Winter Steelheading Tips by John Nagy

Lone winter steelheader enjoying solitude on a Lake Erie steelhead tributary

Winter steelhead fishing provides the fly fisher with great opportunities to catch some of the biggest steelhead of the season

Hard-core steelheaders live for this time of the year; but be prepared for lake- effect snow, tributary slush flows and shelf ice, numb fingers with an added bonus of solitude

-When tributary temperatures drop into the mid to low 30's steelheader's need not hit their favorite steelhead hole at the crack of dawn. Better to sleep in and try from late morning to early afternoon when water temperatures have nudged up enough to activate lethargic steelhead into biting (morning surface slush flows are usually also melted by then). Don't worry about the crowds; solitude is the norm in winter steelheading.
-Dead-drifting flies like egg patterns and bead-head nymphs as well as small wooly buggers and streamers are deadly in the ice water tributary flows of winter as long as you keep them near the stream bottom (where winter steelhead hold), drifting at or slightly slower than the bottom water current. Incorporating brass, tungsten or glass beads as well as wire ribbing and heavier shanked hooks into these patterns ensures that they stay near the bottom and allows for less shot usage.

-Winter steelhead can be very finicky and fussy and prefer smaller, dead-drifted flies drifted literally into their face. They will rarely move more than a couple of inches for a fly on a dead-drift. With this said, it is extremely important to perform multiple drift presentations and cover the drift completely, whether a run, pool tail-out or back-eddy. The difference of a few inches in your presentation can result in a hook-up that you would have otherwise missed.

-Successful winter steelheading means patience. Multiple presentations covering the entire drift, precise indicator depth adjustment, tippet (length/size) and shot adjustments, fly changes (size/color) are all part of the game to get that perfect drift to steelhead that at times seem to have a severe case of lock-jaw!

-Dress properly for the frigid conditions (knit cap, wool fingerless gloves and mitts, thermal underwear, fleece jacket, windbreaker, chemical hand warmers, neoprene style/boot foot waders) and periodically walk between holes and runs to keep feet and hands warm for the fishing action.

-During a severe winter cold snap, steelhead will forgo overhead cover and hold in slower pools and runs that have moderate depth (4 feet or less) and dark bottoms. These locations (you have to fish them before they freeze over or break the ice and come back later) energize and activate steelhead since sunlight penetration warms the stream bottom as well as the backs of the steelhead. During milder winter periods look for steelhead to hold in more deeper bend pools, pool tail-outs, pool back eddies and runs as well as faster/broken water areas which all provide good cover from predators and direct sunlight without “super-chilling” the steelhead.


This buck winter steelhead could not resist a bead-head scrambled eggs!

-Accidentally dunking your fly reel in the water is a “no-no” for the winter steelheader. The reel can quickly freeze-up and bind in sub-freezing air temperatures. Your windshield heater blower comes in handy to quickly thaw/dry frozen reels (although a complete drying will be required later to remove all the water in the reel).

-Felt bottom wading boots can quickly build up with snow making hiking along your favorite tributary difficult. Companies like Korkers, Simms and Patagonia offer rubber soled wading boots that are ideal for hiking in the snow without snow buildup. The Korker and Simms models also come studded.

-The tip top on your fly rod is the first guide to freeze over in sub-freezing air temperatures making fly casting, performing techniques and playing fish difficult and at times impossible. Remedies for this include installing an over-size tip top and over-size snake guides on your custom made fly rod (the John Nagy “noodle” fly rod has these built-in/see photo above) and applying Vaseline lip balm or Stanley ice off paste to the tip top and snake guides periodically throughout the day to prevent/slow down freeze-up.

-Fly fishing in the winter is tough on fly lines particularly when you cast them through iced over guides on your fly rod which can damage the exterior coating of the fly line. At some point this is going to happen no matter how diligent you are at keeping ice off the guides. A good strategy is to have a fly line strictly for sub-freezing conditions and keep your good lines for other times (fall and spring).
-Swinging flies in frigid tributary winter flows (30 degree range) can be successful as long as you keep your fly on the bottom (use the fastest sinking leader or sink tip you have without dragging bottom on the swing) and slow down the swimming speed of your fly (by doing multiple upstream mends of your fly line on the swing). Also use fly patterns like zonkers, marabou speys, long winged streamers, wooly buggers and sculpins that incorporate materials like marabou, artic fox tail, rabbit strip fur, temple dog fur, schlappen feathers, etc. that have great movement in the current flow.

