John Nagy Steelhead Guide Book now available as eBook!

John Nagy’s Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead (Updated and Expanded 4th edition) is now available in the Amazon Kindle eBook version. It is readable on a Kindle reading device and also any other device (phone, tablet, computer) by downloading a free Kindle app from Amazon.

Please click on the following link to purchase Steelhead Guide eBook and access free Kindle app download:

Steelhead Guide eBook

The printed version of the Steelhead Guide Book is still available at the right menu bar!


2018 Fall Steelhead Report and News by John Nagy

Western NY, fall hen steelhead (netted) that took a John Nagy Lake Erie Emerald Shiner Tube Fly on the swing. Note: fly is predominately white but is stained from stream bank sediment.

As of November 27th, the Lake Erie water temperature (degrees F) off Toledo was 38 degrees, off Cleveland was 44 degrees, off Erie was 42 degrees and off Buffalo was 43 degrees.

News Around the Lake Erie Region

2017 Lake Erie Steelhead Stocking

Lake Erie steelhead (smolt) stocking numbers for 2017 include (1,857,271 total): PA (1,032,421), OH (442,228/34% decrease from 2016), NY (267,166), MI (60,706) and ON (59,750/1200% increase from 2016 due to switch from fall steelhead fingerlings to spring smolts). A total of 1,857,271 steelhead and 5,000 domestic strain rainbow trout (these rainbows were stocked by the NYSDEC/see brown trout discussion below) were stocked in 2017. This represents a 5% decrease from 2016 but close to the long-term average (1990-2016).

The primary stocking strain of steelhead in Lake Erie for New York is the hatchery, fall/winter running Chambers Creek/Washington State strain (7% of the total steelhead stocked). Pennsylvania stocks the hatchery Trout Run or Lake Erie strain (55%) which is a fall/winter runner that has been described as a “mutt” due to its Chambers Creek, Skamania and domesticated rainbow background. Ohio and Michigan stock the spring running wild Little Manistee/Michigan strain (11%). (See notes below for Ohio variation in 2017/2016). Ontario stocks a limited number of fall running wild Ganaraska River/Lake Ontario strain steelhead (7%) since their steelhead runs are primarily based on natural reproduction. Pennsylvania impressively attained its baseline target stocking of 1 million steelhead smolts for the 14th consecutive year with the combined efforts of the PF&BC and the sportsman's cooperative nurseries.

Average mean length of yearling steelhead stocked by Lake Erie stocking agencies in 2017 was 180 mm. MI averaged 194 mm, PA averaged 190 mm, OH averaged 194 mm and NY had the smallest size at 113 mm.

Click on the following link for a Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) video on steelhead smolt stocking: 

Notes: The New State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) tagged and marked a number of steelhead smolts using a combination of fin clips and coded-wire tags in 2015 and 2016. No steelhead were marked or tagged in 2017. The NYSDEC steelhead stocking in 2017 was above the stocking target due to a surplus of fish in the NYSDEC Salmon River Fish Hatchery. Specifically, 203,000 surplus fall fingerling steelhead were stocked into Cattaraugus Creek (which is the second year in a row surplus steelhead were stocked in the Cat). These fingerlings are a summer run strain originating from the Washougal River in Washington State which are expected to run earlier in the Cat (August/September) than NY’s Chambers Creek strain which run in good numbers starting in October.

Also, due to Michigan Little Manistee egg source limitations, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife (ODW) stocked both Wisconsin DNR Chambers Creek and Ganaraska strain steelhead into Ohio’s steelhead tributaries in 2017. This same scenario occurred in 2016. Normally, the ODW had stocked exclusively Little Manistee strain since 1998 (with a annual target of 400,000 steelhead smolts). The Wisconsin Chambers Creek and Ganaraska strain steelhead (whose origin is Wisconsin steelhead rivers of Lake Michigan) run very similar to Michigan Little Manistee (late winter/early spring) and have similar return sizes.

