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:


2018 Spring Steelhead Report and News by John Nagy

Spring nymphing steelheader landing large hen steelie on an Erie tributary stream

Record rain-fall (and warm temperatures) this past February brought an early spring (and very good steelhead fishing) to the Lake Erie tributaries. March brought back winter steelhead conditions with cold and snowy conditions for most of March. Warmer temperatures and rainy periods (with melting snow pack) are forecast for the end of March. Lake Erie is basically ice free and most southern shore tributaries are flowing well with no ice problems.

As of March 26th, the Lake Erie water temperature (degrees F) off Toledo was 40 degrees, off Cleveland was 37 degrees, off Erie was 33 degrees and off Buffalo was 32 degrees.

News around the Lake Erie Region

In Ohio

The railroad will be reconstructing a 900 foot causeway across the Grand River (just south of Rt. 84) starting on May 1st of 2018. A temporary causeway was put into place last year to aid in the construction of a new $21 million Norfolk railroad trestle (2 year project) but was disassembled to allow free passage of steelhead spawning runs last December 31st. Some steelheader’s believe that the causeway impeded fall steelhead movements up the winter even though it was designed to allow for some fish passage.

Great Lakes Construction has advised that Steelheader’s (and other recreationalist’s) that restrictions will be in place in accessing this area (from Helen Hazen Wyman Park to Route 86/Beaty’s Landing) starting on May 1st once the causeway is in place again and new trestle construction resumes. Signage will be in place on the river detailing specifics on the restrictions which include no parking along Rt. 84, no foot traffic within a 150 foot or more stretch of the immediate construction zone along the river and watercraft traffic closure from Mason’s Landing and Beaty Landing/Rt. 84.

The new trestle will improve the river flow and habitat since it has fewer foundations (versus the old trestle) resulting in less buildup of trees and debris during high water periods.

In Pennsylvania

This past January, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) Board of Commissioners agreed to purchase a public fishing easement of 3,960 linear feet along the upper part of Conneaut Creek in Spring Township, Crawford County. The easement is located off Fisher and South Creek roads, north of Conneautville, PA. The purchase will add ¾ of a mile of access along the creek.

As of January 2018, the PF&BC has acquired more than 22.5 miles of public fishing access on Pennsylvania Lake Erie tributaries (both with land purchases and easements) under its very successful Lake Erie Access Improvement Program (LEAIP). The program uses money collected from PF&BC Lake Erie fishing permits not only to acquire public fishing access for steelhead fishing but also improve stream habitat and provide public parking areas.

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

In New York

According to James Markham, an Aquatic Biologist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), in November 2017, Cattaraugus Creek received a large number of surplus fall steelhead fingerlings (203,000) from New York's Salmon River State Fish Hatchery. This was the second year in a row that the Cattaraugus received surplus fall fingerlings. 

Other stocking news concerns the Lake Erie NYSDEC brown trout stocking program. After 2017, the NYSDEC plans on terminating Lake Erie brown trout stocking for the foreseeable future. Markham says that the most recent 16 year trial of brown trout failed to produce a reliable lake, harbor or tributary fishery. In 2017, 36,480 yearling brown trout were distributed in Lake Erie between Barcelonal Harbor, Dunkirk Harbor, the lower reaches of Cattaraugus Creek and 18 Mile Creek. Fall fingerling domestic rainbow trout will replace the brown trout and be distributed in Chautauqua, Canadaway, Cattaraugus and 18 Mile Creeks.

According to Markham, the NYSDEC domesticated rainbows have been modified over the years in the hatchery system to spawn much earlier than pure strain rainbows (which are spring spawners) and should contribute to the early fall steelhead runs in New York's Lake Erie tributaries.

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


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.

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.


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 Spawning Behavior 

Steelhead begin moving from their winter locations (deep, slow moving pools and eddies) to shallow, gravel spawning areas fulfilling their strong reproductive 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 or "spawning beds" 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 and "spawned-out" fish located nearby and "drop-back" steelies heading back to the lake.

Ideal spawning beds 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.

Fly Fishing Strategies

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 beds 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 a redd.

Before fishing, position yourself slightly upstream of a 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.

Another effective strategy (again positioned upstream of a redd) is to swing a streamer or baitfish pattern across the redd in front of a targeted steelhead (literally just "nipping" but not touching the nose of the fish). This tantalizing presentation can surprisingly invoke some ferocious strikes. Sometimes just "hanging" the fly (not moving) just in front of a spawning steelhead can also trigger a strike.

The above techniques are obviously not intentional snagging methods but precise "fair hook" presentations especially when watching both your fly and the take of a targeted steelhead. Yes, unintentional snagging can occur on the redds but this usually occurs with "sloppy" presentations by inexperienced steelheader's. To decide whether you elect to fish the redds for steelhead at all (some steelheader's have understandably strong objections to this practice) please see ethics discussion below.

Flies and Equipment 

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 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. An exception are some Western NY Lake Erie tributaries (including Chautauqua and Cattaraugus Creeks which have been documented to have as much as 25% naturally reproduced steelhead). On these tributaries 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 in order 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 (including rookie steelheader's who lack presentation skill), 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 fly fishing 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" also makes a great companion book to the Steelhead Guide book.