CONNEAUT — Ron McHenry, Nick Loprire and George Marsh were on the move Thursday morning, as were dozens of other anglers seeking the elusive steelhead trout in Conneaut Creek.
Loprire of Cortland made a series of graceful arcs with his rod and line as his bait searched the green water for its prey. None was to be found just below the Old Main Street bridge, so he and his fishing friends loaded their gear into an SUV and headed “into town” — a parking spot near the “tubes,” one of several hot spots inundated with fishermen Thursday.
The trio’s outing was one of many the fishermen plan to make to Ashtabula County this year. The drive is less than one hour, and the variety of fishing — from Pymatuning to Lake Erie and all the rivers and streams in between — make the county an attractive destination for the Mahoning Valley sportsmen.
George Marsh of Liberty said although he does some trout fishing, his favorite is the lake fish.
“I like best those fish that you eat, the walleye and perch,” Marsh said as he followed Loprire and McHenry back to the SUV.
Marsh said they had probably caught and released 30 steelhead by late morning, and with their success fairly strong, the men were debating the merits of splitting the cost of a room and staying overnight rather than driving home. It all depended on how well the fishing went the rest of the day.
Upstream from the arches, Ryan Russell of Lexington, Ky., and his friend, Greg Williams, also of Lexington, already had reservations at the Day’s Inn in Conneaut. Russell had just landed his first big one of the day with help from guide Ben Barger of Steelhead Alley Outfitters. Williams estimated that the fish weighed between 7 and 8 pounds. After Barger snapped several pictures of Russell with his trophy, the trout was released to the chilly water and the fly fishing resumed.
This was Russell’s first trip to the “alley.” He learned about it from Williams, who first heard about regional fly-fishing opportunities from a magazine. He has made at least eight trips since then.
“It’s a great place to be, a small town,” Williams said of Conneaut
County tourism officials promote fly fishing as the perfect draw for the “shoulder seasons,” that lull in the tourism year when the beaches, golf courses and festivals are still hibernating. Fly fishermen are not afraid to spend money to chase their sport and are often professionals with the resources to devote to the pastime.
Williams estimated that he and Russell would spend between $800 and $1,000 during their three-day stay in Ashtabula County. Loprire said he knows a guide who had a client come from Japan to fish this area. By reading reports on the Internet, the client knew the location of all the hot spots along the county’s walleye streams by the time his plane landed.
“That’s how international this fishing is,” Loprire said.
Loprire said the area has most of the amenities that fishermen need to keep them happy.
“You don’t have a great restaurant here, but you got what the fishermen want,” says Loprire, who has been following the Lake Erie steelhead fishing scene for three decades and writes a column for Trout Unlimited, a national organization dedicated to conserving, protecting and restoring North America’s cold water fisheries/watersheds.
Loprire said the one thing that the area could do to make its streams friendlier to fly fishermen is to maintain a website with fishing conditions reported by anglers working the streams. He said it is discouraging for fishermen to take a day off work and drive an hour or more only to find out that fishing is bad. Conversely, if the fishing is good, a website could help spread the news and encourage an influx of eager anglers. He said that kind of online resource is available for streams in neighboring Erie County, Pa.
“It’s a big money maker,” Loprire said. “This creek could be spectacular if they did a little better job of figuring out what’s going on. In fishing, information is king. If you would just have a website, and use it to poll fishing people, it would make a big difference. The big thing is you don’t want people coming up here when (fishing is bad).”
Overall, fly fishing has not been great on Lake Erie tributaries for the past three years, and it is not just a local issue. The fall steelhead fishing was particularly dismal due to bad water conditions. Disease claimed about half of the Little Manistee River variety of yearlings that Ohio uses to stock its streams. Loprire said Pennsylvania stocks a “Heinz 57” selection of trout that run only in the fall, but Ohio uses the Manistee, which run in the spring.
Fall or spring, the fly fishermen are a hardy lot, wading into water that is just a few degrees from becoming ice and hiking muddy trails and river banks in search of the next hot spot.
“It’s just like deer hunting, you go to the next spot where they are,” Marsh said.