Graduate student Carson Prichard with the steelhead he caught in the Ottawa River near University of Toledo campus.
The promotional literature the University of Toledo distributes to prospective students touts the school’s medical college, its extensive research projects, modern dormitories, and the picturesque campus.
There is no mention of the steelhead fishing opportunities.
But the Ottawa River, which threads its way through the UT layout, has recently served up several bragging-size steelhead.
This once Cuyahoga-esque stream, which for decades was fouled by runoff, discharge, and heavy metals, and not too long ago was called “the state’s most polluted waterway” in one scientific journal, appears to have made a Lazarus-like comeback.
“Some people considered it toxic,” said Hans Gottgens of UT’s Department of Environmental Sciences, who has been on campus for two decades. Like many, he recalls the bright yellow signs carrying the skull-and-crossbones-type warnings recently associated with the Ottawa, cautioning against swimming or fishing in the waters.
Most people familiar with that image of the Ottawa River would expect to see an old tire or a sofa dragged out of the waterway before they would witness a steelhead being caught there.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources raises wild strain steelhead from the Little Manistee River in Michigan and stocks them in five streams in the northeast corner of the Buckeye state. Steelhead anglers brave the elements and work the Vermilion, Rocky, Chagrin, and Grand rivers and Conneaut Creek throughout the winter months in pursuit of mature steelhead that return to these waterways.
But you won’t find the Ottawa River mentioned anywhere on the steelheader Web sites. Mike Wilkerson, the fish management supervisor at the Division of Wildlife’s Findlay office, said steelhead coming from the Ottawa watershed appears to be a new phenomenon.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of people catching them from that river,” he said. “It does look like a good sign.”
Steelhead, a rainbow trout that spends the summers in Lake Erie and then as a mature adult will migrate up streams from the fall through the spring, are somewhat persnickety by nature. They prefer cool, clean waters, which would seem to exclude the Ottawa from the list of prospective host sites.
But a couple of UT grad students have recently caught feisty, full-bodied steelhead from the stream, which collects the drainage from Ten Mile Creek and Schreiber Creek in Sylvania, then moves through Ottawa Hills, passes under the busy Secor Road thoroughfare, and then bisects UT’s main campus.
Nick Bryan, a teaching assistant in environmental sciences, caught a 30-inch steelhead using a Hot 'N Tot, a hard-bodied lure popular among Lake Erie walleye fishermen. His friend, Carson Prichard, a doctoral student in the same field, caught a steelhead about 24 inches long a few days later using a spawn sack, a much more common steelhead bait.
“Someone told me they had seen steelhead in the stream, so I figured I’d give it a try,” said Bryan, a Zanesville native who has fished for steelhead in the Rocky and Cuyahoga rivers. “These things fight like nothing you have ever seen.”
Bryan said the initial reaction from most folks on campus was “total surprise.”
“They can’t believe that big of a fish came from that river right here on campus. People can’t believe it’s a trout stream.”
Prichard, a west Michigan native, had fished for steelhead in the rivers near his home, and in several of the northeast Ohio waterways. At UT, he taught an environmental class for nonscience majors in the fall and found that most of his students had a grim impression of the Ottawa when they went down to the stream to do some sampling.
“Most of them were from northern Ohio, and they remembered the days when there were warnings signs next to the river,” Prichard said. “They were surprised to see the diversity of insect life we found in the river, and the number of fish we collected. They couldn’t believe the fish in there.”
The Ottawa River’s recovery came about due to a collaboration of many individuals and institutions, but the removal of two dams along the waterway likely played a major role. Gottgens said that even in its worst days the Ottawa might not have been as far gone as some perceived.
“It was considered a dead ditch, but I think the river had more to offer than it was given credit for,” he said. “But there’s no question that since the dams have been removed, the river is much healthier. The species count in the river is now up over 40. Sometimes, when we seine a section 20 yards long, we’ll find 300 fish. I never imagined that in my wildest dreams.”
Those student-conducted surveys of the life in the river show robust populations of minnows, darters, blue gills, pumpkinseed sunfish, invasive round gobies, largemouth bass, and pike. Bryan estimated that he caught 50 pike in the river over the spring and summer.
“Since the dams are gone, there are more species and more fish, and more are showing up all of the time,” he said. “But as a steelhead fisherman living in Toledo, I just assumed there was nowhere to go, but now there’s a chance you’ll get one right here."
Todd Crail, a native of Toledo, a Toledo Christian grad, and an instructor in environmental sciences at UT, has been an intimate observer of the Ottawa River for a couple decades.
He said the steelhead caught by Bryan and Prichard were not an anomaly.
“I’ve watched a lot of changes going on in the river since the dams have been removed,” said Crail, who caught a juvenile steelhead at Jermain Park in 2009.
“It’s getting back to a predator-driven system, so this wasn’t a fluke. I saw steelhead in there five years ago.”
Gottgens said a healthy Ottawa River has fundamentally changed the scene at UT, and he is excited that students are making these discoveries in the waterway.
“I see students fishing on campus now,” he said. “That’s something that 20 years ago I would have thought was impossible.”
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6068.