If the steelhead rivers of the west coast are the standard bearers of wild, majestic, impeccable, and spectacular, the streams of the Lake Erie shore of Pennsylvania are, necessarily, almost none of those things. Those creeks are short and brutish, surrounded on nearly all sides by people and the places they’ve built and crisscrossed repeatedly by railroads and highways, despite often being less than 10 miles long. Lake Erie’s steelhead tributaries are aging, broken nosed Irish boxers; short, squat and mean. They do not tumble, they lazily relax, often at a trickle, to their final destination, the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world. There is no mistaking Walnut Creek for the Skeena.
Funny thing, though: the fish have no fucking idea that they aren’t swimming up the riverine equivalent of Marilyn Monroe’s vagina. Hook a steelhead in an Erie tributary - in off color, high flows, especially - and that fish is not going to just give up and wriggle right into your hand, he is going to go wherever the hell he wants, just as if he was born in some British Columbian heaven and grew up in the Pacific Ocean. The river isn’t 200 yards wide and 40 feet deep, a la the Deschutes? Fuck it, says Mr. Steelhead, I’ll just go back and forth and up and down ten times instead of all the way across once. Haven’t you heard? I’m a goddamn steelhead. I don’t respond well to authority.
That is what happened to me this year, on Elk Creek, in Erie, PA.
It took a lot out of me.
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The core group of people that I travel with each year to Erie, PA in the first weekend of November is comprised of five people: Jimbo, Jason, Richie, Isaac and myself. There have been others, including Scott, a new member of the crew this year. We haven’t fished for Erie steelhead all that long, really, and Isaac is the only one who makes more than one annual trip to the tributaries of the Great Lakes, but over the course of 6 years’ worth of 3 day trips, we’ve learned a thing or two.
At the risk of sounding like a grizzled curmudgeon, I can now say, for example, that the fishing isn’t like it used to be. The Erie tributaries have always been a shining example of combat fishing. That is truer now than ever before, but that isn’t due to more fishermen – it’s due to less fish. The first several seasons that I fished in Erie (’07-’09), a man could walk for miles and never be out of sight of not just a fish, but many, many fish. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that little side pockets would be holding a dozen fish, and nobody would be trying to catch them.
When happening upon one of these giant piles of giant fish, I would often look around and over my shoulder, as if to ensure that I wasn’t doing something wrong or illegal. How could this be? I would wonder. Why is nobody trying to catch these fish?
Things have changed. Large pools that were once stacked end to end with fresh fish now seemingly hold no more than a dozen on the best of days. Pockets and side channels are largely devoid of fish. Sight fishing is still possible, but those opportunities are generally elbow to asshole. If you want to catch fish in the Erie tributaries these days, you have two choices: submit to combat fishing or muster up enough faith to fish less likely water. (In fairness, there are other options: fish higher flows – plenty of solitude, but very, very challenging fishing and a fourth option is to have the flexibility to fish when conditions dictate. I, however, have two kids, a job, a mortgage and blah blah blah. Flexible, I am not.)
The 2012 Iteration of the Annual Meetinge ofAnglinge Excellence began somewhat auspiciously. Record flooding at Folly’s End Campground forced the relocation of a set of mid-week tent campers into the site that we had used (and reserved) for several years now. It’s a spacious tent site, stuck back up in the woods, away from the rest of the campground. Semi-privacy is the sort of thing that dirty drunks like us look for and that site is the definitive center piece of our annual experience. Upon arrival, I couldn’t help but notice that the site was occupied by a whole bunch of tents and vehicles that didn’t belong to us.
I marched in to give the proprietor of Folly’s End some what-for, but he defused me very quickly by explaining, apologizing, and acknowledging our faith as customers. He also gave us a discount to the tune of about 40%. Given how cheap tent sites are in the first place, that was a hell of a gesture. The tent site we got instead was ok, if a little cramped, but we pushed our chins up and acted like Men; which is to say, we drank beer while trying to get our heads around the high, dirty conditions of Elk Creek. “It’ll drop,” I said. “By tomorrow it’ll be a crystal clear trickle.”
Jason and Jimbo beat us there and for his part, Jason appeared to be about half in the bag vis a vis a bottle of some kind of fruity vodka. I gathered Jason’s second marriage is going about as well as the first one. We set up camp, got changed, and decided to give it a go. I like swinging flies in high water – I do it for regular old mountain trout all the time – so I rigged up with some kind of feathery streamer and started doing the old “across and down and swing and strip and take two steps up and repeat” routine. I went on like this for a while, sometimes taking more than two steps (sometimes walking many hundreds of yards, in fact), but pretty much always casting and swinging.
I didn’t catch any fish. I didn’t see any fish, either. The solitude, however, was wonderful. I didn’t even see the people I had arrived there with, let alone any strangers. It was nearly dark when I got back to camp, though since I stayed closest I was the first one there. Isaac trickled in not long after, as did the others. I went into camp chef mode and Isaac started building up the fire. It was cold, but the larder was full. We survived.
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I set an alarm for the next morning and actually managed to have coffee made a solid hour before the sun came up. Scott, who, after hearing horror stories about Richie’s snoring (I have obsessively stuffed ear plugs into every bag, box and pocket of anything I might be taking camping so that I am never without) had set up a tent separate from the main tent, woke up bright and early as well. We both shat, ate, drank coffee and suited up before anyone else even stirred from the tent. We chatted as we walked upstream from camp and I gave him a little rudimentary advice on how to go about trying to catch these fish. We separated and I didn’t see him again for several hours.
