The sound of the BBC World Service as broadcast from my local public radio station slowly ramped up as the Linn Classik audio system in my bedroom did its thing. The sky was dark outside the window, the house was quiet. Five AM Saturday, a quick cup of coffee and a few moments to scrape the frost off the windshield. I’m off. Some would say “off my rocker”. The forecast promised dropping temperatures with a bottom in the teens expected by mid-afternoon. Snow squalls were guaranteed.
It took fifteen minutes to make it to the rendezvous where I would join forces with my ever faithful fishing comrade, Ron the Spin fisher (RTS for short). We would be joining a truly crazed fisherman, Russell the Bait Artist. Our destination was the warm water outflow at a coal powered electric plant on the banks of the mighty Ohio River. Word had it that striped bass / white bass hybrids – “wipers” – and Skipjack were working shad in the strong currents. Skipjack, also known as mooneye, are a member of the shad family. Think of a miniature tarpon and you get the idea. The action was reported to start before daybreak and continue till mid-morning. Later if the sky was overcast.
The sky was heavily overcast when we made the public access parking lot just east of Ripley, Ohio. The wind blew insistent gusts to ten miles per hour and the tree tops swayed as we tugged our way into chest waders and strung up the arsenal of rods we were to deploy. Our weapons ranged from my nine foot six weight fly rod, through Ron’s selection of light spinning rigs, to Russell’s ten foot surf set-up for large blue cats. We trudged down the leaf covered path, enjoying the brisk morning air and thirty eight degree temps. As the trees gave way to the river the wind increased in strength. I suddenly realized that maybe – just maybe – a six weight wasn’t the best choice. Where is my eight weight when I need it? The wind was blowing from the northwest, following the Ohio River valley upstream through its southeast cut kicking up whitecaps the length of the river. This would certainly be an interesting experience…
The outflow is on the north bank (Ohio side) of the river and flows out from the power plant with a strong four to five mile per hour current. Downstream of the outflow is a large, featureless flat that runs for three hundred yards or more towards the little town of Ripley. I waded knee deep into the flat and plunged the thermometer into the cold river water. Forty six degrees. Slowly I worked my way into the flowing discharge and the temperature on my legs increased dramatically. The tongue of water flowing into the Ohio measured sixty five degrees. Russell took a position thirty yards downstream of me and nailed a three pound Skipjack on his second cast. Yes, the fish were there.
Skipjack were my first target. These wild little shad are very aerobatic battlers. Typically caught on dry flies in the summer, I have never seen nor hooked a specimen more than twelve inches long. The state record stands at more than five pounds, and two to three pound fish are not uncommon in this area. I tied a size 10 chartreuse Clouser to the 8lb fluorocarbon leader attached to my sink-tip line. Off the bend of the Clouser I tied a second size 12 Clouser in orange and gold to an eight inch dropper of the same 8 lb. Berkley Vanish. Skipjack have a preference for small baits and Russell’s rig of five white “flies” with a split shot on the bottom of his six pound test spinning rig made me believe that a multiple bait presentation might increase the odds on some solid action.
The river bottom was soft under my wading boots and I stopped just far enough into the river to give me fair backcasting room. I quickly worked out twenty, then thirty feet of line. Tossing the rig upstream at an angle, I allowed the line to sink on a slack line until it came directly across from me. Then tightening slowly I stripped the little flies in quick five inch darts, allowing the rig to settle back to depth and repeating the process as my line swept past, carried by currents hurrying for their appointment with the sea many hundreds of miles away.
On the third or fourth drift I felt the sharp tug of a hit. Roll cast pick-up, lazy open loop backcast and then shoot the line forward, letting the wind off my right arm sail the rig upstream and out. Mend, mend, tighten and strip. Bang, there it is again. Immediately I strip faster and the rod doubles over as the first little Skipjack finds the folly of that chartreuse Clouser. He comes up for a quick jump and then powers downstream in shaky quick runs and sudden direction changes. The six weight is just too much and the little 14 inch fish finds his way into my hands.
“Hold that fish” shouts Russell as he splashes over to me. “That is the perfect size for one of these big blue cats I was telling you about. They can run to forty plus pounds and they are sitting just below the stripers and Skipjack on the bottom. A one-pound bait is a small snack to some of these Ohio River Monsters.” Russell impaled the surprised Skipjack onto an 8/0 circle hook hanging from a swivel just two feet above what looked like the mushroom anchor for a mid sized bass boat. “Got to use three to four ounce of lead to hold bottom in this current” Russell grinned. A quick heave of his upper body and his ten foot surf rod sent the Skipjack, lead and dangerous iron screaming towards a current seam 60 yards away.
I waded back into position for more Skipjack action as Ron set the hook into what would be the first of many wipers. In less than thirty minutes we had all managed to hook and land fish. This was an auspicious start to what would end up as a fine, if somewhat extreme day of fishing.
The wind was starting to pick up as soon as the sun cleared the horizon. What started as thirty eight degrees quickly dropped to thirty four. Five MPH winds with gusts to ten changed character and became ten MPH winds with gusts to twenty. The whitecaps became more pronounced and the casting became more difficult and dangerous with the little fly rod as the small weighted flies found they didn’t have the momentum to overcome the desires of the winter wind. My flies buzzed dangerously close to my head as the right-to-left wind tried its best to impale me on my own barb.
Three more small Skipjack fell to my flies but I was having a devil of a time getting the presentation to the fish. My casting distance was limited to about fifty feet, and that was angling upstream with the wind. The presentation had to cut the gusts by a 45 degree angle and it was becoming clear that my 8 weight striper rod and 300 grain Teeny line would have been a much, much better choice for this fishing. I was undaunted.
