do it. The Grand is one of the longest of the Alley’s rivers. The upper reaches are rural and remote. Access isn’t easy and you need to be top shape if you plan to pull it off. 

When I’m doing a hike, I’ll be on my own. The old sages I fish with, couldn’t handle the rigors of it, with bad knees and all. If I was in my 20s, I probably couldn’t do it, because I was woefully out of shape. Late night clubbing, drinking, smoking and sustaining on a diet of fast food, I probably couldn’t make it more than a quarter of mile before I would have to sit on a log hacking and wheezing. 

I started getting into shape in my earlier 40s after my divorce. I went from 240 down to 195 and I started running, lifting weights and eating better. I’m in the best shape and I’m as fit as a bull. Today, I can leave the youngsters in my dust. 

I love looking back at some the hikes I did and one of mine is a trip I did in late February several years ago. The eastern part of the Alley got a lot of snow during the week and the Grand had come down a fishable level. I leave home in the dark and make the drive to Harpserfield's dam. I exit the interstate and head south. I turn off to another road and make my way down the hill. It's first light as I drive down the hill and I can't see the river. As I turn the corner, the covered bridge going across the river is cloaked in a fresh coating of snow. The river above the dam is covered in ice and snow. I look over and the river is as prime as it can be and there's no slush. I’m stoked for a day on it. I park along road and get dressed. There’s a couple cars in the lot and I can see a couple anglers below the bridge. 

When going a hike, I dress light and warm. I use an Under Armor cold base 2.0 shirt, long underwear and fleece pants. My feet are covered with polypropylene and wool socks. Anything that can wick away sweat from my body. I wear both Goretex waders and a jacket. I never wear a vest as that can weight me down. I bring along the bare necessities - hip pack with a small box of hooks, sinkers, and swivels. A tube that holds my floats and a couple of containers of spawn sacs. Despite it being chilly, I have a bottle of water in the side pocket and couple of protein bars and some almonds. 

I begin to walk across the field and the snow is deep. The air is crisp and I can see my breath. I’ll probably be blazing a trail through the woods. A couple of anglers are fishing a spot close by. I can tell they’re not dressed for an all day event. We exchanges pleasantries and from the way I'm walking, they know I won't be low holing them. I continue downstream where I cross over. The river is at a perfect flow as I don’t have any difficulty crossing over. In the distance, I see the cliffs and hemlocks covered in snow. 

The snow is fresh and powdery, probably got about 2’ of it during the week as the area was hit with wave after wave of lake effect snow. I’m breathing a little harder, but if I was with another person, I could carry on a conversation with no problems. When it comes to doing a hike, you need to pace yourself. Depending where I’m fishing on the Grand, sometimes I’ll walk 2 miles before fishing a section and others I’ll start fishing a half mile downstream. I continue down the trail and I veer off into the woods. It’s a little more tricky here as the snow covers downed trees and branches. I huff and puff as I climb over them. My waders restrict my movement as several times I have to sit a tree and swing my legs to over. I climb down a bank and there’s the river. 

I’m at the starting point as I’ll start working the entire stretch. Even thought I walked almost a mile in the snow, I haven’t worked up much of a sweat. The river has a tea colored stain and it moves at a leisurely pace. The air is crisp and I proceed to start fishing. I slowly get into fish, but it’s a long drawn out process. The number of fish this season has been low. This is the latest I’ve fished upstream and in better years, there would be the sounds of snapping twigs and voices behind as others make the trek downstream. Not today, with the exceptions of chattering chickadees and jays, the woods are a quiet place. 

As the morning progresses, the bite starts turning on. The pools produce some beautiful fish in full winter colors. I could be content to sit on this spot, but I have the hunger to see what lies ahead. I’m at the last pool before the river makes a sharp turn. Now that I feel I’ve caught enough fish, I’m ready to cross over. As I step in, I feel the power of the current pull at my legs. Just 10’ down, the river narrows and the turns into a small set of rapids. I know the spot well enough that I walk slightly upstream towards the tail out. Years of running through the metro park back home, my legs are strong enough to buffer the current. I slowly cross over and step out. No time to waste as I quicken my pace downstream. It’s another spot that I’ve done well in past years. The river here is very narrow as it runs along a shale cliff. I work the inner seam and hook into a male. He’s dark with a mixture of reds, silver and charcoal. The spawn is not far away, probably another month, depending on the weather. It turns out to be the only fish from that spot. The river farther down flows too fast to hold wintering fish. 

