A fish camp is no more about fish than a deer camp is about deer.
Oh, sure, the thrill of the kill or the hard tug on the line is each satisfying enough in their own right. And if you initially ask an angler why he’s headed to a fish or a deer hunter to a deer camp you can pretty much expect to hear the person say: “to catch a trophy trout” or to shoot a “Boone and Crockett buck.”
Don’t believe that person, however. They’re lying, just what you should come to expect from a person wearing a stinky, dried-fish-slimed fishing vest or a blood- and mud-stained blaze orange hunting vest.
They come (WE come) for a host of reasons other than claiming dibs on a trophy deer or steelhead. Oh, those are vital things to wrap your brag around to be sure; squeezing the trigger or setting the hook just isn’t the principal objective anymore.
I use principle in a limiting fashion, of course. The arresting function is age. Tack on some years plus a few inches of girth and one’s perspective on fish camp expands right along with them.
The reverse is if you’re a young buck or even a doe. Then the biggest fish and the handsomest set of antlers take on substantially greater importance. It is the time in a wet-behind-the-ears person has yet to experience the blood lust draining from his or her body.
This entire preamble further demonstrates that fish camp (like deer camp) is best savored after some well-done aging when old folks tend to get a might wordy.
Well, then, on to the annual Lake County Steelhead Fish Camp; always held the last week in March, always utilizing Lake Metroparks’ Resource Cabin in Madison Township as the base of operations and always hosted by the Lake County Visitors Bureau.
This year’s fish camp once again featured some grizzled old goats that’ve done their time on more than one occasion over the event’s approximately 25 years of existence. (A fish camp is best remembered when the actual number of meetings cannot be recalled with a full measure of either accuracy of truth).
Paul Liikala of Cuyhaoga Falls, Steve Pollick of Freemont, Phil Hillman of Akron, and me of here were this year’s age-struck veterans. We were joined by newbies Hazel Freeman of Monroe County, Heather Bokman of Columbus, and James Proffitt.
We are all outdoor writers, which is (more or less) a requirement for inclusion in the Lake County Steelhead Fish Camp. Not always with an exception here and there just to mix things up a little.
Anyway, there are few steelhead in Monroe County and I can vouch that Proffitt was all too honest when he said he had not seen any swimming around Port Clinton Harbor, either.
Like Hillman, Bokman works for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife. There she slaves as the agency’s electronic editor, if I am to understand her title and mentioning correctly. That means I gather that Bokman ensures that stories and such written and prepared by the Wildlife Division get properly certified for entrance onto the Information Super Highway, or whatever it is called today.
Bokman’s boss said she doesn’t get cut loose from her Columbus cubicle very often and consequently some moss has begun to grow on her office shingle.
I promised Bokman’s supervisor we’d take care of that deficit right quickly and match her with Hillman and Freeman.
Meanwhile Proffitt and Pollick would tag along with Liikala, the latter pair being two parts of what has become known as the Three-Part Three Amigos, the final leg having had to cancel his fish camp participation for some honest important family business.
Dang, sorry about this entire rambling but I do find myself going on more with each the coming and going of each fish camp.
Without belaboring the point overly much we all know what a seriously hard winter Northeast Ohio has endured,; how it’s kept the creeks and rivers frozen, wrecked in large measure the runs of steelhead and made angling when possible all but impossible.
So the initial plans of the fish camp’s participants were shut down, the “closed” signage installed by air temperatures in the low teens that refroze the various streams. With one grand exception; that being the Grand River, a water course with enough grit and distemper to tell the cold to go and take a hike.
With both parties situated along the Grand River in Lake County – one group set up at the Uniroyal Hole and the other downstream near the Pipe Bridge Hole – the game was in play to catch trout.
Shunned was the use of fly rods and hand-tied morsels of feather, fur and thread. Instead both fish camp components used steelhead rods fitted with spinning reels. This is serious steelhead-fishing gear with the ability to launch a float, three or four split shot and a trout-egg packet called a spawn sack far enough out into the current where the trout lie.
Helping the efforts of Liikala, Pollick and Proffitt was Mentor’s Bob Ashley. Ashley has the intuitive instinct of a true steelhead predator and assisted the others by example more than by anything else, too.
The wind was brisk enough, all the fish camp participants said, though clear skies helped by allowing the sun’s rays to feed the air and warm the anglers.
Please remember what we spoke on earlier, however. The part where fish camp attendees can be counted on to exaggerate and embellish their exploits.
In this case, though, they told the truth. The trout did bite, the cold was forgotten, complaints of being uncomfortable were cached in the mental round file, and any concerns about wasting time were lost.
It was not a slaughter by any means with all the writers except for Bokman fair hooking two trout each. Meanwhile, both Ashley and Hillman fared better; one and then the other reeling in a photo-worthy trophy .
Even so, Bokman didn’t chime in with some limp, whiny complaint that it was Hillman’s fault, the river’ fault, the cold weather’s fault or the fish camp’s fault. Nope, Bokman said she had opportunities; she just didn’t squeeze the trigger fast enough.
Okay, so Bokman did the honorable thing and admitted that whatever went wrong rested on her shoulders. She’ll do better at the next Lake County Steelhead Fish Camp, I told her.
The only thing Heather Bokman will have to work on is this honesty thing. If a “slightly” embroidered fishing tale is good enough for elders Liikala, Pollick, Hillman, Ashley, me and is now acceptable for Freeman and Proffitt then, by George, it will have pass muster by the steelheading fledgling Bokman as well.
And as for me, well, I'm always the last one to leave and close up the cabin, of course. I wait until everyone is gone and the cabin is empty.
Then I take a slow tour of the place, checking cupboards, inspecting closets, making sure the rheostat is turned down to 55 degrees or so, ensuring the lights are out, that sort of thing.
I’ll troll through the living room and look around: Mostly I just listen.
I swear, I can hear the voices from all those long-ago fish camps with all those long-ago invitees, some of whom were one-shot deals and others who are now dead while still others came as guides and whose names I no longer can recollect...
And once I remember vividly asking Bev to bring a very young Labrador puppy I had just bought in order to show her off one evening, watching her use that very same rug Pollick had vacuumed, a puppyish Jenny Lynn leaving a bit of a small puddle of pee stain behind.
Jenny Lynn was 13 when she died and she's been gone for three-plus years so that sort of gives you an idea of how large is my memory chest of fish camp stories.
Yep, I HEAR those ghosts whenever the wooden floor squeaks, the fire crackles and the wind taps the shingles.
I see the ghosts, too, in the flickering light of that same fire, in the shadows when I tuck in a look to be certain nothing was left behind and looking out at me as I walk down the concrete path to the parking lot.
Believe me when I say, the Lake County Steelhead Fish Camp is no work at all. It's all about family and stocking the memory chest with another trip-worth of ghost stories.
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn