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.


2014 Fall Steelhead Report and News by John Nagy

Lake Erie male or "buck" steelhead that fell for an olive, bead-head stonefly nymph

After both a wet and cool summer expect steelhead to begin staging along the Lake Erie tributary shoreline (near the tributary mouth’s) as daylight periods become less and lakeshore temperatures drop to 68 degrees F (earlier staging should occur this fall due to lower than average spring/summer lake temperatures). Run-off from cool fall rains in September (ideally 54 degrees or less) will initiate the first steelhead runs of the season up the tributaries.

Limited run-off in a dry fall will restrict the numbers and distance steelhead will "run" the tributaries (particularly since there are no minimum dam release flows on the Erie tribs). Remnants of fall hurricanes traveling up the east coast can provide a tremendous amount of precipitation and tributary run-off and are a boom for fall Lake Erie steelhead fishing.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservations (NYDEC) has reported that offshore boat anglers in August (in the Western NY waters of Lake Erie) have been catching coho salmon. The NYDEC is unsure of their origin (possilbly a wild source and/or transients from Lake Huron since they have not been stocked in Lake Erie since 1997). Based on these catches, steelhead tributary anglers should expect some coho showing up this fall as well as lake-run brown trout (which are stocked by both the PA and NY fishery departments). The NYDEC also reports that some steelhead have already entered Cattaraugus Creek in August. No doubt a result of August's cool temperatures and run-off from a rainy month.

On November 6, 2014 the Lake Erie water temperature (degrees F) off Toledo was 47, off Cleveland was 53, off Erie was 52 and off Buffalo was 54.

News around the Great Lakes and the Lake Erie Region

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) was funded $300 million by Congress this past August (for the 2015 fiscal year). This was less than the $475 million President Obama authorized in his inaugural 2010 budget, but greatly more than the paltry $60 initially budgeted. 

The monies will go for cleaning up toxic pollution, address invasive species like Asian carp, restore fish and wildlife habitat and deter run-off from farms and cities. In the last 5 years more than $1.6 billion has been invested by the GLRI in more than 2,000 projects throughout the Great Lakes region. 

The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition has compiled a list of more than 100 GLRI funded efforts in the Great Lakes.

Sea Lamprey Control

The Lake Erie Cold Water Task Group Committee (MI, OH, PA, NY and ON are all members) is continuing to implement the Integrated Management Sea Lamprey (IMSL) program of the Great Lake Fishery Commission (GLFC). The implementation involves selection of Lake Erie streams for lampricide treatment (which is conducted by the US Fish & Wildlife Service), performing alternative sea lamprey control methods and collecting sea lamprey wounding data to evaluate and guide lamprey management in the future.

Sea lampreys are a parasitic/“invasive species” that can consume up to 40 pounds of fish during its lifetime (see Great Lakes sea lamprey life cycle) The GLFC was formed in 1955 to access and control sea lampreys after severe impacts on Great Lakes sport, commercial and aboriginal fisheries in the 1940’s and 1950’s.

Wounding rates collected by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) on lake trout (which has been a traditional measure of sea lamprey population in Lake Erie) showed a high lamprey population in 2013. Other warm water sport fish showed high wounding rates as well.

The Lake Erie steelhead fishery is also being impacted by sea lampreys based on wounding numbers reported by Lake Erie boat fisherman and surveys conducted by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (an informal 2011 Trout Run survey showed 18% of adult steelhead had lamprey wounds with 2.8% fresh wounds).

Studies conducted over the past 3 years revealed that the biggest source of Lake Erie’s lamprey reproduction could be the St Clair River and not the traditionally surveyed and treated Lake Erie tributaries.

2014 lamprey control plans include lampricide treatment of the headwaters of Big and Big Otter Creek (ON) and a proposed treatment of upper Conneaut Creek in OH. Adult lamprey assessments are planned for Big Otter Creek, Big Creek and Grand River (ON) and Cattaraugus Creeks (including Clear Creek) in NY.

All sea lamprey retrieved in adult assessment traps will be scanned for coded wire tags to determine whether tagged juveniles released in the St. Clair River (in 2012) can migrate successfully through the Huron-Erie-Corridor and survive in the eastern basin in Lake Erie.

A sea lamprey production potential study is scheduled for the Grand River (ON). The study will focus on the production potential sea lamprey above a critical barrier by surveying habitat and native lamprey populations as a surrogate for Lake Erie sea lamprey.

Great Lakes Asian Carp
New congressional legislation proposed by US Representative Candice Miller (Defending Against Aquatic Invasive Species Act 2014) will prevent the passage of harmful invasive species (such as Asian Carp) between the Mississippi River basins and the Great Lakes through the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS).

