November 30, 2009

Leaving Fish

As much as I hate to admit it, there are times when scouting is simply a foolish proposition. Aside from the standard tenets of locating fishy water and, in turn, fish, I subscribe to the beliefs that 1) the most enjoyable fishing is away from the crowds and 2) you should never leave fish to find fish. Naturally, these two beliefs are often at odds with each other, as crowded areas are usually so for a reason. How you resolve the situation in unknown territory under less than ideal conditions can make or break a trip.

This is the story of how we (almost) broke it.


Day 1 of 9. I had just landed Fish 1 of the trip. I was beginning to ponder the potentially bad omen when I heard someone screaming a measurable distance downstream.


Sounded like some jackass asshat had hooked a fish and lost all common sense and courtesy. Took me a minute to remember my own name and realize Brian was into something decent and quite enthused about it. Natch. I wasn't about to sprint the quarter-mile down to him. Eff-'im. It's day 1, hour 1...there will be more...or so I thought at the time.

Turns out the fish was never landed anyway...something about letting the bigguns keep the flies they munch. Anyway, woulda been a waste of time to haul-ass down there. A couple more hours fishing and nary a tug, so we decided to continue the day's scouting effort elsewhere. The thought was, if everybody is fishing here...maybe there will be unmolested, willing fish elsewhere. Everybody knows elsewhere; it's that mythical place that might take a bit of a hike and may even have a lower concentration of fish, but it's deserted of fisherman and every fish that resides there is a taker, having enjoyed a respite from or not yet having encountered the hail of lead and wire.

In this case, elsewhere proved quite difficult to obtain.

I can't recall how many "Road Closed" dead ends we retreated from, or how many miles we had to cover, before we settled on a particular, deserted dead end a short (looking) walk down the valley.

First and Last Day

The road was completely washed out beyond this point, with a few downed trees to add insult to injury. No cars, but some me, that's a promising sign. We fueled and hit the scoured roadbed.


Camo-Santa would come to regret joining us for the hike.

Turns out, the gently sloping (~10%) grade quickly steepened (~20%+?) before ending atop a bluff, 20-30' above the water.

Now what?

Good looking water down there...can't reach it from here.

After some slight back-tracking we made our way down to the bank. This so-called valley is gorge-ous. I took a walk downstream, hoping to find something a little more conducive to swinging. The water was good, if a little low, but it didn't look like much was going on. Inevitably, my heart began to sink as I started running into people further downstream. My suspicion that much easier access availed itself had been confirmed. But hey, at least it wasn't crowded...and they even reported picking up some fish!


Aside from just looking cool, this will give you an idea of the elevation we had to re-gain when we wanted to leave. Yes, that's the fellas on the left bank.

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Seriously...these faces lined the river. The 1:100,000 map of Zoar "Valley" did us no favors.

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Finally, a mile and a half from the car, I found the Catt's main branch again. See that dot to the left of the main current, downstream? That's a spey-angler.

The water here was very different than that above. There were the occasional gravel bars but for the most part it was shale/slate/sandstone bedrock, low water, and classic runs and pools were few and far between. By the time I reached the junction, I was pooped and chose to spend much of my remaining time sitting on the rocks, enjoying the sights with some bourbon. From the looks of the few anglers around, that seemed a more reasonable choice than fishing these few pools hard. No hookups (mine or otherwise) in the 90 minutes or so I hung around there, but there was 1 leaper.

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I sat here, staring at the walls, cursing the walk that lay behind, and now again ahead of me.

Day 1's failure to provide a reliable, uncongested option for Day 2 was mitigated by knowing that we had a reliable, if a bit congested, area to game-plan for. We returned to the G.'s for some pizza, chili and apple pie. Day 2 would come early...complete with ham (or was it bacon?) egg and cheese bagels and hash-browns. That's it, we're not gonna survive once Granny's not around to feed us.

Day 2 consisted of mild frustrations all around. Sunday meant the fish had been beaten down and were a bit tougher to entice. But...everyone hooked fish. I managed to go 1/2 while everyone else went 0/x. Perhaps more disappointing was the bait crew filling their stringers. The steelhead out there are plentiful, and possibly stunted, so logically you could argue there should be a healthy cull in the interest of promoting catch quality over quantity. Still turns my stomach.

Catt Steel #2

Pretty baby. 2 days, 2 tugs, 2 landed steelies. I'd kill for an average like that back east. Here...well...who am I kidding, it's still fantastic.

