I don’t scare easily. But it was remote and dark. Really dark. Now, if I focused I could hear the highway. That brought a little bit of solace. Then I thought about it. Being in close proximity to cars whizzing by at 80 miles per hour doesn’t add any security. They were whizzing by at 80 miles per hour and it was really dark. I was off the highway and in the woods.
So I drove to a shopping center and slept in the well-lit parking lot. That was how my steelhead trip began.
Actually, it began nearly a year prior when my grandfather passed away. Among many things, he was a firearms collector and dealer. He would drive all over the Midwest to gun shows. Buying, selling; taking guns out, bringing new ones home to Illinois. In his latter years, he transitioned from big pickup trucks with caps on their beds to minivans. They were easier to load and easier to get into.
After he died in January, his minivan sat for months. My wife and I had two small cars, and we were expecting our second child. I got the van that following fall. Since we lived in New Hampshire, this required a flight to Illinois and a little bit of a drive. It didn’t take a lot for me to determine that Erie, Pennsylvania was the halfway point. It was right in the middle of the van and home.
It just so happened to be right in the middle of the fall steelhead season.
I flew to Chicago in the morning with one large duffel and a small backpack. The duffel contained a fly rod, waders, miscellaneous fishing gear, cold weather clothing, and a sleeping bag. The small backpack held a change of clothes and some toiletries. By that afternoon I had seen some family, picked up the van, and headed east.
Erie was quiet and dark at 9:00pm. I was vaguely familiar with the area. I had fished the tributaries numerous times. Not only was I aware of good runs, but I felt like I knew parking lots that might make for good car camping spots. Yet there is apparently a difference between the darkness of an early morning putting on waders and the darkness of a prospective night in the quasi-rural woods. That led me to the parking lot.
Waking after an uncomfortable night’s sleep in a bed is one thing. Waking up after an uncomfortable night’s sleep in a minivan in a supermarket parking lot is another. Thankfully there was coffee on the way to the river. Coincidentally the river was running the color of coffee. And high. And fast.
One steelhead was all I really wanted. I had said I’d be back in New Hampshire around 10:00pm, which meant I’d have to be back on the highway at 2:00 in the afternoon. I had a morning to fish. It wasn’t ideal, but it also wasn’t a fishing trip. It was a glorified pit stop with some egg patterns thrown in. Knowing that weeks before, I still tied lots of egg patterns. I tied sucker spawn, I tied crystal buggers, I organized my tributary box, I retied leaders, I cleaned fly line, I bought my Pennsylvania licence and the corresponding Lake Erie permit. For a morning to fish. For one steelhead.
The water conditions weren’t favorable. They also weren’t a death knell. I realized quickly that I could get on top of fish. This way, I knew which ones were game and which ones were too distracted for me to waste my time on. After fishing a few hours on new water that looked enticing, I packed up and went somewhere familiar. I went where I had the most success in the area over the years. Fishing is as much about confidence as it is fly selection. This spot gave me confidence.
My second drift ended up in a fish taking my fly and darting around a log jam against a bridge abutment. It caught me off guard. I didn’t play it well. Apparently my confidence was well placed but I didn’t have the forethought to trust it would actually come to fruition. By this time it was close to noon. Around then I began to think of all the energy and effort that went into this quasi-fishing trip. Time. Ifs and buts. Money. Variables. Value judgments. Etcetera.
As if on queue, I noticed two good fish staged below a riffle. All the pessimism and self pity dissolved when the lead trout noticed my fly. It was that quickened tail flick and full-body pause that salmonids often exhibit when a drifting fly catches their attention in a positive manner. The fish jerked its head at the fly and I set and it went tight before it too attempted to run into a log jam. This time I exerted horizontal pressure and the fish turned upstream. I thought about potential hang-ups on the bottom, unseen in the stained water. I exerted upwards pressure and kept the fish high in the water column.
After a brief fight I netted the steelhead. It was darkly colored, A strong fish. It still had fight in it. I took one photo before reaching down to unhook the fly. Simultaneously, it flicked its tail. It sped back into the current, I was covered in muddy water.
I did cast a few more times. Really, I knew my day was done. It was worth it. Worth the stop. Worth the energy and effort. A fish isn’t always the goal of fishing. This time, one steelhead was the goal. Success was satisfying. I’ve had many multi-fish days on the tributaries and I’ve had much larger trout come to net. This was a good pit stop fish. Sometimes the best fish, mornings, and trips are quick and right in the middle of a lot of other things.