The DOW also stocked the Ashtabula River with steelhead smolts (41,940) in 2017 due to its improved water quality and habitat. According to Kevin Kayle, Fish Hatchery Administrator of the DOW, the increased steelhead production at the Ohio Castalia State Fish Hatchery (450,000-475,000 steelhead smolts) helped facilitate this stocking. The ODW said it will add the Ashtabula River to its steelhead system stocking list for future stockings (69,928 projected for 2018).

Kayle also stated that, due to lack of public access above the Hadlock Ford (which is posted to fishing) on the Ashtabula, no plans are in the works to facilitate steelhead movement past the ford. If a "notch" was configured into the ford for steelhead movement, Kayle says that it would compromise the lamprey blocking ability of the ford.

2017 Lake Erie Brown Trout Stocking

Lake Erie brown trout stocking in 2017 was a 30% increase from 2016 with a total of 157,780 brown trout yearlings stocked by NY and PA. This was well above the long term average of 83,508 since 1990. This will be the last stocking of brown trout in Lake Erie by the NYSDEC. The NYSDEC will be replacing the browns with a fall fingerling domestic strain rainbow trout (see 2018 Spring Steelhead Report and News by John Nagy for more details on the termination of the NYSDEC Lake Erie brown trout stocking program).

(Note: The PF&BC has now developed a captive brood egg source of IPN disease-free brown trout eggs for its brown trout stocking program. It is no longer dependent on an annual donation of brown trout eggs from the NYSDEC which, as stated above, has terminated its Lake Erie brown trout program in 2018).

For 2017 Lake Erie steelhead/brown trout stocking by specific tributary locations (by state/province) please go to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission/2017 Lake Erie Coldwater Task Group Report (pages 50-51):

Mass Steelhead Marking

The 2018 Lake Erie Coldwater Task Group (CWTG), which reports to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC), has announced that it is committed to developing a lake-wide, inter-agency, mass steelhead marking program for juvenile steelhead prior to stocking. The Lake Erie fishery agencies include the states of MI, OH, PA, NY and the Province of Ontario.

The inter-agency goals of the clipping/tagging program include understanding steelhead population dynamics, including total abundance, wild recruitment, survival, natural and fishing mortality, growth, maturation and life history. Also, data obtained from the marking program could help fine tune each agency fishery by increasing juvenile survival, reduce straying, boost adult returns and expand the time span of spawning runs for specific steelhead tributary streams.

Based on current lake-wide yearly steelhead smolt stocking objectives (1.875 million), the Lake Erie CWTG estimates it would cost approximately $218,700 ($0.117/fish) to clip/tag all steelhead stocked in Lake Erie on an annual basis.

Asian Carp

In July and August of 2018, the US House of Representatives and the US Senate respectively have approved funding the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) in 2019 with $300 million (which had been the annual funding in the past). The Trump administration had proposed a massive funding cut to the GLRI in 2019, down to an amazingly low $30 million.

The purpose of the GLRI program (which was launched in 2010), is to protect and restore the Great Lakes fresh water system by fighting threats such as loss of fish/wildlife habitat, harmful algae blooms and invasive species such as Asian Carp. 

An initial plan to stop the migration of Asian Carp into the Great Lakes was released by the US Army Corps. of Engineers (USACE) in July 2017. The $275 million plan recommends a new electric barrier and underwater noise generation speakers to prevent carp movement through the lock and dam in the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) at Brandon Road in Joliet, IL. The lock and dam at Brandon Road is considered an ideal “bottle neck” for making defenses against Asian Carp migration in the Great Lakes.

The USACE will have its final plan to stop Asian Carp migration at Brandon Road sometime in 2019 with actual construction work starting not until 2025. With the clock ticking (and Asian Carp literally at the door of the Great Lakes), US Senator Rob Portman (R., OH) has inserted a provision in the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 to speed up the USACE report for Brandon Road by February 2019.

