Alex Bagdonas: ‘Steel’

Alex Bagdonas and I met while fishing the Millers. We kept meeting each other on various outings. His passion for fly fishing was palpable and infectious. He also is a great guy.

Alex makes the time to fish for steelhead whenever he can. He has posted some amazing photos on Instagram. So, I asked him to write a guest post, and I’m grateful that he did so. Here’s Alex.

I’d like to preface this post by noting that while I have only been fly fishing for a year and a half now, it is safe to say I have the bug. I’ve been wetting my line at every available opportunity, even waking up well before dawn to fish before meeting clients while on business out west. I have a few business partners who also enjoy these pursuits in the same way that I do, but they are few and far between.

This past November, I was approached by my friend and associate Kevin, a New York fly fishing buff, who was coincidentally planning to travel to the same Chicago-based conference as myself. Upon discovering our coinciding travel schedules, we determined this to be a perfect opportunity to meet in Buffalo, and chase some chrome on the way to our conference.

I’ve only gone after steelhead one other time; my fiancé, Mikaela, had coordinated a guided trip with Elliot Jenkins, of Greasy Beaks Fly Fishing, in Pulaski, NY. We spent our days accumulating master tips, tricks, and knowledge that Mikaela and I carry with us on all our river excursions. With the rigs and tactics that Elliot taught me on Lake Ontario tributaries, my own inner compass, and the opportunities of rivers ahead, I was eager to set out and meet Kevin in Buffalo, and fish our way west towards Chicago.

We drove an hour west to fish Canadaway Creek first thing Saturday morning and arrived just before first light to gear up. Getting into the water and throwing our bead rigs under an indicator, we waited patiently for even the subtlest of ticks on the best drifts we could muster up. Water levels were low and visibility was limited at best. We stuck around for a couple hours, hiked up a couple miles upstream to explore waters around the bend, and eventually decided to hit the next creek. Kevin was the only one to hook up at Canadaway Creek, and the little jack that fell for his presentation spit the hook before we could land it.

Our next stop was further west at Chautauqua Creek. We headed upstream to start, again covering as much ground as possible in pursuit of good runs and honey holes. Kevin has been fishing for steelhead for 30 years and is no stranger to this game, having even started an angling company with his father. I am more accustomed to NE trout streams where you may spend a little more time working over water that you think will hold fish. I quickly learned that this is not the ideal way to target steelhead, and the best tactic is to cover as much ground as you can until you find fish. I moved a bit slower than Kevin did as this strategy was new to me and I felt as though I was passing up good runs and leaving fish to find fish.

While I was looking for more water/catching up to Kevin, I saw my indicator dip. An instinctive hook set felt some weight at the end of my line and immediately my reel began to scream. I caught up to the fish that fell for my bead and landed it. 18” chrome jack and I couldn’t believe the power it displayed, despite being small for what we were targeting. I reconvened with Kevin and we went upstream to look for more. At a small waterfall upstream we found a pod of them, where I hooked and lost a very large steelhead. I landed another average fish around 22” that took a large nymph, but ended up lassoing itself. After a quick lunch break we decided to try further downstream in pursuit of more steelhead.

We found another access point closer to the mouth and hiked a few miles downstream. We fished this stretch until dark, each of us missing a couple fish that took our egg patterns and shook the hook. As darkness set in we decided to call it a day and pack it in, as the following morning we were going to hit the famous Cattaraugus Creek.

As the sun began to rise on Sunday, we made our moves towards the Catt. Our first spot, near the mouth of the river, proved to be a very popular destination and we were far from the first people to arrive. Anglers were packed in elbow to elbow, and Kevin and I decided we would try our luck on the Indian reservations further upstream. A couple expensive reservation licenses later we were on our way to a small trib that fed into the main stem of Cattaraugus Creek. Kevin hooked into a couple decent steelhead on that feeder creek while I struggled to locate fish. We worked our way down toward the main stem of the Catt and quickly realized that water visibility would be a serious issue. This is a slate/clay bottom river and the rains from the previous week had blown it out. While the water levels had settled, the clarity was still very opaque, making for difficult conditions. We packed it in again, trying once more further upstream, only to find the same issues hindering our abilities. The executive call was made then and there – time to explore the famous tributaries that western PA had to offer.

We stopped at Poor Richard’s Bait and Tackle as soon as we arrived in the area for our licenses and some local advice as to what tactics and creeks were fishing best. Kevin had fished these tributaries before and was pretty familiar with the two main creeks, Elk and Walnut. At this point it was around midday Sunday and we decided to explore the less crowded Elk Creek. Kevin got into a couple more chromers while I was continuously teased by them, hooking up and dropping fish at an embarrassing rate. I convinced Kevin that we should pack it in as the sun was beginning to set so that we could grab a bite to eat, buy some cheap headlamps, and give streamers a chance in the dark. This was one tactic that he had never attempted before. We managed to get into one decent steelhead this way, but packed it in after an hour of tricky wading in the night had us humbly stumbling about. Back to the hotel to rest up for our final day.

Monday was open for business, literally, but I was lucky enough to have a colleague watch my email. Kevin had a similar scenario, so we were free to chase more steelhead. Our first thought was to check out Walnut Creek, but a quick glance at the access points showed the elbow to elbow fishing conditions that the Erie area is infamous for. Back to Elk Creek to explore a few more miles of water that we suspected to be a bit more secluded and hadn’t yet seen. The first access point that we explored was pretty far upstream, and water levels were very low. We only hiked up a mile or two before deciding that our best bet was to head to another access point a bit further downstream.

Once we got to our last access point for this trip, we made the executive decision to hike upstream as most other anglers we came across had reported seeing fish up that way. That said, the fish they had seen were very finicky and nobody had actually landed one, let alone hooked up. We decided to try our luck regardless and found some very nice runs. It was this point of the trip where I humbly asked Kevin to tie one of his rigs on my line, as he had been much more productive than I had been thus far. He agreed, with a well-deserved snarky comment or two, and we were off to find more chrome. Kevin was giving me first shot at some great runs as I hadn’t had the best of luck the previous day or the morning leading up to my rig change. He put me in front of a great run and gave me a couple nice pointers. Before I knew it I had missed a hit. 5 more casts and I had the biggest fish of our trip on the other end of my line.

Kevin had wandered upstream in pursuit of more fish, and I landed this relatively large steelhead on my own. I got my confidence back and after safely releasing the lake run bow back to the stream, I powerwalked upstream to find Kevin and tell him about my success. He had just posted up at a brilliant run that was loaded with fish, and felt that I could use a few more steelhead to write home about. Positioning me at the top of the run, I hooked into another 4, of which I landed 1. I clearly needed a little more training but was feeling great about our last day on the Erie Tribs. It wasn’t long until we looked at one another and agreed to pack it in after a long weekend of intense fishing. Both exhausted from the fruits of our extreme labor, we began our 6 hour drive from Erie to Chicago.

6 thoughts on “Alex Bagdonas: ‘Steel’

  1. Thanks! Love meeting other passionate people. I'm sure our paths will cross sooner or later. And thanks for featuring my column, this was a lot of fun to write!

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