Ron continued to harass white bass and their larger cousins, the wipers, with a small rabbit strip jig fished on six pound test. Only the quick puffs of cigar smoke betrayed his excitement. I believe his face was frozen as he stared out at the river, expressionless. The first drops of freezing rain were making their presence known as they pattered against the tightly drawn hood of my Gore-Tex rain jacket.
Like a rock rolling down a hill, the wind just kept picking up speed and the temperature just kept dropping. We had found some action with smaller Skipjack and Wipers, but the big boys were sulking. The brisk breeze flirted with the status of “inland hurricane” as the gusts piled two and three foot choppy waves atop the flowing river. White foam blew from the breaking crests and it felt like the wind never went below fifteen miles per hour as the rain quickly turned to large white flakes of snow.
“How long are you going to put up with this?” RTS bellowed across the churning flat. “Till you’re tired of it or the fish stop hitting, whichever is last” came my replay. His cigar puffed solemnly. I clipped the two little Clousers off and retied a two foot length of ten pound Vanish to my line. For a fly I chose a Whitlock Sheep Shad tied with a worm rattle. It was a heavy fly, but not too wind resistant. By keeping my back-cast low to the water then opening the front cast up and over my head I was able to kite my flies some 50 to 60 feet in the general direction I was aiming. Lacking a shooting basket I resorted to “wet casting” where you drop your first cast out thirty to forty feet on the water, strip out the slack and use the water to load a second, bigger back cast. Careful now, keep it low to the water and toss it quickly back and to the right. Swoop the rod in an exaggerated forward cast and release your flies to a spot some 15 feet over the target and let the momentum shoot another 20 feet of line. With effort I was still able to get my bait the necessary 60 feet or so to hit the current seam where the fish were stacked up.
Russell had dropped his spinning rod on the bank and let out for the big casting rod. Something big had grabbed the Skipjack and was running line off the Ambassador real at an alarming rate. Russell popped the real into gear and let the line come tight. The circle hook found the corner of the fish’s mouth and the heavy rod bent deeply as the cat powered for the heavy current. Russell’s cat rig is designed to handle true monsters and he has a history of fish over fifty pounds to his credit. The blue cat this morning would not break ten pounds but it put up a valiant struggle and we all drank in the light dun beauty of this aggressive predator as Russell slid the angry fish onto the beach. Safely hooked in the corner of her jaw, the stout fish was gently returned to its home with instructions to grow strong for a rematch.
As the weather worsened the Skipjack sounded, but the wipers grew more brave. Working closer to the outflow current, my shad pattern got a hit on nearly every cast. Bang and a sudden jolt comes through my arm just spit seconds after the quick fish had dropped the bait. Figuring these fish were body slamming the shad to stun them I decided to vary my retrieve. After the fly had taken a solid poke I just let it dead drift for a few moments. Then a very tentative strip and more dead drift. The line came tight all at once as the wiper committed to his meal.
The fish powered in a strong run past me and into the faster water where the outflow current meets the irresistible force of the Ohio River. Thirty feet of line peeled off the reel and the rod tipped throbbed from the vicious head-shaking of the hybrid bass. A few minutes of bull dogging and the fish is only ten feet out. Bang! Another twenty feet of line melts from the reel as the little two-pounder decides on one last-ditch effort at freedom. Seconds later I lipped the pearly white denizen and sent her back on her way all in the same motion.
By now the storm had really decided to introduce us to a Midwestern winter. Howling along with gusts to 35 or 40 MPH, the snow fell sideways and the river kicked back angrily. It was approaching the lunch hour and we all knew that our time out here was limited, things were just becoming too uncomfortable. Low back cast over the wave tops and toss the line out forty feet. Use the water to load the road deeply and backcast again, this time faster. Point the rod up and over and release the line as the fly sails out towards the current seem. A big “C” forms in the belly of the line because of the driving wind and I am forced to keep the tip of my rod under the water to maintain any kind of line control. Bang! Bang! Bang! Three strong hits in a row.
The fly dead-drifted only seconds before it came tight again. This fish was a little stronger, a little longer. Fly line disappeared until the backing flashed through. The fish would not slow. There now! The backing is out of the tip guide and the fish is still running! Fifty feet! Sixty feet! She slows and sulks deep with massive head shaking. My rod bucks and bends and I wonder if Orvis really does have a sense of humor. But this fish would not break my rod today. Only Minnesota has claimed any casualties from my collection this year and Ohio’s best shot simply wasn’t good enough. Everything held together as I pumped the big striper back against the swiftly flowing current.
Her game wasn’t done. Acting like she had taken lessons from the many largemouth in the river, the striper/white bass hybrid burns right heading straight into the shoreline and a large collection of logs at the end of the feeding flat. If she gets in there I will never land her. Immediately. I start varying pressure, pulling hard first to the left then to the right as though I was pulling her directly into the snags. Acting against the pressure the strong fish turned back to the main current where the battle could be fought in water alone. Minutes later I slip my finger under the gill of a gleaming two foot wiper, strong and fresh from the river. She is still small compared to some of her kin. Fish to thirty inches are not unheard of in this fishery. Six to eight pounders will be common in another month. Still, I am please with this solid four pound specimen. I return her gently to the water.
My watch said lunch time had come, the weather said it would not offer quarter to fisherman nor farmer. The call was made and we packed up for the ride back to Cincinnati. This winter fishery is just starting and I smiled as I tugged my frozen boot laces and struggled out of my cold waders. Who says I have to go to the Outer Banks for the late season blitz? I had found it much closer to home and the word is that the run doesn’t reach its peak till the bitter cold of February. As I drove home I contemplated asking for thermal underwear from Santa.