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If you sight-fish to a confined pod long enough, you'll hook a few. Landing them...that's where it gets interesting. Brian had a frustrating day.

The end of Day 2 brought us by the dam for another peak en route to spaghetti and meatballs. After 2 days we were already getting restless. B-mar had headed back east in search of deer. In 7.5 angler-days we had landed 2 fish. Monday morning we would brave the crowds at the dam before moving on to another system. After gathering our breakfast of course.

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Brian had a shot at some fish before things got a little too crowded for our taste...

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Not much of a landing zone. We wouldn't be putting any fish on the bank here either.

Suffice it to say, the dam did not give us all we asked of it. Brian's 0% landing percentage held up while Joe and I never connected at all. So long Catt, rest assured I'll be back...

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Eighteen Mile Creek (not Eighteenmile...Erie, not Ontario). The only picture I got of the river. Another stunningly beautiful place.

Monday afternoon would bring us to our knees in frustration. We moved a half hour north to another major NY/Erie trib and immediately things started looking up. The neighborhoods were a little more upscale. We would be fishing special regs sections again. There was only 1 car at the access. The hike in was beautiful, not at all difficult, and brought us quickly to visible fish. That's when things started to deteriorate.

The low, clear water that allowed us to spot the fish also afflicted them with a hefty case of lockjaw. We saw dozens of fish throughout the section. Some bright silver, others fully colored, most in-between. They all preferred dodging my fly to grabbing it. How frustrating it is to watch these fish casually avoid whatever offering I made. I couldn't even scare them with giant leeches, and they scoffed at the most minuscule of nymphs. Joe and Brian both briefly hooked up on eggs, but the only take I got for the day was a small 'bow on a muddler which launched himself onto the bank before spitting the hook and flipping me the fin. Eventually we gave in, leaving the Lake Erie tribs altogether this time, driving on to Albion in the dark. With no Mrs. G. around, Tim Horton would fill the role for tonight's dinner. Tomorrow would mean more of this scouting game.

Day 5
Scouting is for jerks!

Day 4. The day we hooked no fish. That's for zero. OK, Joe landed a fingerling brown, or so he claims (the pic above is Day 5...gotchya). One look at the Oak parking lots and it was off to find less-mowed pastures. We drove around all day, fishing 3 creeks and scoffing at several others. What we saw was virtually no water, some dead and dying salmon, and 1 obstinate trout tucked up in a bedrock seem, pretending he didn't see us or our flies. Dick.

0.2 fish/day average! What a chunker too ( am I talking about?)

"Eff this finding open water B.S. We'll fight the crowds tomorrow then we're the hell outta here!"

I got lucky on Days 1 and 2, and I've been knowingly fishing a low-percentage game...but I can imagine how frustrating 4 fishless days would have been for these two. Halfway through the trip, they both finally landed their first decent fish. I dropped my shot early in the morning but was more than happy enough to just be there for theirs.

And again
If he loses this fish...I'm going to cry

Between (and through) the periodic bouts of excitement as pods of fish moved up through the gauntlet, the infamous O.B. regaled us with tales of personal biology, civil war politics, angling experiences, and more personal biology. It was quite a day.

A fish worthy of a big smile.

Packing up Wednesday night and Thursday morning in the rain was quite troublesome. The rain really wasn't a problem when it came to packing. It was a problem when it came to convincing myself that giving up on these western fish, sleeping in, skipping a half-day on the river, and hauling everything directly to Altmar was the right choice. Sure, fishing out west had sucked...yeah, fishing is always good, and we caught some fish, but it just wasn't shaping up to what it should be this time of year...but it's almost entirely attributable to a need for rain...and finally it's raining.... No gamble thus far has paid off. Yes, there has been value in every one, but not as far as catching fish. Is the bigger gamble to stay or go? Dozens of possibilities just opened here...we won't see that kind of alternative back east for at least a couple days. The salmon will be crowded...but a Thursday should be better than the weekend. If we go we miss out on what could be here...if we don't we might not get open water to play with back there...agony agony agony....

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Salmon River Vindication

In the end...we took the right gamble.


November 25, 2009

'Do we have to get up extra early to milk the cows...?'

'B-mar gets to milk the bull.'

It's approaching 11 PM on a Friday night and we have been on the road for over 5 hours so far. We got off the highway 40 minutes ago and seem to be doing circles through hill and field as the glow of Buffalo repeatedly brightens and wanes in the distance. Texts between driving parties are getting progressively antagonistic.

'I think the GPS is lost'

'It's 55 here...not 25...'
'These dairy farms all look the same...'

