Spring Steelies by John Nagy

Blue bells and spring steelhead fishing on an Ohio steelhead tributary

Fly fishing the Lake Erie tributary streams in the spring is in a lot of ways a paradox of the winter steelhead season. To begin with, stream temperatures are pushed from the frigid low 30’s into the 40 degree F plus range. This causes sluggish steelhead already in the streams to become more active and aggressive

Rising air temperatures and spring rains melt winter snow cover and stream ice resulting in higher flows. This, in turn, brings fresh runs of steelhead in from Lake Erie

Steelhead begin moving from their winter locations (deep, slow moving pools and eddies) to shallow gravel beds fulfilling their strong spawning urges. This usually occurs in late February and continues through April. Scientists have determined that this spawning behavior is triggered by a combination of two factors: stream temperatures (40 degrees F or above) and increasing "photo periods" or periods of light versus dark.

Locating spawning areas can result in some fantastic (and controversial) steelhead fly fishing during this time of the year. This is not only true for spawning steelhead on their beds but also pre-spawn fish located nearby and spawned out steelies (drop-back fish) heading back to the lake.

Ideal spawning areas are basically riffles, which have large-size diameter gravel, are 1-4 feet deep, and have darker color bottoms. Next to these areas are usually deeper runs, pockets, or pools which harbor pre-spawn and post spawn fish, as well as fish that have been spooked off their beds.

Actual spawning involves a female steelhead moving into a spawning area and digging out a redd. She will do this by turning on her side and making powerful upsweeps of her tail in the gravel. The current washes away loose gravel until a saucer shaped hole has formed which will hold her eggs. Males will be attracted by this activity and begin competing for spawning rights, with the largest and most heavily kyped males winning out. They will use their superior power and large kypes (which are grown for this purpose) to drive inferior males from the redd. After the female drops her eggs, about 20 % of what she is carrying, the dominant male will fertilize them (sometimes one, or possible two, sub-dominant male will also participate), and the female moves immediately upstream to begin making another redd. The displaced gravel from this redd covers the previously fertilized eggs downstream. The female will continue this process until she is spawned out.

When you are fly fishing a spawning bed there are several things to keep in mind. If you don’t notice any spawning activity on the bed itself, blind fish adjacent deep-holding areas. As previously stated, these areas can hold steelies that are not in a spawning mode.

Fishing on the redds themselves has a simple strategy; fish for the males. They will be easy to distinguish from the females since they appear almost black while the females are bright silver. If you catch the female first, the males will quickly scatter. These aggressive males become very territorial and are not actually feeding, but will chase flies to dominate the redd.

Before fishing, position yourself slightly upstream of the redd and cast your fly so it reaches stream bottom as it drifts through. Mend your line to maintain a dead-drift and keep a tight line so you are able to quickly set the hook. Try to visually follow your fly through the redd so that you target the males and react quickly to their takes.

More often than not you won’t be able to see spawning fish very well on the bed. This is usually the result of spring run-off, which causes high, turbid water, or a spawning bed with a dark bottom. The dead giveaway though is the female as she turns on her side; the tail shakes giving flashes of silver, or gold in muddy water. Wearing polarized sunglasses on bright days is a tremendous help in seeing these flashes. Mentally mark this spot in the stream and fish to areas just downstream where the males will be holding.

Effective fly patterns for spring steelhead include yellow, white, and black Wooly Buggers, bright egg patterns (glo-balls, sucker spawns, scrambled eggs and blood dots), various streamer patterns like the Lake Erie Emerald Shiner and Clouser Minnow, Wooly Buggers, Spring Wigglers and bead-head nymphs (prince’s, black stoneflies and green caddis larvae).

Fly rods in the 9 to 10 foot range with medium to medium-fast actions are ideal for fishing egg patterns, nymphs as well as wooly buggers and streamers. Longer 10 ½ foot fly rods (custom made from "noodle" spinning blanks) provide superior line and leader control when trying to achieve drag-free drifts. They also allow for big fish playing capabilities on light tippets due to their soft actions and shock absorbing abilities.

A floating fly line, like the Wulff Triangle Taper, works well on the spawning beds particularly when fly casting at a relatively short distance (30 ft. or less). They have the delicacy of a double taper at short distances, which makes line mending rather easy, and at the same time provide the power of a weight forward to turn over split shot and floating indicators. This is due to their unique triangle taper configuration, which concentrates the bulk of the heavy part of the taper (which can interfere with drag-free drifts) away from the butt of the leader.

