I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some prejudice against the stream we were going to fish. Not that I had ever been there before, but I just couldn’t muster the faith that it was worth the trip were it not for photographic evidence of nice large steelhead that Nate caught a few days before. Nate had posted the photos to Facebook, and although I knew it wasn’t the case, I texted him asking if the fish was caught on the Rocky River, knowing full well that the background in the photo looked nothing like the stretches of the Rocky I was familiar with. Slightly different vegetation. Deeper pockets of water and a sandy bottom with a smattering of larger rounded boulders. Not only that, but the water was gin clear and even on its best days, the Rocky can carry a good amount of silt.
“Nope” was his initial response. He was being coy, so I got the sneaking suspicion he was on some small creek that feeds into Lake Erie. I can’t think of anyone who knows more about the small creeks than him, so it was a pretty safe bet. And then he told me. I’m not going to burn the spot here, but let’s just say I was a little shocked that this creek could run clean enough to hold steelhead given its very urban surroundings. I texted back, “I’ll be damned. Never fished that. Not even sure where it is.” I wonder how many fishing trips with Nate start off with me saying some variation of that.
So that weekend I picked Nate up and we started heading to the creek access. After a bit of driving, he said we were getting close but that he wanted to stop off at a McDonald’s for some breakfast. We’d yet to see first light and he directed me through a less than safe neighborhood towards the McDonald’s, all the while telling me a story about the last time he went to this McDonald’s and witnessed a drug deal going down. Now I’m not generally too concerned about neighborhoods like that. I’ve been in my share of them for one reason or another and come out just fine. However, I’ve never considered them to be the backdrop for good steelhead fishing. After Nate ordered enough food to feed three guys my size, we headed to the creek.
It was a very chilly morning, in fact, the first of such in this early Fall. Nate teased me about wearing waders so early in the season, while he planned on wet wading in cargo shorts and tennis shoes. Our gear set up, I sat on my back bumper while he stood eating his breakfast as we waited for the sun that seemed to take forever to come up. When finally first light showed me a little more of our surroundings, I was surprised to find myself in a little oasis of nature surrounded by an urban neighborhood whose better days were behind it. Yet here, in this unlikely location, was this pretty little creek that ran clearer than the Rocky on its very best day.
While dawn had broken, we were still waiting for the full sun to shine on the creek so that we could get a good look at things. While the creek was clear, it was surprisingly deep in spots, making it impossible to rule out steelhead being present without direct sunlight. Eventually, we were satisfied in that the steelhead were no longer in the spot he had caught them in a few days before, so we headed up stream. Nate gasped as he first set foot in the water without waders and I shot a satisfied smirk his way in retaliation for his earlier teasing.
As we moved slowly upstream, I could not for the life of me get “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd out of my head. The chorus was repeating over and over again in my head while we moved. I noticed right away that despite the urban surroundings, the stream had massive populations of various baitfish as well as large and plump creek chubs. Throughout the day, I caught my fair share of creek chubs and surprisingly, some of them were big enough to put up a strong fight.
We arrived at a spot where a concrete retaining wall lined one side of the creek and a deep cut ran along its edge. We spotted several young steelhead actively darting in and out of the wall’s shelter. “Well I’ll be damned,” I thought. For whatever reason, I had never really encountered juvenile steelhead before. I was surprised by how much they moved. I was used to the larger steelhead who more or less move either for a better lie, to feed, or to evade predators. Perhaps their slower metabolisms prevent them from making any unnecessary movements. These little guys seemed to just enjoy moving around and it made casting to them surprisingly difficult, especially given the slow current of the creek. It was more like casting to cruising carp than steelheading. Among them, we noticed a strikingly white female who stood out clearly from the others.
We fished that spot for a time but decided to rest the pod a bit and check things out upstream. Nate said there was a large dam ahead that the fish would stack up at and if we didn’t find anything there, we’d come back down. So we started to hike again, moving farther upstream until we arrived at a culvert, through which the stream flowed in three separate tubes about 9-10 feet in diameter. The pipes were black and seemingly endless save for a faint fuzzy light splashing against the wall of the tube far ahead. On such a sunny day, the contrast from the bright day made the tunnels seem a darker shade of pitch. As we walked through it though, our eyes slowly adjusted and our nerves settled. The tunnel must have been at least 60 yards long, although I’ve never been a good judge of distance, especially in such a disorienting environment.
As we emerged, we were within 200 feet of the dam, a roughly 6 foot concrete structure of brutal simplicity. Along the banks leading to the dam were steep concrete slabs, some of them having clearly crumbled into the deep dark pool below the dam, although you could see no direct evidence other than the mysterious gaps.
Nate explained that there was actually a homeless man who lived just above these concrete banks in the brush. At one point there was sign somewhere on his encampment that said simply, “Homeless, free, and happy.”
The pool below the dam was fruitless save for some more creek chubs and bluegill that were too small to even bite the hook. We moved back downriver, through the black tubes towards the spot with the retaining wall where we had seen the juvenile steelhead earlier, all the while “shine on you crazy diamond” repeated in my head.
Having located the sole pod in the accessible stretch and quickly running out of time, we focused in on this pod of juveniles. The small creek and full sun was difficult for me. Nate, who is well accustomed to the challenges of small streams, had better luck than me. He caught a beautiful bright steelhead on a white woolly bugger which we both agreed looked more like a rainbow than its potamodromous steelhead cousins. She was a steelhead, but a particularly pretty one. She was still mostly chrome but the spots along her back were becoming pronounced and deeply black, with a streak of pink emerging around the base of her tail. On the small side, but truly a beautiful fish.
Nate caught another and we were floored by the tail of an enormous creek chub hanging out of her gaping mouth. She spit out the creek chub and the head had already been mostly digested. Still we could see that the creek chub was roughly 3/4ths her body length and yet, even after such a big meal, she still went for Nate’s scud pattern.
All the while, the fish I kept after was that striking white beauty that almost seemed to be moving around more than the others. I really wanted to see her out of the water. She shone like a beacon compared to the rest of her pod, although her counterparts were still very bright and were not far off from the bright chrome of a steelhead straight out of the lake. I was dying to see just how bright she really was. I had her on for just a moment, but she popped off and sadly, after that, refused all further attempts.
A glance at the clock and I realized it was time to go. As always, its ten times harder to leave a stream when you haven’t yet caught what you’re seeking. I find more and more though that I’m less discouraged by those fishless days than I used to be. Maybe I’m granting myself more excuses, or maybe I’m finding less value in the numbers game and more value in the pursuit. And more so, I enjoy so much those days where even if nothing dramatic happened, I was in a different place. I was someplace I didn’t even know existed, and there, in that most unremarkable of neighborhoods, I chased a bright chrome streak. Not for the sake of stacking my numbers, but rather, because I saw something unique and wanted to see it up close. I failed, but couldn’t help but feel that I succeeded regardless.