Adding beads, cones or using metal tube designs will help keep these flies on the bottom. Adding fluorescent color(s) or a little flash material to the pattern can entice strikes. Swing them through pool tail-outs, eddies and slower/deep runs (of course you will need open water areas!). Jigging the fly or using a strip retrieve at the end of the swing can also be effective. Again, a few degree temperature increase during the day (usually occurring from mid-day to early afternoon) can activate steelhead into taking a fly.

-Run-off from winter snow-melt usually runs clear (typically a slow, steady melt) as long as night time air temperatures stay below the freezing mark. Rain and rising air temperatures though can quickly melt snow cover and result in high/stained tributary conditions.

-A common strategy for winter steelheaders is to break the ice in a pool that is partially iced over (using their feet and/or downed tree branches), letting it rest for awhile and then coming back later to fish it. Surprisingly the steelhead settle down pretty quickly after all the commotion. Dead-drifted flies are particularly effective after this tactic. This is a relatively easy thing to do when the ice cover is thinner (and in pools that can be waded) but with really thick ice it is not advisabe unless your looking for a sprained or even broken ankle!

-It is hard to predict what kind of tributary conditions ice water steelheaders will encounter on the Lake Erie tributaries during the winter. During mild winters, they remain open (including the lake shore) with only nuisance slush and ice flows in the morning.

Severe winters usually mean complete freeze-over (including the lake shore) in January and February. This is not a total loss since steelhead fishing through the ice (at the tributary mouths, marinas and lake shore) can produce some incredible action; albeit not fly fishing style. (It is pretty difficult fly casting your fly into a 8" hole cut through the ice!)

During a more average climatic winter, expect periodic tributary freeze-overs with both a traditional "January" thaw and also a number of "mini-thaws" opening up the tributary flows to fishing.

Note: Often the toughest part of winter steelhead fishing is actually getting to (and traveling back) from the Lake Erie tributaries. Local steelheaders definitely have an advantage here. Anyone considering steelhead fishing this time of the year (and traveling at a distance) should carefully monitor the weather for lake effect snow and ice conditions as they impact the interstates and state routes. No steelhead is worth being stranded on the highway or getting into an accident for. Look for "windows" in the weather for traveling to and from the tribs. If bad weather hits (after a day of winter steelheading) seriously consider spending the night at a local motel to avoid any problems.

More detailed information on winter steelheading 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 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.


The Brownies are back in Steelhead Alley by John Nagy

Lake-run browns can be caught by capitalizing on both their predatory and territorial behavior. Jack Hanrahan photo

The browns are back in steelhead alley and were not talking about the Cleveland Browns either!

Impressive numbers of fall/lake-run brown trout have been showing up in the “steelhead alley” tributaries of Lake Erie (NY, PA and OH shoreline tribs) the last few years providing a nice bonus fishery for steelheader’s who normally are chasing “chrome” in the fall and early winter. In fact, 2014 will go down as the year of the brown, based on excellent catch’s, particularly on the Pennsylvania and New York tributaries

In years past, many Lake Erie steelheader’s would head north to the Western NY tributaries of Lake Ontario (such as 18 Mile Creek, Johnson Creek, Sandy Creek or the Oak Orchard River) to find brown trout action. This legendary fall run of “butter belly” brown’s has attracted trophy brown hunters from around the country for years, with fish averaging 7 to 10 pounds and a trophy of 15 pounds not out of the question.

This all changed in 2002 when the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) started stocking the Lake Erie shoreline (NY portion) with a domesticated,  inland strain of brown trout from their Rome, NY hatchery. That initial planting included 25,000 yearling browns and was primarily geared to impact Lake Erie boat fishing.

These browns not only showed good survival and growth rates but started fall spawning runs into numerous Western NY tributaries of Lake Erie (including Chautauqua and Canadaway Creeks) complementing the already excellent tributary steelhead fishing.

