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Fishing Ohio's Steelhead Alley
In the past, I've had the opportunity to attend the annual Lake County Steelhead fish camp for Ohio outdoor writers, hosted by the Lake County Visitors Bureau. When I signed up for this adventure in January I wasn’t expecting winter to still have us in a wintry chokehold at the end of March. The temps this year were much warmer than the seven degrees we experienced our first morning of fishing that year.
These highly sought after fish are found in the world famous steelhead stronghold known as Steelhead Alley. Steelhead Alley runs along the south shore of Lake Erie from Vermillion, Ohio, through Pennsylvania and up into New York to Buffalo. Steelheads are stocked annually in Ohio’s five primary steelhead streams and rivers: Vermillion, Rocky, Chagrin, Grand River and Conneaut Creek. It is these five primary tributaries that makeup the main arteries of Ohio’s portion of Steelhead Alley. Other smaller Ohio streams and rivers that feed from Lake Erie also see runs of steelhead from fall to spring, but aren’t stocked like the main tributaries.
About 400,000 Little Manistee River strain yearling steelhead, are released each year into these five streams and rivers. All fish are raised at the Division of Wildlife’s Castalia State Fish Hatchery. While there is some natural reproduction in Ohio’s steelhead waterways, there isn’t enough to support the exceptional steelhead fishery anglers have come to expect and enjoy. The annual stocking and the fact that many anglers use catch and release help keep the steelhead populations fairly strong and stable. It’s not uncommon for anglers to land fish 25 inches long weighing five to six pounds, but bigger fish running 30 inches and ten-plus pounds are possible.
Once released, these young fish will eventually migrate out into Lake Erie where they will spend a couple summers feeding and growing in the cooler waters of the lake. After a couple of years in the lake, as fall arrives, they migrate back into the streams and rivers. As the water temperatures warm during spring, steelhead move into the riffles, and gravel runs upstream for spawning. Water temps between 50-55 find the fish very active and aggressive, colder waters and the fish become less active. In mid-April to mid-May when the stream temperature rises above 55 degrees, they move back downstream and out into Lake Erie.
From nymphs and noodle rods, spawn bags and spinners, bobbers and wooly buggers, to fly patterns and fluorocarbon, these are the tools of the trade when stalking the strong and illusive steelhead trout in Ohio’s streams and rivers. The two most common methods of fishing for steelhead are fly rods and spinning rods. Phil Hillman (Phil passed away from a massive heart attack last year), a fish biologist with Ohio’s Division of Wildlife was our guide and mentor for the day. He set us up with noodle rods, elongated spinning rods of about 7-12 feet in length. The longer the rod the more sensitive and more flexible they are. A 3-5 foot section of fluorocarbon leader (4-7 pound test) is tied to the end of the line. The light, clear fluorocarbon is invisible to steelhead. Polarized sunglasses and a ball cap are also a must. I had a wading stick to help keep my balance in and out of the water, and was glad I brought that.
For lures, or bait, we used spawn sacks hooked on the trout hook. Spawn sacks, or bags, are small mesh bags, about the size of a nickel or dime, filled with a half dozen or so salmon or trout eggs and tied closed. About a foot above the lure the line is rigged with a split shot, and then further up the line, adjusting for water depth is a light bobber. The split shot helps the lure stay in touch with the bottom where the fish are most often found.
The basic fishing technique we used was to cast up-stream into the current and let it drift downstream, keeping the rod tip up and following the bobber, and reeling the line in slowly so there wasn’t a lot of slack in the line. Keeping the slack out of the line means a much better chance of setting the hook when the strike comes. These fish are most often found in deeper holes and runs so that’s where we concentrated our attention.
Geared up and ready to go we hiked back to a section of the Grand River. We waded across the river against a strong current to get to the opposite bank. We hiked down the bank a ways and started to fish. Before too long I had a strike, set the hook, and reeled in my first steelhead, an exciting moment for sure. As the day went on we made the rounds, fishing several different areas of streams and rivers, catching a few more fish.
From Waders to Fine Wine
Needless to say, we were tuckered out when we arrived back at the fish camp cabin that evening, but it was a great feeling of tired. We were thrilled we had made it through the first day under less than ideal fishing conditions and we had learned a lot. We were soon whisked off to a lovely wine tasting at the Debonne’ Winery in Madison. Bob Ulas, Executive Director of the Lake County Visitors Bureau chauffeured us to the winery and filled us in on all the great things Lake County has to offer. My first day of fish camp went from frozen fingers and toes to fine wine sipped by a warm fireplace. What a pleasant way to end the day.
If fishing for steelhead trout is on your bucket list then Ohio’s Lake County is a great place to find the fish and a whole lot more.
The five primary steelhead streams and rivers in Ohio are the Conneaut Creek, Chagrin, Grand, Rocky, and the Vermilion. Maps of these rivers and public access points are available at www.dnr.state.oh.us
For more info on fishing for steelhead in Lake County, Ohio or visiting their many excellent parks, wineries, attractions and opportunities for outdoor recreation visit: http://www.lakevisit.com/visitors_bureau.html.
For more info on Lake County's natural areas, educational and recreational opportunities, golf courses, Lake Erie shoreline parks and much more visit: http://www.lakemetroparks.com/.
For more on my steelhead fishing trip visit: http://hazelfreeman.com/stalking-the-steelhead-trout/
For more of my travel and nature writing visit my blog and website at www.hazelfreeman.com
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