Steelhead, or at least the steelhead I knew while in Washington state, are to those who target them as the mysterious muskellunge is to the muskie hunter. Fickle, moody, unpredictable and definitely not a species prone to playing fair, steelhead often verge on impossible – first to convince to strike, and then to successfully land. It’s no secret these big-water rainbow trout bruise and batter tackle and egos alike, with no thought as to the man behind the reel.
So it came as somewhat of a surprise when, a couple years back, my father, Mick, called to announce he was going steelhead fishing. Now don’t get me wrong; Pop’s an excellent fisherman. It’s only that his expertise, so to speak, lies in Spring crappie and warm-water channel ‘cats taken from the lakes around his home in northeastern Ohio.
“Since when did you take an interest in metal-heads,” I asked the Old Man quizzically.
“Well, it’s like this, Jake,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Now that I’m retired, I’ve got the time. Squirrel season closes the end of January,” he continued, “and I don’t have a damn thing to do until turkey and crappies, mid-April. Tim, a buddy of mine, has been going up to Ashtabula and doing pretty well. Oh, and if I don’t do something, your Mother will find something for me to do.”
The truth was out. My father had become a steelheader due both to the outdoorsman’s down-time known as The Off-Season, and, for lack of a better phrase, the infamous Honey-Do List. Regardless his reasons, the Old Man, it seems, has caught the steelhead fever, and nary a week passes when he doesn’t point the truck northward to the town of Ashtabula and a rendezvous – or at the very least, a chance meeting – with one of the hardest-fighting freshwater fish on the planet, the steelhead.
To their credit, the Ohio Division of Wildlife in Columbus has done a tremendous job with the steelhead since stocking programs kicked off in the mid 1980s. Technically a rainbow trout, young steelhead (smolts) are stocked in several tributary streams to Lake Erie along the northern Ohio coastline, including such rivers as the Vermilion, Rocky, Grand, Cuyahoga, and the aforementioned Ashtabula. These Little Manistee River (Michigan)-strain fish move downstream from their stocking point into Lake Erie proper, where they feed and grow over a period of perhaps as long as seven to eight years. Each Fall, these trout-turned-steelhead return to the stream in which they were stocked, and at points along the way, hopeful anglers gather to intercept them.
Come Spring, the survivors turn and return to Erie, where they provide an exciting summer deep-water angling opportunity. Ohio’s steelhead fishery runs from September through May; however, some of the best fishing occurs from mid-October to early April – or, according to my father, just before turkey season begins and the northern Ohio crappies head to the spawning beds.
The Ashtabula River
From his home in Trumbull County, Pop puts his pickup on Highway 11 and heads north and right into the heart of Ashtabula. Throughout March and into April, he’ll fish from any of six or eight riverine access points in the metropolitan area.
“During the week,” he told me, “it’s not crowded, and we like it that way. The weekends can be a different story, but there’s usually plenty of elbow room. It’s not,” he continued, “like the Maumee River walleye run in the Spring, what with guys standing shoulder to shoulder.”
Buckeye State weather can be as fickle as the steelhead that swim her waters in late Winter and early Spring. Rains, run-off and snowmelt often combine to raise river levels to the point of making them unfishable, a frustrating turn of events often referred to as the river being blown-out. Still, high waters, like Spring showers, can indeed bring good tidings.
“High, muddy water,” Pop said, “makes fishing tough, if not impossible. Fish do ride these higher levels up into the rivers, though; but you generally find yourself waiting three, four, five days, or until the water clears, before you start doing any good. The same is true about the time of day. I’ve found that first light or just after can be best, as fish that held up at dark will begin to move up or down. I just haven’t had much luck mid-day, though some guys swear on evenings.”
The Gear ‘n The Goods
An Old School fisherman, the Old Man opts for what can best be described as non-technical fishing gear when he hits the Ashtabula for March steelhead.
“I like a medium action 8- to 9-foot spinning rod fitted with a good reel,” he said. “A quality drag is very important, as these fish often don’t know the meaning of the word ‘quit.’ As for line, I’m spooled with No. 10 Strenmonofilament. If the water’s exceptionally clear, I may go to No. 8 and a low-vis fluorocarbon leader.”
Steelhead anglers are notoriously complicated when talk turns ‘round to terminal tackle; that is, baits and lures and scents and such. However, and in keeping with his elemental techniques, Pop’s presentation on the Ashtabula is likewise simplistic.
“Under a weighted bobber about the size of a small hen’s egg, my go-to lure is a streamer-style jig called a Mini-Foo Jig (Weldon Tackle Company, Brunswick, OH; 330-225-3250; weldontackle.com) tipped with maggots. And it has to be maggots,” he stressed. “I’ve had no luck with mealworms. Some guys do; I don’t.”
Although the Old Man says a slip-bobber would work just fine for his style of fishing, he relies on a weighted float pegged about two to two and one-half feet about his bait.
“I start at that depth,” he said, “and then experiment. Same with jig colors, although green/black and silver/black have both been awfully good to me.”
Contrary to many of the steelhead I encountered in The Pacific Northwest, the Ashtabula River, at least to my Old Man, presents a user-friendly fishery.
“We cast upstream,” he said, “and let the float ride the current down. They dredged the spot we fish a while back, so now it’s a case of trial and error when it comes to finding the slots and the better holes. One thing I have noticed is that the local anglers tend to be very helpful with newcomers. Many a time I’ve talked to folks who are catching fish, and they’ve been more than helpful as to lure selection, color, technique, bobber depth – details like that. For someone new to the fishery, I suggest taking a drive up to the river and talk to the folks.”
Just in case you’re wondering, the Old Man hasn’t given up his crappie rod nor his tight-choked 20-gauge turkey gun; no, sir. But, he’ll be the first to tell you that there’s nothing quite like a chrome-bright March steelhead straight from the Ashtabula River to make you forget all about that Honey-Do List. Or at least until someonereminds you.