Like Breathing Again

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After a wildly successful spring run (in both quantity, but more importantly quality of fish), the summer of 2017 largely pulled my focus away from the water. The few opportunities spent with fly rod in hand amounted to scattered 1-2 hour carp excursions paired with slightly longer outings that focused almost entirely on teaching my 4 and a half year old the very basics of fishing. Not time poorly spent mind you, as both endeavors were highly rewarding, especially the latter. Seeing her joyously and gently caressing every fish we encountered brought me the purest kind of happiness.

With the return of cooler weather, however, comes the promise of longer excursions and more plentiful experiences. Not only that, there’s the opportunity for more solitude. The summer angling opportunities come with the baggage of the various forms of warm weather nature enthusiasts. Carping on the Rocky River usually involves me playing my own version of Frogger in crossing the blacktopped bike trail to even get to the river, dodging cyclists, runners, and speed walkers while carrying my pack and a 10 foot fly rod. No easy task. Then, even when I get to the water, there’s almost always 1 or 2 of these folks watching me from the bank as though I were an animal in the zoo. When they’re not screaming over 20 yards of water to ask me “How’s the fishing?!!!”, at best, I’ll glance over my shoulder and see the look of disappointment on their face that I’m not casting long graceful casts that fulfill their dreams of what fly fishing is. I think when they see you’re using a fly rod they expect you to put on a Brad Pitt “River Runs Though It” display with every cast. When instead they see you repeating the exact same roll cast and dead drift to a pod of carp rooting in the mud, they quickly lose interest and walk away, only to be replaced moments later by another fly fishing “tourist” doomed for disappointment.

With the temperature drop comes a drop in non-angling activity in the woods. That’s not to say there won’t be a huge jump in anglers on the bigger rivers, although we’re not there quite yet. The big rivers in the Cleveland area, the Rocky and Chagrin, will be teeming with fishermen once the steelhead run really gets going, elbow to elbow in some parts. There are definitely areas on these rivers where you can escape the grunts and burps of the nearest angler by doing a bit more reconnaissance work ahead of time and more hiking the day of, but even then you run the risk of someone spotting your car parked along the parkway access roads. Then they sort of wander their way to you like a zombie in the movies when you accidentally knock something over, revealing your hiding spot. You feel a jolt of nerves up your back as your peace is destroyed the moment you hear the snap of twigs as they shamble towards your secret spot.

In these early days of the fall run, the fishing is hit or miss. With each heavy rain, the die-hards shoot out to their favorite spots just to check things out, pouring over flow and turbidity gauge data when they’re not able to be there in person. Despite plenty of fish being stacked up in the lake, those first rains tend to only bring in a few fish at a time. It’s when we start to have repeated bumps in flow that the rest of the population pushes up stream, following the tracks of those intrepid first fish.

After a big rain last weekend that pushed the Rocky River flow up to almost 2,000 cubic feet per second (well above the average in late summer of around 100 cfs), I had the unique opportunity of both Monday and Tuesday mornings free of responsibility. My friend Nate and I did some recon work on Monday morning, finding the water so high and fast that you could actually swing a fly in this nameless creek that you could normally lay your rod across from bank to bank. One benefit of a small creek drainage area is that they have the potential to empty out fairly quickly. Knowing the current conditions weren’t exactly ideal, we packed up and headed out the next morning.

On Tuesday morning, Nate had already been on the water for a while before I arrived. The temps were in the high 60s with plenty of sunshine so I opted for swim trunks and water shoes instead of stifling waders. I spoke to Nate briefly on the phone, saying I had arrived and was working my way downstream to his location. Before I even found him, I had spotted one steelhead holding in a small shallow pool and another patiently working through the riffle below. The water had dropped significantly and while still a little stained, offered far more visibility than the cappuccino hue it had the morning before. I had on a rather large olive colored streamer that looked an awful lot like a creek chub, of which there are plenty in this water. It was articulated, with dumbbell eyes and plenty of marabou for movement. I had tied it on my line with the theory that the first fish of the run would be looking to fuel up with some calorie rich meals before their journey towards the headwaters.

The steelhead holding at the head of the shallow pool gave it no notice after several well placed casts pulled the fly right into his wheelhouse with no takes. Meanwhile, the fish that had been working up through the riffle was nearing the tail of the pool. I positioned myself so that I could place the fly at the opposite bank with a dead drift through where the pool would overflow into the start of the riffle. Timing is everything, as once I was in position, the steelhead emerged from the bubbles and chop to rest a moment at the tail’s slower current. I laid out my cast and gently led the fly with subtle twitches towards the fish. I was disappointed at first, as the fly drifted past him and was heading towards the start of the riffle. Doubt set in that perhaps my theory of fish looking for big meals was incorrect, when suddenly, the fish turned backwards and chased the fly into the shallow and rocky riffle and slammed the fly with reckless abandon; frankly surprising the hell out of me.

The smallish but aggressive steelhead fought like a fish twice his size. He shot down the riffle once before again surging back up towards the pool, showing far less care than the first time he came up. I was careful to give him some room to run, but not so much that he’d run past the fishing holding above, putting my chances at a second fish at risk. I was able to net him quickly and found him to still possess that shimmering chrome color for most of his body, yet a surprising amount of olive spotted green on his back for a fish that had only been in the creek for a full day at most. After releasing him, I gave Nate a quick ring explaining why I hadn’t made it down to him yet. Despite my care in not letting that first fish spook the fish holding above, I still thought it’d be best to let that fish rest and start heading back towards Nate.

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I fished with Nate for a little while before he had to depart. When I first walked up to him, he had a beautiful chromer in hand.  Having exhausted my efforts on a rather stingy and uninterested fish downstream, I wandered back up to see if that fish was still holding at the head of the pool. Sure enough, it was. At first I thought better of attempting the same olive streamer the fish had refused earlier that morning, instead switching over to something smaller. However, I decided I’d give it just a few more tries before changing things up. It turned out to be a good decision because on the second cast, the fly drifted 6 inches to his left and he lazily glided over and grabbed it. Surprisingly, this fish shot straight up stream once hooked, as opposed to the usual downstream first run. Staying where I stood would put me at risk of losing him to an overhanging tree so I ran up after him, limbo-ing under the branches while keeping the line tight and holding the rod sideways. Eventually I landed him, heftier and more colored than the first. Once revived, he dropped back downstream and resumed his languid feeding at the head of the pool, as though I had never interrupted his morning. And I, having exhausted my free time, left the small secluded waters to return to a civilization that had no idea how I’d spent my morning.

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