Hopefully, future US Congressional/Senatorial pressure will also expedite construction for the critically needed Asian Carp defenses at Brandon Road. (Please review past John Nagy Steelhead Report and News articles in right menu bar for more background information on Asian Carp migration into the Great Lakes).

Sea Lampreys

2017 wounding rates on lake trout by the NYSDEC (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). PF&BC and NYSDEC surveys in Godfrey Run, PA and Chautauqua Creek, NY have shown sea lamprey wounding in adult steelhead.

Sea lampreys can have a negative effect, not only on steelhead, but other Lake Erie fish species such as lake trout, whitefish, chub, and herring. The NYSDEC Open Lake Sport Fishing Survey has documented sea lamprey wounds on smallmouth bass, walleye, yellow perch and northern pike as well.  A parasitic phase sea lamprey can destroy up to 40 lbs. of fish during its lifetime.

Many steelheaders have reported the steelhead runs down in recent years in the “steelhead alley” portion of Lake Erie (Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York). Several factors may be contributing to this with the high sea lamprey population at the top of the list (although catch rates reported in angler diaries from 2010-2015 showed respectable average catch rates of .35 steelhead/hour).

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. The program annually assesses sea lamprey populations, maintains and monitors existing river barriers (including lamprey traps) in the Lake Erie watershed, reviews new river barrier projects in the Lake Erie watershed (see Harpersfield and Springville Dam barrier projects below), selects streams for lampricide treatment and implements alternative sea lamprey control methods.

The Grand River was treated with lampricide (3-trifluoromethyl-4-nitrophenol (TFM)) by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2017, and Conneaut Creek (OH), Huron River (OH) and Silver Creek (ON) are scheduled for treatment in 2018.

The GLFC has found in recent years (based on larval assessments conducted from 2011-2014) that the largest source of sea lamprey production in Lake Erie is more than likely from Lake St Clair and the St Clair River versus the traditionally tracked and treated Lake Erie tributary streams. Since the St Clair system is so expansive, traditional stream lampricide treatments are unlikely to be effective. Other treatment methods, such as the sterile male program or pheromone treatments, are being considered as alternative treatment options.

Steelheader's Insider Tips

Steelheader's should be aware that leaf-drop will be late this year, so be prepared for leaf clutter in tributary flows later than usual (early to mid November).

Cattaraugus Creek, NY has been running high this fall, but Steelheader's can still find more fishable conditions by hitting the tribs of the Cat (South Branch and Clear Creek) when the Cat is high and stained. Canadaway and 18 Mile Creeks are other options.

The Norfolk Rail Road Trestle Project over the Grand River, OH (above Route 84) seems to be deterring (to some extent) steelhead movement through the work area (see below). Construction crews have installed pipes at the temporary causeway road (over the Grand/below the new trestle construction) for water flow/fish passage. There are plenty of steelhead, though, from Beaty's Landing (below Rt. 84) downstream towards Painesville, OH.

In Ohio
Arcola Creek

The USACE is doing a feasibility study on aquatic ecosystem restoration of Arcola Creek near Madison, OH. The study will evaluate wetland restoration, creation of riparian corridors and installation of new culverts to allow for increased fish passage to spawning grounds. A Detailed Project Report (DPR), available in 2018, will address current conditions and review recommendations for potential new solutions.

Harpersfield Dam Lamprey Barrier Project

In 2018, work continued on the Harpersfield Dam Lamprey Barrier Project on the Grand River, OH by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) including a review of the Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) and the barrier design. Priorities for the design include an 18 inch drop between dam crest height and dam tail water elevations. Also, water flow velocities high enough to prevent sea lamprey passage during flooding events.

The USACE also awarded 4.3 million dollars to the construction vendor. Construction of the barrier is targeted to begin in the fall of 2018 with completion in 2019.

For a video explanations of the project by the USACE click on the links:

(See past John Nagy's 2015 Fall Steelhead Report and News in the right menu bar for more background information on this project).