Since the 1990’s Asian Carp have been traveling up the Mississippi River watershed, encroaching and damaging ecosystems. If Asian Carp take a foothold in the Great Lakes (Asian Carp DNA has already been found in Lake Michigan) it could jeopardize a multi-billion dollar sport fishing and tourism industry.

The Bill dictates that the US Army Corps. of Engineers (USACE) work with key partners in the region who have the authority to manage water in the CAWS and also develop a specific engineering design (including deadlines for implementation) to re-separate the naturally divided watersheds.

Earlier this year the USACE released a report to congress outlining eight options to prevent invasive species from entering the Great Lakes. The most expensive option would physically cut-off Lake Michigan from CAWS with a series of physical barriers. The plan would take 25 years to complete but could have negative impacts on commercial cargo shipping.

Another option would take less time and money (10 years/$8 billion) and would rely chiefly on a new lock design, chemical treatments and limited number of physical barriers.

Past efforts to deter the movement of Asian Carp (including water cannons that create turbulence in the water, chemical toxins, hiring commercial fisherman, electro-shocking and a series of electric barriers in the Illinois River) have failed to keep the fish at bay.

Update: A "pro-active" Asian carp field exercise was carried out by various Lake Erie fishery agencies (including the US Fish & Wildlife Service) this past September. The exercise, which was carried out on Lake Michigan at Sterling State Park and Bolles Harbor near Monroe, MI, was in effect a "mock" emergency field response to a possible future Asian carp invasion in the Great Lakes basin. See video for more details.

Steelhead, Brown Trout and Lake Trout Stockings
A total of 1,847,488 yearling steelhead or smolts were stocked in 2013 by the fishery agencies of Lake Erie. This represents a 4% increase from 2012 and a 2% increase from the long-term (1990-2012)

The 2013 stocking numbers for steelhead smolts into Lake Erie are as follows: Ohio (455,678/Manistee River Strain), Pennsylvania (1,072,410/Trout Run Strain), New York (260,000/Washington Strain) and Michigan (62,400/Manistee River Strain).

Stocking of spring yearlings took place between
February and May with smolts averaging about 181 mm in length (Range: 127 mm (NY) – 204 mm (MI)). It is to be noted that no tagging and only limited fin clipping have been conducted on Lake Erie steelhead since 1999.

Additionally, Pennsylvania stocked 185,000 surplus steelhead spring fingerlings (57mm),  Ohio stocked 140,000 surplus fall fingerlings (74mm), New York stocked 5,000 domesticated rainbow trout yearlings and Ontario stocked 2,000 adult steelhead (Ganaraska River/Lake Ontario strain) into Mill Creek and Lake Erie at Wheatley Harbor.

A total of 104,116 brown trout yearlings were stocked into Lake Erie and tributary streams by PA and NY in 2013. These stockings were begun by NY in 2002 and PA in 2009. PA yearlings were fin clipped (Presque Isle Bay/LV clip, nursery streams/RV clip and sportsman’s club stockings/adipose clip) prior to stocking. 

Finally, a total of 260,040 yearling lake trout were stocked into Lake Erie in 2013 by OH, PA, NY and ON. This was the second highest annual stocking of lake trout since initial stocking in 1982.

(It is to be noted that lake trout natural reproduction has not been documented in Lake Erie despite more than 30 years of ‘restoration” stocking. Angler harvest of lake trout in Lake Erie has been very low over the last decade in NY and PA, although NY waters had an estimated catch of 1,805 in 2013 (highest since 1996). These catches were young laker’s with older fish (7 years and older) scarce. According to the NYDEC, survival of adult lake trout is low due to high sea lamprey predation).

In Ohio

Steelhead Expo

The Ohio Central Basin Steelhead Association and Cleveland Metro Parks is holding its annual Steelhead Expo on October 4, 2014. The event is free and will be held at the Rocky River Nature Center from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM in North Olmsted, OH. It will feature all day seminars by steelhead experts, local tackle shops and vendors, fly tying, raffles and more.

Conneaut Creek Public Access

Funds from the State Wildlife Grant Program (administered through the US Fish & Wildlife Service) enabled the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) to purchase a 70 acre section of land along Conneaut Creek in Ashtabula County, OH.

Known as the “Creek Road Access” it will provide public access for fishing and hunting. The area is bounded between Conneaut Creek, Creek Road (from Creek Road covered bridge east to Keefus Road), and Keefus Road (Keefus Road north to the Keefus Road Bridge).

Harpersfield Dam  Lamprey Barrier

The US Army Corps. of Engineers (USACE) will start the design phase of the Grand River (OH) lamprey barrier as soon as the Detailed Project Report is approved (sometime in late 2014) and the Project Partnership Agreement is signed by all parties. The USACE is leaning toward constructing a lamprey barrier (and trap) integrated into the Harpersfield dam as opposed to further downstream of the dam (which would include removal of the old dam).

