WILLOUGHBY, Ohio, — "Awwwwwwwww!" You could have heard Jeff Frischkorn's loud exclamation of disappointment halfway down the Chagrin River valley when the big steelhead trout, with which he had been dueling, got away.
It would have been a first for fellow outdoors writer Frischkorn, though as a veteran steelheader he has caught hundreds and hundreds of the sleek silver bullets. He was learning to use a center-pin reel and rod rig, which just may be the ultimate outfit for angling up these finny chrome-plated creatures.
In a way the center-pin reel is about as simple as it gets — a big spool for fishing line with metal side plates. Direct drive, no gears, one turn of the spool for one turn of the cranks. No drag, save for finger, or palm-pressure on the rim of the spool. Simple as it gets. Coupled to a soft but strong 13-foot rod, the rig has its roots in Europe with carp fishermen.
It works just fine for steelhead too, once you get the hang of paying out line from the freewheeling reel while smoothly "swinging" out a cast with that long, long rod. The benefit of center-pinning is that it allows a steelheader to keep letting out line while drifting spawn-bags just by free-spooling, all while keeping in direct contact with a drifting float [bobber].
The float is the strike indicator for terminal tackle suspended underneath, same setup as when using a noodle rod and spinning reel. That typically means tandem hooks dressed with sacks of spawn, or jigs and maggots, or even a nightcrawler [yes, them too].
It took Frischkorn of Mentor-on-the-Lake a few hours under the tutelage of guide Jim Chamberlin of Sheffield Lake to get the hang of it. At $400 for a center-pin rig [$150 for the rod, $250 for the reel], this may not be the gear for the occasional steelhead angler. But true enthusiasts are embracing center-pinning more and more.
"I'm trying to get all me people to use this," he said as he watched Frischkorn in action. Chamberlin is a good teacher, giving patient, quiet instruction and encouragement, then standing back and letting the student get the hang of it without pressure.
"Presentation is the key when you're doing this," said Chamberlin about teasing steelhead to "eat." That goes for whatever tackle you are using — spin, fly, or center-pin.
Presently Frischkorn, working a boulder and rubble-strewn Chagrin River hole, connected with another mature fish on the center-pin rig. This one didn't snag up the terminal tackle in the rocks, as happened on the first hook-up.
Frischkorn beamed widely and shouted enthusiastically as Chamberlin "tailed" the big steelhead with a grippy glove.
The fish, a hen, was trophy size — 30 inches and 10 pounds. After a photo, the anglers slipped it back into the river.
Steelheading in northeast Ohio's famed steelhead streams is a highly variable business, contingent on water level and flow, temperature, turbidity, and more. This year to date has been no exception.
But these Lake Erie tributaries are bolstered by more than 400,000 new steelhead stocked annually from the Castalia State Fish Hatchery, and they have gained a national reputation for producing big fish and big numbers.
They are the heart of the region that has come to be known as Steelhead Alley, which stretches on east into Pennsylvania and western New York.
This year, three floods in February and early March, one of them caused by a deluge of three inches of rain after 12 inches of snow, scoured out streams like the Chagrin and Grand rivers, among others.
All those runs and holes and hides of the recent past suddenly became a memory, yesterday's news.
So guides like Chamberlin and other steelheaders are having to learn anew whole stretches of stream.
Still, the guide says, "this is what I like about steelheading, the hunt."
As we ventured from venue to venue on the Grand and Chagrin rivers through the day Wednesday, Chamberlin would say, "we'll just have to see if the fish are still there."
So it's not duck soup, not easy as pie. You have to know a lot, work hard for your prize. When steelies are making the major spawning runs upstream from the big lake, it often is cold and damp, sometimes rainy, sleety, snowy.
You trundle around in clumsy chest waders, bundled up like the Pillsbury Doughboy.
You freeze your hands. But for fishermen, the strength and speed and sometimes out-of-water acrobatics of a mature steelhead trout are all the prize they need.
To contact Chamberlin, visit on-line at www.fishwithjimoutfitters.com, or call 248-252-1277. For information on accommodations, other guides, and area services, contact the Lake County Visitors Bureau online at www.lakevisit.com or call 1-800-368-LAKE.
Contact Steve Pollick at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068