It was early on a cold Saturday morning. I woke up with a start, trying to figure out where I was. After a moment, I remembered that I was in Cleveland. Claire and I were visiting family- the Smerglia’s- and the reason I was up so early was to go fishing.
Leo Smerglia, who you may remember from various other fishing trips in Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois, is a fisherman as well. His claim to fame is his uncanny ability to keep six-year-old Charlie from falling into the water while somehow managing to catch fish. Leo had to work Saturday morning, so I thought I would go out exploring. We’d probably go fishing later.
Coffee, sweatshirts, more sweatshirts, made sure my fly rod was in the car and off I went.
The Smerglias’ back yard backs up to a big park with a couple creeks flowing through it. Tiny Hemlock Creek and Tinkers Creek, which flow into the nice-sized Cuyahoga River, which in turn flows into Lake Erie. Leo and I probably would have fished the Cuyahoga, or perhaps the Rocky River to try our hand at some steelhead, but due to the flood conditions after hurricane Sandy that was out of the question.
But it was Saturday morning, so I was going fishing. It was cold and rainy while I put my waders on and assembled my fly rod. I was at a spot on Tinkers Creek Leo suggested- near a waterfall, supposedly there were fish here. When I looked over the edge of the tall bank into the water, I saw a rushing flow of muddy water. It was intimidating.
I figured I might be able to find some shallow water from which to fish, but that didn’t work out. I couldn’t even get down to the water from the parking lot, as I was on the deep side of the creek. I tried lowering myself down to the water, but when I couldn’t touch bottom I quickly changed my mind and headed to the car.
Studying the map on my phone, I stopped at two or three other places that seemed promising. A place to park, a place to fish. The fast flowing water was everywhere, intimidating. I thought about quitting and heading back. I fished a moderate-flow stretch of Tinkers Creek, but there were no fish to be had in the stained water. At least no fish that would eat my flies.
I decided to go explore the Smerglias’ backyard instead of fighting the ravaging flows in the larger creek. I wasn’t sure what tons of rain and flooding would do to a tiny creek, but I reasoned that there might not be as much water. Maybe it wasn’t as affected. Maybe I could catch some fish! OH DNR studies told me there were fish there, at least in 1991. Smallmouth near the Cuyahoga, sunfish throughout, creek chubs in the upper stretches.
I’d caught a few chubs a few months back, and thought they were really fun to catch. Perhaps I could find some in Hemlock creek and catch them on the fly!
Once I got back to their house, I parked and jumped out of the car, fly rod in hand. Their yard is fairly flat, but as soon as you get to the very back, the terrain takes a sudden dive down to the creek.
Again, it was intimidating.
I could hear the rush of water, which suggested that this creek- like the other- was being overwhelmed with water. I looked down at the steep hills I was considering hiking down, and wondered if it would be worth it.
As you may have guessed, I decided to go for it. If nothing else, I’d get a little adventure.
The steep ground was covered in mud and slippery leaves, making things more difficult. There were parts that seemed like 90° inclines, but they were more realistically like 45°. I slowly made my way down, holding onto trees for support, my wading boots slipping in the leaves.
Finally I gave in, and sat down on the muddy dead foliage. Like a little kid in a sled, I butt-sledded down the hill, getting closer to the rushing water. I was pretty sure this was not a normal way to traverse steep terrain. Once I could see the water, things got even steeper. I stood up and carefully made my way down to the water. And it was certainly worth the trip.
The rushing water sound was a magnificent little waterfall, not flood-condition flow. Through the crystal-clear water I could see a million beautiful little rocks and gravel; the creek had, probably over thousands of years, cut a trench in the rock of these hills. The creek bottom and sides were all big boulders and flat slabs of rock.
This was exactly what I was hoping to find! Something awesome, something beautiful. Almost as an afterthought, I tossed a white clouser minnow into a little eddy just inches from the waterfall. As I stripped my line back, I marveled at my surroundings, and that I made it down there in one piece. From my vantage point, the hills looked like they went straight up. Vertical.
After a few casts, a fish took my streamer and started to swim and dart all over the place. It felt like a small smallie… but I had a hunch what it was.
Victoriously, the stone walls around me echoing with my laughter, I held up my first creek chub on the fly. Mission accomplished!
