The Call of the Wild

A washed-out dam, a surging stream, and the great steelhead rescue is on.

I was trained as a freshwater scientist in California, studying salmon habitat. But my meandering path to those wild rivers started in northeast Ohio, along my backyard creek, Sulphur Springs, a tributary to the Chagrin River. On summer days, I’d slip down to the creek and then crab-walk through a culvert under a road and into the South Chagrin Metropark to catch crayfish and salamanders.

After 17 years away, I returned to Ohio and bought a house in Chagrin Falls, complete with its own backyard tributary to the Chagrin. Seasonal changes, their smells and sounds, felt simultaneously like a distant memory but also immediately and intensely familiar, like finding a long-forgotten but cherished book from childhood.

But, compared to California, with its soaring peaks and giant trees, it definitely felt comfortably familiar — as in tame.

Then the steelhead came to town.

On a cool but sun-drenched Saturday in March, I took a hike to the backyard creek with my kids. As we approached a long, flat glide of the creek, a large, dark shape darted just under its surface. “What the… is that an otter?” I exclaimed. I couldn’t think of anything else that size that could be in our tiny creek.

It darted again. Now looking right at it — a dark torpedo with a v-shaped wake — recognition clicked. I’d seen this before in the shallows of a California river. But I still struggled to reconcile this fish with its surroundings. It seemed as logical as a chimp swinging from the oak by our deck.

Another step, another click. “Steelhead! Kids, there are steelhead in the creek!”

Now I remembered. Just a year before a flood had destroyed a century-old mill dam six miles downstream from Chagrin Falls. The dam had been the primary barrier for steelhead trout swimming up the Chagrin from Lake Erie. (Steelhead are simply rainbow trout that live the life of a salmon. They are born in a stream, grow large in the ocean, or in this case a Great Lake, then return to their birthplace to spawn).

When the dam blew out, I told the kids that the steelhead should be able to swim all the way to the falls of Chagrin Falls. But I didn’t expect them in our creek — though it’s a tributary to the Chagrin, its connection is through a culvert buried under an apartment complex.

They must have entered the creek a week before during a rainstorm, but now the watery habitat was shrinking around their huge bodies. Four steelhead huddled together behind some roots that dipped into the water, while a fifth tried to hide behind a rock. He looked almost comically out of proportion with his surroundings, like a Great Dane riding in a Mini Cooper.

The kids begged me to rescue them. We got a net and a five-gallon bucket and the great steelhead rescue was on.

I waded into the deep part of the pool and flushed a fish upstream and my son pounced with his net. The first fish we caught was shockingly big and beautiful, a blaze of red shot through a constellation of black spots on its glistening flanks. As I transferred it from the net to the bucket, I struggled to hold on to its 10 pounds of surging muscle.

I awkwardly carried the sloshing bucket and released the fish in the much larger channel, repeating the task four more times.

We sat on the river’s banks, exhausted and thrilled. I told the kids it must have been unusual flow conditions that allowed the fish to come up our stream, and that we’d just experienced a wonderful, but rare, gift.

The next week there were 25.

This time we let nature take its course but, for a few weeks, the whole neighborhood was captivated by the huge visitors (the largest were over 30 inches). The kids didn’t care that steelhead trout aren’t native to Ohio and, for that matter, I didn’t really care either.

When ambassadors from the wild come calling, you don’t ask to see their papers.

Jeff Opperman is a freshwater scientist who works for The Nature Conservancy. To see photos of Jeff's steelhead rescue, click here.