Mentor, Ohio — No one can question the angling bonafides of Mentor’s Bob Ashley, particularly when it comes to steelhead fishing.
However, even by Ashley’s high standards, this fall has gone beyond reasonable expectations. On a recent morning outing with Ashley on the lower reaches of a Lake Erie tributary in Lake County, Ashley and this reporter managed to reel in nine steelhead. The “smallest” was five pounds with two over 10 pounds, with half-again that total number giving us the slip.
Of the 325 to 350 steelhead that Ashley has thus far caught this season, about one dozen have exceeded 10 pounds each – the largest one tipping the scales just shy of the 12-pound mark and stretching the tape to 32 of its 36 inches.
“I can’t a recall a season like this one in numbers of fish but also numbers of big fish,” said Ashley, whose exploits included a one-day personal best total of 31 steelhead.
The fact that steelhead angling by Ashley has done so well could be dismissed as an exceptional angler having a particularly exceptional season if it were not for the fact he is not alone.
“Funny, but yours is the second call I’ve taken on this today,” said Curt Wagner, the Ohio Division of Wildlife fish management supervisor in northeast Ohio and the self-described “go-to guy” on the agency’s steelhead program.
That being said, Wagner did indicate not all steelhead anglers are experiencing such stellar fishing.
“I spoke with one angler who is fishing the mid-section of the Cuyahoga River and all he’s getting are smaller steelhead, so I can’t say the good fishing is an across-the-board thing,” Wagner said.
The thing is, Ashley and other successful big-fish steelheaders are fishing the Northeast Ohio stream’s lower reaches. That term is loosely defined as being up to a Lake Erie tributary’s first set of riffles, Wagner says.
And the agency annually stocks around 450,000 eight-inch steelhead into six Lake Erie tributaries: the Vermillion, Rocky, Chagrin, Grand, and Ashtabula rivers as well as Conneaut Creek.
A seemingly unexplored look by the Division of Wildlife into the seemingly abundance of big trout is the possibility of the steelhead’s food source – both while in Lake Erie for two or three years as well as when the fish enter their natal streams.
With the fish or two Ashley brings home every angling session or so for eventual smoking, the trout’s bellies are swollen with three- to four-inch long gizzard shad. Not emerald shiners. Not smelt. Not alewives, but gizzard shad. Just like for the walleyes that Ashley and many other Lake Erie anglers have seen.
“I don’t have all of the answers,” Wagner says, “but gizzard shad are an excellent, high-energy food source package.”
Almost certainly the conundrum as to why and where big fish are being caught is not answered by any change in where the state obtains most of its steelhead eggs: that being from Michigan and Wisconsin.
“It’s still the same compliment we were using before COVID changed where we obtained eggs,” Wagner said.
Thus, fish raised from eggs obtained from West Virginia, raised and stocked in 2020 and 2021 by the Ohio Division of Wildlife “won’t be seen until the fall of 2024 at the earliest,” Wagner said.
Perhaps, but at least for now Ashley and some other Northeast Ohio steelheaders are in their angling glory – with the full knowledge that what is downstream must go upstream.
Consequently, when the streams are ice-free again in “x-number” of weeks, all of those big fish will be in those riffles Wagner spoke about along with more than a few small streams.
“So, enjoy it while you can,” Wagner said.