The hike is far from over as I’m past the two mile marker. There’s another spot where I must cross over. This is the trickiest place as the river runs over shale bedrock and the bottom is littered with rocks. Because it’s more narrow here, the current is strong even when its at fishable levels. I slowly wade across making sure I have a good foothold. The current pushes hard as I try to gain traction. I use the larger rocks as a buffer and I’m halfway across. The cleats dig into the shale and I shuffle around the rocks. I finally make it over and my legs are burning slightly. There’s a tail out below and I hook into several decent sized fish. So far this hike is paying off, as I’m hooking into fish at every spot and I haven’t seen one person so far. 

It’s late morning and I resume the hike. In some sections of the Grand it can be an easy hike, because whenever it blows out the surrounding woods are scoured cleaned of vegetation. I climb up a steep hill and there’s a road that goes through the woods and right up to the river. Once again I cross over and this is a relative cakewalk. I plow through the water and over the bank. The cliffs here cloaked in snow and glisten in the sun. Huge shards of ice hang from the rocks and the sun is strong enough that they’re starting to melt. I intend to work the entire stretch all the way beyond the cliffs. I’m more than 3 miles from my car. I work the stretch and the fish are plentiful, I’m having so much fun that I start losing track of time. In this section of the upper Grand has some of the finest spawning gravel and fish often hold in the deeper pools. Once, I get done with that section, I look at the time and it’s almost three o’clock. I look downstream and there’s one more pool to fish. It doesn’t get dark until six. I have plenty of time. 

The pool produces more fish and I’m down to last of my sacs. I’m well into double digits and I more than happy with the results. The sun is slowly descending among the trees and cliffs. I take a drink of water, eat a protein bar and look at the time, almost 4:00 and I’m a little over 4 miles. If I was with the other guys, we would be lucky to make it the one mile marker and we would be at home resting on the couch. I disassemble the rod and take a deep breath, time to head home. 

Because it turned out to be such a great day, I have a little more pep in my walk. In order to conserve energy, I walk along the river. At the end of the day, every step on the rocks is a little harder on the back and legs. I feel a slight jolt whenever I step. My knees are getting a sore as I negotiate my way along the banks. I arrive at the crossing and I remind myself that I have three more before making it back. My legs are a little rubbery, I take a little more time wading across, the next one will be a killer.

My breathing is heavier as I slough through the snow. By now the shadows grow longer and the sun is starting to slip behind the cliffs. I’m working up a good sweat and I’m thankful for the years of exercising and eating right. If this was me 20 years ago, I would be huffing and puffing and sitting on a log trying to catch my breath. I reach the 2nd crossing and I gingerly move around the rocks. The cold water is a welcome relief on my knees. I make it across and I’m halfway there.

I see my tracks from earlier today and I was the only person to make this far down. It’s a quick hike up along the river and around the bend to the next crossing. It’s getting darker now and my stomach is growing. I hasten my pace some more. I cross over at the tail out above the bend. I’m sweating and breathing a lot heavier, because I still have a distance to go before the last crossing. My legs are starting to feel cramped and I can see the river and the last crossing. I get to the water’s edge and I take a deep breath. There’s no need to rush and I take my time wading over. 

Its dark by the time I cross the field and there’s my car. Everybody probably left hours ago. I have no one to share what a great day I had on the river. The only thing I hear is the water going over the dam. I pop the back hatch and sit down. I grab a water from the back and guzzle it. I catch my breath and take my toque off, I can feel the heat escaping my head. I slowly take off my jacket, waders and boots. My back is aching when I stand up, it took a beating today. I’ve often wondered how much more can my body take? My mind is willing, but my body? I can’t imagine doing this in my 60s.

