The car still sped forward at over 60 mph but I wasn’t doing 70 anymore. The thermometer on the console had just clicked down a notch to 31 and the drizzle was suddenly replaced by a first blast of lake effect snow. It was 1:00 AM as I eased off on the Grove City ramp, 60 miles north of Pittsburgh to let the squall pass. By rights, I shouldn’t have been out here at all. I’d worked far more than normal lately – a sleep-skewing mix of morning, evening and overnight shifts. I’d left my workplace at midnight, bleary-eyed and headed out of the city and north for Lake Erie.
Over the years, I’ve become pretty good at finding and catching many of Pennsylvania and New York’s freshwater fishes. But there are at least two that have foiled me time and again.
First, the burbot. Not a lot of people, even fishermen, realize that this creature swims in Pennsylvania’s waters. It’s not a darling of the sports-fishing scene, that’s fair to say. This is a freshwater codfish that inhabits the depths of Lake Erie, swimming inshore during the winter months to reproduce in places like Presque Isle Bay. In Pennsylvania waters, I’ve caught exactly one over the years – bright mottled yellow and as long as my inseam.
Very well known to Pennsylvania’s anglers is the steelhead trout, a perennial crowd pleaser. Unfortunately, these salmonids are also crowd attractors and this is why I simply stayed away from the Lake Erie tributaries while these were in for most of the time I’ve lived in the state. I’d rather have my solitude on the water and catch less fish. Steelhead are actually rainbow trout, originally bred from anadramous (sea-going) west coast stock so that they will take on an almost natural seasonal migration pattern in the Great Lakes.
The burbot are frustrating because you have to be at the right place at the right time and rarely are. They’re not good with keeping appointments. Steelhead are frustrating to me because everyone can catch them besides me. I’m a reasonably competent angler and everyone, including geriatrics and elementary school boys sporting their first noodle rods, can take steelies, while I stand there dumbly with nothing.
So, there I was, now at 2:00 AM, headed north again through mixed freezing drizzle and sleet. I like to get my money’s worth out of tires and these four had already surpassed their useful life. Traction was no longer included in their skill set. I was lucky to arrive at all at the long concrete pier jutting out into the lake. The City of Erie was a very quiet place at 3:30 AM.
I told myself that the temperature wasn’t that bad as I got re-dressed in the lonely parking lot and ate a handful of something with a last swig of coffee. Remember to be optimistic, I forcibly told myself. Forget about all previous December nights on this pier. I had decent bait this time and that was a cheering thought. That was a recurring difficulty – just acquiring the right bait for burbot. And what did a deepwater, freshwater codfish most want to eat afterall? They were a tight-lipped bunch who didn’t offer interviews about such things.
The pier seemed more white than concrete-gray as I scanned with my headlight. I had the seagulls to thank for this. I rigged two heavy spinning rods with dropper rigs, smelt on one hook and creek chub on the other. The smelt I’d obtained from a Giant Eagle and the chub had been caught a couple of days earlier by me, killed and frozen. What codfish could refuse such an offering?
In the hours ahead, the burbot refused my offerings. Or, more likely, they weren’t there. They are voracious feeders and I think they’re not likely to pass up a baitfish if they come in contact with it. A gradual and wan sunrise spread across the Lake Erie horizon, a light rift between the black remnant of the passing storm and the reflective surface. Now it was clear that the usual transparent green of the lake surface had been replaced by a turbulent muddy rollers.
Things seemed ideal – this was the right place and time. All of the few people I’d talked to who’d really seemed to know Lake Erie burbot had told the same story: Wait for the first storm after Thanksgiving – this brings them in. And the water should be muddy and rolling in in breakers rather than flat and clear. And the one I’d caught (and the larger one that had subsequently broken my line) had come a couple hours after sunrise rather than in the dark.
My mind wandered back to that magical fish as I walked laps for warmth and rubbed my fingers together. It was the first time I’d ever come to Erie just to try for burbot. I’d stayed out overnight without a bite from anything but mudpuppies (a very strange thing to reel in if you’re not expecting these large aquatic salamanders). I’d been chilled to the bone by the time my rod tip had started to tremble – as though a perch were nibbling my emerald shiner. I stared in disbelief as the bright eelish thing came to the surface and then washed into the net. At home, I’d opened the stomach to reveal the truth of burbot gluttony. Here were the contents in the order of most digested to least: sculpin, smelt, alewife, gizzard shad, sunfish. This fish had apparently done little but eat (even while moving steadily inshore) during the 24 hours prior to finding my shiner.