Leaders should be kept relatively short (9-10 feet) when fishing the beds. This allows for close in casting in relatively shallow water. In adjacent runs and pools (which are deeper) longer leaders up to 12 to 14 feet work better especially when using a floating indicator. Adding a florescent red section of Sunset Amnesia monofilament to the butt section of the leader is a good way to build a strike indicator into your leader especially when you are not using a float.

Fly fishing steelhead spawning beds seems to have its proponents and detractors. In the Pacific Northwest this practice is strongly discouraged on rivers with wild steelhead feeling it is very detrimental to successful spawning. On the other hand Michigan steelheaders seem to have no problem with fishing on the beds even though 50 % of their fish are known to be naturally reproduced.

The American tributaries of Lake Erie produce a very small number of naturally reproduced steelhead (the runs are primarily based on hatchery raised steelhead smolts and fingerlings) so fishing the beds does not have much of an impact on future steelhead runs. One exception is Cattaraugus Creek in New York which has been documented with 25% naturally reproduced steelhead. Here it is not recommended to fish the beds in the spring to protect a developing wild steelhead fishery (several feeders to Cattaraugus Creek are actually closed to fishing in the spring inorder protect wild steelhead natural reproduction).

The Canadian tributaries of Lake Erie (Ontario Province) are almost entirely based on naturally reproduced steelhead runs with most tributaries closed in the winter and early spring to fishing.

If you do choose to fish spawning beds in the spring (where legal), land and release steelhead quickly, keep fish in water at all times, keep handling to a minimum and be sure not to wade on known spawning gravel.

Many steelheader's who frown on fishing steelhead spawning beds, prefer to target only pre-spawn, post-spawn and drop-back steelhead in order to protect both established and developing wild steelhead fisheries.

More detailed information on spring steelhead fishing can be found in John Nagy’s classic book “Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead”.


Tube Flies for Great Lakes Steelhead (Part I) by John Nagy

Steelheaders across the Great Lakes are quickly discovering the many advantages of  using tube flies for catching steelhead like this late fall buck caught on John Nagy's Lake Erie Emerald Shiner tube fly.

Many Great Lakes steelheaders have seen the popularity of tube flies grow over the years but have been reluctant to give them a try. This is a shame, because tube fly systems are especially effective when used to replace the large/long shanked streamer hooks typically used in steelhead streamer, wooly bugger, leech and baitfish patterns and are even useful in steelhead nymph, wet and egg patterns.                                                                           
In recent years, some Great Lakes steelhead tube tyers have incorporated West Coast Intruder designs, Scandinavian Temple Dog styles and even traditional spey and salmon flies into their tube flies. These new tube fly patterns have proven to be killer for steelheader’s chasing chrome in the Great Lakes (including tributary brown trout, salmon and smallmouth).

Available Tube Fly Components and Systems

Steelheaders these days have an amazing number of tube fly components and systems available for both the novice and experienced tube tyer.

From basic tube fly components offered by HMH, Heritage Angling Products, Tubeworx or Veniard or more extensive, “buildable” systems offered by the Canadian Tube Fly Company, Pro Sportfisher, FutureFly, Eumer, Tubeology, Frodin FITS,  tube flies have never been more easily made.

Many tube manufacturer’s also now also offer tube fly starter kits (including vice adapters and tube tying needles), making it even easier for the tube fly wannabe to get into the game.

Tube Flies 101

 Why use tube flies for steelhead or any other species for that matter? The advantages are numerous, but before pointing these out, the tube fly newbie needs to know the basics of the tube fly system.

In a tube fly design, the fly is tied on a hollow plastic or metal tube (separate from the hook) which allows the leader to be threaded through and tied to the hook. The tube fly can then be allowed to spin free of the hook when fished or more commonly connected to the rear of the tube body either by direct hook insertion or by using a short section of hard vinyl or soft silicon “junction tubing” for the hook/tube body connection.

Tube Fly Advantages

One of the biggest advantages for using a tube fly system with steelhead patterns would be the big fly, small hook advantage. Great Lakes baitfish patterns when tied on large/heavy, long-shanked streamer hooks can be hard to cast and will twist and bend during a fight resulting in a dislodged hook and a higher percentage of lost steelhead.

Tube flies allow the steelheader to use smaller, lighter hooks (in combination with a large pattern) which are safer and easier to cast, greatly reduce the number of lost fish and cause less injury to a steelhead versus the “lever-action” of a long-shank streamer hook which can gouge a much bigger wound in a fish’s mouth during a long fight. Tube fly hooks are typically short-shanked, medium wire, straight-eye designs (for tube body insertion) which have a large bite (hook gap) for big species like steelhead.