I sink into the car seat and it start it. I drive through the covered bridge and head up the hill. I stop at the gas station and buy some water and beef jerky to snack on. I seriously doubt I’ll have the energy to cook when I get home. I will be stopping at Chipotle for a burrito bowl. I get on the interstate and it will an hour drive home. I know I’ll sleep good tonight. 

January 7, 2017

Take A Kid Fishing

We all exactly remember the place and time when we caught our first fish. Mine was on a dock on a small lake east of Parry Sound at my mother's friend camp back in the summer of 1977. Her friend's husband put a worm on a hook and helped me cast the bobber out. With a few minutes, I caught my first fish - a pumpkinseed and that's when the seeds of fishing were planted.

My father wasn't the outdoorsy type. The closest he got the outdoors was the golf course. I was left to own devices on how to fish. I was a voracious reader as I spent hours reading books and magazines. With a cheap rod and reel from Canadian Tire, I would ride my bike down dirt roads fishing the lakes, river and creeks nearby home. During that time, I took a great appreciation of nature.

Today was my turn to introduce a kid to fishing - my girlfriend's son Cameron. Since I've never had children of my own, I was thrilled at the thought of it.

It was the Monday after the Thanksgiving holidays and we were driving out to the Ashtabula River. The "Bula" was the prefect place for introducing a kid to steelhead. The river was smaller and had plenty of easy access. We arrive at the mid section of the river as I knew of a pool that generally holds plenty of fish. As we walk down, we hear gunshots in the distance as it's deer hunting season in Ohio. The river should be a quiet place today.

I set up Cameron's rod and reel and instruct him on the basics of float fishing for steelhead. I keep it as simple as possible - if the float goes under, set the hook. I watch him and his mom fish and I take up a spot farther up as I probe the pool for fish. I catch a fish and Cameron sees his first steelhead. I take a break from fishing and continually check their sacs and make adjustments. After an hour, that fish I caught is the only one.

The hardcore steelheader in me would have them go on a death march in search of fish, but I have to be mindful that I don't know Cameron's threshold. I still try to keep it simple and we head another spot further downstream.

This section is much different than the other spot as the river here runs entirely over shale bedrock. Fish like to hide in the cuts and along the ledges. When the water is stained, this makes fishing even more challenging. Fortunately, I know where the spots are and we start to shuffle our way out. I use the overhanging tree on the opposite side as my guide. Now that we're in the right spot, I help him cast out and guide the float as close as possible to the ledge. The float goes under but the sac hit the bottom. He reels in and I make some adjustments and I cast out to see if we're at the right depth. I tell him about mending the line when the float goes under and I tell him to set the hook.

The rod bends and throbs as we watch the water boil as the fish comes up. It's a small chunky male, the fight is brief and I grab the line and pull the fish towards the bank. Mom is the on the bank with the camera ready. I pull the hook out and hand the fish to Cameron. He holds it out with a huge smile beaming on his face much like I did back in the summer of 1977. Mom takes a few pictures and Cameron drops the fish back into the river.

I figure there might be more fish in that hole and we bang away. After 20 minutes, we hook into another fish and this one a little larger. I see the flash of silver in the murkiness and tell Cameron to keep the rod high and let the fish tire itself out. This fish has a little more fight than the other one. I steer the fish over in the slack water and it's your typical Lake Erie steelhead - 25" and five pounds. I hand Cameron the fish and mom takes another picture of him.

While it wasn't the day I envisioned as we ended up with 3 fish, I couldn't be more happy as Cameron caught his first steelhead. We wrap up the day with a drive back home and stopped at the Willoughby brewery for a nice lunch.

Will this plant the seed of fishing? It might, but over the past few decades the number of kids fishing has decreased. You can blame it on a variety of reasons and mine is electronics. Personally, I see too many kids spending a lot of time on their phones and playing video games. This generation is not going to respect or protect an environment if they don't spend time outdoors. If that's the case, nature itself will start to suffer. Less people fishing means less revenue for states to help protect and enhance fish habitat. Also the lack of revenue means less for stocking. I've watched Ohio's steelhead program grow by leaps and bounds. Winter was once a time of waiting for warmer weather. But, with the stocking program, many anglers have the opportunity to fish during those months. I would hate to see this program get effected if the next generation decides that fishing isn't worth their time.

