Now, going by the title of this piece you might be forgiven for thinking that this is one of those 'travel' pieces. Well. It's not. It's actually about how I managed to catch some fish that weren't feeding. Read between the lines and you might pick up a tip or two - or you might not. (I've been re-reading this for about an hour now and still can't spot any). So, use your imagination, print it out and colour in the white areas. At least that way it'll keep your mind occupied for a while.
Anyway. Back to that road bridge over the creek that Jim Hanley had put us on to. I couldn't keep away. It had haunted my sleep. Imagine looking down on water thick with fish that nobody could catch fair and square. On our previous visit, as we left, we had seen a fish caught by someone on the other bank - but I'm pretty sure this was snag-hooked, deliberately foulhooked. Believe it or not this method was legal in many states until fairly recently. Thankfully that situation exists here no more - but whatever, that creek presented a challenge that we could not resist returning to.
On this second trip to the creek, we were slightly better prepared for what lay ahead. My partner took one bank and I took the other. As before, the place was packed with anglers, all blanking. There was only one guy who really seemed to have a clue of how to tackle the water. He had waded out and was trotting salmon eggs down the stream beneath a giant and garish plastic float.
Salmon eggs are to the North American angler what a pint of maggots are to the UK one. Just about every bait-angler over here seems to use them, they come fresh or pre-packaged in little jars. Salmon eggs do seem to catch a lot of fish over here but I suspect that the main reason for this is because so many people use them, rather than it being down to them being a particularly good bait. I am not quite as excited about them as I was the first time I came to the States. Experience has taught me to be a little more reserved in my instant judgements than I was at one time. (And not just with baits, life is a harsh tutor sometimes). Almost everyone I know who has fished the US brings back some of this salmon-egg 'wonder-bait' only to discover that they don't work quite as well on our side of the pond. (I could actually scratch "quite as well" from that last sentence in all truth). But there I go wandering off the subject again.
Altogether I must have spent the best part of an hour leaning over that bridge, dropping free samples in to drift down to the gathered mixed shoal below. It was fascinating to watch those fish react. To the lures and flies being cast at them, they responded by moving aside should anything come close. The worms that were drifted down also seemed of no interest. I watched some worms actually bump fish on the head and be ignored. The guys on the trout lake back home would simply not believe this. The brightly coloured salmon eggs that many of the better anglers use out here, were being taken, though very rarely. Of the fifty or so I saw introduced, I saw maybe two get taken. You know how it is when a shoal of carp are cruising just under the surface on a hot day, almost (but not quite) ignoring all the free samples? Well, it was a little like that.
The fish below me seemed to come in two sizes. The smaller ones were the rainbow trout of a pound or two. The larger fish were steelhead and salmon of somewhere between five and ten pounds at a guess. Steelhead? Oh. Steelhead are to rainbows what sea-trout are to brownies. Migratory rainbows. That's the easiest way to explain it. However, some purists might insist that steelheads only run in the west coast rivers that empty into the Pacific. Not these ones. These fish never see any salt water as far as I am aware, they run into Lake Erie and back up the rivers that fill it. Anyway the locals call them Steelhead and so do I, so there!
My fishing partner that day thought that if a bait could be legered under the fishes' noses, presented as a pop-up, it could prove irresistible. He filled a space on the bank as soon as one became vacant to try out the theory. I thought his idea could work - and in fact would work, on a less pressured water, but this place was amazing. There were rods and lines everywhere. I took a pinch of breadflake from a loaf I had brought especially for this purpose and dropped in a tiny ball of bread, then another, then another. One after another the tiny balls of bread fell, hit the water and drifted downstream. The first dozen or so were ignored. Then a fish followed one downstream, drifting backwards as it examined it. It vanished from sight in some rippling water that my Polaroids could not penetrate. I kept the stream of compressed crumbs trickling in.
A fish, a large one, turned and mouthed a tiny breadball. Then, almost instantly, spat it out. Another fish, one of the smaller rainbows did the same. This was amazing. The fish were not interested at all in feeding, nor were they in that aggressive mood where they would 'chase off' flies and lures, but they were curious. They were interested to see just what this strange new stuff was that was floating down the stream, and arriving regularly now. I watched one fish, a good sized salmon, investigate four pieces of breadpaste, one after the other. Each time he took the small round breadball into his mouth and each time he instantly spat out a stream of tiny crumbs. And I do mean instantly!
Right. The bread was entering their mouths. They were catchable.
My very first days fishing on a 'proper' river was on the tiny River Roding in Essex, at some place, the name I have forgotten, well over forty years ago. Then, I had stood on a bridge not unlike this one and dropped little bread balls to dace and roach, and was shocked speechless when a 'monster' 3lb chub hove into view to grab the bread away from the smaller fish. All the rest of that school summer holiday had been spent fishing that bridge swim, cycling the 28 mile round trip in an attempt to catch that chub. I never did catch it but I did catch an awful lot of dace. So, that's my qualifications stated clearly. I had experience of this style of fishing from long before. I was going dace fishing, but for salmon!
Yet again I had brought incorrect tackle with me. I guess I'll learn one day but until then I'll have to continue to do what I did that day. Improvise. A heavy feeder/light carp rod was coupled to a borrowed baby fixed-spool reel loaded with 6lb line. I say 6lb but the stuff snapped so easily that I think it was more realistic to rate it at 3lb. Just in case I slackened the clutch right off. The only floats I had with me were a couple of six inch pieces of peacock quill, au naturale. I set up a rough and ready trotting rig, fixing the float top and bottom with float-rubbers cut from my catapult elastic, adding a size 14 hook to 3lb nylon to complete the set up. All I needed was a couple of BB shot and I was ready.