Another big advantage of tube flies is that the flies last much longer than in standard hook designs. After a fish is hooked on a tube fly, the fly normally disengages from the hook and slides up the leader out of the way. This greatly extends the fishing life of the fly since it is not damaged by the steelhead’s teeth during the fight and is less likely to get soaked from stream mud or sediment when the fish is landed along the stream bank. This disengagement also makes it easier to remove the hook from a steelhead’s mouth since there is clear access to the hook.

Tube flies will not rust out (after use) in your fly box like conventional flies using carbon steel hooks (including Waddington shank flies) since the hooks are separate and can always be replaced.

Steelhead nymph, wet and egg patterns are typically tied on smaller hooks than streamer type patterns, so the big fly/small hook advantage is not a factor when tying these patterns up into tubes. But tying eggs and nymphs in tube designs will certainly extend the fishing life of these flies.
Other Tube Fly Advantages Include:

-A dull or damaged hook can easily be replaced with a new one on the stream without discarding fly.
-Tube flies are generally more economical to tie since only a handful of hooks are needed for dozens of tube flies (although some specialty tube bodies can be pricey). This is especially true when comparing the price of tying on expensive streamer and salmon hooks versus a small quantity of small tube fly hooks.
-The hook can be adjusted to sit further back in longer tube fly patterns (to compensate for “short-striking” fish) by using a longer tube body, extending the junction tubing hook connection or using a “loop” knot for the leader to hook connection (where varying the monofilament loop size to position hook behind the tube fly).
-The hook can also be positioned in the “up” position (like a keel fly) reducing the chances of bottom snagging. This is very helpful when fishing a heavier metal tube body design.
-The hook changing ability of a tube fly enables the fly fisher to easily change the hook design as well as size (thereby increasing or decreasing hook weight) which can help balance the fly and make it swim level on the swing.
-Tube flies allow you to control the weight of the fly by changing the tube material (copper, brass, stainless steel, aluminum) used for the specific fly pattern. Plastic tubes are ideal for lower flows (although faster sinking systems and leader adjustment can effectively sink plastic bodied tube flies in faster, deeper flows).
-Tube flies are “stackable” on your leader, allowing you to change the size, color and material density of a tube fly as river conditions dictate.
-Tube flies can be “converted” into a number of patterns by mixing and matching various “head” and “tail” segments right on the water.

 Check back again with John Nagy’s Steelhead Journal for posting of Part II (metal and plastic tubing options, bottle tubes, “hybrid” bottle tubes and “buildable systems) and Part III (tube fly component manufacturer’s, system interchangeability, USA and International sources) of Tube Flies for Great Lakes Steelhead by John Nagy

More detailed information on tube flies for Great Lakes steelhead (including over 28 hot tube fly patterns) can be found in John Nagy’s classic book “Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead”. His “Steelheader’s Journal” makes a great companion book to the Steelhead Guide and is now available.


2016 Fall Steelhead Report and News

Summer is over and fall chrome is moving into the Lake Erie tributaries
On October 8, 2016 the Lake Erie water temperature (degrees F) off Toledo was 65, off Cleveland was 69, off Erie was 67, and off Buffalo was 67.

News Around the Great Lakes and Lake Erie Region

2015 Lake Erie Steelhead and Brown Trout Stocking

Total steelhead stocking in 2015 was 1.790 million which is a 5% decrease from 2014 (NY’s  2015 stocking reduction had impact on total/see NY Region below).

Ontario’s 2015 stocking was a 24% increase from 2014. Average mean length of yearling steelhead (smolts) stocked by Lake Erie stocking agencies in 2015 was 179 mm. MI averaged 193 mm, PA averaged 185 mm, OH averaged 181 mm and NY had the smallest average size at 124 mm.

Lake Erie brown trout stocking was up 3% from 2014 with a total 141,013 brownies stocked by NY and PA.

For 2015 Lake Erie steelhead stocking numbers for specific tributary locations (by state/province) please go to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission/2015 Lake Erie Coldwater Task Group Report (page 51):

Asian Carp

A study released in January of 2016 (and headed by the University of Michigan) concluded that if bighead and silver carp took a foothold in Lake Erie (migrating from the Mississippi river), they literally could take over the lake ecosystem and make up 34 percent of the total fish weight in the Lake. This imbalance would greatly affect sport fish populations like walleye and steelhead.