Grand River Railroad Trestle Project

The railroad is continuing work in the construction of a new $21 million Norfolk railroad trestle on the Grand River (just south of Rt. 84). A temporary causeway road (across the river) was built to aid in the construction of the trestle. 

Steelheader's should be aware of restrictions in the area including no fishing/access 100 feet above (upstream) the Rt. 84 bridge and no fishing/access 1/8 mile below (downstream) Helen Hazen Wyman Metro Park. These restrictions also prohibit watercraft floating through this area during construction. Work is expected to be finished by the end of the year. See John Nagy's 2018 Spring Steelhead Report and News for more background information on this project.

In Pennsylvania

New Public Fishing Access

According to Scott Bollinger (Statewide Public Access Program Manager for the PF&BC), the PF&BC’s Lake Erie Access Improvement Program (LEAIP) is very strong right now. With 4 million dollars in the account (which came from Lake Erie Fishing Permit sales) they are actively pursuing a number of acquisitions and easements using this funding.

Bollinger says that in addition to acquiring public access, LEAIP funding is also used for constructing public parking areas, installing signage, boating access and riparian and fishery management.

The following are a list of projects that have been approved by the PF&BC so far in 2018. 

Note: It usually takes 6-12 months after PF&BC approval (and final closing with landowner) for LEAIP easements/properties to become open to the public. Once the project is formally closed, the PF&BC will mark the easements/property boundaries, with parking areas installed later. Bollinger relays that several of the easements/properties will be closed on this winter (2018).

-Conneaut Creek (Spring Twsp, Crawford County), 3,960 linear feet/35 feet from stream bank, off Fisher Road north of Conneautville, PA/ $50,000 easement.

-Elk Creek (Girard Twsp, Erie County), 6,325 linear feet/182.1 acres, south of Interstate 90 off of Beckman Road/$911,000 property acquisition (the PA DCNR pays $450,057 and the PF&BC LEAIP paying the balance of $460,943 with the PF&BC retaining property ownership).

-Crooked Creek (Erie County), 1300 linear feet of frontage/6.27 acres, intersection of Happy Valley Road and Lucas Road/$176,500 property acquisition.

-Elk Creek (Erie County), 760 linear feet/35 feet from stream bank, off of Luther Road downstream of Route 98 Bridge/$11,500 easement.

-Conneaut Creek (West Springfield Twsp, Erie County), 1,165 linear feet of frontage/8 acres, off Griffey Road near West Springfield, PA/$24,500 easement.

-Seven Mile Creek (Harbor Creek Twsp, Erie County), 4,960 linear feet of frontage/35 feet from stream bank, off Route 5 east of Lawrence Park, PA/$105,000 easement.

-Conneaut Creek (Spring Twsp, Crawford County), 2,170 linear feet of frontage/35 feet from stream bank, located off Tower Road immediately downstream of an existing public fishing easement/$30,000 easement.

-Elk Creek (Fairview Twsp, Erie County), 250 linear feet of frontage/35 feet from stream bank, located off of Luther Road across from Folly’s End Campground/$3,750 easement.

-Elk Creek (McKean Twsp, Erie County), 1,900 linear feet/35 feet from stream bank, located off of West Road immediately downstream of the PF&BC’s Rick Road Access/$26,000 easement.

For a detailed interactive on-line map by the PF & BC of Lake Erie fishing access in Pennsylvania (including LEAIP land purchases and easements) please go to:


Twenty Mile Creek Handicap Fishing Access

The PF&BC and North East Township, PA will collaborate on a handicapped accessible fishing pier near the mouth of Twenty Mile Creek. The project will also include paving part of the parking lot at the North East Conservation Park and a handicapped accessible walkway from the lot to the fishing pier. The project is expected to be completed in the fall of 2018.