The water wasn’t especially high (Lake Erie tributaries go up and down very quickly), but still very off color. I had no idea if the high water had stimulated a metric-ton of fresh fish move upstream to this point, but I believed that it must have, so I started fishing all of the good looking water that I passed. I stuck to the standard Erie-high-water-tactics manual, meaning I fished something big and noticeable with a single egg trailer and enough weight that a mis-timed cast stroke would have resulted in a fractured skull.
I’ll spare you the details, largely because there aren’t any. I fished thoroughly. I switched flies and tactics. I covered all kinds of different water. I sat back at times and just watched, looking for fish to target. I ate some jerky and some trail mix. When I caught up with Isaac, Rich, Jimbo and Jason, we talked shop. Isaac actually caught a fish at one point. This was encouraging! I kept on upstream, I fished some beautiful water. I had the river mostly to myself. I didn’t feel so much as the slightest tug on the end of my line.
We re-convened at camp at around 2 pm. We huddled around the picnic table, staring at the ground or into our beer cans. It was cloudy and cold.
We drove downstream with the idea that maybe there would be more fish closer to the mouth. Why we didn’t drive to another, smaller stream that was probably clearer and almost definitely closer to ideal flow, I have no idea. There was probably a reason.
We parked at an American Legion hall that kindly volunteers it's property as a fishing access point. Jason, who had received a number of apparently agitated calls and messages from his wife, had to hit the road, so we said our goodbyes and took a group photo. He repeatedly invited us to stop and have a bite to eat at his place on our way home. “I’ll have my wife make something. I can call her right now.”
I started fishing what appeared to be a very deep trough with a tumbling riffle above it. I casted upstream into the beefy water and let the fly find it's way into the yawning depths. Amazingly, some 9 hours into the day, a fish decided to eat my fly. I felt a stop and a thump, lifted my rod and brought a small, fresh looking steelhead to the surface. I only had it hooked for a second, and when it got off, I swore loudly in the general direction of the sky and, shaking my head, casted back upstream and repeated the whole thing again.
This time, when the fly stopped with a gentle thump and I raised my rod tip, no fish appeared at the surface. In fact, there was hardly any further movement in the deep – just enough for me to say loudly and confidently in the direction of the others “Fish!” The fish, however, did not budge. I gave it a little pressure. Nothing.
And then, almost lazily, as if it just remembered that it had an errand to run, the fish moved upstream a few feet. I tightened the line a bit. The fish responded by moving a few feet more, faster this time. I maintained and began to check the lay of the land around me for likely problems when the fish turned and raced downstream and most of the way across the river, paying little heed to me or tackle. In the span of roughly one and a half seconds, the fish put 30 yards of churning, brown water between itself and me. “This is not good,” I said to nobody in particular.
“No shit,” said a sparrow, as it settled on a nearby branch to observe.
I ran downstream, somewhat gingerly as I had to stay on the cobble laden stream bank, having no idea what was beneath the dirty water at the river’s edge, and started the arduous give and take dance with the fish. “Careful, careful,” said the bird. I reeled it back to my side of the river, maintaining pressure, several times and each time it ran back across. Around the fourth time the fish and I engaged in this little foxtrot, the fish gave a little show and jumped twice, shaking it’s massive body in the air. The sparrow, apparently finding the whole situation entertaining chuckled to itself. “Siiiiiide pressure,” he mockingly cooed through his laughter. I did my best to ignore the persistent interjections, but laid my line down closer to the water nonetheless. It was clear that this fish was big and I could sense his unhappiness.
I coaxed it back across the river again and suddenly the line went limp. I reacted with a swear word and fell on my back. The sparrow yelled - “You fool! That's the oldest trick in the book! Reel, you idiot, REEL!” so I jumped up and started reeling again – Still there! Unreal! He had made a short run at me and put slack in the line, but I had him again – I have him.
So we continued, another run across, weaker this time. Again I brought him back. I saw from the corner of my eye, the sparrow shaking his head, mouth slightly agape. The fish was right there, I could all but kick him but I couldn't see him through the dirty water. He had no shape, just a V wake from my leader, cutting through the foamy flow. He turned violently out from the bank again and without ceremony, my line went limp.
I stood there a moment, watching the water. The sparrow, fresh out of advice, twittered for a moment and flew off. I looked at the ground and then at the water, took a deep breath and reeled in my line. The fish was gone. The fly was there and intact, the hook still sharp to the touch. He had popped off, simple as that. Words were exchanged, but the wind blew them away. I felt hungry.
It was getting late, but I figured I had found the magic fly so I kept going upstream. I crossed the insane current and fished all the good water I could reach and some that I couldn't. My wading got a little reckless. The current tore the split shot from my leader several times.
I know from experience that there was an excellent pool a few hundred yards upstream, well within pre-dark striking distance, so I walked, fishing the odd pocket. As I rounded a gentle turn in the stream I came, rather abruptly, upon a large steel cable draped across the river with a home-made sign attached in the center, right over a gravel bar. “No Trespassing and No Fishing,” it said. Just a few years ago I had fished a mile or more beyond this point. I could see the pool, no more than 50 yards distant.
Whatever energy I was running on was finally snuffed. I had done what I could and even succeeded on some level, but this was enough. I wanted to sit down and collect myself and have a cigarette, maybe make some small talk, but I didn't have any smokes and nobody was around. I reeled in, checked my laces and walked downstream.
It was near-dark by the time I reached the last stream crossing, opposite the parking area. Most of the old guys still stood staunchly in the river, casting, drifting and retrieving sacks of steelhead eggs. It was difficult to tell, in the fading light, whether these men were stoic or cranky. I idly wondered if their feet hurt less than mine or if standing still and trying to catch an Erie steelhead was just as exhausting as trying to catch an Erie steelhead by hiking all day. I crossed and clambered up the bank towards the vehicles and my friends.