To help curtail this migration, an earthen berm was completed (May of 2016) at the Eagle Marsh Nature preserve in Fort Wayne, IN by the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers (USACE) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The berm will prevent Asian carp from moving between the Wabash River in IN and the Lake Erie watershed in OH (through the Maumee River).

The Asian Carp Regional Coordinating Committee (ARCC) and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources are presently developing closure plans for two other water pathways into Lake Erie (considered medium risk) including Little Killbuck Creek and the Ohio-Erie Canal.

A major water route that Asian carp could use to get into the Great Lakes is the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS). The USACE has built an electrical dispersal barrier at Romeoville, IL to prevent carp movement through the CAWS and into Lake Michigan which lawmakers, conservation groups and sport fish organizations say is insufficient.

The USACE says it needs another four years to study all options to prevent carp movement through the CAWS. Many believe that the best solution would be to create a hydrological separation between the two drainage basins by closing the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal. The USACE estimates a basin separation (which was one of their proposals in a 2014 congressional report) could now entail costs of $18 billion or more.
Sea Lampreys

Wounding rates on lake trout (the traditional measure of estimated  sea lamprey populations in Lake Erie), and lake wide estimates of adult sea lamprey populations, still indicate the continuing presence of a large sea lamprey population in Lake Erie (which is above acceptable target levels).

Sea lampreys can have a negative effect on steelhead, brown trout and other Lake Erie fish species such as lake trout, walleye, whitefish, chub and herring. A parasitic phase sea lamprey can destroy up to 40 lbs of fish during its lifetime. Six out of seven fish attacked by sea lampreys die.

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) and its control agents including the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&WS) and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DF&OC) continue to apply the Integrated Management of Sea Lamprey (IMSL) program in Lake Erie. This program annually assesses sea lamprey populations, selects streams for lampricide treatment and implements alternative sea lamprey control methods.

2016 Lake Erie lamprey control activities include:

-Barrier control projects on Big Otter Creek, ON (Black Bridge Dam), Grand River, OH (Harpersfield Dam) and Cattaraugus Creek, NY (Springville Dam).

-Lampricide (TFM) application on Grand River (OH), Canadaway and Cattaraugus Creeks (NY), Crooked Creek (PA) and the main stem of Catfish Creek (ON).

-Larval assessments on 54 streams (34 U.S. and 20 Canada) including the St. Clair River.

-Adult assessments on Big Otter, Big and Youngs Creeks (ON) and Catttaraugus Creek (NY) and Grand River (OH).

-Study of the production potential for sea lampreys upstream from critical barriers by sampling habitat and native lamprey populations as a surrogate for Lake Erie sea lampreys.

In Ohio

Harpersfield Dam Lamprey Barrier Project

A status report concerning the Harpersfield Dam (Grand River, OH) lamprey barrier project was released in February 2016 by The U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers (USACE).

The report says the federally funded feasibility phase of the project has been completed with the project partnership agreement being negotiated and signed by all parties during the summer of 2016.

Engineering and design work for the project should be completed by January 2017, with construction projected to be completed in November 2018. Engineering, design and construction costs are now estimated to be $6.5 million.

The importance of this barrier on the deteriorating Harpersfield Dam is to prevent lamprey passage and reproduction upstream of the dam. This will eliminate the need for costly lampricide treatments ($335,000 per treatment), help lower the overall sea lamprey population in Lake Erie and eliminate lampricide application which can be lethal to some non-target species in the Grand River watershed. 

(See 2015 Fall Steelhead Report on right menu bar for more background information on this project.)

In Pennsylvania

New Public Fishing Access

The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC), in January of 2016, purchased 3 public fishing easements and one property acquisition along Elk Creek in Erie County PA using funds from the PF&BC’s Lake Erie Access Improvement Program (LEAIP). The LEAIP is funded by the PF&BC’s Lake Erie Fishing Permit Program (and matching funds).

The new public fishing access areas on Elk Creek include:

-Two easements (1,175 and 870 linear ft.), located off of Elk Valley Road and downstream of Fairview Township’s Struchen Flats property. The addition of these easements creates a 1 mile corridor of connected public access.

-One easement (410 linear ft.), located off of Rick Road and upstream of the PF&BC’s Rick Rd. access.

-Approximately 1,600 linear ft. of frontage on 8 acres of land (property acquisition) immediately west of Interstate 79 and at the end of Skinner Rd. near McKean, PA.

PF&BC Adult Spawning Steelhead Study

The PF&BC continued its adult spawning steelhead study in 2015 (which began in 2010). The study over the years has shown a decline in mean length (over 60 mm) for adult steelhead, with this decline more pronounced in males. Average mean length for adult steelhead in the study (2010-2015) is 580 mm.

