By Jo Ann Barefoot
Fly fishing is addictive. When my husband and I got (yes) hooked twelve years ago, we began exploring legendary destinations: Montana, Alaska, Chile, New Zealand. Then one day, sitting in a Columbus conference room for a Nature Conservancy trustee briefing, I heard someone mention world-class steelheading on the Grand River in northeastern Ohio.
Steelhead are rainbow trout that live in oceans and deep lakes. Like most trout, they hatch (or are stocked) in streams, travel to bigger water to mature and return annually to their birthplaces to spawn. This migration attracts serious fly anglers because the fish are huge and hard to catch, and because they test us by loving bad weather. A fall-to-spring sport, great steelheading often involves rain, snow, wind, numb extremities and chattering teeth.
Nature Conservancy trustee, I already knew the Grand River matters, globally. The 21st century will bring severe freshwater scarcity, and the Great Lakes contain fully 20 percent of the planet’s surface fresh water. Of all the Great Lakes, Lake Erie is the most biologically diverse, commercially productive and environmentally vulnerable. And of all Erie’s tributaries, the Grand River is the cleanest and most biologically rich.
Entering the lake near Painesville, it is an Ohio Wild and Scenic River that supports more than 60 ecologically critical species, rare breeding populations of game fish like muskie, walleye, and northern pike; and thriving communities of reintroduced river otters and snowshoe hare. The Conservancy has long worked there with conservation partners. Our 1,300-acre Morgan Swamp Preserve on the upper river is Ohio’s largest privately protected wetland.
I knew this, but now decided to visit—fly rod in hand. The Grand’s wild beauty stunned me. Here, within a one-hour drive of 4 million people, is a pristine river in a steep shale gorge. Cold current flows fast through lush sedge meadows, glacial slumps and deep ravines. Nearing the lake, it slows to build sandy dunes and plains.
Clean water dapples the stony riverbed, which we shared with few other anglers—and with enormous fighting steelhead. These arrive from Lake Erie fresh and gleaming silver, and then gradually darken to the trademark hues of the rainbow trout, iridescent rose streaking their sides as they busily swim upstream. Unlike salmon, trout survive spawning, and we released our catches hoping to see them again next year.
At dusk, Lake County Metropark’s Steve Madewell guided me far up a small tributary to a wooded glade where the streambed shale had fissured and terraced to form a six-foot waterfall. At its foot, in a tiny stone pool pummeled by the cascade, was a four-foot steelhead. I stood there shivering as the water roared in my ears, thinking I’d never seen a prettier place.
Ohio straddles North America’s two greatest watersheds. The Nature Conservancy is using science, innovative strategies and partnerships to conserve, connect, and restore these thriving waterways that are so vital to both nature and people.
Jo Ann Barefoot is a member and former chair of The Nature Conservancy’s board of trustees in Ohio