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. 


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.


Spring Steelies by John Nagy

Blue bells and spring steelhead fishing on an Ohio steelhead tributary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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. 


Think like a Steelhead to Find (and Catch) More Steelhead by John Nagy

Both a powerful internal spawning drive and variable external lake and tributary conditions can greatly influence a steelhead’s location behavior

 “Thinking” like a steelhead will help Great Lakes steelheaders locate and ultimately catch more steelhead. Why? Because by “getting into the mind” of a lake run steelhead, steelheaders will understand how its powerful internal drive to reproduce dictates its staging, resting, holding, and spawning behavior

Steelheaders will additionally be able to predict how a host of external conditions can also impact a steelhead’s location behavior on their migratory movements into, up and out of the tributary rivers and streams

Most seasoned Great Lakes steelheaders will tell you that locating steelhead (aka -“the hunt” or “chasing chrome”) on their migration from the lakeshore in the early fall (and up the tributaries through the fall, winter and early spring) plays a big part in “hooking-up” with them on a consistent basis. Once located, the specific steelhead holding location and ongoing water conditions will determine what techniques, equipment and flies will be the most effective.

Lake Shore Steelhead

Prior to running into the tributaries in the early fall, Great Lakes steelhead begin to stage along the lakeshore at or near a tributary mouth. Shortening photo-periods of daylight, dropping lakeshore temperatures (68 degrees F) and the out-flow scent of a tributary (namely the specific tributary the steelhead has smoltified in as juvenile) draw steelhead close to shore.

At this time, target steelhead at the mouth, along the beach (particularly in the wind blown direction of the tributary out-flow) and along piers, break walls and marina walls.  Steelhead are extremely light sensitive at this time but will cruise amazingly close to the shoreline particularly in the low light conditions of dawn and dusk.

Fly casting and strip retrieving baitfish patterns is very effective for cruising “pods” of lakeshore steelhead. Indicator fishing with bead-head nymphs, egg patterns and small streamers and wooly buggers is possible at the out-flow of the tributary mouth’s. Here a limited current flow exists to move an indicator along. Look for washed out gravel channels and pockets where staging steelhead move in and out of.

Lake shore steelhead also like to hold along “current breaks” (to be discussed in detail later) created by concrete breaker-walls, marina walls, broken debris and other structures.

A cool fall rain, along with decent run-off, triggers the initial runs up into the tributaries (ideally 54 degrees F or less). Since many Great Lakes tributaries are free flowing and are at the mercy of run-off from rainfall, marginal run-off can limit early fall steelhead runs to the mouths of the tributaries, with a scattering of fish working their way up to lower to mid sections.

Steelhead will not run far in extremely shallow water since bedrock, shale and gravel can irritate their bellies on their upstream movement. Also, it is not unusual for early fall steelhead to migrate from the lower reaches of a tributary back to the lakeshore (especially when in close proximity to the lake) when water flows become exceedingly low and clear.

A good strategy early in the fall, when run-off is limited is to target damned rivers like the Salmon and Oak Orchard River’s in NY which have power generating/controlled releases that guarantee minimal base flows and allow for more reliable early runs. Large tributaries like Cattaraugus Creek in NY and the Grand River in OH have damned flows (but do not allow for minimal base flows) so fall flows can be a problem as well numbers and distance of running fish.

Tributary Running Steelhead

Once fall run-off becomes consistent, steelhead can quickly “run” up a tributary. Since the majority of spawning will occur later in the winter and early spring, this pre-spawn movement is characterized by steelhead finding periodic resting areas on their upstream migration eventually holding or “wintering over” (below 38 degrees F) for longer periods of time in deep pools and runs,  deep pool tail-outs and back-eddies.

Steelhead normally will hold just above the stream bottom. They resist fighting the main current (particularly as water temperatures drop in late fall to the 38-45 degrees F range) and will use sub-surface current breaks in the current flow to rest in (typically resting on the “slow side” of these breaks).

Current breaks create reductions in the main current speed (both in the vertical and horizontal directions) and are made by both natural and man-made stream structures. Steelheaders can detect these breaks by observing water surface texture changes that can vary from the obvious to subtle. (Refer to John Nagy’s Steelhead Guide Book for diagram showing the relationship of current breaks, water surface texture variations and steelhead resting areas in a typical stream flow).