I couldn’t believe such a small fish would take my 3″ streamer, tied on a #6 hook.
I released the fish back into the water, and it headed back to the darker water eddy where it came from.
Although I love catching fish, there are other things that make the experience even better for me. I love exploring new water, and get a huge sense of accomplishment when I’m able to find fish on a new body of water. It’s not rocket science, but still makes me very happy.
I caught a few more fish out of the waterfall pool. After deciding my big streamer was too big for most of the little chubs I supposed were in there, I tied on a black bead-head nymph I’d recently tied. I’d actually tied it specifically for chub fishing, having read on the internet they are fans of black nymphs.
Turns out the internet was right- every cast, a hit. I think I pulled out four fish from that one eddy. All small fish, but super fun to catch. I thought about how similar they look to trout; their long skinny bodies, their tiny mouths. For their size, their fight was at least equal to trout I’ve caught. I didn’t mind their somewhat slimy fish slime, I just enjoyed catching them.
Moving downstream, around every turn in the creek there was postcard-worthy fishy-looking water. Every 100-200 feet there was a set of riffles or a small waterfall which transitioned into a deeper pool with nice scum lines in the main current. It was a perfect example of the “riffle-pool-riffle-pool” thing I’ve been reading about. It was awesome.
I kept fishing/hiking/wading through the creek. It seemed remote and wild even though there was a neighborhood not half a mile away. At the bottom of this little valley, standing in the pristine creek fishing for little trout-like creatures, I was having a tremendously good Saturday morning.
I found a big concentration of chubs at the end of one pool. I think that’s called the tail of the pool- right before it gets shallower and heads up into the next set of riffles. In the deeper, darker water, hiding among the big flat rocks were many little chubs. Standing on a rock, even without polarized sunglasses I could see them swimming around. Most of them were small, probably 4″, but I could definitely see some larger specimens. Maybe even 8″.
Although I caught one or two on brown or natural-looking nymphs, they seemed to prefer either black or red flies. If there was a beadhead on the fly, they would hit it sooner and more aggressively. I was so glad I tied all those nymphs, because with the many right-angled rocks and ubiquitous low-hanging trees, I lost many flies.
From the rock, I could see the fish swarm my nymph. When the bigger chub investigated, the smaller ones dispersed. I couldn’t get the big one to take the fly, but I managed to land a handful from that one tiny spot.
Soon it was time to go- my fishing curfew was 11am, and I definitely wanted to be on time. I broke down my fly rod into two pieces and started my ascent.
That’s when I realized how much easier it was going down than going up. It took me quite some time to make my way back up to the house, my heart beating out of my chest, gasping for air. I must be out of shape. My ankles burned, my thighs burned; I grabbed onto saplings and pulled myself up a few feet at a time. I saw piles of deer poop I was sure to avoid, lest I fall face-first into them.
At one point, reaching out to grab a tree, my hand missed and only grasped at the air. I fell- hard- my chest slamming into the ground. Thankfully the mud and leaves cushioned the blow, and I got back up and continued.
When I finally got to the top, four does stood there watching me, perplexed. Taking a breather, my arm holding myself up on a tree, I watched them scamper away effortlessly. They were much more in shape than I was!
After hearing about all the chubs swimming around in his backyard, Leo suggested we go fishing later that afternoon. As we hiked down, it was apparent Leo is an experienced hiker. He made his way down, seemingly without much effort. I, on the other hand, slipped on leaves every other step.
Once we got down to the creek, I pointed him to the end of the pool, and he tossed in a worm under a little bobber. Sure enough, the chubs were still there! Pretty soon he landed his first Hemlock Creek fish.
A while later I was able to trick that bigger chub with another beadhead nymph.
We hiked through the woods, fishing along the way. Leo was shocked to get so many hits right at the waterfall. There were clearly tons of fish there!
Finally we made our way to a big, deep stretch he’d hiked by many times but never fished. Seemed like a great spot for bigger fish, but there were none. Neither the worms nor my flies could coax any onto our hooks.
We fished the waterfall again, but the bites stopped coming once the sun went down. As if somebody flipped a switch, the bite turned off and we didn’t catch any more chubs.
It was a tough climb back up to Leo’s house, but worth it. A great day fishing, catching little chubs on a little creek. I knew the next day I would wake up sore, but until then I was as happy as could be.