April 27, 2014

2014 Trout Opener

To the steelheader, trout opener allows access to the headwater section of steelhead spawning streams where fish were protected during the spawn. These headwaters contains a high number of spawning and post-spawn fish that are aggressive and hungry. Usually I'm foaming at the mouth thinking about that violent disappearance of my float upon the take of a steelhead toward a seemingly innocent drifting worm.

To the fly angler, trout opener allows access to streams that had been closed to fishing since October 1st of last year. Since Brook Trout and Brown Trout spawn in the fall, and the area where these two trout are found are usually at the headwaters of steelhead streams in Southern Ontario, it make sense to close fishing until spring. This long closer period creates an intolerable itch to wave the light-weight fly rod by mid-winter. Usually I'm foaming at the mouth thinking about a brook trout sipping blue-winged olives in a pool on a small intimate stream.

If I had to pick between the two, you'll find me most often choosing steelhead. I dearly love fly fishing for brook trout...but I can do that throughout spring to fall. Steelhead are only there for 2-3 weeks after Trout Opener. Once they complete the spawn, fish will start to drop back into Lake Ontario. The window of opportunity is short, and prime fishing is now.

Having set up the background to this story then...let's begin!

Our gang consisted of my buddy Matt, Michael and I. Matt and I finished work early, but since Matt had to drive from Cambridge to Toronto through rush hour, he didn't get to my place by 7pm. I carpooled Matt to Michael's place by 8:20pm and finally the three of us arrived at the stream by 9pm.

We wanted to fish a pool way downstream, but since it was dark, we opted to stay closer to the car for the night. We hiked a distance from the access to our destination...just far enough from the crowds but still close enough to the car. With a lot of gear, it was a lot of work. Upon arrival, the first task was to find some wood to start a campfire. The temperature was dropping to a low of 3C overnight so a fire would be very welcoming. It was difficult to get dry wood since it had been raining since 3pm. Luckily, we found some dry tinder under a couple of logs and the fire was eventually hot enough to dry and burn the wet branches.

Once we got the fire started, the loooooooong wait to 0:00:00 of Saturday April 26, 2014 began. I set an alarm for 23:58 (two minutes earlier to allow time to put on a glow stick, tie on a hook and bait on a worm...because you don't get your gear ready until it is time...just in case our MNR officers came to check on us). Even so, we were checking our watches every so often and you know that a watched pot doesn't boil. We continued to gather wood to pass time time.

Finally, the moment came! We all made our first drift in the pool. It was difficult drifting in the dark. Even when Michael had scouted the pool a day in advance, and with his description of all the snags in and around the pool, all of us snagged up almost on the first drift.

Retying my line at...

It is not easy catching steelhead at night. Not only for the fact that it is more difficult to see obstacles at night, but it is also difficult to locate the fish at night. Fish migrate upstream in the cover of darkness and they are often found in shallow riffles and runs. Sometimes you may hear them kick in inches of water, but more often than not, they move in water just deep enough to conceal their position. A trick I found was to search with my headland until I see a fish, then switch off that headlamp immediately so I don't spook them too much with the light. It is important to target these fish in bottleneck areas. One such area I had luck on this night was a narrow deeper run. As fish swam upstream, they had to pass through the deep channel on the right due to the barely submerged riffle on the left. The difficulty in this run was two trees above and a log lying through the length of the run below.

I hooked a fish at 1am and managed to pull it downstream out of the trouble areas, but the fish eventually threw the hook while headshaking in the shallow riffle.

After I re-baited and found a couple of fish to target, it took another 15min before one would commit. This time, it was a big fish that I had little control in the dark. The fish first ran into the log and wrapped the line around while still powering upstream through a riffle. I had to wade chest deep into the water to free the line from the log while keeping the rod tip off the log. I had to open the bail to let the fish run without breaking my tip or my line. When the line was freed, the momentary slack line wrapped around the tip guide since the rod tip was in the water and the current swept the slack downstream. The fish felt the slack and came swimming back down past me into the riffle. The line came tight again as the fish swam down. It was difficult trying to free the line from the tip guide with pressure on, but I finally had the line freed. The fish swam up to the log again and wrapped me a second time. I freed the line the same way and this time the slack line was wrapped further down the blank. The fish swam back to the riffle again and while I was freeing the line, the line snapped. I managed to catch it as it was exiting the second last line guide. My only option now was to hand line the fish. Since the fish had fought my determination more than the rod or the drag, it was still completely fresh. Without much trouble, the fish finally snapped my leader off at the hook. At least I retrieved my float and most of the terminal tackle.

At around 3am, I lost another fish to the log. This one didn't even give me a chance as it snapped me off immediately. Not long later, another fish threw the hook within 30 seconds of hooking up. This one threw the hook while headshaking in the shallow riffles as well.

It was now 4am and I was extremely tired. Matt and Michael were already settled into a nap. I set the alarm for 5:30am, but woke up at 5am when the fire almost burned out and the cold woke us up. Matt was already fishing again and he landed the first fish of the day.

Michael and I were shivering...so our priority was to get firewood and get warmed before fishing. It didn't take long after I started drifting to get my first of the day.

Released, re-baited...first drift...

Matt hooked up while I was re-baiting. Strangely, most of the fish we caught were over 5lbs, with the exception of this one.

I went back to fishing after taking the picture...and second drift...

