Thursday, January 28, 2016

Ice & Steel

Ice and Steel

 Water flows between crevices of frozen ice that glazes upon shallower water. As I walk upon the ice it crackles beneath. I walk carefully not knowing if I’ll break through as I cross to the other bank.
 The clear cold creek water dumps into a spill of a narrower passage a foot or two deep. As the flow turns the bend, water slaps against the outside ledge of ice that extends out from the far bank. It murmurs as the air bubbles and the tumbling water waves beneath the ice shelves. I visually strain into the open crevices and tumbling water searching for steelhead.
 The slower pools are caked with layers of ice. There is no doubt these deeper sections hold steel but the ice is too thick to break away. At times, while I walk across some clear ice, I see steelhead swim beneath in the 6” to foot of water between the ice and creek bed. Where the ice isn’t so thick there are ways to break up the ice safely with careful thought . Most times I can see the water beneath.  Knowing it isn’t too deep along the bank edges I perform the task of breaking it away to clear a section to fish.
 Knowing where the steelhead hold in the creek during clear and shallower conditions is helpful. No use of breaking the ice in a section that doesn’t normally hold fish.
 Mornings the fly line and leader will freeze till the air warms above freezing. To keep the water from freezing too quickly on the line, leader and rod guides I’ll lightly coat them with lip balm. This helps for awhile but eventually pieces of ice form on the fly line and leader. Casting is like casting a small chain with locked links. When the eyes and guides start to freeze it’s time to chip away at the ice. You can try to slide the chunks of ice together to break them up but eventually they will be too big of a glob that won’t break. Warming the ice between you cold fingers is a long process. The other way is to chip away the ice with your teeth. Once that is successful the next step is to push the ice out of the eyes and guides of the rod. Once everything is ice free you can relube the line and eyes or just continue to fish hoping the temperature will warm above freezing soon. Such was the few mornings I fished in the wintry Erie weather. By 8:00am the weather rose to above freezing and the fishing was more tolerable.
 It’s a real task fishing the partial frozen creeks during winter steelhead months. It gets hazardous walking across the ice so you have to be ready at each foot step. 

Wednesday I made it to upper Elk around 2:30pm. There was only one vehicle in the small parking area. A couple inches of snow covered the ground and parking area. I was going to be fishing alone for the rest of the after noon. I dressed extra warm and felt that hip waders would be high enough in the upper part of the tributary. I greased up the rod guides, leader and a section of fly line, with lip balm, to help keep it from freezing.
 At the creek I found the big deep hole, below the bridge, was frozen over. Down creek I could see the patches of snow covered ice upon the surface water with open crevices of open water flowing beneath. I knew a few sections where steelhead hold so I carefully made my way down creek.
 The first long section I came to, that usually holds fish, was quite frozen over on both sides of the creek. There was about a yard or so wide of open water flowing between the ice shelves stretching to the banks. I slowly walked upon the ice searching for signs of steelhead. Some times they’ll hold in the tail out but the tail out was frozen over and quite shallow.
 The next section that usually holds fish, was within the sunlight. The far bank was free from ice and the ice along the near side wasn’t as thick as up creek. I took my time breaking the ice and watched it float and than break up into the shallower tumbling rocky tail out. The water was a bit tinted and I got a glimpse of a couple of moving figures in the deeper part of the pool. I drifted a streamer beneath but didn’t produce a strike. I figured my disturbance was enough to make the steelhead wary of my presence. I continued down creek.
 The last section I decided to fish was an open stretch that was quite rocky beneath. I didn’t have to break any ice but also didn’t see any fish or get any strikes. I slowly fished my way, where I was able, back up to the place where I broke open the ice.
 Back from the water, upon the snowy bank, I cast the streamer up creek. It swung into the deeper pool slowly near the far bank and I watched the floating fly line tip as it drifted upon the water. The tip moved towards the far bank as the arc in the line narrowed. I lifted the rod tip with hook setting pressure and my first steelhead was on.
 The fish this time of year aren’t as frisky in terms of longevity in their fight. Some still have that initial surge on the hook set and fight fearing thrusts but they tire a quicker in the colder water. This steelhead gave me a good running battle. It took off up creek into the open water. There was danger that he would try to swim beneath the ice along the far bank that I hadn’t cleared. I walked along the bank keeping tension trying to keep him towards me. A couple of thrusts and he returned to the pool of water I had caught him in. I directed him towards the tail out in the shallower water near my side of the creek. As I got him on the bank I noticed a lone sucker spawn hooked into its wide tail fin. 5:00pm I had my first winter steelhead of my 4 day stay.

