The best time to go fishing is when you can.
Despite all the advice from the experts in the magazines about planning and predicting the perfect conditions, this is the mantra of the working class angler. That is not to say that some times are not better than others. But the truth is for the majority of folks like myself, you’ve gotta go when you can because if you only wait for perfect conditions you may never go.
This is what we discovered in the first week of 2016. Catching chrome for the first fish of the year has been a goal of mine for several years. Getting the time to go has been a different story. This year the stars finally aligned (read as: I had no work) and I was able to shake loose and head for the tribs.
For those of us in south central Pa it’s roughly a five and a half to six hour trip so it’s definitely a commitment when you decide to head to the tribs. Were the creeks perfect? In short, no. As Erie steelhead expert Patrick Campbell explained to me: a very dry fall had kept the creeks low which prevents many fish from getting in the system. Add to this that when rain events did occur they were not significant enough (in precipitation amount and duration) to get large numbers of fish up the creeks. As such, fish that did make it into the creeks never made it very far as the meager flows dropped quickly. In these conditions many of the fish that do make it in the creeks fish are harvested with in the first couple of miles of stream in just a couple days after the creeks become fishable.
And all of that is what happened before we arrived. We left Monday morning January 4th with 36 degree weather in south eastern Pa. It was 19 degrees and snowing when we arrived in Erie. The creeks were 75% open and the water looked great. We opted to get settled in at the cabin and hit the bar for food and a hockey game. We should have hit the creek as it would be the warmest day while we were there.
Tuesday morning we woke to 2 inches of fresh powder and a 7 degree air temperature. The creeks were now 50% closed and the ice was an inch or two thick. The fish were under the ice shelves and in the deep slow runs on the bottom. The key was to kick out the ice and return after the pool calmed back down. Now a word on ice kicking; First: start slowly. It’s kind of fun once you get started and you figure out how to do it with out making a big commotion or falling on your ass. You can get carried away and work up a sweat and in below freezing temperatures you don’t want to work up a sweat. Second, when breaking out ice over a winter steelhead lie start from the bottom and work upstream. Seems like common sense but when you first get to a pool you might forget. If you start upstream and work down you have a higher chance of causing ice dams. As we found out, that’s a good way to close your entire hole up for the next day. Lastly, bust all of the ice out, ALL OF IT! If there is even one little bit of shelf ice around for fish to lay under they will and they will be very difficult to get to.
Tuesday we fished for 6 hours and Rick was the only one to pick up a fish. After kicking out half a dozen holes and clearing them of ice it was a short, super deep hole with good structure in the middle of a staircase of riffles that produced. It was not necessarily the best winter lie, but it produced.
Wednesday the weather warmed to a balmy 22 degrees in the morning. The creeks were now 75% closed and we had decided to head home. But before we left we gave it another go. After 4 hours of kicking out some massive ice shelves and holes we were just about done. Earlier in the day I had spent an hour clearing out a large winter pool. Just as I finished clearing the pool 3 anglers came down the stream wide-eyed and giddy. I overheard one of them as he announced to the others his surprise and delight that this hole had remarkably not frozen shut. They proceeded to begin fishing as I made my way back up to my gear at the head of the pool. I decided against being confrontational and explained that I had just spent the last hour clearing the pool. They looked at me blankly and then stated that they would move on because the pool was probably still spooked. I didn’t argue.
After leaving that pool I headed down to Rick who had just finished doing his own fair share of ice kicking. We fished for a spell and then headed for the truck but not before stopping at the hole I cleared out earlier. We could see a few fish but not what we expected and there was still one shelf remaining at the head of the pool below an island-like split where the stream comes back together. It was a large shelf and the water flowing on either side appeared to be faster than what you would expect to find winter steelhead holding in. However, as we worked the pool a spin fisherman came in from the other side. He started busting out some of the far ice and the ice that was at the bottom of the pool. We could see fish running up the pool. Where were they headed? You guessed it, right under that ice shelf at the head of the pool with the fast water on either side. By that time the spin fisherman’s buddy had made his way down in between Rick and myself.
There was only one thing left to do, kick the last shelf out. As I freed the shelf I watched it drift down and lodge itself between the two spin fishermen at the bottom of the pool. I also watched as a dozen or more steelhead were now out in the run, no longer out of reach under the protection of their icy body guard. On my fourth cast I missed a fish. I made my next cast count and I watched as my strike indicator softly sank below the surface but in a slightly upstream motion. It was a decent steelhead, relatively fresh, it must have come in with in the last three or four days.
That was it. We came, we froze, but we conquered. Sure it wasn’t perfect conditions and it was brutal but what good is all that cold weather gear if you never use it? Would I suggest for anyone to go to Erie to fish in the middle of winter? No, at least not if you’re just a fish counter. You have got to want it and you have got to be about the experience. It’s unlike any other fishing I have done to this point and it takes a lot of effort. But if you want a different experience and you are not worried about being perfect, then by all means, take the trip when you can. You get more than a couple fish, you might get a great story.