Some of Northeast Ohio’s top steelhead anglers are being given the cold shoulder by their target during this first portion of the trout-fishing season.
From Conneaut Creek to the Vermilion River, where once steelheaders would need every finger and thumb to count the number of hook-ups with fish, now many anglers hardly need to use one digit.
Or in more than a few instances, none.
As a result, many to most area steelheaders are hard-rock mining for very few fish.
Among the steelheaders who says that angling has proven itself tough this year is noted fishing guide, instructor and lecturer, Jerry Darkes.
Darkes is also an official with the Ohio Central Basin Steelheaders, one of Northeast Ohio’s spear point groups in promoting ethical angling and good steelhead fisheries management.
“It’s been tough,” Darkes says.
Maybe that is an understatement as a number of the Central Basin group’s members-only fishing contests have yielded miserly catches. In one contest, some Central Basin members didn’t even catch a single fish, Darkes said.
“Yeah, things have been out of whack some,” Darkes said.
As a result, says Darkes, if an angler can achieve five or six hook-ups a day on steelhead “you’re doing well.”
“But when you’re down to one or two or even none, that’s not good,” Darkes says. “The fishing just doesn’t seem to be very consistent.”
Darkes says he is aware of some river fishing guides who have gone so far as to cancel steelhead angling trips.
“When you know you’re going to take someone out and not catch a fish it’s hard to feel good about taking a client’s money,” Darkes says.
Asked what area stream has proven itself to be the most consistent steelhead fisheries thus far Darkes didn’t hesitate: Conneaut Creek.
And that distinction - though everything must remain relative - is due in some measure to Conneaut Creek’s proximity to Pennsylvania, Darkes says.
“Those fish are more summer/fall-run fish, and typically Conneaut Creek sees the earliest and longest runs of steelhead,” Darkes says.
The biggest surprise, though, has been the lack of good angling in the upper reaches of the Grand
River, say from Lake Metroparks’ Hogback Ridge Park in Madison Township up to Ashtabula County’s Harpersfield dam.
“I think that may be due to the impact of Hurricane Sandy and there just hasn’t been anything to bring the fish back that far upstream,” Darkes says.
On explaining the effects that Hurricane Sandy’s remnants has had on the steelhead fisheries in general and that of the Grand River in particular, Darkes opined that this long-lived storm system created all sorts of flooding in late October.
Consequently, the various rivers’ flood-raised waters may have actually pushed more fish out of the systems than they brought in, Darkes says.
Still, Darkes says that steelhead anglers must take heart, be patient and hope for more consistent rains that will produce better stream flows.
Then too, the majority of fish Ohio steelheaders encounter are winter and spring-run fish so it’s a long stretch before the entire season can be called a bust, also says Darkes.
“And we’ve gone through this before,” he said.
Also saying that the weather has been this season’s tipping point is Joe Moravec, president of the Central Basin Steelheaders.
Like Darkes, Moravec believes that Hurricane Sandy muddled the steelheading.
“I’m not disagreeing that the fishing has been poor but we did have Hurricane Sandy come through and I believe that affected the steelheading,” said Moravec. “That’s when the mud line went clear to the Canadian line and that changed the way the season was progressing.”
However, there are some long-time, hard-core steelheaders who say playing the weather card is a poor excuse.
“Last year was bad but this year it’s even worse,” said Bob Ashley of Mentor. “No way has it been just the weather.”
Ashley typically fishes for steelhead as often in a single month as many other dedicated anglers do all season.
His focus has been on the lower reaches of both the Grand and Chagrin rivers where low water generally is not an issue. Yet even here the trout have been few and far between, says Ashley.
Ashley said his luck to date is certainly not for a lack of trying.
“I’ve fished for six straight days without a hit,” Ashley said, the frustration in his voice noticeable increasing in tempo. “I can’t even catch them by trolling and I’ve used everything else, too; spawn, jigs with maggots, everything but flies.”
What Ashley - and some other anglers - want is for the state to abandon its all-or-nothing steelhead management strategy of stocking only Michigan-supplied Little Manistee-strain trout.
“They shouldn’t be placing all of their eggs in one basket,” Ashley says. “Why not a half-and-half stocking of both summer/fall- and winter/spring-run steelhead.
"This is like it was when the program started where you were lucky to catch one or two fish for the day.”
Phil Hillman, the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s fish management administrator for the agency’s District Three (Northeast Ohio) office in Akron, says he is likewise experiencing lackluster steelheading.
Hillman said he did okay the Sunday before Thanksgiving but that everything “went downhill from there.”
“I was surprised when we fished the Grand River,” Hillman said. “I talked with 12 guys who fished the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and none of them had caught anything. It was pretty rough.”
Hillman also uses Hurricane Sandy as the most likely culprit for the post-Thanksgiving dry spell.
point may simply have been the fact that in 2011 the Wildlife Division was able to stock only 265,469 steelhead instead of the usual 400,000 fish, Hillman says as well.
“We didn’t get any eggs from Michigan at all, just fingerlings, which we raised to 6 to 9 inches before releasing them,” Hillman said. “So we had far fewer fish to release and which would have been 25-inch fish this fall.”
Of possible cause also is an exceptional number of sea lampreys thriving in Lake Erie. This parasitic invasive specie feasts on fish.
A single sea lamprey can kill between 40 to 50 pounds of fish while living in the lake before they return to a stream to spawn and die, Hillman said.
All that being said, though, a lack of water flow alone during portions of this fall cannot be used as an exclusive reason for the poor fishing.
In more than few instances this autumn the stream levels were more than adequate to support good migration condition for the steelhead, Hillman says.
Even so, Hillman says, it’s not over until it’s over with a lot of daylight on the calendar between now and the end of next spring.
“We could still rebound,” he said.
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn