Cuyahoga Steel by Matt Stansberry

To spend so much time on a single body of water is to encounter every life-form that water supports.
–David James Duncan

I was born in Akron Ohio in 1978, and was bathed and baptized in the Cuyahoga.

cuyahoga river steel

The industrial city of a quarter million people siphons its water from three impoundments on the upper section of the watershed.

Over the years, I’ve flushed a lot of my waste into Cuyahoga as well, through Akron’s combined storm drain and sewer system.

When heavy rain washes over the sprawling concrete landscape of northeast Ohio, the overwhelmed pipes eject shit and road contaminants directly into my river.

It’s polluted and abused to this day, but somehow still improving. It’s slow and plodding, prone to running muddy with sediment, occasionally brilliant.

Like a lot of rivers, the dams are coming out – four of the dams on the Cuyahoga have been removed or bypassed. Two dams left, and then the river will run free.

Almost every morning, I watch the sun rise over the Cuyahoga Valley. Dawn gathers pink and orange in the sky behind my house and I stare out at bare sugar maple branches reaching toward the winter clouds.

I’ve lived on this river for most of my life, and now in my late thirties, I spend about an hour every day on its banks. I walk along the towpath where horses pulled canal boats between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River over 100 years ago.

Bald eagles often fly low over the river. I’ve watched them through binoculars, close enough to notice the texture of the feathers on their white heads and the gleam in their eyes. They nest in the crotch of a tall Sycamore each spring near a small dam in Brecksville.

Through the winter about one hundred Canada Geese huddle against a gravel bar on a bend in the river near my home, heads bent backwards, bills tucked into the cleft between their wings.

Some nights I take my family out to see the moon rise over the river, and I call out to the sky like some barred owl drunk on vole-wine, rolling my hoots, trilling with my tongue.

The boys and I howl wolfishly to the coyotes, enjoying the sounds of our voices echoing off the sides of the valley.

My sons and I crawl up the Cuyahoga tributaries in every season – Chippewa Creek, Sagamore Creek, Brandywine Creek, Tinkers Creek. These tributaries run shallow over a streambed of cool blue-gray shale the color of a lichen.

We have stood in those creeks with the water running to our knees and watched kingfishers chasing minnows.

This is my home.

***

For about a decade I lived far from the Cuyahoga River.

Most of that time I lived in Oregon, and became obsessed with catching steelhead with a fly rod.

I thought about steelhead on the toilet and at dinner. I couldn’t fish enough to feel satisfied.

I tried not to fall asleep thinking about feathers and hooks, long casts at the bottom of desert canyons, the smell of sage on the hills, and the play of light and shadow on water.

I dreamt about the drunken sunny days drifting down the Deschutes River, making a camp with a pavilion tent, eating elk hash for breakfast while watching bighorn sheep climb the canyon walls.

I thought about blue lines on a map, little creeks deep in the rainforest where huge and ancient trees grew. I thought about piles of bear shit full of salmonberry seeds and dippers flitting across the moss-covered rocks.

I worked part time at a fly shop, and wrote about steelhead when I wasn’t fishing for them. I realized I was in the grip of a cult.

I obsessively read everything by Oregon’s great angler-elegist-philosopher David James Duncan, who worshiped salmonids “for the way they poured from the sea in defiance of every threat, predator and pharisee, climbed increasingly troubled mountain streams, nailed their beautiful bodies to lonely beds of gravel, and died there not for anything they stood to gain, but for the sake of tiny silver offspring.”

I didn’t know any normal people. My friends lived out of their cars on the banks of their favorite rivers.

These watersheds were the most important things in my life, and catching steelhead was how I connected myself to this landscape.

Anything that supported wild cold-water fisheries was good, anything that detracted from that life was untenable and must be destroyed.

I became vehemently opposed to fish hatcheries, and spent years of my life organizing, protesting and lobbying against the state and federal fisheries management regime that prioritized angler opportunity and hatchery production over the health of wild fish stocks.

In the seminal book, Salmon Without Rivers, Oregonian fish biologist Jim Lichatowich wrote:
For the past 150 years, fisheries managers have used hatchery production in an effort to replaced spawning and rearing habitat for wild salmonids. Rivers became simple conduits to the sea for juvenile salmon produced in fish factories. This led to the belief that habitat could be traded for hatcheries. It minimized the importance of wild salmon populations and allowed a century of habitat degradation. Trading salmon habitat for fish factories might have been justified if it had worked, if artificial propagation had maintained the supply of salmon. It didn’t.

Salmon and steelhead are extinct in over 40% of their historical range and salmon in most of the rest of their range in the Pacific Northwest are protected under the Endangered Species Act. A management system based on hatcheries is difficult to change, even after it is clear that it cannot maintain the supply of salmon and that it makes the problems worse.

In addition to distracting from the issue of habitat destruction, hatchery fish negatively impact wild fish stocks in several ways. For one, hatchery fish displace wild fish in limited habitat and resources. Secondly, when hatchery fish are stocked on top of vulnerable wild populations, the artificially boosted fishing opportunity dramatically increases fishing pressure, putting wild fish at risk of increased hooking mortality due to the high number of bait anglers (studies show they kill about a third of the cold-water fish they touch). In the same vein, dumping huge numbers of hatchery smolts attracts and subsidizes artificially inflated predator populations, which can also negatively impact wild fish. And finally, the most insidious impact of the hatchery fish is to pass on their genes to wild populations.

Just this past week, Oregon State University and ODFW published a new study demonstrating how quickly hatchery fish developed domesticated (i.e. less viable) genetic traits, just in the first generation removed from wild stocks.
The lesson you might take away from such a study would be that hatchery fish are a bad idea, that reducing genetic diversity and fitness are a recipe for species or even ecosystem level disasters.

But rather, fisheries managers have decided that the lesson they learned is that they need to do a better job of making hatchery fish look, act, and survive more like wild fish.

***

I married my wife and we had our first child while in Oregon.

Through painful repeated life lessons, I learned that fishing for steelhead was not in fact the most important thing in my life. Raising one kid 3,000 miles away from family was difficult, and we thought we would have more. So my wife and I jointly made the decision to move back to the city where I was born.

Fast forward three years, and we have two more kids. We now have financial and familial ties to Northeast Ohio that would be difficult to break. It’s hard not to crave the wide open ocean of possibilities of our previously single lives. It’s easy to imagine that we’ve swam back to my confining natal grounds to spawn and die.

It’s winter for six months here. And unless you’ve tried to hike with three kids (two under three years old), all of them bundled up like Michelin men in snowsuits, don’t tell me you can have the same outdoors experience anywhere if you make it a priority. You spend twenty minutes getting boots on one and the other one shits a diaper, and next thing you know, you’re sucked into an episode of SpongeBob just to keep the kids from crying. You blink, and then it’s dark. It’s a disaster.

There is an amazingly diverse wildlife population here, and a beauty to the landscape if you know how to find it. But let’s not kid ourselves – we have to work for it through the winter, which seems to last forever.

Do I regret moving to Ohio from Oregon? I’m not ready to answer that yet. But rather, this essay is to explain that when I moved here, I hated Great Lakes Steelheading.

My fly fishing hobby, which I had elevated to the level of religion, didn’t make sense here in Ohio where the fishing almost entirely focused on a non-native hatchery fish that I’d spent years railing against.

I was heartbroken over leaving my friends and rivers in the northwest. I resented that so many of Ohio’s native fisheries were in such laughable shape and didn’t receive half of the attention of the artificial steelhead fishery.

Why were so many anglers obsessed with these steelhead when we had channelized, shit-filled rivers and walled-off lakes? Shouldn’t anglers be up in arms about improving the habitat that is critical to the natal, foraging, and spawning activities of our endemic fisheries? Just because something is complex and difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about it.

I was mad at the world, unsure of my own identity in a place where fly fishing couldn’t define my life.

I am not proud of some of the things I wrote when I first moved back. I blamed the fishery for how I felt about my own decisions. I judged these anglers, these fish and these watersheds because they were not what I wanted them to be.

***

I grew up fishing warm-water species. Prior to moving to Oregon my experience with Lake Erie steelhead was minimal. But in my earliest days on the Lake Erie tributaries as a very young man, I recall snagging steelhead in their gaping mouths with a wooly bugger, fishing prince nymphs tipped with maggots, whacking spawning fish in shallow riffles with sticks so I could pick them up.

I’d probably still give the maggot thing a try if things got desperate.

The point is, I would have done nearly anything to put my hands on those big fish.

While the native steelhead of the Pacific Northwest are impressive specimens, they’re really not that different from what we have here in the Great Lakes. There are some amazing animals swimming in Lake Erie.

