On an unseasonably, bitterly cold day more than 60 people huddled together to dedicate a 30-acre state public fishing access to the memory of Ohio’s “Mr. Steelhead.”
The new Conneaut Creek angler access site in Ashtabula County is named after Phil Hillman who served for more than 30 years with the Ohio Division of Wildlife before his untimely death last July at age 62.
Hillman was employed as the fish management supervisor for the agency’s District Three (Northeast Ohio) office in Akron. However, he is remembered as much for his passion regarding the Wildlife Division’s steelhead program as well as his dogged work in expanding angler access throughout Northeast Ohio.
Dedicated April 14th was the Phil Hillman South Ridge Road public fishing access site on a bluff bordering Conneaut Creek. This is the first time the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has ever named a public hunting or fishing area after one of its current or former employees.
On hand to commemorate the dedication was Hillman’s widow, Carolyn, and his three sons, Matt, Zach (who has applied to become an attendee for the Wildlife Division’s up-coming officer training academy), and Adam. Carolyn Hillman was accorded the honor of cutting the ceremonial ribbon to the new public fishing access site.
“I really don’t think Phil would have expected this, but I do know he would be humbled by it,” Carolyn said. “Our family is very much touched by this gesture.”
Adam Hillman humorously added that he often fished with his late father, sharing the opportunity to outrun any other angler they perceived as attempting to beat them to the choicest Conneaut Creek steelhead fishing holes.
“My dad loved what he did every day of his career; this is what he was born to do,” Adam said. “This dedication and this fishing access point being named after my dad means the world to me personally.”
Natural Resources Department Assistant Director Gary Obermiller said during the proceedings that the department “knows what Phil put into his work.”
“Maybe we would not have the steelhead program were it not for Phil,” Obermiller said. “Phil was the face of the program. This day gives us the opportunity to dedicate this site in Phil’s memory and to his family.”
Of course Phil Hillman was not the only Wildlife Division official who chipped in to assist with the state’s steelhead program. However, he was such an integral component that he and the project were joined at the hip, said Wildlife Division fisheries biologist Kevin Kayle.
Kayle, in fact, is the person officially in charge of the Wildlife Division’s steelhead program.
“We were ‘brothers in arms’ with the program for three decades,” Kayle said. “This site is a tribute to Phil and his efforts to create and enhance angler access along Conneaut Creek. And everywhere else, for that matter.”
Hillman’s former boss – District Three supervisor Peter Novotny – said it is a little known fact outside of the agency that the late fisheries biologist was the dogged advocate behind the state’s move to replace the stocking of the more erratically returning London-strain of trout with that of the more consistently returning Little Manistee strain of fish from Michigan.
“Phil’s enthusiasm inspired us all,” Novotny said. “I truly believe that Phil can never be replaced.”
Such an effervescent approach to helping shepherd the state’s steelhead program was due in no small measure to Hillman’s own driven angling pursuit of the species, several dedication attendees said.
“You could say that steelhead were Phil’s forth son, and I’m not sure which was his favorite,” Novotny said, a comment that elicited a good laugh from the dedication’s attendees.
Asked if Hillman was really that good of a steelhead angler, fellow trout fisher Les Ober of Geauga County’s Newbury Township responded with “oh, yeah.”
“When it came to steelhead fishing Phil was always on top of his game, which is why he won a whole bunch of tournaments,” Ober said. “He really knew what he was doing.”
The Phil Hillman South Ridge Road Fishing Access site is located south of Interstate 90 off Route 7, on South Ridge Road in Ashtabula County’s Conneaut City.