Learning new waters: Oatka Creek confidence
Opening new waters to fresh angling experiences should be on everyone’s radar. I first learned about Oatka Creek in detail by reading Trout Streams of Central New York penned by friend J. Michael Kelly of Marcellus. As one of the first people to read his 2015 book (he sent me an uncorrected proof to read over), he honored me by asking to write an endorsement quote on the back cover.
The first stream he wrote about was Oatka Creek and it intrigued me. While Kelly’s focus was on fly fishing, I vowed to give the creek a try the first chance I had. That opportunity presented itself when newly found friend Wade Rowcliffe of Rochester threw an invite my way on St. Patty’s Day. Our focus would not be on fly fishing, however. His specialty is casting stickbaits and that was the plan for the morning.
Driving from Lockport, I found that the creek was much closer than I had anticipated. I made it in 45 minutes to our Monroe County destination at Leroy (even though the creek flows through 3 different counties).
Rowcliffe is addicted to fishing. One of his favorite methods for fishing inland streams, as well as Great Lakes tributaries and even large rivers like the Genesee, is to cast a stickbait. And his favorite target species is the elusive brown trout, but he is not averse to catching other types of fish.
“Fishing has always been a big part of my life, my outlet, my escape,” says Rowcliffe, who grew up fishing Oatka Creek. “I always loved the problem side of fishing, figuring things out. After I broke my neck playing football for the University of New Hampshire, I turned to fishing for therapy.”
“The Oatka became my testing grounds as a kid, fishing all the time with my brother Vic,” reflects Rowcliffe. “We fished just about every day from age 6 to 16. We would cast stickbaits, our own personal favorites, and it seemed like whoever tied the best knot that day would catch the most fish.”
Rowcliffe is a student of the “stick,” and he learned over time that it was all about the flash his plastic or wood-crafted baits would give off to attract a strike. What knot they tied to the lure on any given day seemed to make a difference when it came to who’s lure would provide the most attraction to the fish via “flash,” especially when the lure was being jerked down or retrieved slowly back.
“I would use a Trilene knot and Vic would use a Rapala knot. Believe it or not, sometimes one knot worked better than the other. Of course, the lures also come into play, too. We each had our favorites through the years. My go-to lure for inland streams is a Yo-Zuri Pins Minnow 2.75 inches long in a “Baby Brook” pattern if the water is clear. If it is stained and high, I will go with a 3.5-inch size Pins Minnow. I love Challenger baits and I have also been using Bay Rat and Smithwick Rogue lures.”
“For me, the Yo-Zuri lures and the Crystal Minnow pattern really changed the game for me, adding ball bearings to the inside of some with plenty of good flash on the outside,” says Rowcliffe. “For big fish, my best manufactured lure is the Smithwick Rogue, especially the big Elite 10 size, up to 6 inches. It works great for big brown trout, as well as walleye off the piers, slow reeling them back in. The big Emerald Shiner pattern is very enticing for pike, too.”
Rowcliffe loves catching brown trout, especially big ones, and he is constantly experimenting with bigger stickbaits when targeting large browns. “I have yet to use a bait big enough where I don’t catch fish,” insists Rowcliffe. “I might sacrifice some numbers overall, but the average size of the fish I catch is much bigger when using the bigger lures.” Like the adage goes, use a big lure for catching a big fish.
“I have found that brown trout are very aggressive fish. They will make reaction strikes when they see the flash. They will also chase down a bait after it swims by. They put up a great fight on relatively light gear.”
It starts with the proper equipment. Rowcliffe is a spinning outfit master. That is what he has cut his teeth on growing up and he knows how it works. His fishing rod is more medium action to give him some hook-setting power, but he also wants a little flexibility on the tip. Just not too much flexibility.
“I need to be able to feel my lure working,” says Rowcliffe. “That’s one of the reasons I use braided line quite a bit. I can feel the lure hitting rocks on the bottom, I can feel the action of the lure and I can feel when something is not right, like when I have some weeds or a small stick I may have snagged.”
For his approach to casting, if you are facing upstream or upriver, cast out at about a 10 O’clock or a 2 O’clock angle. “The angle of the cast is important, but there is no exact way of doing it. Over time you will get a feel for it, what works and what doesn’t.” Reel in your slack line immediately and give your lure a jerk or two to get the offering deeper. Force some flash.
Learning to read the water is also important and there are times when stickbaits work the best for the type of fishing he enjoys. The first 2 things Rowcliffe looks at is depth of the water (how high or low it may be based on recent rains or snowmelt) and the water clarity itself.
We stopped as several spots along the way. I was carrying a favorite rod and reel, along with a camera. The first thing I realized was that I am not as limber as I used to be for crawling over large deadfalls. Heck, I had trouble with the guardrail along the road. Maybe I should not try climbing down a steep bank that was as slippery as an otter slide. Maybe it was an otter slide!
It did not take long for Rowcliffe to hit a 20-inch brown trout on a rainbow Challenger stickbait. He switched to a gold one and duplicated his feat with another 20-inch brown trout as we managed to get shots of our picture fish without me falling in.
I was having fun learning how to read the water and cast the lures into suspected hiding places. One of the biggest challenges was keeping the lures out the tree branches. My lures seemed attracted to them. At our final stop, we ran into another fisherman.
“We picked up a couple browns near twin bridges,” said Wade. “How ‘bout you?”
“Had a couple hits but nothing so far. I am a spinner guy and white or white and pink has been working well for me this year. Those stickbaits work, huh?”
It made me smile. It is whatever you have confidence in. Presentation is key, no matter what you are using.