Pennsylvania Lake Erie Cooperative Angler Logbook Program (LECAL)

The PF&BC has an ongoing voluntary annual logbook survey to collect quantitative data from the steelhead and brown trout fisheries in the tributary waters of Pennsylvania. The data collected will include fishing effort (time fished) date(s) fished, numbers of steelhead and brown trout caught, location(s) fished, size of fishing party. Anglers will also be able to record optional data including fishing conditions, bait/lure used, and notes describing fish caught, etc. for their own personal angler diary.

This data enable will be used to compute catch rates, track returns of the fishery over time and evaluate the efficacy of recent changes to steelhead rearing and stocking. LECAL data collected so far has enabled the PF&BC to estimate the catch per hour of steelhead for the prior four seasons (0.329, 0.468, 0.325, 0.336, and 0.607 fish per hour for the 2013/2014, 2014/2015, 2015/2016, 2016/2017, and 2017/2018 seasons, respectively).

The PF&BC is seeking data from anglers of all skill levels, including anglers who make many fishing trips and those that only make one or two trips. This helps to lessen the avidity (i.e. skill) bias inherent in fishery estimates derived from voluntary surveys. Participants are asked to record data from each fishing trip as soon as possible after their trip has ended to minimize recall error (i.e. errors in recollection that may increase with time), and to include data for unsuccessful trips (zeroes count too!). This survey requires very little time and effort to complete.

Anglers will be provided with a logbook and a stamped, addressed return envelope along with simple, clear instructions. Once all logbooks have been received and all data entered and processed, logbooks will be returned along with a report of each angler’s catch statistics and those of all other participating anglers (participating anglers’ data will remain anonymous). And periodically, when available, will include commission patches along with logbooks as a reward for participation. 

The PF&BC hopes anglers will consider participating in this survey, and by doing so, contribute valuable data which will help to improve the Pennsylvania steelhead and brown trout fishery. If you are interested in participating in this survey, please send via email your name, mailing address, and phone number (optional). If you do not have an email account, you can also call the PF&BC. 

The contact information for LECAL is:

Michael Hosack, Fisheries Biologist
PA Fish and Boat Commission
Lake Erie Research Unit
7895 West Lake Road
Fairview, PA 16417

In New York
Springville Dam

The Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project on Cattaraugus Creek, NY is currently in the engineering and design phase. The Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) was signed by the USACE, NYSDEC and Erie County, NY in 2017. The NYSDEC says that possible construction could begin as early as 2019 (after the sea lamprey spawning run) but more likely in 2020 or 2021.

The selected plan for the project will lower the existing spillway from 38 to 13.5 feet to serve as a sea lamprey barrier. A 15 foot wide rock riffle ramp with seasonal lamprey trapping/sorting capability is included in the design. Requests from the National Historic Registry will be fulfilled by preserving a portion of the original spillway on both banks to show the original structure.

In the meantime, James Markham, Senior Aquatic Biologist with the NYSDEC, has relayed that a new research project in some of the major tributaries of Cattaraugus Creek (upstream of the dam) has begun in order to determine possible impacts to the local fish community once the steelhead pass over the dam. The research project will include pre-fish data (collected prior to fish passage over the dam) and regular collection intervals (every 2-3 years) after fish passage over the dam.

Markham says that the NYSDEC has decided to maintain the current inland trout regulations above the dam, meaning that it will primarily be Catch-and-Release, Artificial Lure Only from mid-October until April 1. This keeps in line with the NYSDEC Steelhead Management Plan (completed in 2016) to promote natural steelhead reproduction when practical.

On a side note, Markham reports that New York Lake Erie open lake anglers have seen a big increase in steelhead catches the first couple weeks of September which bodes well for the upcoming tributary steelhead fishing season.

See past John Nagy Fall Steelhead Report and News for background information on this project.