When you are stripping flies off the Cleveland shoreline and a chrome 8lb fish tears off with your Clouser minnow towards Buffalo, spooling your 8-weight rod, it’s impossible not to feel connected to something amazing, something wilder than the manmade nature of a put-and-take hatchery program.

I almost don’t even care what the fish looks like – there’s something about hooking one in open water that makes it a wild experience, regardless of the fish’s origins.

I have the same feeling of connection to something larger than a hatchery when I hook steelhead in the Cuyahoga.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife annually stocks five Lake Erie tributary streams with 400,000 yearling Manistee strain of steelhead. New York pumps 230,000 Washington strain winter-run yearlings into its Lake Erie tributaries. And Pennsylvania tops them all with around 1,000,000 fish stocked in its watersheds.

No steelhead are stocked in the Cuyahoga.

There are not a lot of steeelhead in this river compared to other systems in Lake Erie. In fact, it’s a miracle any fish are here at all. The previous generations had tried to kill this river and had failed.

But to paraphrase Duncan, when you fail to poison a creek quite to death, you can get visitors from distant realms.

He writes of his beloved Fairview Creek, a doomed urban stream in Portland that it taught him “the world is peaceful and absolutely dangerous, wild and artificial, beautiful and wounded, healthy and sick. For six years, in other words, I studied with the most perfect teacher I can imagine for life in the America in which I’ve lived ever since.”

It felt like he could have been writing about the Cuyahoga.

I can find flocks of Cedar Waxwings with black masks, cream yellow breasts gleaming in the snow-reflected sun eating rose hips, small red dried fruits. The waxy yellow tips of their tail feathers and the red candle drips on their wings are stunning. But the multiflora rose is one of the most virulent invasive plants in our entire ecosystem. The natural and the invader, connected.

The entire landscape seems to be made up of invasive plants in winter – phragmites pushing out native species in every ditch, walls of Amur Honeysuckle, islands in the river covered in Japanese Knotweed.

The river itself is out of place, reclaiming the land. The steep hillsides of the Cuyahoga Valley were not created by the relatively small Cuyahoga River, but rather by something older and bigger – the ancient Dover River.

From the CVNP:
As melting glaciers retreated from the last ice age, their waters tried to find their way to Lake Erie, wandering south until they hit the north- south continental divide at Akron and then turning sharply north and burrowing into an ancient river bed filled with glacial debris.

The entire watershed is a struggle for resources between organisms wild, invasive, native — and some species blur and overlap labels. The river is a symbol of abandonment and recovery. The steelhead that swim up the Cuyahoga are not placed here, but rather chose to wander into this river.

I’ve come back to steelhead fishing, not with the previous passion of a zealot-shaman bent on making meaning out of life through spey casting, but rather in a more measured enthusiasm for finding another way to enjoy my interactions with my home water.

I almost exclusively fish the Cuyahoga. The river is rarely in prime shape from a water clarity standpoint, but I’m rarely in good enough standing with my wife to fish much anyway.

Plus the proximity and a lack of crowds make it a fine place to spend a day. The run is small, but the solitude outweighs any tradeoff in hook-up rates.

And the fish themselves might be wild.

Cleveland Metroparks Fisheries Biologist Mike Durkalec tells stories of electrofishing the tributaries of the Cuyahoga, and finding juvenile trout throughout the systems, sure signs of naturalized steelhead in one of our nation’s most industrialized rivers.

Ohio Department of Fish and Wildlife acknowledge some natural reproduction occurs, but not enough to sustain a videogame-esque experience people have come to expect after planting two million hatchery fish in a system.

So these wild but nonnative fish go largely unnoticed.

The main limiting factor to steelhead spawning success is the warmth of the streams in the summer. Some cold wet years, the fish make it, survive until they can migrate out through the industrial shipping channel and into the lake.

“The Ohio EPA had documented natural reproduction in seven tributaries of the Cuyahoga,” Durkalec said. “I was conducting an Index of Biotic Integrity assessment of Sagamore Creek in Bedford Reservation in June of 2012, and juvenile trout were the dominant fish species in the sampling. There were hundreds of little trout the size of your pinky finger or smaller, and the only way they could have gotten there was natural reproduction.”

That spring had been dry, and the conditions had supported the survival of the steelhead population.

“Silt is very detrimental to the development of eggs,” Durkalec said. “In a dry year, the fish that spawned were more successful than usual. We even saw juvenile fish popping up in streams predominantly fed by stormwater runoff.”

