A birthday steelhead — well, almost

Chautauqua County guide Alberto Rey advises writer Tom Tatum about the best spot to place his fly.
Chautauqua County guide Alberto Rey advises writer Tom Tatum about the best spot to place his fly. For the Centre Daily Times

Three outdoor writers booted up and readied our fishing rods before walking through the woods to a small Lake Erie tributary in Chautauqua County, N.Y. Our guide for the morning was wildlife artist Alberto Rey.

As we walked, my friend and fellow author, Tom Tatum jokingly remarked, “I can see the title of your ‘Afield’ column now — Birthday steelhead.” It did happen to be my birthday, which everyone knew, thanks to the “wonders” of Facebook. Of course, Tatum’s quip only served to add more mental pressure, for I was carrying a fly rod, and therefore, already out of my fishing element.

Last fall, I was privileged to be invited on an outdoor writer’s adventure in Chautauqua County. I had not previously visited this area of the Empire State, so I signed up to sample new territory and hopefully gain some different outdoor experiences. As it worked out, I almost got a buck despite not hunting, tried new things, enjoyed the beautiful countryside and had one experience that was hair-raising — literally.

The five of us were offered a potpourri of hunting and fishing opportunities over three days. This included archery hunting for deer, along with turkey and waterfowl hunting. In the fishing department, we could fish for Lake Erie-run steelhead in tributary streams, or walleyes, muskellunge and bass on Chautauqua Lake. Craig Robbins, with the County Visitors Bureau, was our host. I opted for steelhead, walleye and muskie fishing — one for each day.

Chautauqua County is in the extreme southwest corner of New York. It borders Pennsylvania to the south and west, and Lake Erie to the north. The county houses Chautauqua Lake — the largest inland lake in western New York — and four other smaller lakes. Some consider Chautauqua the “thumb” of the Finger Lakes.

I traveled 150 miles to my lodging — just over a three-hour drive from my home here in Centre County. The other four writers and I stayed at Irwin Bay Lakefront Cottages on the northwest end of Chautauqua Lake. Most had longer trips than I did.

Now back to the steelhead — actually, I fully expected the steelhead fishing would be canceled. I drove through heavy rain on my drive up the previous afternoon. All of the streams in northern Warren County, Pa., and Chautauqua County were brim-full of raging brown water.

Trip lesson No. 1 — with the mostly flat topography and shale bedrock near Lake Erie, the stream levels rise fast during a rain, but drop equally as fast. Streams were only slightly high and a little off color the next morning. If I had been home, I would have considered the conditions perfect for trout fishing.

“Okay, birthday boy, there are several steelhead finning near the tail of the pool, and you get first crack,” Rey announced.

I followed Rey’s guidance. After several trial casts, I drifted my nymph right past the waiting trout. “Lift,” Rey instructed. The large rainbow took me upstream and then down, but within seconds the fly came loose. I watched my “birthday” steelhead swim away, and I am pretty sure I heard him snicker, “Well, I showed you, birthday boy.”

We took turns fishing as we moved farther upstream, and I even had a second chance at a steelhead, but there was no luck for me that day.

Although I did not hunt, we saw a large assortment of waterfowl in the lake right near the cottages. This included greater scaup, coots, buffleheads, tundra swans, ruddy ducks and lots of Canada geese. For the birdwatchers, there were also cormorants, a red-throated loon, herons, ring-billed gulls and others.

It did not take much exploring to discover that, in addition to this being fishing country, it was also grape country. Vineyards and wineries were in every direction. It seemed odd to me for late October, but some of the grape vines still sported green leaves, while most were barren — their fruit having been harvested much earlier.

Through no fault of our hosts, the weather was horrendous — shortening our outings and making life miserable. We had a few breaks, but rain was a near-constant companion.

On the second morning — Saturday — Tatum and I met guide Don Staszczyk at Long Point State Park. We boarded his bass boat and spent the morning on the northern half of the lake jigging for walleyes — a new experience for me. We caught walleye, perch, rock bass and a new species for me — a white bass. Staszczyk has been fishing Chautauqua Lake for 25 years, and we visited many of his “hotspots,” but the bigger walleyes all seemed to have lockjaw that morning.

