My Witt's End

Getting By With Help From Our Friends

Originally posted 21 March 2006


I was a bit skeptical from the beginning. If the guides had not been the best available in the area, I would never have done it.

I was fishing for steelhead trout on the Cuyahoga river, just north of Station Road bridge in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. As for the fishing, well the bird activity was excellent. A pileated woodpecker hammered away on a fallen log less than 50 feet from where I was enjoying one of Northeast Ohio’s little known pleasures -- fishing for steelhead trout in the dead of winter.

Not the dead actually, it was in fact the very first day of the solstice. The water temperature was 39 degrees, about the same as the air. Bright blue skies and sunshine. Great for humans and birds. Not so great for trout. Being heliophobic, they prefer an overcast day.

I began to think the fish were hanging out someplace else and the water further downstream looked more promising. This is the fishers’ variation on the grass and fence adage. I walked the railroad tracks for a while, occasionally wandering down toward the stream in search of a place to either fish or cross. The corollary to the “fishing looks more promising downstream,” is the belief that it always looks better on the other side of the river.

I passed the heron rookery, eerily silent in its cloak of white. Loosely built stick nests rustled, threatening to give in and obey gravity’s law. Four inches of snow crunched under foot.

Occasionally I stopped to examine animal tracks and tried to figure out what had happened. Turkeys had come through earlier in the morning, however, later than the rabbit that had zigzagged over the tracks and into what is a pond most months. Smaller tracks, stepping on the turkeys’, suggested something other than raccoons and squirrels.

After about 30 minutes of what might appear even to squirrels as aimless wondering, I stopped to observe a half dozen Eastern bluebirds gleaning the branches for insects. Suddenly I realized I was paralleling two sets of coyote tracks. We seemed to be headed in the same general direction, possibly with the same mission in mind; to cross the river.

Their meandering, from the railroad tracks down to the river’s edge and back up, was the same as mine. When I looked closely at the sharp cut of their tracks in the snow, I realized this pair could not be far ahead. I scanned the route and saw nothing.

Eventually their tracks led to an unlikely spot about two feet above the rushing stream and abruptly stopped. The water color was such that I could see about 10 inches below the surface, perfect for steelhead but not good for humans when you’re unsure of what might follow in the next 12 inches.

Sure enough, the animals had crossed at this spot. I don’t think it was their first time. A strong scent of urine filled the air. In fact, steam rose from a spot they had marked on a sycamore tree next to their path. If I was this close, why couldn’t I see the creatures?

I reasoned they had to know what they were doing. And who am I to argue? A helpful tree limb gave me support as I tentatively lowered my left foot into the water. The footing was excellent. Beneath the 18 inches of green-stained water lay a smooth gravel bed offering excellent passage. Most places in the Cuyahoga River are like trying to walk on bowling balls. Ice and moss covered bowling balls to be a bit more accurate.

I worked my way into the middle of the stream against a rather stiff current. And since I was there, I decided to give the trout yet another chance to embarrass themselves. The fish, with their 2K brains, were a bit smarter than the fisher. From the middle of the river I watched a northern flicker, then a red-bellied woodpecker, take turns prying at the bark of the same dead tree limb.

Eventually I crossed the stream in water only slightly above my knees. I walked the stream bank in both directions looking for some evidence of my two guides. There was none. They must have opted for a bit of a swim. Or, as writer John Gierach has observed, they probably hid behind a nearby tree wondering what the guy standing in the water, waving the graphite stick, was up to.

I listened to the tinkling sound of golden-crowned kinglets above me. I thought about the coyotes and how they knew of that spot to ford the stream; how they marked it for others who would follow. It’s unfortunate that we humans have lost this “deep map” as native Americans refer to the databank of knowledge animals possess. I’m glad the animals are there to guide us.


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