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Steelhead ministers have no trouble finding converts

04/03/2016, 12:17am EDT
Steelhead ministers find converts

Ohio stocks five streams in the northeast corner of the state with steelhead raised at the Castalia State Fish Hatchery. Seeking cooler water, the fish spend summer in Lake Erie, but return to these Ohio waterways in the fall until spring. THE BLADE

MADISON, Ohio — Steelhead anglers are a group of reluctant evangelists. They adore the pursuit of this feisty, cantankerous and steroid-strong fish, and they want to spread that gospel, but yet they don’t want to see a battalion of fishermen splash into the river near a cherished fishing hole.

So they preach the good word very judiciously. They don’t shout from the highest mountain. They speak in a hushed tone from the tailgate of a pickup truck. And they don’t invite the entire congregation, they proselytize to a select few that they entrust to both honor the species and the stream.

My initiation into the holy order of steelhead fishermen took place last week at Lake County’s annual media steelhead fishing extravaganza, blessed by the Lake County Visitors Bureau and based in one of the gorgeous Lake Metroparks. It was a baptism minus the full-body dunk and a legitimately ordained man of the cloth, but instead, the good word was passed along to me by a steelhead shaman whose teachings were highly instructional and filled with passion — call it spawn sacks and brimstone, delivered from a creek bank pulpit.

I have fished for big largemouth bass in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, for wahoo and marlin off of Bimini, crappies in Lake Mohawk, bluegills in Devils Lake, walleye and northern pike in dozens of remote Manitoba and Ontario waters, schooling white bass in Lake Erie, catfish and bullheads in Muddy Creek, trout in the Firehole River, salmon and halibut in the waters off Prince of Wales Island in Alaska, smallmouth bass in the mountain streams of West Virginia and dozens more species in a zillion other places — but this was different, very different.

Many Ohio steelhead start their lives at the Castalia State Fish Hatchery. As hard as this is for true Buckeyes to accept, these fish come from Michigan parents, of the Little Manistee River strain. After 12 months of meticulous nurturing, about 400,000 of them are released into five northeast Ohio streams each year when they are about 6-8 inches in length.

These fish eventually migrate into Lake Erie, seeking cooler water in the summer and feeding like crazy. They will spend the fall, winter and spring in the rivers and streams, and head back into the lake in the warmer months. As they repeat this cycle, the steelhead grow to trophy size, and many average about seven pounds and 25 inches in length after just two summers in the lake.

The steelhead we fish for in Ohio is a rainbow trout that migrates between the rivers and Lake Erie. Steelhead in the Pacific Ocean are anadromous — they spend most of their lives in the sea but return to fresh water rivers to spawn.

My introduction to steelhead fishing came at a time when recent rains had swelled and stained most of the primary steelhead waters northeast of Cleveland — the Chagrin and Grand rivers and Conneaut Creek. We first tackled some of the smaller streams and drainage ditches that will see sporadic runs of fish, but the steelhead were not home.

The post-lunch stop was on a stretch of the Ashtabula River that had settled to the point where my professor of steelheadery, Paul Liikala, thought it could be productive. It turns out that the retired educator, outdoors writer, and angling guru’s sixth sense was tuned in to the steelhead navigational network.

After choosing to stay well below the first hole in a display of impeccable stream etiquette, since it was occupied by a fly fisherman close to wrapping up his day, my steelhead savant explained the nuances of the approach, utilizing just enough of the lingo so it was clear he was not speaking in tongues. There was a lot to learn about the trough, skippers, hens, redds, and yarn.

The only viable option was to move upstream, complete several river crossings in strong current over slick slabs of shale, and seek out fish in holes and runs that have a history of holding late March steelhead. 

And we found the fish. They are robust and spirited fighters that want to bury their nose in the strong flow and challenge you and your fishing equipment to an extended session of tug-of-war. One such riverway rumpus lasted 20 minutes.

With intense coaching and a series of conquer-and-retreat swings of momentum, the battle was eventually won and a shiny chrome steelhead was in the net, handled deftly by my steelhead swami. A tiny mesh sack filled with spawn, trailed by a bright strand of yarn, fooled this steelie. You use what works, and these fish cannibalize the eggs of their sister steelhead, so Liikala had prepared multiple spawn sacks for our day on the streams.

Another well-muscled steelhead met the net further upstream, after good counsel from Liikala helped me keep her out of the driftwood snags and downed trees near her “redd” — a spawning site steelhead clear in gravel-strewn stretches of streams as a place to deposit their eggs. With each burst, she tried to return to that redd.

When the fishing ended and the long hike back to the car was over, the waders came off, the fish went in the cooler, and I got a much better picture of another aspect of steelhead fishing — the vehicle. Paul’s van had been transformed into a mishmash of the flotsam and jetsam of the day—muddy boots, vests splattered with fish slime, wet waders, containers of sticky spawn, half-empty snack bags, water bottles, landing nets, a snarl of rigged fishing rods, and several layers of covering we had peeled off after starting the day in the frost. It had the unmistakable aroma known as eau de bait shop.

This fishing outing ended exactly like it was supposed to: we were tired, parched, starving and odoriferous. But there was a distinct degree of elation too. The congregation of orthodox steelheaders welcomed a new member — just don’t ask him to tell you exactly where their church is located.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: or 419-724-6068.

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