A USACE study has determined that the 100 year old Harpersfield Dam has promoted habitat degradation, altered sediment transport dynamics, and degraded water supply. It has also played a central role in the decline of migratory aquatic species, although sea lamprey prevention (which are at record levels right now) outweighs the negative impact the dam has on fish passage.

Construction target for this Great Lakes Fishery & Ecosystem Restoration Project (GLFER) is 2015.

OH Asian Carp

The ODNR Division of Wildlife and the US Fish & Wildlife Service used electro fishing crews to search for Asian Carp in the Muskingum River. The search was in response to water samples taken from the Muskingum River which showed traces of Asian carp environmental DNA.

Crews this past June sampled 125 sites along the Muskingum River as well as sections of the Tuscarawas and Walhounding rivers finding no evidence of bighead or Asian silver carp (although some grass carp were found).

The Army Corps. of Engineers has identified two direct water connections to Lake Erie (in the headwaters of the Muskingum River) which are potential aquatic pathways between the Mississippi/Ohio Rivers and the Lake Erie/Great Lakes basins. They include the Little Killbuck Creek and Ohio-Erie Canal “connections”.

Physical barriers at these connections prevent Asian carp from entering the Lake Erie watershed during normal water flows. Flood events though could facilitate Asian carp movement into the watershed. Presently the ODNR is doing closure studies at both of these barriers.

If Asian carp are able to take a foothold in the Great Lakes system, it could disrupt the Lakes’ 7.5 billion dollar commercial and sport fishing economies as well as its ecological systems.

In Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Public Fishing Access

The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) recently used $30,000 of Lake Erie license stamp permit funds from the Lake Erie Access Improvement Program (LEAIP) to purchase 1.7 acres of stream frontage along Twelve Mile Creek in Erie County.

The property is located immediately south of Route 5 on both sides of Twelve Mile Creek and is accessed along Mooreheadville Road near Northeast, PA. Harborcreek Township presently owns all the property north of Route 5 to the lake and provides public access for fishing and recreation.

The PF&BC also approved acquisition of a public fishing easement on the East Branch of Conneaut Creek in Albion Borough, PA. It will provide approximately 6,295 linear feet along the creek as well as easements for parking and a footpath.

To date, the very successful LEAIP program (which began in 2004) has acquired 11 properties and 21 easements in Erie County, PA that provide public fishing access to approximately 17.47 miles of PA Lake Erie tributary streams.

LEAIP also funded 9 development projects that have improved public fishing access and fishing along the Lake Erie shoreline and PA’s Lake Erie tributaries. These include installation of fish passage structures on 4 Mile Creek, stream bank stabilization and parking area improvements on Elk Creek, construction of rest rooms on Walnut Creek and building the Liberty Park Fishing Pier in Presque Isle Bay.

Funding for LEAIP has totaled $6,420,749 ($148,230 of that amount was sourced from the elimination/compensation of Lake Erie commercial gill netting operations).

The PF&BC’s Lake Erie Fishing Access Map shows all public fishing access areas for both the Lake Erie shoreline and also the Pennsylvania steelhead tributaries of Lake Erie. The map includes many of the public fishing easements and land acquisitions acquired through the LEAIP program on the Lake Erie tributaries. Steelheaders should be aware that some of these access areas can be accessed via the waterway only and do not allow crossing adjoining private properties without landowner permission.

Steelheader’s can view a printable pdf version of the map at:   http://www.fish.state.pa.us/pafish/steelhead/steel_destinations.pdf 
An interactive version is available at:

A new Pennsylvania House Bill (#2357) introduced by Rep. Dan Moul would force private landowners (whose property adjoins a PA Lake Erie tributary stream) to allow public fishing access to their section of the stream. Access would be up to the high water marks (at least by wading).

The bill was in response to landowners who are posting their property to public steelhead fishing (which was paid for by PA fishing licenses) and then leasing it to individuals or groups for private fishing.

House Bill #2357 has been referred to the PA House of Representatives Game and Fisheries Committee which will reconvene in September 2014.

PA Smolt Emigration Study

During the spring of 2013 the Lake Erie unit of the PF&BC conducted a pilot study of steelhead smolt emigration on Godfrey Run. Godfrey Run is a nursery stream used for the collection of feral brood stock for the state’s steelhead hatchery program and also is stocked every spring with steelhead yearlings by the PF&BC (approximately 18,500 on March 12, 2013).

(It is to be noted that yearling steelhead typically begin to “smolt” at sizes greater than 160mm. Ideally you want the majority of stocked steelhead yearlings to be of smolt stage which not only enables them to have high survival and return rates but also to chemically “imprint” to the planted tributary stream).

Using a trap situated in a weir (70 meters upstream of the mouth) a total of 2,216 emigrating smolt counts were made including 1,345 measured from March 13 to May 3. Daily water discharge data and water temperatures were also taken.