While I was fighting the fish above, Michael hooked up his first fish of the trip. We were hoping Matt would hook one for the triple but it didn't happen. Since Matt was fishing and Michael was fighting his fish I didn't have a photographer. We wanted to release these fish in prime condition so I quickly released mine to help Michael land his first of the day. We didn't bother with the double picture.

Some were spawned out and skinny like this one. This fish would be over 10lbs in prime condition, but now she simply looked like a snake. Her fins were all worn out due to redd digging.

I think we can call this pool the Glory Hole.

Matt and I were outfishing Michael for a while...until I got on a 0/5 stretch where all my hooked fish came off within 10 seconds of the hookset. I checked my hook and it was sharp...but yet I sharpend it just in case...and I was still dropping fish. :(

Meanwhile, Matt hooked one of his biggest of the day...

Fishing was crazy for an hour...then it slowed down. We must have hooked all the hungry fish in the pool because despite trying different baits and lures, we didn't get the fish to go fast and furious again. We hook a fish here and there and landed a few more, but it wasn't off the charts like it was early in the morning. Michael took the hike back to the car to drop off our camping chairs and unnecessary gear. When he returned, we packed up to search for new waters.

Since it was now later in the morning, there were many more people who showed up on the stream. Most of the prime pools were taken so the picking was slim. We had to hike quite a ways downstream to the Suicide Pool. I guess we could fish the little runs and slots in between, but I just wanted to get to the suicide pool. Upon arrival, there were 4 guys fishing on the lower end of the Suicide Pool. I tried the upper area without much success. They might have fished it hard already because the fish that were there were super spooked.

Michael went ahead and found an unoccupied little pool. It was difficult to fish here since there was an overhanging tree just inches from the water. Only one person could fit in that pool. Matt fished a little slot just above the pool. Michael landed 3 and lost a few while Matt lost 2. Since there was no room for me, I hiked further downstream on my own until I got to a nice pool that I found last year. Again, there were a few fish here and there in the small runs and slots, but I ignored them hoping to find that prime pool for myself. Initially, all I got was a gravid White Sucker.

Fearing that I had wasted time hiking to this pool and missed other opportunities along the way, I decided to go through my arsenal before moving on. I made a small switch in lure and presentation...BAM!

Unfortunately, I lost that fish when it ran me into the log jam.

So I retied again and it took 2 drifts until I hooked up a big fish. This one was out of control from the beginning and it tried three times to run me into the log. I pulled it back over and over again and finally thought I had it beat. Since I was alone, I tried to beach it in a shallow area. If either Matt or Michael was with me, the fish would have been netted already...but unfortunately they were not and it was difficult for me to net the fish without high-sticking a 12'6" rod. The fish gave a last kick and got back into the current...straight back into the log. PING!

I retied my leader and hook and started drifting again. The extended fight from the last fish much have spooked the pool. I fished it for 5 minutes without a hit. Matt finally came to join me. I just finished explaining to him where I hooked my last two steelhead. On the next drift, I actually showed him where the fish were sitting in the pool.

After releasing the fish, I took two drifts again...

I have never weighted a steelhead. I figured I had caught a few close and perhaps even over 10lbs...but it was all guesstimation. Since Michael arrived while I was fighting the fish, and he had a digital scale, I put this fish on the scale. It was 10lbs on the dot. So there's my first confirmed double digit steelhead!

Matt and I lost a few fish after and the bite stopped. Michael had hiked down to parts unknown. It was about 1pm by now so our plan was to find Michael and then work our way upstream again.

We hiked back to the Suicide Pool and tried it with different baits and plastic lures. Fish were very spooky and we had zero success. I saw a couple of aggressive males jostling for rank. I said to Matt and Michael that I'm going to try a large spinner. Michael had the same idea and already had one rigged. Before I had my spare rod lined and rigged, he already landed two steelhead on a smaller silver spinner.

My spinner was larger and heavier and it took some time to figure out how to best fish it in the pool. If I let it drift with the current, it would sink quickly to the bottom and snagged. Lucikly I was able to free the snag each time. If I were to cast it across and slowly retrieve it, the fish were spooked by the commotion. Fish would only responded when I swung the spinner in front of their faces and held it in place in the current. Not every fish would respond since most of the fish were spooked by the approach of the spinner. It was difficult holding the spinner in one spot long enough. However, if you get it just right the odd aggressive fish would swim up from behind and smash it violently. This was my first ever steelhead caught on a spinner. It was quite addictive watching them smash spinners!

I got about 7-8 hits on the spinner but nothing would stick. I am not really sure why because the hooks were sharp and the fish would grab it with mouth wide open then turn as they close their mouth. Usually the fish set themselves hitting a lure with a treble hook in this fashion. Still, it was heart stopping to see them grab something so violently.

At long last, we had to end the day since Matt had to get home before 7pm.

This was one of the most memorable opener I had. We had some non-stop action and we had great better company. Although the bite at night was slow...and losing all my hooked fish was very disappointing, it was still wonderful to be fishing while most were in bed. I don't know what my total number of landed fish were...since I only took pictures of the first few of the day, and then the bigger fish later in the day. I know a few smaller ones were landed that I quickly released without pictures. A safe guess would be 10+...but I lost probably twice the number of fish yesterday. Getting 30+ steelhead bites in a day is sure to satisfy anyone!

I'm already looking forward for next Trout Opener!

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