Silver Creek

According James Markham of the NYSDEC, the Chautauqua County Soil and Water Conservation District (CCSWCD) is working on removing an old dam (including stream restoration) on Silver Creek at Smith Mills, NY. Construction for the project is projected to be in 2019 sometime (presently a hydraulic study is being done by a consultant and then it will go for NYDEC permitting review this winter).

Markham says that the dam removal has the potential to open up some of the best habitat on Silver Creek to steelhead but since the stream is small and habitat limited it will not have major impacts as far as steelhead natural reproduction goes. Of course, new steelhead fishing opportunities will open up as a result of the dam removal.

Much of the fishery data and information for this 2018 Fall Steelhead Report was referenced from the 2018 Great Lakes Fishery Commission/Lake Erie Coldwater Task Group Report, the 2018 NYDEC Lake Erie Annual Report and the United States Army Corps of Engineers 

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." (Now available in an eBook version!). His new "Steelheader's Journal" makes a great companion book to the Steelhead Guide. Both books (including eBook) are available by going to the right menu bar for ordering information.


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.


OPST Commando Fly Lines and Commando Tips by John Nagy

Pure Skagit Commando Head

These fly lines and tips seem to be taylor-made for swinging flies on the Great Lakes steelhead tributaries. They can also work for dead-drift indicator fishing.

OPST Commando Fly Lines were designed by Skagit casting pioneer Ed Ward and are manufactured by Olympic Peninsula Skagit Tactics (OPST).  They are “Skagit” style tapered heads (but much shorter than traditional Skagit heads). They work well on shorter spey rods (up to 9 wts.), but are optimized for “switch” type fly rods in the 10-12 ft. range and work amazingly well on single handed rods in lighter grain weights.

Commando Skagit "heads" are designed to cast (whether Skagit spey or Skagit single handed style) in a continuous forward motion or "sweep" with the line always under tension until it is propelled from the water at end of the forward stroke. The tension in the fly line (which creates rod load and energy) is maintained during the forward stroke by a sustained "anchor" point at the fly which is created prior to the forward cast.

The OPST Commando heads (12 feet) are much shorter than traditional Skagit heads and have thicker head tapers. This allows for effortless/smooth casting whether executing a single spey, snake roll or standard overhead or roll cast presentation. They have excellent performance in restricted casting areas, during windy conditions and with bulky flies. Other biggie’s are they are much easier to control/mend on the water versus longer Skagit lines, can be used for indicator fishing (when paired with a floating tip) and they also have low-stretch cores for quick hook-sets.

OPST also offers 12 foot Commando Tips (and 7.5 foot Commando Tips/see below) that work in tandem with the Commando heads and are designed for getting your fly down on the swing in various water conditions. Longer than 10 foot “MOW” type tips, they enhance the “water load” of the fly line and prevent “blown” anchors when doing Skagit style casts. These tips come in three grain weights (96 grains/T8, 132 grains/T11 and 168 grains/T14) with three sink rates (Riffle, Run and Bucket) for each weight. The tips are density compensated, allowing a straighter sink to the fly, eliminating the “belly” effect that occurs in level sink tips. Rio's "MOW" Tips also work well with Commando heads (as well as any other tip system of similar length and weight).

OPST 7.5 foot Commando tips are a great choice for standard 7-11 foot single handed rods (optimized for 9 footers) and single handed spey style casts or standard overhead or roll casts with these rods.

To complete the setup, OPST offers a running line it calls the “Lazar” line which is hydrophobic, has incredible lack of memory (at any temperature), far shooting slickness, high durability and ties high strength knots. The line comes in 25, 30, 35, 40 and 50 lbs and orange, green and pink flourescent colors for high visibility in water and contrast with fly line head.

Update: OPST has updated the Commando head for 2018 with the new Commando Smooth. This line is a Commando head  with a  slick coated running line integrated into into it with a smooth, gradual taper. No longer will you feel a bump as the running line/Commando head junction (connection) enters the guides.