  I swung a couple more times but felt the streamer may have been swinging too fast or not deep enough. I elected in drifting the streamer beneath an indicator. Fish this time of year, in these cold conditions, are lethargic. They aren’t very likely to chase a minnow or move too far for what they think MIGHT be a source of food. Getting an offering right in their faces is more apt to induce a strike. I adjusted the weight on the leader and guessed at how high I should attach the indicator. I was back off the water, as before, and made my cast towards the far bank up creek from the fish. The indicator drifted into the pocket and it wasn’t long before it dropped quickly. I again yanked for the hook set and my second steelhead was on. It jolted with a couple of head shakes before cruising up creek. He gave me a good fighting battle before bringing him to hand. Surprising, he too had a sucker spawn attached to his tail fin also.


Thursday I met Donny, after he worked 8 hours, at a service station. We had planned on leaving one vehicle down creek and fishing to it from the upper section. Throughout the day we crunched through the shallow ice. We carefully fished our way down creek searching for steelhead. We took the time to clear some heavy ice from a good pool where Donny was sure fish would be. It was a long process but we managed a big section of open water and discovered quite a few steelhead in the process. We spent some time coaxing the steelhead to take our offerings. We were rewarded now and than with hook ups and good fighting action.

I finished the day with a good Scottish ale and a fine smoke


 Friday I was on my own. I took Donny’s advice and fished the section of water he suggested. The warmer weather the day before had made the ice caked creek a little more hazardous. The ice along the shallows was softer and broke off below my feet more often. With this I had to be nimble enough to keep my balance when crossing the creek. I also found that there was a slush that lay on the bottom of the stony rock bed in many areas. It was like trying to wade across a current while stepping in a thick wet cottony surface.
 I questioned the ice that extended from the bank before trying to walk on it many times. Many areas I wasn’t able to see in the water from the distant bank so I gingerly would walk out on the ice to check for steelhead. When I got to the section of water that Donny suggested there was already a guy with a spinning rod on the ice fishing the open water. The ice along the right bank, where we were, was quite thick. The open water was a nice deep hole and the clarity was fair enough to see the objects on the bottom with polarized lenses. Recently most of the fish I had caught in the past months have been pretty light colored so there was always a possibility there were steelhead lying on the bottom unnoticed.
 After talking to the fellow fisherman he had said that when he got to the water he seen two fish swim under the ice near the far bank. I asked him if he minded if I waded over and break up the ice extending from the far bank.
 The ice was thick but I used a sharp pointed heavy boulder to pound the ice. The ice fractured in the spot I hit and soon I had a line of fractured ice that began to split from the bank. I pushed it out in the current and it slowly floated as one big sheet with a few smaller slabs following. By the time I was satisfied with the ice break up I was tired and practically sweating from the exertion. I went down creek and waded my way back across to where it was more fishable from. The guy told me he seen only two fish swim into the deep pool when I broke up the ice. By the time I was rested one of his friends showed up and they stood up high on the bank slope talking. He told me to go ahead and fish being I broke up the ice.
 After a few casts with a streamer I decided to dead drift it under an indicator. My cast was up creek and, after a sharp mend, the indicator drifted into the deep pool. I couldn’t see the streamer or any true sign of a fish on the bottom. When the indicator dropped I yanked for a hook set and the line tightened. The fish stayed below and shook its head trying to free itself. It turned quickly and, with heavy force, swam down creek. The rod flexed in a good arc as I palmed the spool for tension as the steelhead spun off line. The fish stopped and fought down creek in the open channel of water between the ice shelves. I walked along the ice towards him trying to get him near the shallows where the ice didn’t look as thick. He swam back up creek into the deeper water. I could see he was a nice size fish and I felt he would be too heavy for my tippet to lift him up on the ice I was standing on. While he was tugging and swimming beneath I cautiously stepped off the ice knee deep in the water. As I tired him out I got him nearer to me but I now found my hand net was frozen shut. Now I had to somehow open the glove net and keep from losing the tugging steelhead. I probably looked like one of the three stooges trying to open the net while the fish was swinging the rod back and forth trying to get away. I managed to get the steelhead close enough near me and to the water surface that I handled the fish and pushed it up over the ice ledge and onto the ice surface.

 I let the other fellow fish for the other two steelhead while I went up creek looking for more steelhead. It was no easier trying to go upstream through the ice and slushy bottom. At times it seemed less dangerous to wade in the water than try to step and maneuver through the patches of ice. Up creek to the next big hole I found it frozen over completely across stream. The ice was thick along the banks and I didn’t dare test the ice near the center of the creek. As I walked on the bank side ice I watched as steelhead swam out towards the middle of the creek under my feet. They were swimming in only about a foot of water. There was no way of getting to fish for them, with the ice jam, so I turned around and walked back down creek.

