Ice Shelves and Self Determination
I stepped out of the truck and into the several inches of fresh snow that had accumulated on the packed snow beneath my wading boots. It was obvious that Donny and I would have the creek to ourselves throughout the day. It could have been because of the snowy surroundings in this cold mid January Pennsylvania day. Maybe because of the mid 20 degree weather that would sure be a frustration, causing frozen lines and cold fingers. It could be because of the limited access to open creek water. Those are justifiable reasons to stay home and just say no but I haven’t fished since early December and was just about fit-to-be-tied if I didn’t get on the water soon. When Donny called me up Wednesday evening and said he was sure we would be able to catch some steelhead in open water, I was more than willing to give it a try.
That night I had my steelhead flies, streamers and nymph fly boxes opened upon the dining room table getting them in order. I chap sticked a good portion of my 7wt fly line and leader to help resist the cold water from freezing upon the line. I stacked my gear by the back door ready for the 2 hour morning drive to Erie. Before bed I laid out the layers of warm clothes and socks I would wear for the chilly excursion. I was excited about wetting a line to fish for steelhead but in the back of my mind I knew not to be over enthused because of the hampering conditions to come.
Outside the truck I immediately felt the frigid air upon my ears and finger tips. I assembled the 9’6” 7wt rod and mid arbor reel. After applying Chap Stick to the rod eyes I put on my Orvis sling pack and followed Donny to the creek bank. Water flowed like a canal between the thick ice shelves that extended from each snowy bank. The water was clear enough to see a few feet beneath as far as we could tell from our position looking down from the creek ledge. The sky was a flat dull gray color without any distinguishing cloud separation. If someone had to paint the sky, on canvas, they could do it simply by one sweep of a paint brush. By now the sun was above us, being it was about 9:30am. It looked like a dim flashlight beam shining down through a dark staircase, a hazy corona surrounding its center of light source.
Upon entering the shallows, to cross the creek, Donny noticed a nice size steelhead in a foot or so of water. He told me to go for it but I had my hopes up for a larger pod of fish and declined. Besides, I’ve learned that one can spend a lot of valuable time trying to catch one noticeable steelhead in shallow water without ever having him take notice whatever you toss at him, only to finally swim away from the pestering.
On the creek bank I tied on an articulated stonefly and proceeded to slowly fish my way upstream towards the tunnel. Donny followed with a tandem rig of sucker spawn and a nymph for a dropper. After an hour without either of us getting a hit I entered the tunnel in hopes of getting my first hook up.
In the tunnel I tied on a Depth Ray stonefly and drifted it under an indicator. Donny soon followed along and stuck with the tandem rig. On one drift I felt the tug of a fish and my cold fingers and temperate blood came to life. I swear I seen the fresh small chrome fighting from its mouth but when I got him closer I somehow snagged him in a pelvic fin. It was either that of my leader got wrapped up around him during the short tug-of-war. I had him close to my hand when the pressure of the bent rod stripped the hook out and the fish tumbled and disappeared beneath. continuing to fish I changed my offering a few times to entice a strike. Donny assured me that there were steelhead in the dark waters. I didn’t doubt his word but they just didn’t want my offerings.
By the time I got to the end of the tunnel I hadn’t felt any other hits and decided to try a Triple Threat. Maybe, I thought, a slow drifting minnow imitation might get a hungry lethargic steelhead to come for a taste. I stepped off the walkway, against the tunnel wall and onto the stream bed. Slowly I waded to the center of the channeled water, entering the tunnel, and began swinging and slowly drifting the Triple beneath. By now Donny was fishing the mid part of the tunnel water with long, high sticking, drifts. It took me about a half hour before I became board and headed upstream.
I was about 20 yards up creek from the tunnel working the tail end of a deep pocket when I heard a splash and a call from Donny that seemed to echo out of the tunnel passage. I turned to look just in time to see his bent rod jerk downward before straightening from a lost hook up. I gave him a thumb up than turned it down and chuckled to myself. “At least he’s getting some hook-ups” I thought.
Eventually Donny caught up with me and stood behind me, on a thick ice shelf, with a thermos cup of hot coffee. I was drifting a new pattern Triple Threat under an indicator in a small slow pool beyond a faster run just before me. The indicator drifted slowly in small whirlpool circles as it made its way down to the tail out. I saw the indicator slow and gently pull under. With a quick rising hook set I felt the first resistance and we began to scuffle. It didn’t take long for me to realize this wasn’t a steelhead at all. With the 7wt rod and 7lb fluorocarbon tippet the small brown trout didn’t have a chance. After a quick picture of my reward and after letting the brown go, I joined Donny for a hot cup of joe.