OPST products are available at Chagrin River Outfitters at www.chagrinriveroutfitters.com
or directly from OPST at www.opskagit.com OPST also has some great instructional Commando Skagit casting and rigging videos.

More detailed information on Great Lakes steelhead fly fishing 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.


Swinging Flies for Steelhead by John Nagy

Spring steelheader swinging flies on an Ohio Lake Erie tributary stream

Dead-drift presentations like bottom-bouncing or floating indicating will always be the mainstay for catching steelhead on most Great Lakes tributary rivers and streams. The reason for this is that the tributaries mostly run cold over the course of a steelhead fishing season (late fall through late winter). 

These cold flows (40 degrees F and below) slow down the metabolism of a steelhead making it somewhat lethargic. They typically become finicky, keying in on small egg patterns and bead-head nymphs dead-drifted on or near the stream bottom

A great compliment to this approach is swinging flies for steelhead in the traditional down-and-across manner. Under certain water conditions and river characteristics this technique can be extremely effective with an excitement factor that can shake even the seasoned steelheader!

Traditional swinging techniques were originally developed to catch Atlantic salmon in Northern Europe and the Atlantic Canadian Provinces becoming popular for steelhead in the Pacific Northwest during the 20th century. In recent years, it has developed an enthusiastic following by a growing group of steelheaders in the Great Lakes region.

In the warmer tributary flows of fall and spring (above 40 degrees F) steelhead are more aggressive and will actively move for wooly buggers, streamers, leeches, tube and spey flies on the swing. They actually will “look up” to take a fly swinging fly (above 50 degrees F) and will even chase dry flies “skated” on the surface.

Steelhead caught on swung flies are often referred to as “players” due to their willingness to chase a fly and hit it extremely hard on the swing (some steelheaders have described the take like being mugged on the stream!). This is in marked contrast with dead-drift caught fish, which are generally less aggressive and have a much softer take.

Swing Technique

Before beginning your swing technique, first wade into position (usually toward the middle of the river) and look at the water surface texture to locate current breaks at the head of pools, along parallel “seams” that run through pools and runs and also in pool tail-outs. Steelhead use these breaks as resting areas on their upstream migratory movements and you will want to concentrate on swinging your fly through these areas.

Try standing almost directly upstream to the area you want to swing your fly through (the “target zone”) and begin by casting your fly line at a 45 degree angle downstream to the left or right of the target zone. For a single handed cast (with a sinking leader or sink tip line) using a single or double-haul, followed by shooting the line, makes this easy. A traditional spey or double handed casting approach will allow the steelheader to stand much closer to the river bank and effectiveily reach most target zones.

A fly line with a floating/weight-forward taper design (including steelhead and "switch" taper fly line tapers and the very popular "Skagit" head tapers including the new OPST Skagit Commando lines) is the best fly line for this type of cast. The heavy taper of this line casts sinking leaders and sink tips well while the floating component allows for easy mending when swinging the line.

As the fly line makes contact with the water, immediately throw an upstream mend in the fly line. This will help sink both the fly line and the fly more quickly. Follow up by dropping the rod tip and move it across in front of you, stopping at the point where you want the fly to swing to.

You will notice that a downstream “belly” will form in the fly line as the fly line swings down-and-across. The size of the belly will determine the “swimming speed” of the fly as it swings across in the current. Multiple mends of the fly line eliminates or reduces the fly line belly size, slows the speed of the fly and makes the fly sink deeper. By minimizing line mending you can keep the fly line belly large, causing higher fly speeds on the swing but with higher fly position in the water column.

The tributary water temperature will determine at what level you need to get the fly to on the swing. In warmer flows (above 50 degrees F), steelhead tend to look up more for a fly, so one or no mends are all that are usually needed. In colder flows (below 50 degrees), steelhead tend to keep tighter to the stream bottom and prefer slower fly speeds. These conditions will require at least 1 or 2 mends to get the fly down.

