February: All Guts, No Glory - Another Quest for Steelhead

Babes In Boyland, a Mad In Pursuit Diary


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winter fishing, Genesee River, Rochester NYMaria crouches in the snow along the bank of the Genesee River, half her fishing pole in hand, the other half lying on the thin shelf of ice at her feet. Maybe she’s already on thin ice, but – since the snow hits mid-calf – how would she know? She is laughing. Not ten minutes before, her reel had fallen off.

I have my own problem. It has already dawned on me that if I don’t pop the fishing line out over the ice shelf as soon as the lead shot gets near, the lead anneals itself to the damp ice. But knowing doesn’t always mean doing: the lead is now frozen to the ice far beyond my reach. Stuck forever.

Down river, in the blue light of winter’s morn, a fly fisherman with waders stands thigh deep in the water, making his serene casts for the season’s big game: steelhead trout.

We – with our frozen tackle and our self-destructing rods – are the Babes in Boyland, still determined to show that we make up in guts what we lack in skill, perhaps even hoping that guts might substitute for skill. Christmas came and went. Malone swore he’d take us ice fishing but we can’t pin him down, so to hell with him.

We set out at 7 – before dawn...

We set out at 7 – before dawn – for the Seth Green area of Seneca Park on the east side of the Genesee River, just north of the Driving Park Bridge. Neither of us know what to expect, except for rumors that you can catch steelhead trout there all winter. We find the spot, no problem, right at the end of North Street. What we see first is not an expanse of river before our eyes, but the view from the lip of an awesome gorge, its sides too high and too overgrown to see any river below.

The thing about Rochester is, it keeps its treasures hidden. We are in the middle of the city, at the intersection of North and St. Paul, between the senior citizen high-rise and a power station. We follow a small sign that mentions fishing and – suddenly! – we’re standing in the wilderness.

We pull in along a row of SUVs, gather our equipment and, in the thin pre-dawn light, follow footsteps in the snow through a gate at the utility plant and start our descent into the gorge. Signs warn us that, if we hear sirens, we must retreat immediately from the river or risk being swept away by a surge of water from the power company. The walk turns into a lengthy trek down the snow-covered road. It warms us up.

Our destination is a swirling pool beneath the half frozen Lower Falls that span the river. At the old stone power station building, we walk down a slim set of steel-grate stairs to the narrow bank of the river. We are happy to see the line-up of 8 or so men, not because we love crowds, but because we’re afraid: it’s impossible to differentiate the exact border between earth and water – everything is crusty snow and ice and a misstep will plunge us into the four-minutes-till-death current. We smile at the guys and squeeze ourselves into the line-up.

My eyes must pop out of my head when I see that gigantic fish are actually being caught.steelhead trout, Genesee River, Rochester NY

The guy next to me lands a massive steelie and I find myself inching closer and closer to him till I manage to take over the exact spot of his success. It appears we have similar rigs – spinning reels and egg sacks for bait – but I ask him what he thinks and he recommends adding more weight and reminds me that the idea is to get the bait to bounce along the bottom. I add more split-shot, about 18 inches above the hook. My bait bounces, all right – right into a stony crevice, where it jams. My new buddy smiles: “You get fish here, but you lose a lot of tackle.”

Meanwhile Maria spends most of her time trying to untangle her line and its nasty loops around the underside of her reel. This has happened before and she’d instructed her ex-husband to get it working again. Message to Maria: when you’ve divorced a man for his relentlessly frustrating behavior, never trust him to “fix” a frustrating mechanical device for you.

My eyes must pop out of my head when I see that gigantic fish are actually being caught.

Our hands and feet are freezing so we head back to the car to warm up and exchange Maria’s rod for one of the spares from my husband’s abandoned collection. We get our workout: a steep uphill climb for the equivalent of five city blocks. In the van, we pound down cups of spiked coffee and chomp on Godiva triple-chocolate biscotti. 

Back to the river we march, this time taking an alternate path through the woods, one that leads to a more deserted stretch of river – prettier than the line-up at the power station, but scarier as we tramp our way through unbroken snow, wondering whether the crust will suddenly break through, not over rocks and grass but into the river shallows.

We set up. A departing fly fisherman directs us upstream to where the water deepens, so we pick up our gear and follow his footsteps in the snow. But here’s where Maria’s pole begins its Satanic disassembly and my tackle keeps annealing itself to the ice’s edge. Part of her rod is now out on ice that can’t be more than a half-inch thick. She stretches out on her belly and retrieves it: a triumph of guts over skill and we figure we’ve had enough adventure for one Saturday morning. The fish are indifferent to the Babes in Boyland ... apparently our guts don’t impress them.


Genesee River, Rochester NY: Guide to the Lower Gorge Fisheries

Seth Green Trail, Rochester NY