Sunday, May 20, 2018
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Following the fish: The Vermilion is a budding steelhead paradise

Picture a perfect spring day, crystal blue sky overhead and still a bit of a nip in the fresh air, 50-foot shale cliffs, a chucking current - and a 10-pound “winter male” steelhead on the business end of your fly line. A mere 75 minutes east of Toledo, it s a fisherman s dream come true, and it is a reality that the river can deliver. Some days.

Chris Cutcher, a Toledo steelhead guide who runs float trips on the Vermilion and the Rocky River - the latter on Cleveland s west edge - thinks the Vermilion has almost arrived as a classy steelhead water. But, he adds, it still is a mite immature. It may take another two or three years for the stream to establish consistency.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife began stocking the Vermilion in May of 2002 with 69,000 smolts. It has had a planting schedule of at least 55,000 smolts a year since then, with the first of the 2-year-olds expected to return from Lake Erie this spring.

But on a recent 71/2-mile float aboard Cutcher s 14-foot inflatable, few if any 2-year-olds could be spotted. They simply may not yet have arrived.

Fair numbers of steelhead were about - enough to get the attention of fly fishermen scattered along the miles of runs. But they weren t fresh-run “chromers” or “silver bullets.” They were darker fish, including older fish in the 30-inch, 10-pound range, which apparently have strayed into the stream from rivers down east along Lake Erie.

That said, it becomes a question of how many fish, hooked and landed, does it takes to make a day? Mine was made after landing the first 10-pounder. A second, similar fish, taken from an 80-foot pool on a feeder stream, was icing on the cake. Cutcher said that although he has landed as many as 70 steelhead in a day - the guide spent more than 100 days on the Vermilion in 2003 - perhaps five landings per trip is about average.

“This is a parking zone,” Cutcher said of one pool that attracted six big fish. Indeed, steelheading is hunting first, fishing second -“stalking big fish in skinny water,” as the guide puts it. “This is an outdoor experience.”

Indeed, the little river is not badgered by industrialization on its banks, and its sharply shaped valley isolates it from the rural and small-town world above. It is not a stretch to imagine being in northern Michigan. Wood ducks, mallards, Canada geese, kingfishers, bank swallows and more bird-life abounds.

“People don t even realize this is out here. You don t know you re in Ohio,” he said.

Woodchucks and mink scamper along the bottomland, small frogs called spring peepers croak in the bogs. Cutcher one time found two white-tailed deer, bucks with antlers locked in a death embrace, dead in the water beneath a shale cliff. The edge had given way as they fought and the bucks fell to eternity.

The only fly in the ointment in this little piece of angling paradise is the prevalence of some poachers, the guide noted. The scofflaws know when the fish are running or concentrated and illegally snag out fish with heavy line and weighted treble hooks. Or they spear the fish out of the stream with frog gigs. A shame.

The Vermilion s “fishing zone” begins just upstream of State Rt. 2 at Vermilion and continues some 16 or so stream-miles to the dam at Wakeman on the main stem in Huron County, or a slightly shorter distance up the East Fork to the dam at Kipton in Lorain County.

Cutcher typically floats from Schoepfle Garden Metropark at Birmingham to Mill Hollow Metropark on North Ridge Road, about 71/2 miles. “Most of these holes are inaccessible except by boat - it s private property [on the banks]. So I ve got most of it to myself.” The only other public access in the stretch between the parks is a bridge right-of-way on Sperry Road. Cutcher started out with a basic 14-foot Aire inflatable - “they make a lot of whitewater boats. They just dropped a custom-made fishing platform into it for me. It draws just two inches.

“A good steelhead hole is anywhere from three- to six-feet deep and water [current] at the speed of a walking pace,” summed Cutcher. As with any steelhead stream, watching the water levels and knowing the impact of rainfall and runoff is critical. Come at the wrong time and you are wasting your time.

“The thing about the Vermilion is, there is so much farmland up in the headwaters that it takes longer to clear than the Rocky.” Cutcher starts fishing at ice-out in spring and stays at it at least until mid-May. “On any given year you can see fish in here til the first week of June. It s all about water temp. Preferably steelhead don t want to be in water over 60 [degrees]. But I ve seen them in here when the water is over 70.”

Cutcher may resume Vermilion steelheading as early as Labor Day, if there is enough rain. If the rains do not come early, it may be October before the fish get started. “November is the peak of the fall run.” He fishes until ice-up.

“People don t realize these are the best steelhead streams in the country. They have the best catch-rates for steelhead,” said Cutcher about the Vermilion and Ohio s prime steelhead streams to the east along Lake Erie. He guides anglers from around the country who fly into Toledo or Cleveland for walk-in or float trips on the Rocky, Vermilion and Grand rivers.

Cutcher prefers a 91/2–foot, 8-weight rod and a reel with a good drag, filled with level fly-line for use in what steelheaders call “chuck-and-duck” casting - small bits of pinch-on lead shot are used to weigh down the fly offerings. He ties on an eight-foot leader of eight-pound test line, then a four-foot tipper or four-pound test, pinching on just enough shot to take the fly down to the fish-zone. He puts the shot just above the tippet knot. He does not use a strike indicator, as do many steelheaders, preferring to closely watch either the fly or the end of the fly-line for indications of “takes.”

Cutcher ties his own flies, usually streamers in the popular woolly-bugger pattern in different bright to dark to contrasting colors. He also ties a selection of egg flies and is constantly changing patterns. His theory is that the fish get used to seeing the same pattern and color but instantly are interested in something new.

“All of them work,” he said. “It s a matter of water temp, clarity and season.

“The biggest key for steelheading is a pair of polarized sunglasses. If you don t have them, you might as well keep your rod at home. These guys can camouflage themselves in six inches of water.”

To contact Cutcher, call Port Royal Fly Fishing Outfitters in Toledo, 419-537-1491.

Contact Steve Pollick at: or 419-724-6068

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