Back to the present day, at some point I found that I could drop my special new drop net all the way to the bottom along the jetty wall, pull it up as fast as possible and bring in live gizzard shad. My optimism was re-kindled as I baited up with thrashing live fish on both lines. I couldn’t miss now.
By late morning there had been no definite strikes, only the erratic shakes of impaled baits below and the regular pulsation of wave elipses. My fingers were stiff and cold, I was well chilled and I’d generally had enough – for now. I packed it all up and made a couple of gulls happy with my bait remnants. It seemed clear that nothing was moving through presently though I always wonder at such moments whether the school didn’t swim past my ambush point as soon as the lines were up. As likely as not, this was the case.
I visited Brew-Ha-Ha coffee and the only Scottish-theme restaurant serving breakfast at this time: McDonald’s. I felt exhausted already, though not beaten. I found my way through town to a place I’d been eyeing on the map among parking lots and residential neighborhoods, snowy gusts blowing through from time to time. If I wasn’t destined to land a burbot today, a steelhead would be a fine consolation prize. Here was a well-known steelhead stream, just much further up than most people fished it. Certainly there was no-one here today.
As an afterthought, I’d also stowed the fly rod in the car just in case of steelies though I hadn’t actually brought any flies. I was trying something new this year – presenting small lures or even bait below a delicate float using a 5/6 weight fly rod. Surely my new finesse tactics would pay off with fine trout today. And the water looked just perfect to my eye – high but not flooded; dirty but not opaque. Over the next couple of hours, I proceeded to wade up and down and the snow came and went and was essentially, well, skunked – no fish hooked, no fish seen. I did deal with a series of snags and tangles though as my fingers came closer to frostbite. Why wasn’t there a fish here? Couldn’t there just be one steelhead in one of these pools for me? Was that too much to ask?
It was time to get back to the lake already. Evening would be coming on soon and just maybe that’s when the burbot magic would start to ungulate my way. I finished off my deluxe premium coffee in the parking lot and looked lake-ward. Like this morning, there were still no fishers. There was just nothing remotely inviting about this wind-swept slab of cold cement. Still, I found my prospective spot occupied by about 1000 other fishers – the type with beaks and wings and I didn’t have the heart to disrupt the whole unbroken mass of feathers. I didn’t especially want to sit there immediately after that swarm had been roosting a while either. I found another place that would certainly provide ample opportunity to watch rod-tip bells that would never play a tune.
It felt oh-so-familiar now: the bleak, rolling surface, the mud and weeds washing out into the lake, the birds hovering in flocks of dozens. My eyes flitting back and forth between rod tips and then straining ears to listen for those portentous tinkling bells, I paced in lock-step, fated to wait in vain hope. It always ended the same – reeling in, tossing un-needed bait to the weary and trudging back with full arms to the car. Emptiness and solitude – this is the heart of burbot magic.
It makes one wonder why the sport hasn’t caught on.
I was really beat. Who was I kidding? I’d been beat from the time I’d made the harrowing drive up. I’d hopped and jogged and rubbed to stay warm even while propping the eyelids to stay conscious. Had it been worth it? Would it have been worth it if I’d hoisted lota lota onto my cold slab? Where did the compulsion come from ? I knew the likely outcome as I packed. I had some idea of the probability. I wanted some sleep more than I wanted fish now.
This wasn’t tough though. My lineage is mostly that of old-time cod jiggers or gill netters or rig workers off of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks. They’d rowed and rode swells and fought against the odds and elements and some of my uncles had come home to tell of it and some hadn’t. That was tough. My travails were the result of too much indoorsmanship and comfort. I’d spent months alone in the wild at times and I’d become innured to the worst nature could throw at me – insensible to tiredness and cold. But years had passed in apartments with thermostats, faucets and indoor plumbing. My inner drill seargent was just now asking if he could apply some salve perhaps, to all the places that it hurt.