Continuing upstream got to be more of the same, nothing doing, for me. After fishing off a thick ice shelf I decided to work my way downstream towards the tunnel. I was about 30 yards downstream from Donny when I heard him give out a holler. Turning I seen the rod bent into the middle as he had the butt in his gut for leverage. I wound in line and started up his way to get a picture of this ‘sure-to-be’ nice steelhead. The fish forced the issue downstream and Donny followed, keeping good pressure on him, until the fish tired. He got the thick shoulder male out of the water and I got the hero picture for his web sight. After he released the steel he went back upstream for another.
I tried my best for the next 10 minutes or so to get one on but couldn’t produce a strike. Out of boredom I lit up a Macanudo Café and relaxed a little and enjoyed the peacefulness. The sound of flowing water against downed logs, boulders or slapping against ice shelves was a soothing sound. Geese would be heard honking above as they flew towards there destination. Occasionally I’d have to crush the ice off my fly line but all in all it was a relaxing day out. Time ticked away as I made my way through the tunnel and continued downstream for more open water. Donny followed slowly but I really didn’t pay him any mind. I’m sure if he got a good fish on he would verbally let me know.
I was familiar with the water way and concentrated, somewhat, in areas I have seen other fishermen during warmer times. Even a novice to the stream would be able to discover where the ‘good’ pools were by the hardware, bobbers, indicators and fishing line hanging from tree limbs over the most productive sections. I continued on drifting my offering along bank-side runs and pocket water as my cigar burnt down to the butt end. I eventually had to soak it in water and pocket it in my sling pack.
I came to a shallow riffle and looked downstream. I could see an ice jam down below the good stretch of channeled water that ran between thick ice shelves on each side of the shore line. I tied on a bead-head yellow sparkle Meth pattern and to this a dropper of a bead-head White Meth. This was it, this would be the last rig up and I was determined to catch some steelhead before going home. By now it was a couple of hours before nightfall and it must have been getting colder cause the fly line and leader was icing up more often. Now and than a dusting of snow would appear and softly descend, from above, in a windless drift.
Just below the shallow riffle I stood and decided to add a little more weight because of the some-what faster moving current. I worked my casts and drifts towards the far ice ledge watching my floating fly line atop the water, moving my rod tip with the drift. I laid the tandem rig just off the edge of the shelf and mended upstream so my offerings would be downstream from my leader. I noticed the arc in my fly line slowing down and the tip sinking. I wasn’t sure if I hit bottom or not so I gave the rod tip a nudge and something nudged back. I quickly lifted for the hook set and a fish took off downstream in a heap. Ya, I finally hooked into a steelie, not a biggy, but one none the less. He put up a good fight as I drew him near the ice shelf to my right. Lifting up the steelhead he shook his head hard and sure enough unhooked the white Meth pattern from his lips. No matter, I didn’t care to get my hands wet anyhow; I tried to lessen the upsetting thought of losing the steelhead. I stepped upon the ice shelf to free the line of ice and to mark the spot in the snow from where I caught the fish. I walked back up and stepped down into the riffling water again. Proceeding as I did before I again noticed my fly line stop abruptly. More confident I lifted the rod sharply to drive the point into the fishes lip/jaw more securely. I seen the fish flash beneath and he darted downstream taking line with him. I palmed the reel to slow the youngster down and than played him towards me and up on the ice. He had taken the yellow Meth pattern as the white one dangled behind.
After releasing him I continued casting my offerings just shy of the far ice edge and worked my way downstream. Within minutes I hooked into another steelhead but he rolled himself free just after I felt resistance.
I turned upstream and seen Donny headed my way with his fishing rod in one hand and a thermos in the other. When he got within talking distance I told him about my catches and how the steelhead seemed to be hugging just below the far ice shelf ledge. Fishing the ledges, we both hooked up a few more times. Donny had another male on as it showed its body topside before coming undone. I hooked into another small brown but he too found a way off my hook.
Before long I finally called it quits. Chunks of ice were flowing down more often now and the snow began to fall a little more heavily. I had a couple of hours of driving to do to get back home and felt pretty satisfied with our accomplishments considering the conditions. We stood upon the thick ice shelf and finished off the last of the black coffee before heading to the truck.
Back at Donny’s house I changed into driving clothes and we bid each other fair well as pals normally do. We’ve fished together for some time now, off and on, and it was good to join up with him again for this outing of solitude steelhead fishing.
It was dark with snow gently falling when I reached Interstate 90. I sipped on some warm tea I had poured into my cup, before leaving Donny’s, from my own thermos. The roadway was clear of ice and snow as traffic traveled along smoothly. I turned south onto I79 and felt more relaxed as I finished the cup of tea. Reaching over for the Macanudo Robust Collection of three cigars, I received from Kevin, I took out the remaining stogie from the box. The Macanudo Maduro was firmly wrapped in the dark broadleaf and tasted smooth as I moistened the outer leaf with wet lips. I lit the end of the barrel and took a smooth draw. Another just reward after a fine outing that cured my fishing fever that was so much needed.
Donny Stephens is the Charter Capt. of 'A Day Away Fishing Adventures' in Erie pa.
His Business Card is located at the end of this blog.