JEFF KNAPP: Anglers pursue steelheads with flies
The big, somewhat gaudy strike indicator gave a slight twitch, which I reacted to with a sweeping hook-set. A second later a strong steelhead was headed north in the direction of Lake Erie.
“This is like being hooked to a freight train,” I yelled to my companions. The clich￩-seasoned remark was made somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as the horn of a nearby train was rattling the creek valley at the time. But while a train’s movement is confined to its tracks, this fish was all over the place. Several minutes later, fatigued by a fight that included a couple impressive aerial displays, I was able to hold the fish’s head up and quietly lead it up on a gravel shore, where it was unhooked, revived and released.
For Pennsylvania anglers, early May might seem quite late for steelhead action in Erie tributaries, but we were fishing an Ohio water. The Ohio Division of Wildlife stocks Little Manistee strain steelhead, obtained from Michigan, which tend to run later than the fish the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission introduces. This, coupled with the harsh winter and lengthy ice build-up along Lake Erie shorelines (which might have delayed steelhead from entering feeder streams), led to a situation in which there were a lot of lake-run rainbows in the creeks and rivers.
My partners for the day were Tom Ference and Jeff Blood. Both are world-class fly-fishers. I’ve fished with Tom many times over the past several years. My level of fly-fishing knowledge and casting skill is modest, but what I’ve learned has largely come from Tom. This was the first time I’d fished with Jeff, who was the leader of our outing. Blood is the originator of the Blood Dot, a popular and highly productive egg pattern that accurately depicts a steelhead egg.
Though Blood has lived his adult life in the Pittsburgh area, he grew up close to the shores of Lake Erie and attended Edinboro University in Erie County. He caught his first lake-run rainbow in the 1960s, at age 7, a time well before any stocking programs, from a population of fish he said the Fish and Boat Commission was unaware existed.
“Where I grew up there wasn’t a lot to do,” Blood remarked on our drive up Interstate 79. “You hunted and fished and played sports.”
Over the years Blood has refined his fly-fishing steelhead tactics to a fairly simple one. Under most conditions, including the ones we faced that day, he fishes a tandem rig that uses an egg pattern and a Zonker streamer. A round strike indicator is used to telegraph the soft take of the steelhead. Split shot, several if necessary, are crimped a foot or so on the line so the imitations drift close to the bottom.
Multiple flies, split shot, a strike indicator — it’s a lot of hardware to be casting with a fly rod. Blood and Ference recommend a fly rod in the 10-foot range, not only for “lobbing” the rigging, but also for aiding in the presentation of flies. In many cases, casts are made quartering upstream.
With the long rod one can hold all of the line off the water during short casts, which allows for a drag-free drift. During longer casts, much of the line can be lifted above the surface, as the angler follows the drift, mending line upstream or downstream as needed, so the flies drift naturally when flowing through the zone the angler expects the fish to be.
Rods designed to handle lines in the seven- and eight-weight range are best for this type of fishing. Ference noted that it’s often advantageous to fish a line one size heavier than the rod rating, such as a seven-weight line on a six-weight rod. This, he said, tends to make it easier to accomplish a roll cast that flips the rigging back upstream for the next drift.
Blood’s innovative talents aren’t limited to flies, riggings and how to fish them. He’s also developed a steelhead-sized landing net that doubles as a wading staff. It even has a hook on it for retrieving a fly accidentally cast up in a shoreline tree. The net nestles soundly in a cleverly designed fixture than can be attached to the D-ring on the back of a vest.
Blood guides professionally on the steelhead streams of Ohio. He can be reached at blooddot@me. com.