The PF&BC believes an increase in male “jacks” (immature returning steelhead) in spawning runs since 2010 and increased juvenile stocking size (which influences jack numbers) has impacted  this decrease in mean length.

The study has also shown a decline in mean length of spawning run adult steelhead since 2010. The PF&BC is not sure why this decline is occurring. Steelhead wounding rate data collected during the study showed high wound rates in 2009-2010 which corresponded to a decline in the steelhead sample size (population) for those years. Interestingly steelhead wound rates have decreased in the study since 2010. 

In New York

2015 Steelhead Stocking Numbers Reduced

A non-disease related mortality event at the Salmon River State Fish Hatchery in 2015 resulted in a substantial reduction of steelhead stocked in NY’s Lake Erie tributaries in 2015 (only 120,000 yearling Washington Strain steelhead were available from the Salmon River hatchery). Total 2015 NYDEC steelhead stocking (153,923) was down 41% versus 2014. The NYDEC yearly Lake Erie target stocking is 255,000 steelhead.

To supplement the 120,000 Salmon River hatchery steelhead (59,145 of these were stocked in Chautauqua Creek to maintain an ongoing research project on stocked steelhead emigration) surplus steelhead were obtained from the states of Vermont and Pennsylvania. These included 28,400 yearlings and 32,000 spring fingerlings (Magog and Washington Strain) from Vermont (and stocked in Eighteen Mile Creek) and 30,000 Lake Erie Strain fall fingerlings from Pennsylvania (and stocked in Cattaraugus Creek).

The NYDEC changed their steelhead stocking policy on the Lake Erie tributaries in 2015. Steelhead are now stocked closer to the stream mouths (versus upstream in the watershed).

This change was made due to the reduced number of fish available for stocking in 2015 and emerging results of the NYDEC Chautauqua Creek steelhead emigration study which showed that many upstream stocked steelhead were not smolting (due to their small size) and not emigrating out of the stream to Lake Erie.

NYDEC Steelhead Emigration Study

The NYDEC Chautauqua Creek steelhead smolt emigration study will continue for a few more years and gather data to determine the best combination of stocking location and juvenile size for smolt survival and out-migration to the lake (with the goal of improving adult returns). Steelhead stocked into Chautauqua Creek in 2015 were marked with combination fin-clips and coded wire tags for this study.

NYDEC Steelhead Management Plan

The NYDEC has released a draft of a 10 year Steelhead Lake Erie Management Plan. The plan had a public comment period up to August 1, 2016.

Some of the major goals and strategies of the plan include:

-Determine a realistic stocking size and stocking strategy to maximize adult returns (see Chautauqua Creek study above).

-Maintain average steelhead catch rates of 0.33 fish/hour or 1 fish per 3 hours of fishing (A 2014-15 NYDEC angler survey found NY tributary catch rates of .32 fish/ hour which is much higher than many Great Lakes and West Coast tributary steelhead fisheries).

-Encourage production of wild steelhead in areas with suitable water quality and habitat (68% of NYDEC surveyed anglers relayed that catching wild steelhead was important to their fishing trip).

-Increase stream access (including adding 5 additional angler parking areas and increase Public Fishing Rights (PFR) easements by at least 0.5 miles by 2025).

-Protect existing habitat (including supporting 5 habitat projects by 2025).

-Continue and improve steelhead fishery evaluation (including spring/fall adult spawning surveys and monitoring a trap and sort weir for the proposed Springville Dam fish passage project).

For the complete draft management plan go to: 

Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project

A draft of the Project Partnership Agreement for the Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project on Cattaraugus Creek, NY is being reviewed by the non-federal sponsors of the project.

Upon completion of the review, the USACE will finalize the draft for signature by all parties. Erie County, NY in 2016 has committed $470,000 toward the non-federal cost share of the project.

(See 2015 Fall Steelhead Report on right menu bar for more background information on this project.)

Some of the fishery information and data for this 2016 Fall Steelhead Report was referenced from The 2016 Great Lakes Fishery Commission/ Lake Erie Coldwater Task Group Report and the 2016 NYDEC Lake Erie Annual Report. Special thanks also goes to Kevin Kayle, Chuck Murray and Jim Markham, Lake Erie fishery biologist’s (of OH, PA and NY respectively), who helped with this (and past) John Nagy Steelheader's Journal steelhead reports.