For those of you with little interest in hunting or fishing, other opportunities abound in the county. Jamestown is home to the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Museum. Chautauqua County also houses Chautauqua Institution, the Grape Discovery Center, Dunkirk’s Historic Lighthouse, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History and the Jamestown Audubon Center and Sanctuary.

On my last morning, I met professional tournament angler Randy Dustin at the Lakewood Community Park. The plan was to target bass and muskies on the southern end of the lake. We sped across the lake and then stopped at a shallow area that had recently produced for Dustin.

There was an odd hum in the air. Dustin pointed to my rod that was leaning up against the side of his boat and said, “Know what that is? That’s static electricity.”

“From zooming across the lake at 60 miles per hour?” I inquired.

“Nope,” he answered. Then he pointed northwest to where dark clouds were threatening. “It’s coming from those clouds.”

I never claim to be the sharpest lure in the tackle box, but I figured this might not be the best time to cast. I reached to move my rod and a spark shot out two or three inches — shocking me. Quickly, I grabbed the rod, put it down flat in the boat, and we scrambled into our rain gear. Trip lesson No. 2 — Do not point a graphite fishing rod towards the sky during a thunderstorm.

The storm passed in 15 minutes — without any fireworks — so we retrieved our rods. We had just started to cast when another even darker cloud mass appeared to the west. This time, the clouds were accompanied by thunder and lightning. Although we raced back to the dock ahead of the storm, Dustin’s boat had to be trailered during the ensuing downpour.

And what about the buck that I almost bagged? I had just turned onto I-86 with rain pouring down — wipers swishing and poor visibility — when a five-point buck bounded right out in front of me. Amazingly, I hit the brakes and managed to avoid a collision — what an adrenaline-spiking end to my three-day visit to Chautauqua County.

Fortunately, the remainder of my drive home was uneventful . . . and much more to my liking.

Free Bird Dog Training Seminar

The Central Pennsylvania Chapter of Pheasants Forever is sponsoring a “Dog Training Seminar with Lisa Price” on Feb. 25 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Fox Gap Rod and Gun Club in Rebersburg.

Lisa Price is a pointing dog trainer who focuses on preparing dogs to hunt for their owners and/or participate in AKC Hunt Tests. She has trained dozens of dogs of various breeds to Master Hunter level and has also made a lot of gun dog owners happy with a polished companion. Price is also a writer who has been published in Cabela’s, Gun Dog, Pointing Dog Journal and the Ruffed Grouse Society magazine.

Learn tips at the seminar for training pointing dogs — including staunch pointing, steadiness to flush and shot, honoring (the point of another dog) and retrieving. Price will also cover intro to gun fire, birds, the e-collar, plus other topics as requested.

This is a free event for dogs and owners and will be a hands-on, in-the-field experience held rain or shine. Owners should bring their dog, dog crate and basic training gear such as a check-cord and leash. Space is limited to the first 25 participants — registration required.

Fox Gap Rod and Gun Club is located 3.5 miles east of Rebersburg on state Route 192. Make a right turn onto Fox Gap Road. Take Fox Gap Road to the dead end. The driveway to the club is on the left.

To reserve a spot, or for more information, call Chip at 814-933-9555 or email him at 239foxgap@gmail.com. You can also visit the website at www.centralpapheasants.org.

Conservation Banquet

The Ruffed Grouse Society will hold a conservation fundraising banquet in Williamsport on Feb. 18. Featured speakers include RGS wildlife biologist Linda Ordiway and Lisa Williams, the grouse and woodcock biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Of course there will be raffles, door prizes and a live auction. The event will be held at the historic Genetti Hotel. All proceeds go to the Pennsylvania Drummer Fund.

Mark Nale, who lives in the Bald Eagle Valley, is a member of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association and can be reached at MarkAngler@aol.com.