The word “skunked” could not be more appropriate when fly fishing for steelhead.
More often than not you will walk away from the river empty handed. Yet, so many of us, come back day after day. We spend countless hours on the water or at the vise tying up the latest and greatest creation, praying for a strike at the next outing.
I have to be honest. I do nymph quite a bit for steelhead. To the purists out there, some days we cannot swing a fly here in the Great Lakes region. Either the water is too low or especially now in the spring, there are guys center pinning or bait fishing shoulder to shoulder. Plus, if you need a confidence boost, slapping on a bead and a minnow pattern, is a very good way to at least generate some type of action on the end of your line.
But even while nymphing, steelhead fishing takes patience. You have to analyze the depth you’re fishing, adjust the weight and indicator, keep the drift drag free to present the nymphs in a natural way to the fish. It’s not as easy as some people make nymphing out to be.
The biggest factor to us here in the Lake Erie tributaries is playing the game with mother nature. The weather here in Northeast Ohio is very unpredictable and the fish are consistently on the move. One morning flows and the color could be perfect and after a lunch break and a few cold beers, it starts to rain and the rivers are rapidly on the rise. There truly are NO secret spots or holes as these fish can move up to ten miles a day. A spot that holds fish could be good 6 out of 7 days a week, but there’s no telling where fish will be on any particular day. Most of the effort comes in finding fish.
This past fall, I took a two-handed casting class with Jeff Liskay, who is arguably the best angler in our area and Dan Pribanic of Chagrin River Outfitters Over the last six months, I’ve talked with Jeff frequently and have learned a ton from him in regards to fishing a swung fly.
While I am no means an expert (I don’t claim to be one) or really a very experienced fly angler (I’ve only been doing this a couple of years), why did I take up a new challenge of learning a swung fly? To put it simply, I love to fly fish. I love being out on the river and connecting with nature and what it has to offer, even in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. I am never satisfied not learning something new. The more I know, the more knowledgeable I can be and increase my skills every time I step in the water or behind the vise.
The draw to chasing steelhead is very simple. These fish, while not wild here in the Great Lakes, have such a special place in Lake Erie and those that use it for recreation. Natural reproduction is slim so practicing catch and release is a must for anyone targeting these beautiful creatures. The size that more the less a rainbow trout has after spending some time in Lake Erie is remarkable. Hooking one and it furiously shaking it’s head and pulling drag off your reel is a feeling I cannot explain. All I can say is 25″ and 5 pounds at the end of your line is a fight.
While landing the fish and properly caring for it while removing the hook, I always begin to think about its journey. As a fish that can move up to ten miles a day, the fish you’ve now caught, a week ago, could have been dozens of miles off-shore. The unknown is a part of the puzzle that us steelhead bums appreciate.
When you grasp that fish and look at it in the eyes, you see it’s colors, you see it’s fins. You can tell whether they’ve spawned already, or whether it’s a fresh fish on it’s journey upstream or dropping back to the lake. The hard work you’ve put in pays off when you’re holding the fish and safely releasing it back into the river.
I refuse to use cliches but honestly, the entire process from tying the fly (buying for those that don’t tie) putting it on, selecting your method to the madness (swing, nymph), adjust your depth whether with an indicator or a sink tip and figure out the presentation is what keeps us all coming back. These fish are not a dime a dozen like stocked pond fish. They move far and quickly, so finding them is a huge challenge that we all spend hours debating on where to access the river beforehand. So while yes, the pursuit is really a large part of why we continue to fish for them, every fish has a story. Not to mention the stories we can now tell our friends and families after landing one of these monsters.
Steelhead are truly one of the more remarkable freshwater fish, people in Cleveland don’t seem to always appreciate. We are one of a handful of locations that have access to them and no matter how far some of us go away, we still return here and chase these chrome beauties.