More detailed information on fly fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead can be found in John Nagy’s classic book “Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead.” His new “Steelheader’s Journal” makes a great companion book to the Steelhead Guide. Both books are available by going to the right menu bar for ordering information.


Surf Fishing for Lake Erie Steelhead by John Nagy

Picture postcard scene of the Lake Erie surf near the out-flow of an Erie tributary stream

 When the Lake Erie tributaries are low and clear, early in the fall (September/October), steelhead fly fishers should take advantage of  surf fishing at or near the tributary mouths. Here "staging" steelhead  have picked up the “scent” of tributary run-off and are preparing to begin their fall migratory run

 Ideal Lake Erie lakeshore staging temperature for fall steelhead (prior to running into the tributaries) is around 68 degrees F. Early spring is also a good time for lakeshore fishing for spring run steelhead and later, “drop-back” steelhead

Ideal lake conditions occur with a southerly wind which creates a “flat” lake with clear water along the lakeshore. Northerly winds create waves (called “breakers” by boaters) and muddy water along the beach, making fishing tough (although breakers up to 2 feet can be fished if the water is not stained). Easterly or westerly winds will move the “out-flow” of the tributaries into the lake either to the left or right (which the steelhead will follow).  Check the National Weather Service marine forecast for Lake Erie wind and wave conditions.  

The smaller size tributaries can really concentrate steelhead at their mouth since their out-flow channels become blocked during low water conditions. Larger size tributary mouths usually provide a deep enough channel for some fish passage even in low flows.

Try casting (and strip retrieving) generic streamer, wooly bugger, clouser minnow patterns or specific bait fish imitations (like Emerald Shiners, Rainbow Smelts, alewives and round gobies) to “cruising” steelhead (they often cruise in “pods” of fish), varying the size and brightness of the patterns depending on the clarity of the water (large/bright patterns for stained/choppy water, smaller/sparsely tied patterns for clear/flat water). A “Baby” rainbow patterns are very effective for imitating steelhead smolts that hang around the lakeshore in the spring.

Early in the morning steelhead can be found amazingly close to shore but as fishing pressure increases (anglers wading further into the surf) and sunlight increases, they cruise further out. An hour or two before dark the steelhead start moving back in toward the shore.

 “Indicator” fishing with bead-head nymphs, egg patterns and small streamers and wooly buggers is possible right at the out-flow of the tributary mouth’s. Look for washed out channels and pockets (where staging steelhead will move in and out of). Steelhead will also cruise along concrete breaker-walls, marina walls, broken debris and other structures.

The tributary out-flow and lake surface waves can help move along the indicator (otherwise try a twitch retrieve to entice strikes). Set the indicator depth to keep the fly generally near the bottom (although cruising steelhead can be found higher up in the water column). Steelheader’s should be aware of the early season crowd’s right at the tributary out-flows (but there is always room in the adjacent beach area).

Ideal fly tackle for steelhead surf fly fishing would include a 6 to 8 weight fly rod in the 9 to 10 foot range. Heavier line weight fly rods will allow for double hauling into stiff winds (when required) and the longer rods give you a little more distance in your cast by keeping the line higher above the water. A fly reel with a smooth/fine adjustable drag (that can hold at least 150 yds. of backing) and a large arbor design will tame most surf steelies.

A floating/weight forward fly line is sufficient for casting big flies and indicators. More specific lines like striper tapers or clouser lines in both floating and sink tips are ideal for casting big flies at distance when needed. Leaders 6 to 9 foot in length with 6-12 lb tippet (fluorocarbon for clear water) will cover most fly sizes and water conditions. 

The newly released Steelheader’s Journal by John Nagy makes a great companion book to his Steelhead Guide. Please click on the following link to order the Steelheader’s Journal: Order the Steelheader's Journal


The Do's and Don'ts of Fall Steelhead Fishing by John Nagy

Steelheaders wetting their lines for fall running "chrome" on a Lake Erie tributary

Fall steelheading is an exciting time for the Lake Erie steelheader. The shorter, crisp days spark both an energy and urgency in the natural world that initiate spectacular leaf color changes, the timely deer rut, ancient bird migrations and the much anticipated seasonal fall movement of steelhead into the tributary streams of Lake Erie.
Hooking up with one of these “silver bullets” is without question a thrill unmatched by fisherman in the fresh water fishing world. The following lists are a compilation of the Do’s and Don’ts of fall steelheading that every steelheader (both novice and veteran) should keep in mind when making his seasonal journey to chase “chrome” on the Lake Erie tributaries.