My watch started beeping at 6:00, telling me that a new day was beginning . My car was stashed in a little alcove of the woods near the lake, where I probably wasn’t supposed to be. Men in pickup trucks would be here shortly to shoot deer. I wasn’t cold as I leaned out to get the boots on. Burbot was a lost cause but I felt that fate still had a steelhead in store for me. I’d invested a lot of hours in this trip up, how could I go home empty-handed?
First light found me tromping through the woods toward one of those tributary sections that seemed to have escaped the attention of almost everyone. I didn’t like to fish for anything while wearing a blaze orange hat but that had seemed important today. I didn’t want to scare fish but I wanted to get shot even less. And for all the travails of the day before, I didn’t feel bad at all – maybe better for having stayed to see this mission through to the end.
Here too, the water reflected perfection – dirty but I could see most of the bottom. This stream probably discharged about an eighth the flow of the more popular steelhead tributaries and couldn’t contain nearly the same potential herd of fish but still, I knew there were shocking numbers of trout here in shockingly robust proportions. I imagined one of these disproportionate stream rainbows hiding under every log I ran the float along.
Nothing in the first very attractive pool. Nothing in the next two. Still, the water was dirty – I probably wasn’t seeing them and was probably offering the wrong bait. Nothing in the next few pools besides the creek chub who re-wetted my icy fingers every couple of minutes. It was beautiful water in a beautiful, quiet wood – hard to say that things were terrible but I did have a terrible, rising, impending sense that I was going to go home today with nothing. The icy hand of fate was upon this day also, I could sense it. The steelhead would wait for a local fellow who knew the game to fish through these same pools later today and limit out. I’d seen it before.
My pace accelerated upstream as I failed to find fish. I’d seen them far above this point in the past and thought there were pods of them waiting for me in a pool somewhere on up. But the temperature dropped some, the breeze picked up and nothing moved besides chub in the stained water. I switched lures to no avail.
Finally, this was the end of my run. I’d reached a bridge that marked my exit point and was utterly fishless – again. I don’t know how a fishless day can turn quickly into an existential crisis but that’s about where I was at. I considered myself a knowledgeable and widely experienced fisher. I’d proven my determination. But here I was again, at the end of a long stretch of steelhead water with nothing but a creel-full of humiliation. I wasn’t sure I’d learned anything either. In every way, I was going home empty I realized as I stepped off the railroad tracks and onto a sloppy woods road. I’d started the day donning a blaze orange hat to keep from getting shot but now the phrase “just shoot me now” passed through my mind.
But having come all this way, I wanted to be as sure as I could about things. I’d just check down near the mouth of the stream quickly, making sure that there were really no steelhead here at all this December.
Ten minutes later, I was stepping over the guard rail at a familiar bridge down near the lake – same heavily stained water – just deeper and slower here. I flipped the bobber rig in carelessly with my 5/6 weight rod and watched a few unremarkable drifts before yanking at a false strike and tangling almost hopelessly in a branch behind me – for the 100th time today.
I had to take some deep breaths and in a strange moment of calm, I thought I glimpsed the hard lesson of the last two days: I don’t deserve any fish – I don’t deserve the outcome I came out for. Nature doesn’t watch my efforts and decide that I’ve earned anything. I wasn’t able to find the fish or wasn’t able to interest them and so I’ll go home with nothing. I, like anyone else, have no guarantee that if I follow all the correct formulae on the water, I’ll go home happy. Nature doesn’t work like that, in the fish realm or elsewhere. Every day and every moment on the water is novel.
I flipped a last cast out into deep water, having scooted the bobber as high as it would go, two artificial salmon eggs impaled on a hopeful red egg hook.
I had learned something. I’d learned humility. Thanks nature.
And then the bobber surged into the depths.
As I was playing this fish, a knowledgeable steelhead guide joined me and answered a lot of important questions for me while catching several himself. He pointed out that the gravel bar at the mouth had changed considerably in the last couple of years and that, coupled with generally low water this year, had prevented almost all the steelies from moving up here. Bob shared much else that will improve my approach in seasons to come, proving, I guess, that all the best stuff isn’t always learned through solitude. If you prefer to obviate painful years of seeking out steelhead and painful mistakes, maybe look up BOB PACKEY on Facebook and set up a trip for next year!