Ranging 5-6 pounds, these lake-run browns average smaller in size than their Lake Ontario cousins (whose grow rates, sizes and age are benefited by a deeper, colder Lake Ontario). The yearly NYDEC stocking target for browns in Lake Erie is now 45,000 fish with 38,530 yearling brown trout stocked by the NYDEC in Lake Erie in the spring of  2014 (between Barcelona Harbor, Dunkirk Harbor, the lower reaches of Cattaraugus Creek and Lake Erie’s Point Breeze Marina). (A surplus of 5,000 fall fingerling brown trout were stocked in the lower reach of Cattaraugus Creek in November of 2014).

The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) began stocking browns in the shoreline and Pennsylvania tributaries of Lake Erie in the early 80’s but discontinued the program as the steelhead stocking program took off in the early 90’s.

In 2009, due to increased requests for lake-run browns by tributary anglers, boat anglers and charter boat captains, the PF&BC and local sportsman’s cooperative nurseries, collaborated to resurrect the Pennsylvania brown trout program in the heart of steelhead alley.

These new brown trout plantings replaced the surplus steelhead stocked by the PF&BC since the elimination of the Coho salmon program in 2003 (bringing down yearly steelhead stockings from 1.1 million to 1 million in the Pennsylvania tributaries).

The first Pennsylvania stocking of 87,000 yearling browns (8 inch size) was done in 2009 by the PF&BC and 3CU Trout Association at the mouths of a select number of Lake Erie nursery tributaries. From 2010 to 2014 the stockings numbers averaged 72,000 browns. The PF&BC’s annual target brown stocking in Lake Erie is approximately 100,000 fish (unforeseen events such as a 2012 hatchery INP infection at the Corry State Fish Hatchery that can affect yearly stocking numbers). 

From the inception of this program, the PF&BC has been using certified/disease-free, fertilized brown trout eggs obtained from the NYDEC (Rome Hatchery Strain).

The PF&BC’s protocol now after raising their allotment of brown trout eggs (received from NY) is to raise them to fry size at the Linesville, PA fish hatchery and turn them over to various cooperative nurseries including the 3CU. The nurseries then raise them to 1½ year olds and usually stock them in early May along the Lake Erie shoreline. Since it is believed that juvenile brown trout do not “imprint” in a tributary like a steelhead, it is not critical they be stocked in a specific tributary.

Brown trout stocked in the spring by the cooperative nurseries are bigger (and have better survivability and growth rates) than fall planted fish (which is when the PF&BC typically stocked the browns in the past). This strategy seems to be paying off based on recent fish surveys and catches (see below).

The following fall, some of these spring stocked fish will return as 2 year old males (equivalent to steelhead “jacks”) along with older browns (3 and 4 year-olds) from previous stockings.

During a recent steelhead brood stock assessment at Trout Run nursery waters by the PF&BC (November 2014) brown trout were also examined and had length modalities (groupings) of 11-17”, 20”, 20-24” and 29”. An open lake gill net assessment of Lake Trout by the PF&BC (August 2014) also collected data on brown trout. It showed and average size of 6.9 lbs. (no jacks examined), with the largest brown at 15.9 lbs/31.6”.

The 2014 PF&BC’s Angler Award Program showed four of the top five browns caught in the state were caught on Lake Erie tributaries (all over 10 lbs. and all caught on flies) with the largest brownie an impressive 16 lbs., 6oz. taken out of Erie’s 16 Mile Creek last November.

Fly Fisher’s specifically targeting steelhead alley browns in the fall should expect the bulk of the run in late October into November with most browns spawning in November. A few browns can linger on in the tribs as late as January. Prime Pennsylvania tributaries include Crooked, Elk, Walnut, 12, 16 and 20 Mile Creeks.

Tributary fall-run brown trout are on a spawning run and are looking for ideal spawning habitat. They locate similar to spawning spring steelhead although but prefer to be less visible and seek fast runs, riffles and pocket water areas that have good current flow and depth for concealment. Browns will also use stained water flows for cover in shallow to medium water flows.

