By Larry Moore
The trunk was loaded with fishing gear and my sleeping bag as I pointed the car north toward Lake County, Ohio. I was filled with excitement and anticipation. I had been invited to join several veteran Ohio outdoor writers at their annual Lake County Steelhead Camp.
It is a long-standing tradition which has become known simply as “the fish camp”. Our host was writer Jeff Frischkorn and his gracious wife Beverly. We were staying in the Lake Metro Parks Resource Center Cabin in Madison. The cabin is a wonderful location overlooking The Grand River. It includes trails, scenic overlooks, meadows and a pond providing a true oasis. The interior included a wonderful fireplace, kitchen, bunk area and furniture well suited to a fishing camp get-away.
Steelhead are not native to Ohio. It is a fishery created through stocking by the ODNR Division of Wildlife. The success rate of the steelhead spawn in Ohio is far less than one-percent so stocking is necessary. The fish migrate into Lake Erie and spend the summer in the cooler part of the lake before returning to streams during the fall through the spring. Ohio’s primary steelhead streams are Vermilion, Rocky, Chagrin, Grand rivers and Conneaut Creek. Total annual stocking numbers projected from Ohio’s Castalia State Fish Hatchery is about 400,000 steelhead. The annual steelhead run is a treasured fishing experience for many anglers. Even in mid-week access point parking lots often fill quickly. It is a favorite spring break from school activity is steelhead fishing.
After claiming my bunk, I met with Paul Liikala who is a free-lance photographer and an avid steelhead fisherman. He drew the short straw for the daunting task of mentoring me. Joining us was Toledo Blade writer Matt Markey along with veteran writer and steelhead fisherman Steve Pollick. We gathered our gear and headed to Liikala’s van to do some late afternoon scouting along Mill Creek. The access point was through the Lake County Hog Back Ridge Metropark. The scouting was necessary as recent rains had swollen the Grand River to the top of the banks. The Grand was quite muddy but the tributary creeks were already dropping and clearing up. Liikala’s van contained everything needed to outfit both myself and Markey for steelhead fishing and then some.
Liikala explained steelhead fishing, “Basically when it’s hot it is hot and when not it can be a lot of walking and looking. If the main stream flows too high to fish the rivers we switch to ditch fishing. This involves finding a tributary creek where the pools will be much smaller and easier to fish. We are targeting steelhead moving into the small tributaries. We will be using noodle rods. Rather than casting it is more of a little flip technique and let the current flow the bait into the pools. The steelhead will be coming up into here to spawn. Sometimes you can fish these in just farm boots but I use hip waders whereas on the larger rivers chest waders are required.”
The equipment used are either fly rods or the noodle rod. A noodle rod is a fly rod blank that has spin cast guides and uses a spin cast reel. Mine was ten-feet long and quite flexible. The bait used most of the time for both rods is the same. It is basically a split shot weight above the hooks and a slip bobber to allow for quick adjustment depending on the water flow and pool depth. Using a two hook set up there will be an egg sack on the top hook and yarn to resemble the egg sack on the bottom hook. The egg sacks come in various colors with florescent orange and chartreuse as favorite colors.
I fished the afternoon scouting without success. The next morning was no better despite climbing over log jams and much wading, no steelhead were located. Finally in the afternoon the Ashtabula River flow had fallen with the water quickly clearing. The forecast for more rain had me wondering if I would get a steelhead this trip. I could certainly enjoy the beauty around me. I marveled at the high-wall cuts with hemlocks clinging precariously to the scant topsoil. I watched eagles soar high about the trees and the river. Each cast required attention but it was easy to get lost in the outdoor scenery. There were no sounds of civilization, no automobiles and no power lines. It is so easy to just get lost in the beauty of this river land.
Suddenly the tug on my line snapped me back to reality and the fishing at hand. Enough day dreaming already. I was lucky that my fishing experience let me instinctively set the hook. My hands moved almost before my brain seemed to respond. I just knew this time it was not the rocks on the bottom but a steelhead that tugged at my bait. I was right. Let the fight and the fun begin! I played the fish, keeping the line tight and the rod tip up, as is common with all other fishing. I was starting to back my way to the edge and shallow water to land the fish when I realized Liikala was nowhere in sight. Where the heck was my mentor? Well, maybe I didn’t need him but I sure as the world needed that landing net that was on his back! Fortunately landing a steelhead is much the same as other river fishing. With Markey shouting encouragement, I managed to bring the fish to the bank.
What an experience! Markey reported that people in the next county thought there was a tornado siren when I let out a scream that I had the fish on. Steelhead fishing, and especially your first one, generates exactly that type of excitement. Lake County is a great place to visit. There are the creeks and rivers with plenty of access through the parks. There are wineries and other attractions to visit. This is a vastly different landscape and ecosystem from southern Ohio. It is a totally beautiful experience that awaits.
If you are planning a trip to the area check the Lake Metro Parks website: www.lakemetroparks.com or the Lake County Visitors Bureau at www.lakevisit.com.
Larry S. Moore is a local resident and weekly outdoor columnist.