Steelhead Commute

Lured by the silvery rewards of the Rocky River, one avid fisherman turns his morning drive into a pilgrimage for trout.

With a powerful flex of her broad tail, the 2-foot-long rainbow trout pushed away from my hand and disappeared into the cold, green waters of the Rocky River. Our paths had crossed briefly on our respective journeys. The trout was on her way from Lake Erie to her spring spawning grounds. I was on my way to work in downtown Cleveland.

After watching the trout resume her upstream journey, I dried my hands on my waders, turned from the river and quickly hiked back to my car. It was time for the next phase of my morning commute. Within 10 minutes I would be back on the road — having traded in my wading boots for wingtips and my fishing vest for a tie.

Some days, I am able to extend my normal 30-minute morning commute to nearly three hours. But on early winter mornings like this one, the sun doesn't rise until almost 8 a.m. and I cannot fly-fish in the dark. Instead, I must show some discipline and cut my fishing time short. Of course, the fish would prefer it if I took a more direct route to work. But I argue that if the map is tilted just so, well, then the Rocky River is on the way downtown. And the opportunity to encounter giant rainbows at dawn makes this avid fly-fisherman content to live in an old industrial city devoid of majestic mountains and crystal-clear trout streams.

Few Clevelanders know that a world-class fishery runs through it. Beginning in the farm fields of Medina County, the two branches of the Rocky River merge just north of Berea. From there, its waters flow through the Metroparks and into Lake Erie. In the summer, the river is home to bass, carp and an assortment of other warm-water fish. When the days begin to shorten and the nights cool, the river welcomes a new inhabitant: the steelhead.

Native to the Pacific Coast, steelhead are a type of rainbow trout distinguished by their lifestyle. Each year, they leave their ocean (or Great Lake) home to spawn in their native rivers. Steelhead were first transplanted to the Midwest early in the last century. Although there is very little natural reproduction of steelhead in Ohio streams, an effective stocking program run by the state assures a healthy run of steelhead in rivers such as the Rocky each year. The Ohio steelhead run normally begins in October, peaks in March and the last of the steelhead will drop back into the lake as the river warms in May.

Fishermen love a good fight and steelhead oblige. They are aggressive fish and they grow to exceed 10 pounds in weight and approach 3 feet in length. Their power is only exceeded by their silver-and-pink beauty. Experienced fly-fishermen have little trouble hooking into a steelhead once the fish have entered the relatively narrow confines of a river. But actually landing one of these silver torpedoes is a challenge to even the most seasoned angler. Indeed, once the first steelhead is landed, it's the angler who is hooked for life. It's this addiction that pulls me from our warm bed and gets me on the road to work well before dawn.

I drive on two highways before dropping down into the Metroparks. I wind through the park, saying a silent prayer that the deer will stay off the roadway. I prefer to arrive at the small parking lot when it is still dark so I don't waste any fishing time. I put on my waders and rig up my 10-foot fly rod in the light from the car's trunk.

Two-day-old snow crunches under my felt-soled boots as I cross the field and head toward the woods and the river. I like to fish this big bend in the river because it is close to the car and time is at a premium. And I like it because the fish like it, too. The river's current slows as it emerges from a small rapid and cuts into the shale bank on the river's far side. When the river's water temperature drops into the 30s, steelhead slow their pace and hold in quiet spots to conserve energy for their long journey. They won't be ready to spawn until the water warms back above 40 degrees. Pacific steelhead swim to Idaho and beyond to find their spawning grounds. Most Rocky River steelhead will cut their trip short of Berea, but a hardy few will swim up the west branch of the river, jump the falls in Olmsted Falls and keep going until they approach Valley City in Medina County.

Steelhead tend to hug the river bottom and that's where the fisherman's fly must be, as well. One small piece of lead is attached to the line about a foot above the fly to help get it to the bottom. The sucker-spawn fly is nothing more than a small piece of pink yarn tied in tight loops to a small hook with a red thread. It is meant to imitate a cluster of eggs (or spawn) from a suckerfish. Steelhead consider sucker spawn to be such a delicacy that they eagerly eat imitations in December, even though suckers won't be spawning until spring.

A small orange Styrofoam ball is attached to the line a few feet above the fly. It helps keep the fly at the proper depth, so it can drift a few inches off the river bottom. A pause in the ball's downstream drift means the fly has either caught on a rock or been inhaled by a fish.

As I wade into the river, dawn's light is spreading under the gray clouds. Gusty winter winds occasionally push the clouds aside, revealing the first glimpse of blue in more than a week. The 100-foot-high cliff is painted white with a thin coating of snow. Barren trees stand like skeletal sentries over the river. A house sits perilously close to the bluff's edge. Its large picture windows reflect back the pink glow from the sunrise that is just beginning over my shoulders.

I fish for trout mostly because I love the places where trout hang out. Great blue herons, red-tail hawks, Canada geese, mallards and a big buck regularly share my appreciation for this stretch of river. On this morning, a pair of mallards cruise the eddy against the far bank and ignore my methodical casts.

Commuters always keep one eye on the clock and I am no exception. My watch tells me I have 15 more minutes to enjoy this portion of the trip. I cast slightly upstream and mend the line so the fly drifts along the bottom at the same speed as the current. The orange ball stops. I raise the rod tip and pull down on the fly line to tighten the connection to the fly. I can feel an additional weight on the line and the weight is moving — fast. The slack line is pulled tight. The rod is bent.

The fight is on.

The fish's energy is transmitted up the line, down the rod, into the cork handle, through my hand and up my arm. It sets off an adrenaline rush familiar to every addict. The fish, for more obvious reasons, is also excited. She speeds away, stripping line off the reel. As the reel spins in reverse it lets off a high-pitched scream. Some people prefer Beethoven in the morning; I'll take screaming reels.

Eager to shake the hook, the steelhead leaps from the water. I bow to the fish, lowering my rod trip to limit the chances of the line snapping. She splashes back into the Rocky and I slowly return line to the reel. As the fish is pulled into shallower water, she rebels and peels off downriver, trailing even more line as the reel screams again. I pull harder on the rod and keep it parallel to the river to maximize the pressure on the fish and minimize the chance of the hook pulling out of the corner of her mouth.

After nearly five minutes of high-speed runs and deep dives, the fish is brought to the bank. I kneel down to remove the pink fly from her mouth and to get a closer look at the silver beauty. Her dimelike shine shows she recently entered the river; perhaps the previous evening. A broad pink stripe extends from her tail up to her red gill plate. Her back is the color of cold steel. I cradle the fish in my hands and ease her into the deeper water. She regains her bearings and a moment later I feel her power and she is gone. We resume our respective journeys.

I am at my desk before 9 a.m. The day is just beginning. But I cannot wait for my next steelhead commute.

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