In really cold flows (less than 40 degrees), multiple follow-up mends are needed to initiate strikes from sluggish steelhead. Making an initial cast greater than 45 degrees is also helpful to get flies down to bottom hugging fish.

Fly Depth on the Swing

Fly depth on the swing is also controlled by the sinking system used in the fly line. By using sink tips of different lengths and sink rates (measured in inches per second or grain weight) for the water flow and depth being fished, you can precisely control the depth of the fly. This is analogous to changing split-shot when dead-drifting.

For smaller tributaries, as well as medium to low tributary flows, custom mini-tips (made out of 2 to 6 feet lengths of sinking shooting head material) and sinking leaders (7 to 12 feet) work well. For big tributaries and high run-off conditions standard sink tip lines (as long as 15 feet) work better. Deep, strong currents on big water may call for 24 foot sink tips or “heads” (which are available in 150-600 grains).

Interlocking loop systems allows these leaders and tips to be easily interchanged on the stream depending on the water flow and depth encountered. Several fly line manufacturers sell fly lines that come with an assortment of interchangeable sink tips (of different sink rates) that cover most water conditions encountered.

Density compensated sinking leaders and sink tips (which have a tapered design) compensate for the thinner diameter front section by adding a denser sinking material to the front portion of the leader or tip. This keeps the leader or tip sinking in a straight line (tip sinks at the same speed as the body) resulting in less line hang-ups on the stream bottom, better strike detection and faster hook-ups.

Along with the sinking system, leader length also plays a key role in fly depth. Leaders in the 4 to 9 foot range will keep the fly higher up in the current flow versus a shorter leader (less than 4 feet) which is ideal for keeping the fly down close to the stream bottom when steelhead are moving less for a fly.

Fly depth can be fine tuned by crimping a small amount of shot to the leader or adding various size brass or tungsten beads to the leader. The beads will slide down to the front of the fly during casting and on the swing.

When trying to get the fly down deep on the swing it is best to rely on your sinking system versus using a heavily weighted fly. Keeping the fly as light as possible will allow the fly to have a lively and natural swimming action on the swing. Flies that are too light (like plastic tube body flies) need some weight added to them (like a light conehead) for proper leader turnover.

To methodically cover a pool or run after the initial swing is made with the fly, lengthen subsequent casts in increments of a foot or so until you have satisfactorily covered a desired section of water. Next, take a few steps downstream and begin the entire sequence again.

The Take on the Swing

Most steelhead take the fly at the end of the swing (more likely chasing the fly across the current and hitting it from the side or rear as it stops) so it is important to anticipate the strike at that point. At the end of the swing, hold the fly directly downstream of you in the current and then follow-up with a strip retrieve. This can induce strikes especially with large streamer, leech and wooly bugger type patterns which provide a lot of movement in the current flow.

The Traditional Swing Experience

The traditional swing presentation allows the steelheader to see the river in a larger view, both downstream and bank-to-bank, as he fishes. It is quite a different experience versus the more localized and focused dead-drift method. You become more in-tuned with the larger flow of the river. The casts and mends of your fly line become intimately intertwined with long runs, riffles and pool tail-out’s as you methodically swing your fly through likely steelhead lies.

This slower, more patient approach often rudely becomes interrupted with the jarring take of an aggressive and hard-hitting steelhead which is hell bent on taking your fly (and fly rod) back to Lake Erie!

For more detailed information on swinging flies for Great Lakes steelhead refer to John Nagy’s classic book Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead (Updated and Expanded 4th Edition) which is available in both soft cover and hard cover editions (signed/including a fly tied by author). John Nagy’s newly released Steelheader’s Journal makes a great companion book to his Steelhead Guide. Both books are available through Great Lakes Publishing. See right menu bar for ordering information.

 John Nagy also offers Solitude Fly Reels (the "guides" reel) and the John Nagy custom made "Noodle" Fly Rod (which has gotten rave reveiws!). See right menu bar for ordering information on those products as well.