The first problem was getting a space to fish. That was easy, unless you wanted to be where the fish were, in which case it was a matter of waiting. Very few people seemed to want to stay too long though, it was just too disheartening. It didn't matter if you were using lures, baits or flyfishing the swim, the fish were simply not having it. Most people seemed to get bored inside an hour or so and moved on. It was a matter of just sticking it out until a space became available. When one did, I got in position, just below the bridge. At this point I was fumbling through my megre box looking for split-shot when a lady angler in full fly-fishing apparel came up from downstream and stopped 10 feet from me, looking askance. I had been blocking her path so I swiftly moved back to give her room to pass me. "Oh, go right ahead" I said. "Thank you" she replied - and did. In front of my eyes she waded straight in, right in front of me, taking the only free spot for herself. I was dumbstruck!
A short while later another position became free twenty foot upstream. I passed the angler fishing with the salmon eggs and settled in behind and upstream of him. After introducing a few free samples, I cast out. At last. I was in position and on the fish, the fact that they were not feeding bothered me not one jot. I asked myself how come I was fishing the most crowded spot in all of North America when all around me were thousands of miles of virtually un-fished rivers and lakes, most of which were teeming with fish and all free fishing. I couldn't come up with a sensible answer because I was distracted by the guy next to me striking into a fish. He was in! I quickly reeled in to give him some room. A short brisk fight ensued before he slipped the net under a nice plump rainbow trout. As he did so, a round of applause went up from the anglers all around who had witnessed the capture. Huh? Oh, well, okay. I joined in. When in Rome and all that…
I was not in the best position to cast to the fish but at least some were in front of me. That's all I needed. After perhaps the tenth trot down, the float stopped momentarily. Visualising what was going on beneath the surface, I struck. The rod tip went over and I was in. A huge rainbow-hued silver ingot launched itself skyward. Whoops! This one was a rather larger proposition than I had expected. I quickly readjusted the clutch and played the fish gently. Really gently, and very aware of the many eyes watching me. The tackle I was using was very poorly matched, I had to be careful. With the fish leaping constantly I led it surely but gently upstream onto the shallow riffle in order to beach it. Now; I have a slight hearing difficulty (pardon?) so I already had the fish onto the shallows before I was able to discern that my neighbour was offering me the chance to use his net. And by then I had the fish on dry land. I thanked him though and took the opportunity to have a little chat with him. He was fishing for the table, though not his own table. All the fish he caught were going to the local senior citizens home. That was good enough for me. I donated my fish to him.
A short while later it happened again. The float dipped momentarily and I hit it. Seconds later a plump red salmon was crashing skywards at the end of my line. It was joyful work leading it upstream and around to the shallows where it was plucked from the water to join its steelhead friend on the live-fish 'stringer' that was used to restrain them. Given enough time I know I could have emptied that pool under the bridge but strangely enough I lost interest after that first couple of fish. I had cracked it, sorted out the method and the challenge was no longer there. Besides. Nobody had applauded!
My fishing partner had generously relinquished his place on the far bank in order to come and photograph my fish. Neither of us had enough warm clothes on and the evening chill was closing in. We packed our kit and left. Happy. Like a couple of schoolkids fishing the Roding four decades ago.
When we left, we tried to give away our 'wonderbait' but everyone we offered it to refused. They seemed almost incredulous that I should suggest such a thing - most of them barely suppressing a smile. One nodded honestly to us as he smilingly refused and held his hands up, palms facing out in a blocking motion. 'Hey, really. No thanks. We used to use that stuff when we were kids'. He chuckled and turned his attention back to the three inch red and white plastic lure he was in the process of attaching to his line.
I think I missed something there, but for the life of me I can't think what it was.
Now I don't often do this, tell people how to catch fish etc. I usually leave that to the experts. But… The little lesson I (re)learned on this trip was driven home to me so strongly that I'm going share it with you in plain English. Too many times I have raved on about something which has been very successful for me, and then found it was a one-off fluke. Best thing is usually to keep my big mouth shut until it's proven. Well this is proven. So. The moral of the tale:
Sometimes it is possible to catch fish that are not feeding. If you can get the finny little fellows interested, they might become curious. If they get curious, they will want to investigate. Curious fish behave like small children and become unable to stop themselves from grabbing hold of whatever it is that has caught their attention. Lacking hands, the only thing they are able to grab hold with, is their mouths. Just be ready to strike quickly though, because they won't hang on to it for long
Damn. Ran out of time again, maybe I'll get around to those muskies and the beautiful Ithaca Falls next time.
More details: Jim Hanleys website is at:
Talking Phone Book Hot Line Report is 716 844 1111 ext. 4142
Jim's business line for charters etc. is 716 312 0418
A copy of a map of the areas we fished is available to view on line at www.erie.gov
Our Guide on the Niagara River:
A couple of extra do's and don'ts
Tackle: Take tackle that you will be comfortable using. Not too much of it as it is all very inexpensive in the states and you'll want to bring stuff back with you. You should take your own float-fishing tackle if that's how you like to fish as no shops sell it here.
Take US dollars and credit cards. Cash bills other than US$ are unacceptable even by many major banks. Personally I would even avoid Travellers Cheques
Take empty bags and full wallets. The value for money in the USA is second to none.