Free to Fish

I’ve been harvesting fish from the waters of Pennsylvania lately. And not a great number of them but I have been greatly enjoying myself. I may have an affinity for more northerly places but one thing that can be said for Pennsylvania: we have a lot of fish. And we have a diverse range of species and plenty of big fish as well. We have largely unpolluted waters in which fish can reproduce naturally and from which fish can be eaten. And the great news is that it’s getting better all the time too. Fish populations are better now than when I arrived in the state and they’ll be even better a decade from now, I’m pretty sure.

I’ve been catching some small walleye lately and this has been the best eating of the year. Nothing beats a fresh over-stuffed walleye sandwich. Walleye feed at the mouths of the tributaries of the Allegheny River, especially just as it gets dark, this time of the year and the action can be exceptionally fast if you’re in the right place at the right time.

Steelhead trout are new to me. For as long as I’ve been in Pennsylvania, fisher-folk have raved about the thrill of the wily steelhead of Lake Erie’s “tribs,” a seasonal bonanza of the largest trout PA has to offer. I’ve generally stayed away from it; just seemed kind of crowded and overdone. Personally, I’d rather have places from which I might catch less fish but that I have all to myself. Before last fall, I imagined only the shoulder-to-shoulder scenario of 50 or so anglers looming over a single pool rarely enticing strikes in the clear water.

But last year, I took the plunge and ventured to the fringe of Lake Erie, seeking out not favored steelheader haunts but following only the map which showed blue ribbons leading from highlands to lake intermittently. I looked at fruitless miles of water last year, found one or two likely spots and caught my first steelhead from a stream: a vigorous 17-incher (a tiny but edible specimen).

Last week mom reminded me of the steelhead I’d brought her last year and said that she needed another one. And this was all the push out the door I needed to make a run up. Before leaving, I threw not only fishing gear but camping gear and all I thought I might need into the car. At Lake Erie, I bought bait (egg sacks), talked with a couple of locals about current trout prospects and surveyed the mouth of Elk Creek, one of the best-loved and overfished of Pennsylvania’s steelie streams. I moved on to another of the tiny blue lines showing on my map and spent the morning casting lures directly into the lake at the mouth of this one – no good. I moved on to Conneaut Creek – perhaps the longest of PA’s steelhead waters – fished fruitlessly and got kicked out by a landowner. My enthusiasm was undiminished and I headed back for Elk Creek where I could elbow my way in but at least land a fish that would make mom proud.

On the way, I stopped at an abandoned bridge over a trickle of a stream I’d looked at the year before where I’d seen a mink and I wondered if he was still around. I surveyed the stream banks from the bridge and thought about what a wretched piece of water if was: broken chunks of concrete littered the banks, thorny scrub brush surrounded it on all sides and the water itself coursed slowly across a mud bottom. Then I heard vigorous splashing from downstream and heard it again. Steelhead! Large steelies, in fact, attempting to ascend this virtual ditch. I rigged up and fished, had strikes but remained unable to land one of the huge trout by nightfall. So I simply stayed, sleeping in the car below an almost full “super-moon”.

Pre-dawn found me at the mouth of Elk Creek where the chilly waters of this river mingle finally with the warmer lake. I had the place almost to myself. I’d never cast here before and it took a while to feel out the deepest runs with my lures and discover the shallow shoals in the near-dark. I thought I was snagging a piece of wood when he hit, a solid reel-stopping crunch. He never leapt, maybe the big ones aren’t so inclined toward acrobatics. But the old bull did fight, trying to snap the line that I felt certain would fall slack at any second. But mom needed a steelhead this fall and I wasn’t giving up either. Then I was in the river with him for a few seconds, thrusting and dragging the silvery lake monster onto the gravel. I knew immediately

that this was the largest steelhead I’d ever taken but, thinking about it, this was also the largest trout I’d ever taken, surpassing a freak steelhead I’d taken from a kayak years earlier.

And how was this whole story possible? Well, first, I’d point to freedom – the freedom to pursue happiness, the freedom to explore, the freedom to fail sometimes and learn from it and the freedom not to be constrained into narrow channels by those who don’t understand what you’re doing or why you’d do it. It’s as much applicable to fishing for walleye and steelhead trout as it is to the rest of our lives.

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