Monday, November 28, 2016

11th Hour Steelhead

Editor's note: Tommy Baranowski is a good friend and angler that has been a big supporter of The Connecticut Yankee over the years. A few weeks ago, he experienced one of the more memorable catches of his life during a slower than usual steelhead trip. He agreed to share about it here in, as he eloquently put it, "the first fucking thing I've written since high school."  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

For as long as I can remember, I've been traveling up to Lake Ontario to fish for salmon, steelhead and brown trout. My father, who first went up to the Great Lakes to fish the famed Salmon River in the mid-70’s, fell in love with the fishery and in turn started bringing my younger brother and me when we were about seven or eight-years-old. I can remember like it was yesterday leaving our house in Bristol, CT and driving up through western Mass to the Pike, and the way the sunlight came through the trees along the upper stretch of the Farmington River along Route 8 in the late afternoon. I can remember picking handfuls of blueberries in the fields next to the lodge we always stayed in. I can remember being on the back of his 25’ Hydra Sport holding onto a rod, drag screaming, hooked up to a king salmon and having to give the rod up for fear of losing it overboard or being pulled straight to Canada. Eventually my father had to sell the boat which curbed our trips upstate for a while. Fast forward 20 years though and I find myself with the same obsession and love for the Great Lakes and its tributaries that my father once did. 

For about the last 10 years, my friends and I have been making fall voyages out to the Great Lakes from the Salmon River to as far west as Pennsylvania’s Elk Creek, and have made incredible memories along the way. My most recent trip to the Salmon was also memorable, but it was not for numbers of fish caught or incredible weather, just the opposite actually…

The fishery has sort of been on a downward spiral for the past few years. A combination of a steelhead die-off due to a vitamin B deficiency, invasive species, and general overfishing has put a major dent in fish populations, and this year has seemed to be the worst yet. Needless to say my friends Scott Hunter and Todd Kurht knew what we were getting ourselves into, but steelhead fishing plain and simple fucks you up. Once you've caught one fresh-out-of-the-lake, you will undoubtedly chase that experience for as long as you are physically able!

We arrived at Fox Hollow Lodge late on Thursday night, unloaded the unnecessary amount of shit the three of us filled the bed of my truck with, and prepared our gear for the day ahead. Alarms went off at 5:30 and shortly thereafter we were out the door. We started in a section of lower river and fished it hard the entire morning, nymphing and swinging flies in 30 mph gusts…not even a bump. Still feeling optimistic, we headed back to the truck and proceeded to go spot to spot for the remainder of the afternoon to end the day with…not even a bump. 

Photo credit: Tommy Baranowski

Back at the cabin we started brainstorming. After talking to multiple people on the river who had similar days as we did, and a stop in Malinda’s fly shop who never bullshits anyone and will tell you straight that the fishing sucks, we decided to set the alarms even earlier for the morning (3:45) and make a trek west to Oak Orchard Creek where Scott had done well the weekend prior. We arrived at the Archery club around 6:30, found a nice stretch of water three guys could fish together in and proceeded to catch one 18’’ domestic rainbow before they dropped the flows at the dam and turn the river into a trickle. Pretty sad. 

As we hung our heads and collected our thoughts over the sight of a bunch of small fish, decaying kings, and one really nice Atlantic salmon, we made our next move back east to Sandy Creek. Within 10 mins of walking the banks and surveying the water, we knew it was a bust and headed back to the Salmon River with our tails between our legs. Got back to the cabin and walked straight back to the beautiful piece of water behind our lodge. Trying our God damnedest to make something happen, we watch an angler hook, fight and land a beautiful dime-bright steelie right across the river from us. Then Scott came in contact with a fish only to get a scale back on the point of his hook. Signs of life at last! But as light faded another day ended without a chrome dome in our net...

Photo credit: Tommy Baranowski

The third day came, we woke up, ate breakfast, packed our shit, loaded the truck and off we went for the Hail Mary 11th hour run at the river. We had planned on fishing until 1:00 the latest to provide enough time to get home to CT and for Scott to make it back to eastern Mass before too late. So in the river we go fishing a stretch hard. Down around the bend we watch a fly angler fighting a fish and think it's a good sign. But a couple hours go by at this spot and still nothing. Now it’s getting late. 

We decide to walk upstream to a nice piece of open water and start giving it hell. A while goes by and we haven't touched anything, it’s around 11:15 and I change to a chartreuse bead. Two casts later (in a spot we drifted through 100 times already) the indicator goes down and holy shit I'm hooked up. I couldn't believe it, COULD NOT BELIEVE IT! The fish is strong as hell, comes to the surface thrashing and rips fly line off my reel in a heartbeat. Shit, my indicator is under water now and so is about 20’ of fly line, but I work my angles and get the fish back to the leader in a few minutes. All of the sudden the line goes tight and I can’t feel the fish any longer. What the hell is happening? It must be stuck on a rock or stick, so I zip my waders up and walk out, give the leader a few good pops and the fish starts swimming again!!! HO-LY SHIT!!! After a few more good seconds of fighting Scott made a picture perfect net job and we were ecstatic.

Shaking from what had just happened, we admired the fish in the net—a perfect fresh-out-of-the lake hen that didn't have one single imperfection on her. A gleaming chrome bar with an absolute motor of a tail. Right then Todd had walked back down from a little recon walk and the three of us marveled at the fish, did a quick a photoshoot, measured the fish on the net (31/32”), and watched it swim away strong. Landing a fish like this is truly a team effort, the guy with the net has a big responsibility, a long hard fought battle all comes down to a split second net job and I've bared witness to way too many missed fish because of a rushed or lazy net job. Scott delivered; one clean shot and that was all she wrote. 

It was a truly photo finish, right down to the wire, an hour and a half later we were driving home. It could have been any of us who caught that fish really. I stepped in a serious pile of shit luck and am super fortunate to have landed it. It’s moments like this where lasting memories are made that keep fisherman up at night dreaming of the next opportunity, to maybe get skunked, but just maybe land a fish of a lifetime.

Photo credit: Scott Hunter
Photo credit: Scott Hunter
Photo credit: Scott Hunter