Friday, January 22, 2010

On the River: Ashtabula River, Ashtabula, Ohio

November 23, 2009

Michelle and I flew home, to Ohio, for Thanksgiving and the natural thing to do is figure out how to get to a steelhead river. I mean, let's be honest folks, I'm a thankful guy, but I'm a lot more thankful for everything when I've got an 8 lb. steelhead on the end of my line!

So we headed up to the Ashtabula River the morning of the 23 of November. Pretty much every time I go home for the Holidays I try to hit up the steelhead run, and every time the conditions are kind of crap. Last year the Holiday was Christmas. We showed up just at the end of a rain cycle, which meant the rivers were blown out, but the day before we went fishing a cold snap moved in overnight. It was so cold that the water was actually below freezing and the friction was the only thing keeping the water from being frozen solid. How do I know this? Because after 20 drifts our flies were a solid nugget of ice (even the hook point was buried in ice) so we would have to suck on the flies until the melted then start casting again.

I say all that to give you an idea of my steelhead experiences, but I'll get back to my story now.

This year was quite the opposite, it was an unusually warm Thanksgiving and there hadn't been rain for about 3 weeks, so the rivers were low and gin clear. Unfortunately, for steelheading, that presents a new set of problems. To start, not many fish had run up the river yet as they usually wait for higher flows to come out of the lake en-masse. Then, the gin clear, low water, made for some very skittish fish when we did find them.

However, I still can't help but smile when I think of the whole day! The warm, overcast skies made this Colorado boy giddy with excitement. I fished the day in my down jacket, but could have easily been in just a hoodie. And then there was the wind ... or lack thereof. You don't realize that Colorado is windy ALL THE TIME until you go somewhere that is not. Most of the time as a Colorado resident you think, "wow, it's a really calm day" when all that really means is "the wind is light, as opposed to gale forces". Out East it is not that way. You can actually have days that are DEAD CALM. It's a beautiful thing, being able to cast at a target without having to calculate what the wind is going to do to you.

The Ashtabula is not a big river, and with the low flows most of the day we were fishing in less than 3 feet of water. Our plan was to foul hook AS FEW of the monsters as possible so most of the time we fished some very light line tactics. It really was like sight nymphing on a spring creek, except that every fish could eat your leg if they wanted to. Most of the day I fished a #16 tungsten pheasant tail, or a glow bug with one micro split-shot. To fish any sort of a tandem rig in that slow water would have been asking to get hung up on the bottom, or snag a 10 lb. steelhead in the dorsal fin on every drift ... not something you want to do.

We arrived at the river and within 15 minutes found a healthy, but skittish, pod of about 10 fish. I gave Michelle first crack at it and she hooked up with a solid 24" fish within 30 minutes. After about a 10 minute battle the solid rainbow made some fast movements and spit the hook. Michelle cried ... I laughed ... it was definitely the first time she had felt the sheer power of a 5 lb. steelhead.

Michelle, putting her back into it.

She handed the rod over to me and I started targeting some big dogs at the head of the pool. After 40 minutes of casting I finally hooked up with a fish that was sure to be 15 lbs.+ but had similar results as Michelle, a couple of powerful runs and the fly pulled out.

After that we ran dry for a while as the low numbers of fish in the rivers made finding pods few and far between. We traveled downstream for a bit and found a pod of 3 fish. After 20 minutes of persistence the alpha fish swung hard and CRUSHED my pheasant tail. After 15 minutes with a 5 wt and 6x tippet I was holding a hefty, good looking steelhead. Please, don't ever let them tell you that you can't put the pressure on a big fish with a light rod and tippet! Jay and I are huge fans of soft action light line rods and are confident that monster fish don't have to be played to death. In fact most of the time I feel a light rod will help protect your tippet better and allow you to fight a fish more effectively. I have a good deal of experience to prove my theories too.

Thanksgiving indeed!

The rest of the day was spent moving from pod to pod, making casts at each one for an hour or so. Michelle had a couple of great opportunities, and briefly had a few other fish on, but never did land one.

She'll be back another day ...



  1. Awesome! I need to hit some steelhead water soon. Looks like fun.

  2. Ahhhhhh, Jeff! That is a mighty fine catch, right there! Nice looking fish.

    What? You mean the wind actually doesn't blow all the time in other places????

    Calm conditions, some good fishing...home with the family for thanksgiving....yeah, this is a nice write up, Jeff.

  3. You know, as a young lad I dreamed of moving out west and fishing, and it has been as epic as I dreamed of, but I will not lie, I find myself longing for the east more and more.

    The fishing seems more ... refined. The fish are smarter, the conditions less harsh. Everything out west is always raging ... Raging wind, raging water, raging fish. The west is angry, the east seems calm, collected.

    Yes, I was pretty freakin' ecstatic when I hooked into that thing. Even more so when I landed it. I know steelhead aren't like catching a trout of that size, but they sure are fun every once-in-a-while.