> Do’s

-Monitor the lake shore temperatures. Lake shore temperatures dropping to 68 degrees F and below (usually occurring by the third week of September) are optimum for large numbers of steelhead to move to and stage along the Lake shore prior to running up the tributaries. Typically the initial runs contain a fair number of smaller "jacks" or two year old steelies. The larger mature adult fish (that are capable of spawning) are mostly 3 year olds with some 4 year old bruisers.

-Monitor tributary run-off from cool fall rains into a very warm Lake Erie. This run-off initiates fresh steelhead runs and provides fishable water flows, especially in the smaller and medium size tributaries, which are normally low and clear.
(The flip side of this fall scenario is in the winter where Lake Erie water temperatures are warm (40's) compared to ice water tributary flows that can bottom out into the low 30's. Fresh winter steelhead are reluctant to run into these icy tributaries unless a winter thaw occurs warming up tributary run-off and encouraging steelhead movement from the lake.)

-During a particularly dry fall, target some of the bigger tributaries which can (but not always) maintain a decent minimum base flow allowing for some steelhead migrations especially in their lower reaches.

-In September concentrate on the lower reaches of the tributaries for the initial fall steelhead movement targeting holding areas such as pools, runs and pocket water that have good depth and flow (beware of congested fishing though!)

-Waiting a few weeks after the initial fall run (and allowing for some run-off episodes to occur) can spread the fall run out (further upstream) as well as give the fisherman a little more elbow room.
-Purchase more than one state or province fishing license (PA, NY, OH, MI or Ontario) to increase success rate (both hook-ups and numbers of fresh steelhead) and experience some new Lake Erie tributaries. Pennsylvania has an excellent fall run but Ohio (which is stocked primarily with late winter/spring run Little Manistee strain steelhead) gets a good number stray/fall running Pennsylvania strain fish. The exception in Ohio is Conneaut Creek (which drains both Ohio and Pennsylvania) which gets a direct stocking of Pennsylvania fall run fish by the PA Fish & Boat Commission in its upper waters in Pennsylvania. New York tributaries of Lake Erie also get an excellent run of fall steelhead including a bonus run of fall running domesticated brown trout.

-Hike more this fall to more inaccessible areas and over come the “car door” mentality to find new water and decreased fishing pressure. When attempting this though obey all posted signs and respect the rights of the private landowner! If in doubt about access on private land ask the landowner for permission first.

-Locate fall steelhead in the faster water flows such as the upper parts of pools, fast runs and pocket water areas. Steelhead have a lot of energy at this time and prefer to hold in these faster flows as opposed to late fall and winter when the water cools and they drop down to the pool tail-outs, slower runs and back eddies.

-Steelhead are very active in the warm tributary flows (45 degrees F and higher) of the fall. Dead-drift presentations of egg patterns and bead-head nymphs along the stream bottom will work at this time but why not make it a point to also strip wooly buggers and streamers across pools and runs and swing flies (such as spey and tube flies) down-and-across in the current flow to active fall steelhead? (Note: Stripping flies when done properly is not a snagging technique!)

This is especially effective in higher flows after peak run-off. The takes on these type of presentations can be bone crushing and memorable to say the least! When water starts to cool later in the fall/early winter (below 38 degrees F) switch over to primarily dead-drifting until early spring when more active presentations will work again.

Dry flies swung down-and-across in the surface current and then stripped in can also be effective in igniting the predatory instinct of fall run steelhead (if it is moving they are going to chase it and eat it!). Best water conditions for this type of presentation are water temperatures in the 50's and post run-off flows (medium to low levels) that have decent water clarity.

-Down-size your steelhead fly pattern sizes as water flows drop and clear at the end of a run-off episode. Also go to more muted and natural colors as run-off flows drop and clear. In pressured fishing areas try something completely different from the norm (trout, bass, saltwater patterns) or maybe some off the wall concoction you made up the night before in the motel room. You will not be sorry!

-Practice catch-and-release more often than not (which helps to maintain good numbers of fish in the tribs through the fall, winter and spring seasons and protects potential natural reproduction). Report poaching and fish law violations. Understand the value of the total fishing experience versus the must kill/catch mentality which can potentially lead to problems on the tributaries (see Don’ts list). Also make it a point to instruct/help the novice steelheader and youngsters on the tributaries and make way for the elderly and handicap in terms of access.


-Fish your favorite tributary regardless of run-off conditions. It may be low and clear or high and muddy when you arrive. Monitor weather reports and tributary run-off conditions to get on the tributary with the best water (“prime water” is the classic green tint with fishable flows). Taking this approach can also increase your odds of catching fresh steelhead.