By the time I got to where I caught my only fish thus far the other fellow was walking up creek towards me. I fished for the two steelhead for about a half hour before heading back towards the van.
 When I got back to where I started in the morning I decided to walk around the bend and see if I could come across any steelhead. Around the bend there were 5 older gents fishing the wide deeper pool that was open. There was a space between the second and third fishermen that I fit right in with their permission. I was the youngest one and felt like I had joined the retired old men fishing club. The three guys just down from me were using spinning rods and looked to be using minnows beneath a float. The guy to my left was using single eggs and the first guy, sitting in a chair, was using a fly rod but wasn’t casting out very far into the better flow of water.
 The conversation first dealt with the only roped steelhead that was lying just off shore. It was the only fair steelhead caught the whole morning. One of the guys foul hooked a big steelhead, I was told, in the tail but broke him off. That was the only two fish I heard that were caught. Off and on one guy after another would take turns standing on the bank, out of the water, to warm their feet and legs from standing in the cold water. The whole time conversation continued from the weather to how often they all fished. The spin guys discussed spinning reel longevity. Soon the conversation turned to Steelers football in which everyone commented about the good and bad.
 I was there for about a half hour switching different color streamers as well as buggers. I covered the deep pool of water pretty thoroughly with each offering. I tried using an indicator as well without. I probably wouldn’t have stuck around as long as I did but I felt I was in the loop with these older gents. I didn’t want to hurt their feelings by leaving too soon after they let me join in.
 My cast, of a streamer, was not any special as any before it. I might have added an extra lead shot to get it deeper but I don’t really remember. As the line swung it almost straightened down creek when I felt and seen a quick stop of my line. I angled the rod up creek with a sharp yank and I felt the resistance and pulling of a steelhead.
“Fish on” I commented to let the others down creek know I had a steelhead. We tussled and fought for a short bit while the steelhead kept away from the bank in the deeper flow. I could feel it was a heavy fish but it didn’t fight with much enthusiasm until I got it close to the bank. There it would turn and power itself away with force. One of the older gents grabbed a net but by that time I had the fish close enough to the bank that another was able to push it on the bank. The big fish was hooked in the inside of the corner of its mouth.

 This brought up new conversation of what fly I used to catch this big fish. Also it was if they all felt that maybe the bite was on and they all appeared to pay more attention to their fishing than conversation.
 I fished another 20 minutes or so before I decided to take off towards the van to warm up.

 Returning to upper Elk Creek I caught a couple more steelhead before heading to Donny’s home.


  With the rain and warmer weather, Friday, we found the creek was just about unfishable. Where I had started fishing was high and only about 6” of visibility. The water was flowing with big slabs of ice as well as smaller chunks of ice flowing atop the surface water. Four other fishermen showed and we all tried our best to get a hook up. Only one guy hooked up while I was there. His first hook up was in the tail and took him down creek in the faster flow of water. The next two he hooked up also looked to be foul hooked by the way they fought and the way they were netted. 
 About an hour or so I decided to go up stream to meet Donny and Chewy at a designated spot. I never did find them. The water was getting cloudier and I just figured they left to find better water somewhere else. After the long walk to the van I found a note on my windshield as where they may be but I never did run into them.
 I headed to a creek on the east side of Erie hoping to find clearer water. After parking I walked down to the creek and it too was blown out. There was no reason to stick around and I headed south though I was still thinking about fishing. It was only about 12:20pm and I figured I can make it to the Allegheny National Forest by 1:30 or so. In doing this I figured I should be able to get a couple of hours of trout fishing before heading home.

Tionesta Creek in the Allegheny National Forest

 I crossed Tionesta creek and looking over the bridge it looked very fishable. Though flowing on the high side it looked to have good visibility. I parked along the road, grabbed a beer and walked down for a good look. I started to get anxious and returned to the van.

 The 5 weight rod was so much lighter than the 7 weight I had been fishing with the previous days. I put a couple of streamer boxes in my rain coat and one with sucker spawn and nymphs. I put chest waders on to deal with the higher flow and walked up creek to fish my way down.
 I found some ice that extended from the banks and occasionally a few slabs of ice flowed down creek. I lit a cigar and relaxed in the quietness of my surroundings. I made a good effort for a couple of hours but never did get a strike on any of my offerings. Though I couldn’t believe I didn’t get one strike I wasn’t at all upset. The water was pretty cold and the trout just weren’t hungry or willing to exert too much energy looking for food in the flowing current. I returned to the van and took my time putting away my gear and changing clothes.
 I’ll just have to wait till better conditions to return to the Erie tributaries….soon!


No comments:

Post a Comment