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Time to rethink Mahoning River

Saturday, September 24, 2016

As a child of the 1950s and ’60s, I learned to associate the Mahoning River with nothing remotely connected to fishing.

It was water, yes. But it was polluted water. The Mahoning was the lifeblood of industry in Warren, Niles, Girard, Youngstown, Struthers, Campbell and Lowellville, but it was poison.

Fishing the Mahoning River was unthinkable in my boyhood. So unthinkable, in fact, that I carried that prejudice in my fishing soul for decades.

So it was that last Sunday afternoon when I finally washed the foul image from my brain, a fishing paradise took form. A 7-mile kayak trip once and for all eroded the remnants of hesitation I harbored about investing precious hours on the Mahoning.

Regular readers may recall I’ve reported in this space over the years about successful fishing trips on our Valley’s namesake river. On and off over the past 20 years, I have caught walleyes, muskies and smallmouth bass on urban stretches of the Mahoning.

But those forays were hour-long stop-offs on my way somewhere else. They were hop-out-of-the-car-and-make-a-few-casts deals. So I’d never explored the river in depth.

Sunday was a different story. Old friend Tim Brown hauled a pair of kayaks and a headful of river fishing knowledge as we pushed off the gravel bar near Hillsville, Pa.

Over the next five hours, he led me to a new appreciation for the thing we call the Mahoning Valley.

I know some who kayak and some who fish the river through Youngstown and beyond. A small corps of anglers fishes the river in Youngstown, Struthers and Lowellville, and they don’t tell too many folks. An active group of Mahoning Valley kayakers continues to work on improving access. Their efforts are succeeding.

But the river remains largely misunderstood by the vast majority of Trumbull, Mahoning and Lawrence county citizens, including anglers.

Tim’s invitation was irresistible. “Absolutely,” I responded when asked if I was interested in floating a section. He spiced it up with details about what we could expect, but frankly I was curious enough without the extra temptations.

By the conclusion of our trip, I was impressed.

Brown and I combined to hook up with more than 40 smallmouth bass, several in the 16-inch range. We scored on crankbaits, spinnerbaits, jigs, flukes and plastic worms. At one particularly good spot, I hooked seven fish on 14 casts.

The float itself was delightful. The river ran clear as tapwater. Our plastic boats glided over gravel and sand flats, many with health beds of eel-grass waving in the current. Full-running riffles oxygenated the downstream eddies that held opportunistic smallies waiting for chubs, grubs and crawfish to wash past.

Herons stalked the banks, and an eagle took wing. Painted turtles toppled off logs when we approached too closely, and at a number of locations throughout the 7-mile run, ancient forests shaded the valley floor from the late-afternoon September sun.

With fishing like that and nature all around, I could have been in Minnesota or Canada. But I was 15 minutes from my driveway in Poland.

Clean, pretty and full of fish. When I was 12 years old, those were words I’d never have suspected would describe our Mahoning River. Thanks to my friend Tim Brown, I’ve learned how aptly they apply today.

So here’s hoping many generations of youngsters will enjoy the clean, pretty and fishy Mahoning River.