Classic steelhead resting areas can be found along streambed shale ledges and bridge abutments, behind pocket water boulders, in streambed depressions and cuts, adjacent to “current seams” located in pools and runs and in pool tail-outs and heads. Changing water temperature and flow will effect the exact position of steelhead at these resting areas (as well as their receptivity to take a fly).

Steelhead “Feeding” Response

Resting steelhead strike flies out of an instinctive “feeding response” developed while in the lake but do not require any sort of sustenance to complete their spawning run. In fact, steelhead in their native range of the Pacific Northwest can travel hundreds of miles (for months) to get to spawning gravel without food. This ensures that successful spawning (and survival of that specific steelhead strain/run) is totally independent of any food source. 

Once in the tributaries, steelhead transition metabolically from a feeding/growth mode to maturing sexually and production of sperm and eggs. Literally all their energy is being directed toward sexual reproduction with feeding (for growth purposes) not a priority.

Steelhead are especially cooperative fly takers when water conditions are right. Water temperatures above 40 degrees F keep steelhead active and some sort of stain to the water gives fly patterns an ambiguous look (which perks the curiosity of steelhead). 

The type of steelhead resting area will determine the most effective technique and flies to use. For wide/long pools and runs with fairly even bottoms and medium depth, “swinging” streamers, tube flies, spey flies, soft hackles and intruders “through” current seams can initiate some explosive strikes from aggressive steelhead.

In “tighter” areas like along shale ledges and downed timber, behind boulders, in streambed depressions and smaller pool tail-outs and runs, dead-drifting egg patterns and bead-head nymphs (using a floating indicator) is extremely effective.

Steelhead Cover

Another priority for migrating/pre-spawn steelhead is to find cover from predators. The primary way they find this in a tributary is to use water clarity (or the lack of) to their advantage. They feel very secure in shallow current flows as long as the water is substantially stained to conceal them (moving to deeper water as water clarity improves).

An exception is the broken water surface texture provided by fast current flows. These surface riffles can provide sufficient cover for resting steelhead even in shallow/clear water flows. Downed trees and stream bank under-cuts are also favorite haunts for steelhead to avoid predators.

Streambed structures (as described earlier) also provide good cover for steelhead seeking concealment from predators.

Steelheader's Tip: Look for dark areas in shallow runs and pocket water. Steelhead often hide there, using their grayish/black backs as concealment against the dark streambed.

Spawning, Post-Spawn and Drop-Back Steelhead

As photo-periods become longer in late winter and early spring, and stream temperatures begin to consistently rise to 40 degrees F and above, steelhead begin to move onto shallow spawning gravel areas or spawning beds.

For the first time since entering the tributaries, steelhead seem to ignore their previous aversion for bright light and predators and can be readily seen (in both stained and clear water) going through spawning rituals. If water temperatures drop markedly, steelhead will relocate off the beds to nearby deeper pocket water, undercuts, runs and heads of pools. These areas can also hold fish that have been spooked off their beds (by fisherman) as well as pre-spawn and spawned-out (post-spawn) fish.

Steelhead have a strong territorial/protective response when on the beds and will strike (particularly the males) both dead-drifted and swung presented patterns. To avoid accidentally snagging fish visually look for strikes during dead drifts and always keep swung flies above the steelhead on the beds. (Note: Fishing steelhead spawning beds on rivers with documented natural reproduction is not recommended).

Post-spawn steelhead have been through the gauntlet (river running, insane water conditions, fishing pressure, predators, wintering-over, weight loss, spawning) and show a lot of wear and tear to say the least. They develop voracious appetites and a powerful urge to move back to the lake (steelhead do not die after spawning like salmon and a good percentage will return to spawn again).

Large numbers of “drop-back” steelhead can be found in the lower reaches of the tributaries (especially on the bigger ones) in mid to late spring. Swung baitfish patterns are deadly for these hungry fish. Most steelhead will start exiting the tributaries for the lake when water temperatures get above 70 degrees F. Steelheaders should be aware that steelhead are highly stressed when tributary water temperatures are above 70 degrees F and should not fish under these conditions to prevent possible fish mortality after playing and landing fish.

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 "Steelheader's Journal" makes a great companion book to the Steelhead Guide for Steelheader's looking to keep track of their steelhead trips in steelhead alley. Please go to the right side-bar for ordering information for these books.