Steelhead Fly Fishing in Small Streams in WNY
September is warm with little need for waders when fishing the small numbers of steelhead trout that are trickling into Lake Erie’s tributaries. October and November bring more brisk temperatures as the streams fill with polar-fleece-clad anglers fishing large pods of migrating trout that swim through currents of deteriorating orange and red leaves. December is a month of miserable weather and glorious fishing. As the temperature plummets to below freezing, the streams accumulate layers of snow and ice as most fishermen vacate the streams for more sensible endeavors but the two- to three-foot-long steelhead remain in the water until mid-January, so anglers looking for solitude and uncrowded streams venture into their home waters in search of a little tug from their favorite ice-bordered jade green pools.
There is an eerie silence as ambient noise is buffered by the thick blankets of snow on the ground and in the trees. The only remaining sounds are your boots moving through the water and the gurgling water as it drops into the carved recesses of the smooth slate streambed. As the mercury drops, the fly line freezes to rods, guides fill with ice, reels freeze solid, and fingertips begin to ache.
There is nothing that has ever been made that can keep your finger tips warm while providing the dexterity needed to change flies or tie knots. These unprotected protrusions from your fingerless gloves are a fly fisherman’s Achilles heel, constantly exposed to the wind, water, and frigid temperatures. It is when the conditions seem to be at their worst that a true steelheader feels the scales of justice start to level out. As you walk the quiet barren streams looking for pods of steelhead, you repeatedly move your fingers to keep the warm blood circulating through your painful digits.
When you are fortunate enough to seduce your piscatorial prey into taking your fly, there is a fair estimation that the pain you are feeling is closer to that which the fish experiences. As your hands release the fish into the freezing water, your pain is amplified as the fish’s is diminished. In this intimate encounter, your temporal pain connects you to the large magical creature and to the extreme environment you have voluntarily endured. There is a sense of absurdity in the process that allows you to reclaim some of the wonderful childishness that has been replaced over years by the responsible actions of adulthood. I always leave the stream feeling a bit younger and with a new appreciation for my warm home.
Painter and avid fisherman Alberto Rey teaches at SUNY Fredonia.