-In dry falls, fishing small and medium size tributaries can mean very little water and few steelhead (even close to the lake). If a small/early fall run has already occurred (due to limited run-off) it can quickly turn to “fish bowl” conditions and concentrated fisherman on smaller tributaries. Targeting larger tributaries that have at least a minimum base flow is your best choice at this time. The flip side to this is extreme run-off (usually remnants of a fall hurricane) means targeting the small to medium size tribs and ignoring the larger ones (although the feeders can be an option on the larger ones).

-Fishing only slow water areas in the early fall (a habit usually developed by hard core steelheaders who fish the ice water flows of late fall and winter!). Steelhead are cold blooded and their metabolism or energy is directly related to the water temperature. Fall steelhead are energized by the relatively warm fall tributary flows and readily hold in faster water areas such as the upper parts of pools, fast runs and pocket water areas.

-Rely strictly on dead-drifting flies in the fall. Try stripping and swinging flies for more hook-ups and excitement (See Do’s list.)

-Fail to try new flies. Standard steelhead patterns and "go-to" flies that you normally use in higher flows with stained water often have limited success in low/clear flows or pressured water. Here downsized more natural colored flies as well as new fly patterns and odd ball flies can save the day! (See Do’s list.)

-Fail to let a hot fall steelhead run after hooking it. Novices typically inadvertently hold the reel handle and/or line (after hook-up) resulting in a quick break-off.

-Fail to play a fall steelhead properly. They don’t call these fish “silver bullets” for nothing! Initially let the steelhead run and keep rod high to absorb any surges or runs. Be aggressive. You may have to run along the bank with them in higher flows to minimize the amount of fly line in the water (which can lead to a break-off due to the excessive weight of the line in the current flow) and steer them around obstacles. Apply consistent pressure by “pumping the rod” with also intermittent side-to-side rod movement to keep fish off balance. This not only results in quicker battles and more fishing time but decreases possible fish mortality from over stressing fish.

-Fail to tie proper knot connections or use a quality tippet material (that is also new) which often results in break-offs.

-Lack proper wading gear on the slippery shale bottom tributaries (which are still covered with algae in the fall making them even more treacherous). At a minimum felt bottom wading boots are a must. Carbide studs and felt are the ultimate for sure traction. Wading staffs are very helpful in higher flows.

-Bad steelhead fishing etiquette and ethics. This is especially relevant in Pennsylvania where 90% of the tributaries are on private lands, which have a fair amount of postings, and are packed into only 40 miles of Lake Erie shoreline. Pennsylvania has great steelhead fishery, as the incredible runs over the years will attest to, but to sugar coat it and ignore on going social problems would be irresponsible and ignore the need for more law enforcement, fisherman education, public relations with the private landowners and the need for more public access areas. (Note: In recent years the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission's Lake Erie Access Improvement Program has opened up a good amount of privately owned tributary water to public fishing through land acquisitions and public fishing easements.)

Bad steelhead fishing etiquette and ethics can mean (some of these are obviously worse case scenarios but they do occur) racing to prime fishing spots, hogging a prime steelhead hole all day, failure to accommodate/respect the handicap, elderly and youngsters who are challenged for access, pressuring/confronting steelheaders on the water, ignoring posted signs and landowners rights, littering (which is the #1 complaint of the private landowner), public relieving, public drug/alcohol use, continually harvesting steelhead (while too often wasting/discarding them later or just using the females for eggs), snagging fish, competitive fishing and bragging, failure to practice catch-and-release more often than not, poor fish handling when practicing catch and release (including mature adult fish, jacks and juvenile steelhead smolts), failure to recognize the value of total fishing experience versus the “must catch/kill fish mentality at all costs” which invariably results in problems on the tributaries.

There is an old saying that goes something like this. Most of the fun and enjoyment in fishing is in the “fishing” itself and everything that goes along with it versus the “catching” which is more or less the icing on the cake. There is a lot of truth in that! Being caught up in the numbers or harvesting game puts unnecessary pressure and stress on yourself that can potentially result in problems on the tributaries and ultimately jeopardize the chance for true enjoyment and fulfillment when fishing for these magnificent fall runners.

More detailed information on fly fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead can be found in John Nagy's classic book "Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead." John Nagy's new book the "Steelheader's Journal" makes a great companion book to the Steelhead Guide for steelheader's looking to keep track of their steelhead trips on the steelhead tributaries. Please go to sidebar for ordering information for these books.