For the second consecutive year, our #1 slot goes to steelhead. Normally, my August trip out west would have been the runaway winner, but what I experienced over the course of two days in December in Ohio and Pennsylvania was nothing short of extraordinary. Let me tell you about it…
Saturday, December 17: Conneaut Creek, OH. This trip was years in the making. I’d originally booked a trip to Steelhead Alley with guide Bob Packey (you can find Bob at Solitude Steelhead Guide Service LLC) for a fall trip, but we got flooded out. We rescheduled for last spring, but when the date all the fish had returned to the lake. That left us with a long wait for mid-December 2022. But oh, my goodness, what a worthy wait.
My plan was to drive out to Wooster, OH, on Friday the 16th to pick up #2 Son Cam from college. What should have been a nine-hour drive turned into well over ten, thanks to a snow squall in the Poconos. By the time we had dinner and reached our lodging in PA, it was pushing 11pm.
Conneaut Creek reminded me of the Sandy Creeks north of NY’s Salmon River. A medium-sized creek, shale bottom, water with a peculiar greenish-brown tint, and fish that hold in its deeper pockets and runs. Cam, who could hardly be called a fly fisher — his only serious big river foray in the last decade was this summer in CO — was into three steelhead before I even had my rod set up. Such is the teaching acumen of Mr. Packey, who knew the water by rote and had Cam casting and presenting functionally in minutes. I was using Bob’s leader system with one of my yellow yarn indicators, which was a good choice for me since I had great difficulty seeing Cam’s indicator. (I learned and relearned many lessons on this trip, and the first was: always fish the way you are most comfortable/have the most confidence in.) I dropped my first hookup, but before long I was putting my first Erie trib fish in the hoop.
Now, before I continue, the reader must understand that it took me 40 hours of fishing time to land my first steelhead. It then took me over a decade to land 99 more. This will make what I am about to tell you seem positively magical.
Sunday, December 18, Elk Creek, PA. Bob had warned us that the water in Elk Creek was painfully low and clear. This would would make sight fishing easy; the tradeoff would be that the fish might be uber spooky, and their instinct for self-preservation could overpower any primal urge to strike. The weather had turned decidedly colder; air temperature in the 20s, buffeting wind gusts, lake effect snow squalls. We spent the entire day picking ice out of our guides.
The section of Elk Creek we fished is a hydrological wonderland. There are long sections that are literally only inches deep, and long glassy, glides that race over slippery, table-like pitches of shale. The bottom in other sections is a hodgepodge of skipping stones. Sprinkled throughout are small pockets only one or two feet deep; virtually all of them hold fish. Then there are deeper pools, veritable steelhead hotels with room for a hundred or more. Add in the clarity of the water and it’s an aquarium effect on steroids.
It was in the midst of this steelhead fantasyland that I decided to have one of my worst mornings, technique-wise, of my fly fishing career. Shoddy hook sets, late hook sets, hook sets in the wrong direction — it was embarrassing enough that I made Bob promise not to tell anyone. I wasn’t happy with my casting or my presentations, either. But sometimes you can do everything wrong and still land steelhead. Happily, it was that kind of day. I’m pleased to say that eventually, I got it together, and at one point it almost seemed like the steelhead were being delivered to my feet via conveyor belt. Figuring it all out put me in an even better mood, and I didn’t want to leave this paradise.