So if you're out fishing and you see a kid struggling, give him or her a helping hand.

December 12, 2016

Grinding Away

Everybody dreads the grind. The times when you walk endless miles, trudging through the water, climbing over downed trees and pounding the water hard from first light to sunset. That's what its been like for the past several years, grinding it out whether its in my backyard - the Rock or the streams way out east. It's times like this the truly separate the boys from men.

So far this season, I've logged a lot of miles on the water. The Alley is one of the most heavily stocked streams in the lower 48 states, but don't let the high number of fish stocked fool you. It hasn't been easy for me and my steelheading brethren. Sitting at one hole is a complete waste of time, but not passing up a small piece of pocket water. That's part of the grind, working every section of water and hoping for something.

That's what it was like during my vacation. What I thought was fishing a section of river and catching a decent number of fish, keeping me content. But that was wishful thinking, it was walking through the woods or getting the car and drive from location to the next. It didn't matter if I was out east or close to home - I had to grind it out.

I'm one the Grand at first light and it still feels like October instead of late November. We received rain over the weekend and it bumped the water up, but it didn't blow it out. The river is still high as that's evident as I cross over. I feel the current push me downstream as I cross over. I dig my boots into the gravel bottom as I force my across. The river is stained and I set my sights for the section downstream. With the heavier flow, I don't expect that much company coming over.

Just three days before me and a friend grinded it out on the same river. However, rising waters and the "Game" made it a quick grind. The ole faithful spot has never let me down, but in recent years its been either feast or famine. I start the process of working the section, making adjustments and trying different colored sacs. I do however, noticed several gulls swooping down and snatching shiners from the eddy on the opposite side. But, the water is too dirty for jigs. I look up stream I see a couple anglers that decided standing along the shore was a better idea. After 20 minutes or so, I hook into the first fish, which not surprisingly is a skipper. Skippers have a been the norm all season long as they made up the majority of fish caught.

I continue to grind it and I start breaking the water down to grids. I works as I pluck a couple more fish out and then I start to slowly shuffle downstream, grinding out the pool until I know that I gave my 100%. I slowly trudge through the water and mumble to myself, whether I made the right decision or not. The grind can make the even the best second guess themselves. 

Through out the morning, I grind it out in several locations. I remember watching the Deadliest Catch and there was an episode of a crew grinding it for cod. They endless hauled up traps and dropped them and repeat it over and over. Ever spot its the same, work the run, work the hole or work the pool. I methodical work the spot and I pick off some more fish. It's getting closer to noon and my stomach is grumbling. I open a protein bar and eat, I'm not even close to being done. 

I head further up river and walk down into a small valley. It's a large sweeping run that spills into a long pool that runs along a cliff and eventually tails out. I'll be here for at least an hour I tell myself. Today, I'm glad I'm fishing solo, because I don't know if the guys could handle me constantly moving from spot to spot. I start at the head of the run and drift the float downstream, hugging along the seam. I shuffle down as I slowly drift that seam. I see the large rock in the middle of the run and I know there should be a fish. That spot has never let me down in the past. I make a slight adjustment as the run starts to get shallow. The float drifts at a leisurely pace and I watch it go under. I set the hook and watch a bright silver fish leap from the water. I walk back towards the shore and beach the fish. A decent sized hen without a blemish on her. I pop the hook and gently push her back into the water. She slowly swims off at first then with a burst of energy, she bolts for the deeper water. I walk further down to the pool and I start working that until I run into the tail end and I have nothing to show for. 

I look at the time and it's almost four. In about an hour it will start getting dark. Then I have to deal with rush hour traffic coming out of Cleveland. I walk back and I feel the effects of the grind. My back is sore, my legs feel heavy, and my shoulders feel stiff. My efforts paid off as I caught a decent number of fish. Most people would of thrown in the towel before lunch time. Full days of fishing are few and far between for me, so I make the most of it. 

As I get closer to Cleveland, I see the brake lights of cars and trucks ahead near Deadman's curve, there I'll start the grind on the way home.