'Wait...these dairy farms are all the same...'

'Nah...we good.'
And then I get the call...

"Yo...yeah, we're almost there...we're still about 15 minutes out...we're crossing the river just down the road, thought you might want to take a look...yeah, we're still above the dam, but only a couple miles...alright, see you in a few."

200' below it's pitch black, but a glistening surface tells me it has started. To the right, at the bridge rail, is a sign. I saw it, and it opened up my eyes.


Exactly 6 months. That's when it became official. On May 14, 2009, I obligated myself and 3 others for this trip. There would be no "I'll let you know if I can make it." It was more, "Clear your schedules, I'm doing this and you're coming with me whether you like it or not!"

The plan was to play loose and fast with the cards we were dealt. We would start on the Erie tribs and work our way back to Altmar. We would be prepared for any scenario and hit whichever water struck us as particularly inviting on any given day. Hundreds of eggs in various styles and dozens of swinging things were stashed in the back, along with 2 tying kits "just in case". Miles of tippet waited to be tied. My versileaders were all cut back to a more appropriate length. Backup rods were on standby. A small forest had been donated to provide us with topos and PFR maps. Keystone, Genny and Knobb Creek were there to supplement our caloric intake. 9 nights of lodging had been arranged.

There was only one problem.

As Brian's Grandma G. chatted us up and made sure our midnight stomachs had no room to spare, it began to set truly unprepared we were. I had never even seen a Lake Erie tributary. What was I thinking? We're going to come out here and do what exactly? I know the water is low...but what does that leave for best-bets? I know I want to avoid the crowds (always...always...), but where the hell am I going to find uncrowded water...with fish in it? Months of planning and still not a clue where to begin.

We "slept in" Saturday; no use fumbling around unexplored areas in the dark on 4 hours of sleep. Blueberry pancakes and sausages with a healthy side of coffee were waiting for us at 6:15. Can we kidnap Granny when we pull out Monday morning? After fueling and dressing we transferred enough gear to fit us all in the XTerra and solidified our "plan."

Construction, reconstruction, and lack thereof, confounded us throughout the day. After a couple wrong turns and dead ends, it took us 30 minutes to complete the 15 minute drive to the dam. The number of cars told us immediately we wouldn't be fishing here today, but it was worth a stroll to at least check things out before moving on. Some more closed roads and another 30 minutes later we were finally gearing up at a slightly less-crowded spot number two.

"So how the shit do I cast this thing?"

B-mar has never held a strung fly rod. B-mar does not enjoy fishing. B-mar is only here because the front end of his hunting portion of our trip fell apart. I get him adequately roll-casting an egg at the head of a small run before completely abandoning him. He's smart...he'll figure it out or quit early...gotta get my swing on and the 4 Toronto-ans are vacating the pool above. Friendly and free with info, they leave me cautiously hopeful. Hopeful because they got into unheard of (by me) numbers up by the dam yesterday, and have already hit a few today. Cautious because they are not swinging, I have never caught steel on the swing, and I have absolutely no confidence in my rudimentary attempts at spey-like flies.
2.6 ips 10' leader. 8 lb maxima ultragreen...3 feet. about purple and brown schlappen over a brown body.... How do I get that snap-T working for me again?

Two spinner-bobber fellas move into the tailout and hook a fish.

They're here. Don't get jealous, just step and swing. Step and swing. Boy...even 2.6 might be too much...better watch those boulders. Shit, hung up - NO, SET!

The battle doesn't last long. No blazing runs. No tailwalking. Once she came up over the lip into the shallows, the toughest part was chasing her through the rocks to get a grip on her. Joe came running up the shore to assist and man the camera, but she was on her way back to the hole before he was within 50'. In hindsight, I might have waited a couple seconds to get a better photo-op, but I hate causing undue stress to these jewels.

A perfect little specimen in the 20" class. Afterwards I could barely control the emotion. To be honest, much of it was relief. This is what we're after boys. Six months. 330 miles. Tens of hours on the 'net and ten times that behind the vise. Don't get me wrong, I was more than pumped. First swung steelhead...on my a new place...on a perfect day. But more than anything, I was grateful.

All this planning. All this prep. All this speculation. All this money. All this beard-trimming. All this denial of Miss Hannah's wishes. reap the rewards...

"Joe...I think I need a hug."

TBC...with more pics next time

November 23, 2009

A Taste...

...of what I see when I sleep...

November 13-22, 2009...a week that will live in infamy. More to come....