A November morning on Ohio’s Conneaut Creek.

November and, as an angler, I am on the wrong part of the map. November is steelhead time, time to watch the fronts moving through the Great Lakes in an attempt to catch one’s favorite tributary the morning after its apex. It becomes a science unto its own, this search for chrome, as each tributary has a unique drainage area and its own timetable.

A significant rainfall event will raise the flow markedly and bring steelhead waiting near the river mouths upstream. High, muddy water isn’t fishable, though it brings urgent fish upstream in a rush. It is that period just after the apex, when the flows drop and the streams just begin to clear, that fresh fish turn aggressive: angler’s nirvana. In the flat shale bottomed streams like Pennsylvania’s Elk Creek, that window is two days long. The larger, more varied watershed of the Conneaut lengthens the span: more time is required to go from too high to just right, and the span of great fishing conditions is likewise extended. If this sounds somewhat predictable, keep in mind that each rainfall event is different in volume and duration, and each small watershed has a wealth of variables. Too, the best predictions go out the window when a second or third shot of rainfall follows the first by hours or days.

It can be a grand game just determining when and where to fish. Local steelheaders have an inside track of course, but only if they can find time off from work to get on the water when its perfect. For the traveling angler, it is a roll of the dice; but oh the rewards when you don’t roll craps!

Mike Saylor and I hit things just right once in about ten years of trying. We made the five and a half hour drive to Elk Creek after work, arriving close to midnight. After a few fitful hours of sleep we were on the water at the moment. We each hooked a couple of dozen fresh run chromers, landing about half of those we battled. Man it was an electric day! The next morning much lower and clearer water greeted us at daylight, and our hookups and landings were still thrilling, though reduced by nearly fifty percent. On day three the low clear water we had fished for nine of those ten years was the rule. I think we managed a fish apiece, perhaps two, but my memory is still marked by those first two days and everything else is fuzzy.

Low water can still produce fish, but it is a very different game. Think trying to catch a five to ten pound silver bullet hunkered down under the branches of a sunken tree with 5X tippet. On a good day you might land a couple, but the odds are very strongly against you.

A low water eight pounder from Walnut Creek in 2003

Ah yes, November is tributary time, but not for me, not this year. Mike nearly made it, until the unwanted effects of an ill timed flu shot derailed his plans.

Being retired, we both hoped we would be able to take better advantage of the autumn run, but then there is the pandemic to be concerned with. Erie tributaries are small streams and they draw a huge throng of anglers, some of whom think nothing of fishing right on top of you. I recall a guy with a spinning rod walking up and standing on the opposite bank, exactly above the spot where my short casts were entering the water. My polite suggestion that he move on just drew a stupid grin and some mumbling about “public water” as he drifted his bait through the same run. It wasn’t until I hooked my third steelhead on a fly during his “visit” that this fellow finally shuffled off grumbling. My Covid fearing psyche isn’t up to that this fall. There is simply no way to avoid crowds of people during the steelhead run.

Sunrise on Elk Creek…maybe next year!

I still want to get back to Michigan for some autumn steelheading. My friend Matt Supinski has a river full of wild steelhead at the doorstep of his Gray Drake Lodge, and I want to get back up there to fish with him before old age catches up with me. The photo of my twenty-one pounder, my personal best taken with Matt in 2012, hangs on the wall above my tying desk, and I think about going back every time I look at it. Our plan had been to fish the summer Skamania steelhead in August of 2011, but Mother Nature sent a deluge to the region just days before the trip, washing away any chance for fishing. I still want to do that too!

For now I have to navigate a couple more days of wind and rain and snow flurries before a promised run of sixty degree days finds me back on one of my Catskill rivers. I don’t expect to be casting dry flies to rising trout, but I’ll still enjoy that sunshine as it twinkles upon the surface of bright water!

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