It's hard to believe that it's April 30 and we have another season in the books. Like every year, this past season had its highlights and challenges, it's peaks and low points. So like we do, as we reach the end of steelhead season, we like to look back and offer a critical analysis of what we saw, our observations both on and off the water. On the whole, '19-'20 was what we expect fishing-wise. There were not any significant anomalies we saw in fish trends or numbers across the board.
Early in the fall, the Catt fished decently. The flows throughout the month of October were very stable, if a tad low at times. Fish numbers built throughout the month, being sparse in the beginning and growing to numbers I'd say were on the lower side of average, but not alarmingly so. Most days by the second half of October and through November we were finding between a couple and a handful of fish swinging streamers. As usually, the whiskey hangover took most our fish. I don't recall any lights out days where our hookups approached double digits on the swung fly, but it seemed like working water well lead to consistent success.
Honestly I'll take that every time. Those years where we seem to see a handful of crazy days spey fishing in the fall also seem to have more days where we work hard to scratch out a single fish, and maybe not even that. I think this is because to have those crazy fishing days means a higher percentage of the run is entering the system at once. When you find that ball of fish, it's a blast. But they move on, and perhaps there are fewer fish following them up over the next few days or week. A slow and steady stream of fresh fish pushing in seems to lead to more consistency in the long view. All in all, and comparing to how the Catt fished (or didn't fish for that matter) for almost the entire 2018 fall season, 2019 was a blessing.
Whereas fall 2018 was the year of the lake run brown, 2019 was the general mixed bag. Like always, we spent a portion of our time up on the Ontario creeks. Brown numbers were nowhere near what they were in 2018, but the fish were there. It seems like every 5-7 years we just get a mega run of browns. Before 2018, the last year I can remember with a comparable run was 2011, though 2011 if I remember correctly even exceeded it. 2019 was the same steady flow and consistent fishing, most days hooking around a handful of lake runs between two people with steelhead and domestic rainbows in the mix as well.
One thing I did notice on the Ontario creeks was the lower numbers of Pacific Salmon but the higher numbers of Atlantics. Though I don't often fish the Oak, the boys made it over there a few times in late October and early November. Some days they had multiple Atlantic hookups, and I saw a handful on the other creeks throughout the fall as well. I really hope that program continues to develop. The lakes are changing. The forage base is shifting and likely will have a disparaging and disproportionate effect on king salmon. Atlantics and trout are more adaptable than kings, which are nearly solely reliant on alewife as a food source.
Over the winter, we had good fishing. The rivers never really froze up, and many times in January and February there were pleasant days of above average temperatures, great flows, and good fishing. By late February, the bulk of the spring run started. Before then we were finding late fall and winter fish, fish darkened from time in the river. By the end of February we started seeing more chrome, fresh run spring fish. Then the virus hit, almost exactly coinciding with the start of peak spring steelhead. And it was a shame. We had a beautiful spring with very consistent conditions and great numbers of fish. Particularly in the second half of April, I was seeing fish between about 28 and 32 inches fairly consistently in the mix on the big river. Most of the large fish were fresh run hens, a bit of a trend that I've noticed over seasons past- a final push of large female fish.
So here it is the last day of April, and we're turning our focus away from steelhead. I do the first trout trip this weekend to the cabin to scout things out. We will be running trips in May and June, and probably throw some smallmouth in the mix too. Here's hoping that the worst is past us now and we have nothing but good fishing ahead.
Well it's getting to be that time of year again. Though there are still decent numbers of steelhead around, particularly in the Grand River, and that we still have decent temperatures due to the cool rainy beginning of May that we've had, steelhead season is coming to an end. So it's time to look back at what the '18-'19 season had to offer.
Starting with last fall, the end of September was very hot, something that we are starting to see frequently. When I first started fly fishing for steelhead twenty some years ago, we used to really see decent numbers of fish in our New York rivers by mid-September, sometimes even earlier. My earliest steelhead I can remember catching was August 27. This was due to the fact that twenty years ago, mid-September was what early October is now weather-wise. Going forward, it looks like the season shift that has been noticably occurring over the past decade or so with warmer early fall temperatures will become the new normal, and that's a shame because early fall before the main run gets in is my favorite time.
Then by the first or second day of October the rains came. And it didn't stop for two months. There was a stretch of 45 days or so right in the middle of peak fall season where it rained 39 days. Despite the flows the overall numbers of steelhead throughout the New York Erie creeks was lower than normal, with most fish running between 20 and 24 inches. It was as though a year class was missing. In recent years, New York has struggled with smolt size due to cold flows at the hatchery. This combined with the very high populations of walleye and cormorants likely has had an effect on adult steelhead numbers.
Whereas Lake Erie creeks and rivers were inconsistent, the Lake Ontario brown trout run was unreal. Beginning in earnest the first week of November and continuining all through the winter into the spring, the lake run brown fishing was the best I've seen it in years. Average days were double digit hookups, with many, many brown trout between 28 and 32" taken. Swinging streamers for the browns was just too much fun. This year our biggest trout of the entire season was a 32" lake run brown with about a 20" girth. The big hen went 15 maybe 16 pounds!
As for spring in Ohio, we had very good and consistent fishing. I'd say the run was right about average numbers and size wise. It was good fishing with the average day spey fishing being 2 or 3 hookups per rod. We did have some banner days, particularly in mid-April when spey fishing hookups approached or exceeded double digits, though the Grand started to get less consistent flows due to significant amounts of rain the last two weeks of April which is the timeframe we usually see the best spey fishing.
As is normal for the first week of May, the smallmouth have started making a strong showing. Those guys should stick around for the next month or so, providing good fishing. If this cool wet weather keeps up, there may even be a steelhead or two still in the Grand or the Catt in June, but it wont take them long to drop out to the lake if there is a prolonged heat spell.
If there was one factor that determined success all season long, I'd say it would have to be adaptability. Being able to recognize and react to changing and inconsistent conditions was key to consistently finding success, whether it be finding new spots that were holding fish, fishing different rivers more frequently, or even targeting different species such as lake run browns. We found success by keeping an open mind and not falling into the rhythm of complacency. I guess in steelhead fishing, that's about as good as you can strive for- the ability to meet the challenges that present themselves and hopefully find a fish or two along the way.