In western New York, March 28th was more winter-like than spring. I left the house in a steady snowfall. The anti-lock brakes on the car struck metal and sprang a fear in my gut as I came off the Ridge Road with a series of spastic slides. At the bottom of the hill I looked at my potential two-hour drive into Lake Effect country and wondered, did I really want to go steelhead fishing now?
Finding public access for steelhead fishing on the Cattaraugus watershed is becoming more difficult every year, it seems, but I know a few modest streams that still draw the big Lake Erie runners every spring and autumn. I got on one of them as the great Zoar Valley swung its winter drapes around my walk.
No matter how early in the morning I got to this stream, it seemed there was always a truckload of anglers plodding just ahead of me. With a two-mile hike into the gorge and back again, I would meet up with half a dozen guys today, most of them hauling spin rod gear and egg-sacs. Very few trout had been seen, although one fellow did connect and was hauling his fish out on a chain. “You should’ve been here three days ago.” Another fellow said, “You should’ve been here three weeks ago!” Well, that’s just my luck, I thought, but my instincts told me otherwise. There were fish here then, but the big push had yet to come.
I spoke with two fly-fishermen who had driven nearly three hours to get here. They approached me through the deep snow of the bank, dejection in their voices. “Are you seeing any?” I answered by saying that I hadn’t been, but I was keeping a hopeful eye on the water.
“The fish will probably be here after the first good thaw brings the water level up. Anyhow, it looks like we drove all this way for nothing.”
I agreed that it sure would be nice to tangle with a fish, to see a few of the many that are typically in the Zoar by middle March. But really, wasn’t there more to this experience than hauling in big rainbows?
This was steelhead weather, in my estimation. Snowy but not too cold. There was beauty in the gorge, if you didn’t mind the fact that winter was taking its sweet time in bidding us farewell. I looked around at the scenery and felt the prospect of better days coming. I was waiting for someone to say, “Well, it’s good to get out anyway.”
I saw the first fish when I was nearly back to the bridge. A large steelhead swam out from the tail of a pool into deeper water near a log-jam. A flyfisher approached soon after and we started talking as I made a few casual casts with a streamer. Tony was an interesting guy about my own age with some personal issues I could easily relate to. I more or less forgot about the fish until Tony pointed at the water and exclaimed, “There’s one!”
I didn’t see the porpoise motion from the cloudy water, but I told my acquaintance to go ahead and give it a shot. I gave him room and checked out the lower pool. Neither one of us connected then, but our talk was good.
I told him I didn’t like the media noise coming from the Far Right of the political spectrum. I told him I was no great fan of Big Government, but nobody was about to confiscate our guns and fly rods for a while. I told him I had issues with the late Fran Betters of Ausable River fame. Tony and I had stories of camping at Ausable’s Wilmington Notch. After he said farewell and headed upstream, I retied my fly and immediately got a strike. The hook-up was a brief one. It was solid but all too short. It was Thursday’s first communication with the great beyond.
I was “Zoaring,” I decided. Getting the most out of my Cattaraugus steelhead hunt even though the prospect for a fish seemed almost hopeless. Zoaring took me into a scenic gorge. It allowed good words with fellow anglers. It opened the door to April days. It almost changed a bleak perspective into a bright one.