There were steelhead successfully spawning in whatever liquid sloshed off the streets of Parma that spring.

“I used to hear that wild fish fought better, and I thought that was ridiculous,” Durkalec said. “I’ve since fished areas where there are wild fish like British Columbia and the Pere Marquette. I routinely get my butt handed to me by fish on the Pere Marquete. I don’t think I’ve ever landed a fresh run fish over 10lbs. They have more piss and vinegar than hatchery fish. I didn’t want to believe it. I grew up fishing hatchery rivers. But it makes sense that a wild fish would have to develop a certain toughness to survive.”

Oftentimes, anglers catch steelhead and send Durkalec a photo, asking him if it’s a wild fish. It might have perfect white-tipped fins, straight fin rays — an ideal specimen.

“You can’t rule out natural production,” Durkalec said. “So I just ask them, ‘Do you want it to be a wild fish? If you think it is, that’s good enough.’”

Maybe it is.

***

I wanted to end it there. But our cofounder Jimmy Lampros told me to keep going…

For an inland ocean overrun with invasive species, steelhead are a boon. If a few of them are wild in one of the country’s most devastated rivers, so much the better. And if people enjoy being out in nature connecting to them, wherever they are raised, that’s unequivocally a good thing.

Propagating the cult of steelhead elitism is a petty, immature way to view the world. If you want to dedicate your soul to steelhead culture, you should do it wherever you are.

For myself, my time has passed. I can’t see myself as a steelheader anymore, here or anywhere. It’s too narrow a lens on life. The experience of living here has forced me to look beyond the sporting lifestyle magazine view of the world, and to try to understand the processes and species that undergird the whole system.

I was easy for me to criticize our angler community for not addressing chronic, systemic issues with our watersheds as an outsider.

I’ve realized, it’s time to get to work.

This essay is part of a series by the authors of Floodplains on the topic of the biological and cultural implications of Great Lakes Steelhead.

Artwork by David Wilson.

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9 thoughts on “Cuyahoga Steel by Matt Stansberry

  1. “I thought about steelhead on the toilet and at dinner”. and i still do. I love this work. Art throughout floodplains is killer.

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  2. I too grew up on the Cuyahoga, it was right out my front door and some years it would flood my street, I knew every fishing hole from front street in the Falls to Monroe Falls. I’m 52 years old, saw the River polluted in the early 70’s but it cleaned by the late 70’s and early 80’s. Caught carp, suckers, and cats, when I was little but by the time I reached high school in the late 70s the river turned into a wonderful pike fishery , with mediocre crappie and bass fishing available. Then powers to be tore down the Monroe Falls dam which increased the water flow, fishing started to suffer but started to catch more smallmouth Bass, Pike became more rare, then 2 dams were removed in Cuyahoga Falls, turned my river into a creek more or less, Not a fish to be found, the river is an Ugly eye sore now, I too hope for the best for the river, I just don’t think I will live long enough to see it happen again.

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  3. Matt, you must keep writing. Your words ring like a bell.

    Coincidentally, I today talked to two women operating a Michigan DNR stocking truck who disclosed they just stocked 14,000 steelhead fingerlings into the Paw Paw River in downtown Lawrence, Michigan, a sandy tributary of the St. Joseph that runs slowly through farmlands and woods in southwest Michigan. It never was and never could be the McKenzie. A paper mill dam downstrean had been removed and now this river, which I fished for suckers as a child, was judged by the fisheries biologists to be worthy of steelhead.

    I look forward to checking out whether a run develops in the coming years.

    I also look forward to more of your publication’s exposition and exploration of this topic, steelhead in the Midwest. The grayling are not coming back. These marginal rivers get too warm in summer for brook trout. Perhaps this compromise of stocking non-native fish to provide sport is a fair solution. Does anyone really enjoy catching suckers?

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  4. Interesting read great to hear that there is still natural reproduction of wild Steelhead in my own back yard. I live just north in Garfield Heights and actively fish our stocked rivers mostly to the East. I have saw reports of steelhead in Cuyahoga this year in piticular sincerocky river has been the hot river I just thought it was a Western fish year but I might try to hit up the Cuyahoga and attempt to find a natural reproduction Steelhead I have scouted a section a few years back and it looked fishy I might have to go give it a try. The thought of a natural fish intreages me. I have been fishing for them for close to 20 years now and I think a new adventure awaits just 10 minutes from my door.

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