Unlike steelhead, brown trout do not run far up a tributary and usually don’t go past initial obstructions like waterfalls, low level dams or high gradient chute areas. Some browns may not run very far at all and stay in and around the tributary mouth. Also fall browns when hooked rarely jump unlike their acrobatic steelhead brethren.

With this in mind, browns should be targeted in the lower ends of the tributaries (the first series of runs, riffles or pocket water off the lake), below the first waterfall or chute area before the lake, at the tributary creek mouth and along the lakeshore.

As discussed earlier, when browns enter a tributary they quickly locate spawning habitat. These areas also provide a great food source for pre-spawn browns (who are still in a feeding mode) and they will actively take drifting nymphs and tributary minnows while positioning themselves there.

Round Goby patterns work well on Lake Erie browns since they actively feed on them when in the Lake. (Lake Erie browns tend to be bottom and structure oriented when in the lake and target Lake Erie’s prolific round goby populations, which like to sit on the lake bottom). Steelhead on the other hand prefer to feed further up in the water column where rainbow smelt and emerald shiners are more prevalent.

If earlier arriving salmon are around, which is very common on the Lake Ontario tributaries in the fall but to a lesser extent on the Erie tribs (see below) pre-spawn browns will locate below the salmon redds and feed on drifting salmon eggs and any dislodged nymphs from spawning salmon.

Try to dead-drift egg patterns closer to the streambed and a little slower than nymphs since salmon eggs (which are denser than water) sink faster than nymphs and tend to roll along the bottom.

The steelhead alley tributaries can get a very small number of salmon in the fall. These wild fish are descendants of salmon stocked years ago in the lake by various fishery departments. They can include coho, chinook and even an occasional pink salmon. Last fall (2014) was an exception though with a descent run of fall cohos on the Pennsylvania Lake Erie tributaries (the PF&BC is unsure of the source of these fish).

Spawning browns are very territorial and aggressive when on their spawning beds, with male browns constantly jousting/fighting for spawning rights with females. If spawning salmon are around they will aggressively chase them off their redds by nipping at their tails. Any fall-run steelhead around (which are holding/resting on their upstream movement) will also be chased away by the browns.

Streamers, wooly buggers and baitfish patterns which incorporate lots of movement in their design (using materials like marabou, rabbit, temple dog, rhea, ostrich), can induce territorial strikes from spawning browns when dead-drifted through the redds.

More aggressive presentations also work well when browns are on their redds. Dangling a streamer, wooly bugger or baitfish pattern just above spawning browns (as well as salmon) capitalizes on their territorial behavior and can trigger crushing strikes.

Fly patterns to use on Lake Erie browns should be geared toward both the predatory and territorial response. Both steelhead and trout patterns are very effective. These include half-n-half, clown egg, glo bug, sucker spawn and crystal meth patterns, stonefly, fly formerly known as prince, hare’s ear and green caddis larvae nymph patterns, soft hackles, spey flies, leeches, wooly buggers, intruders and temple dog flies, round goby, emerald shiner and sculpin baitfish patterns.

Classic NY brown trout patterns like nuclear roe bugs, estaz eggs, Stothard carpet flies, scrambled eggs and baby rainbow and brown trout streamers will also work on Lake Erie browns.

Sight fishing is a common scenario for spawning browns (having polarized sunglasses is a must). Watch your drifting egg, nymph or streamer carefully and set the hook when you visually see the brown take.

Post-spawn browns (late November into winter) are exhausted from spawning and relocate to slower runs and pool tail-out’s as well as undercut banks and log jams (where they switch back to a feeding mode). They are not as aggressive and somewhat lethargic (which becomes more the case as the tributary temperatures drop) but will take dead-drifted nymph, egg and small streamer patterns.

On bigger water like Cattaraugus Creek in NY, swinging presentations for post-spawn browns will also work; just don’t expect any bone jarring strikes. If anything it will be a “short strike”, with the browns taking small bites at the fly as it is swung down-and-across in front of them. Wait a bit after the initial strike, and then set the hook when you sense the fish has struck deeper into the fly.

More detailed information on steelhead alley fly fishing can be found in John Nagy's classic book "Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelheading". 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.