Call of the Frontier

The river that lay out on the western horizon was still an unknown to me – a long, mysterious meandering flow. The slow, deep, turbid waters of this flow seemed meant to irrigate croplands here in Crawford County, not to accommodate extraordinarily large spawning trout. But I was here to expand my horizons, to do radical new things and probe mysterious waters, here to challenge another frontier.

I guess we fish on days like this because we have only so many days allotted to each of us and we’re fated to work on most of those. On the ones we aren’t, we’d better get out into the wild and see what it has to offer today. Sleet was blowing across the pastures now and I was trying to rationalize the drive up and the sleety day ahead.

There was a brook here that connected to a creek which meandered down through clay and sandstone to a river, Conneaut Creek, which eventually found its way down to a sluggish denouement at Lake Erie, where a crowd of Ohio fishermen waited for steelhead trout to come running up. The lake breezes and fine sunsets of October appealed to most of these fishermen as did the first pool or two of the river – the places where hundreds of huge trout would reliably pile up as well as perhaps hundreds of their closest fishin’ pals. Even though steelhead haven’t been around all that long, in ecological terms, human traditions surrounding the fish are well established.

Then there are some misanthropes who choose wet January days and creeks fifty miles from the lake.

There are times that I can describe in great detail why I’ve chosen a particular place to fish and others that I can’t find an explanation at all. I’d seen this water on the map, realized that this winding, minute blue line eventually communicated with Lake Erie and realized that I’d never fished there before. It’s a good rationalization but fails to distinguish this water from hundreds of others.

I was here because I wanted to see how far the steelhead could run. I was here because I didn’t think anyone else had thought of this place. I was here because it was legally accessible, yet much of the water required a walk that most fishermen would find off-putting. I was here to challenge my frontier.

In November, I’d stood at the foot of Tumwater Dam in Washington State’s Wenatchee Gorge, wondering whether I’d be rewarded with a rare glimpse of a steelhead trout here rocketing into the air at the face of the dam or easing into the fish ladder, a final accommodated climb into this wild mountain river of the Cascade Range. I’d pitched a tent here the year before, not even suspecting that anadramous trout made it this far. I didn’t see any that day but if I had, they would have traveled 500 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River to here (and there are some who still make it). All this is to say that my hopes for steelhead able to ascend 50 miles of tepid flow seemed not far-fetched.

Through most of my twenty-three years in the state of Pennsylvania, I’ve disdained the pursuit of steelhead trout. The sport, by all accounts, draws thick crowds to prescribed times and places. This seems a full-contact sport which might require a tactical vest as easily as a fly vest. But several years ago, I simply took a guess that there were unknown places out there where these huge trout ascend from the lake to spawn, places where few people think to look for them.

As soon as I took this leap I was rewarded with sightings of the trout in obscure places, virtually everywhere I looked for them, in fact. Catching them was another matter, a skill that followed more slowly but eventually I caught on.

Much of the walk in entailed crashing through a sort of half-frozen wooded swamp but I was glad I’d gone to the trouble when I saw the water. Though high and discolored, it had the look of steelhead water rather than the farm country flowages I’d been passing on the drive up. There were possibilities here. I began to seek out eddies and quiet sheltered spots along the bank.

Wind bowed the hemlocks overhead and the snow was relentless though not threatening. Moss, leaves and evergreen needles compressed beneath my feet as I made my way along, fishing rapidly, searching but trying to see the extent of the water available here. I entered an older floodplain forest and made a set of footprints approximating those of the mink who’d come this way, poking into every alcove where a tasty fish might hide. The coyote had been here too.

But it was useless. The water was just too high and fast. I’d come here and had been able to see the water but I wouldn’t know whether steelhead trout ever passed this way. And it really had been a long shot, fifty meandering river miles lay between me and…

Suddenly, there was a heavy fish thrashing on the line. I hadn’t even seen the float do any more than hang in the current a bit as it had a hundred times already today. The steelhead erupted from the brown water two rod lengths in front of me and danced a bit on top, a pink stripe flashing like a strobe in the grim surroundings. There was no doubt about what was on the end of the line and then, it was gone, a floating line going limp on the surface.

And, amazingly, I was thrilled. I slumped forward, hands on my knees and laughed. That was it – worth the drive up. Steelhead did in fact run up into these headwaters, did in fact ascend deep still waters, logjams, and rapids just to get here, and maybe beyond…

Now the rapids seemed to laugh with me rather than threaten me. The sky seemed less dark and the snowflakes seemed to remind me of favorite childhood winter days. I stopped and took pictures of my new frozen forest all the way back to the car.

The afternoon was spent broadening my horizons further. If steelhead ascended to this point, wouldn’t they be a few miles on up a tributary as well? Why not? Afterall, where was the one headed who’d danced on my line a little earlier? I drove a couple of miles and parked again near an upper branch.

So, I sloshed up and down a creek roughly a third the size of the first, finding the water attractive though a bit flooded. Again, the water seemed sterile and fishless. And again, the bobber dove at the end of my beat and I hooked a fine, fat trout that rose to the surface and thrashed a bit on top before releasing himself. I walked back through the woods happy though, happy to have found long-running trout in a strange wood, happy to have found an unpolluted place without bobbers hanging from trees or a trail cut all along the bank. This one was all mine.

I broke branches and crunched snow underfoot as the sunlight faded to an orange rim on the horizon and then to pink.

At the car, the clouds were parting and the moon now glowed bright. I had sticks in hand and my zip stove was lit, it seemed, within seconds. A dinner of bratwurst and hot dogs would be served momentarily. The hungry flame licked up the wet wood with gusto, showering sparks now and then.

The idea of the frontier remains in the not-too-distant American memory though it officially closed in 1890. Thousands of optimistic and resourceful families pulled up their New England stakes during the late 1800’s and headed west across the Ohio to explore and seek fortune and freedom. The idea of limitless potential had a pull all its own for these men and women who risked it all to build something better for themselves or maybe risked it all to simply see places other Europeans had never seen and then claim them as their own. The great open range frontier may have closed over a century ago but the idea has never really died.

Though the potential for homesteading may have shrunk drastically, frontiers remain. Maybe you can’t just go west, throw up a shack to live in and plant crops, but you can beat a trail to places you don’t know about, maybe places you’ve only seen on a map and find what’s waiting there. And the overall lack of interest in wild things and wild places so prevalent in modernity works in favor of the intrepid here. If most people can’t imagine anything better than going to a few familiar designated official fishing areas to fish for hatchery trout perhaps, than there’s a world of possibility waiting for the true explorer. And there are rewards beyond the piscine too, I think. Maybe there’s a reward in simply challenging the frontier.

There seemed to be something more to the idea of frontier though. Weren’t all my combatants today pushing back frontiers as well, charging upstream toward places they really couldn’t imagine, impelled by an instinctive desire they probably couldn’t articulate well? They were going to the outer limit, until their backs showed above the thinnest of riffles and then just maybe one or two more…

There could be a great biological reward for their herculean efforts and there could be punishment and death. Their offspring could be started off in a better place and then, they could just become stranded in weeks of low, warm water and end up prey for the mink.

Do we share an atavistic instinct with the steelhead trout to challenge our frontiers, charging upstream into the unknown? What happens when this instinct is lost?

I slept in the car ten miles or so closer to the lake, rose at daybreak and heated coffee on my little stove. I took a compass bearing and tromped off toward another little brook where I would lob floats and salmon eggs toward deep hiding spots under roots and logs, as happy as I’ve been. I’d had dreams like this…

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