The study concluded that emigration seems to be influenced by water discharge and temperature. Average stream residency time for smolts stocked in Godfrey run was 26 days with larger smolts emigrating sooner than smaller smolts. A small number of very large smolts (>250 mm) that were collected were likely escapees from a cooperative sportsmen’s hatchery located at the headwaters of Godfrey Run, but they could also be hold-over or wild fish.  

Data collected could be vital to compare volitional (decision based) versus flow induced emigration (although emigration in the study could not be quantified when discharge was high).

PA Brown Trout

Presently, the PF&BC receives certified disease-free brown trout eggs from the NYDEC for its Lake Erie brown trout fishery (specific yearly stocking data is listed above in Great Lakes and Lake Erie Region). This is problematic since the NYDEC eggs are not a reliable, long-term source for eggs and the PF&BC does not have an isolated facility for raising brown trout fingerlings on its own.

To address the issue, the PF&BC has set two goals to reach by 2014. First, to develop an in-house source of disease free brown trout eggs from captured feral (wild) brood stock. Second, to establish an isolated rearing facility capable of raising 75,000 brown trout yearlings for Lake Erie stocking (which adheres to the Great Lakes Fish Disease Control Policy).

As noted earlier, PF&BC brown trout yearlings are fin clipped prior to stocking. This allows the PF&BC to evaluate brown trout survival rates and future stocking strategies. So far, PF&BC surveys at Trout Run nursery waters have revealed a 3 to 1 return rate of sportsman's club origin adult brown trout versus PF&BC raised browns. Undoubtedly this marked difference is due to the initial yearling size when stocked. Sportsman's club yearlings are bigger due to a later stocking time (fall) versus the PF&BC yearlings which are smaller due less time at the hatchery (for growth) and a earlier stocking (spring).

For more information on Lake Erie's brown trout fishery please refer to John Nagy's article:  Steelhead Alley Browns

In New York

Cattaraugus Creek Dam Proposal

Based on an ongoing feasibility study, the US Army Corps. of Engineers (USACE) has proposed lowering the deteriorating, 92 year old Scoby Dam on Cattaraugus Creek in Springville, NY (from a height of 38 feet to 10 feet) and installing a 15 foot wide fish ramp to facilitate fish passage above the dam.

This modification would further develop the wild steelhead fishery on the Cat (there is ideal habitat for natural reproduction above the dam) and also open up 34 miles of existing NY State Public Fishing Rights land easements above the dam to steelhead fishing.

The lowered dam (which is spillway type design) will still block the movement of sea lampreys to the upper waters. A sea lamprey trap (and sort) integrated into the fish ramp, will also prevent lamprey movement above the dam.

If the USACE proposal is approved, the project could be completed by the end of 2016. Funding for the project is estimated to be around $6.6 million with 65% of the costs to be picked up by the federal government (through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Program) with the balance from the NYDEC and Erie County, NY. (It is to be noted that due to the poor condition of the dam it is out of safety compliance and alterations will have to be made to bring it back into compliance). 

Chautauqua Creek Fish Passsage Repairs
The Chautauqua County Soil and Water Conservation District was awarded a grant to repair and improve the fish passage project dams on Chautauqua Creek in NY. The project is slated for construction in 2015 with completion by the fall 2015 steelhead season. There are also plans in the works to improve fish passage at the railroad trestle on the creek.

Major flooding in 2013, from super storm Sandy (Ocotber) and a winter rain/snow-melt flooding event (February), caused the upper dam rock ramp to fail with the debris washing downstream plugging the lower dam (preventing fish passage). An access road to the dam projects was also taken out by the floods.

NY Smolt Emigration Study
The Lake Erie Unit of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) did a pilot study in the spring of 2013 to determine emigration patterns of steelhead smolts in Canadaway and Chautauqua Creeks (two western NY Lake Erie tributary streams). The study also assessed whether predation on newly stocked steelhead smolts was detectable in predator diets.

The study showed that a large percentage of stocked steelhead smolts did not emigrate to Lake Erie. A possible theory for this anomaly is that the NYDEC stocks the smallest yearling size in Lake Erie (NY’s is 127 mm while MI’s is 204 mm). The small size is due to a marginal water in-flow (cold temperature and low volume) at the Salmon River Hatchery in Pulaski, NY which has the effect of limiting steelhead yearling growth rates.

Plans are presently underway at the hatchery to improve water quality and hopefully increase yearling size more comparable to PA and OH yearling sizes.

Pacific Coast and Michigan fishery studies have shown that the percentage of smolting (of yearlings) and percentage of adult returns are insignificant when the average yearling size is less than 160mm. This is due to the high mortality of non-smolting yearlings, which can stay in the stream for an additional year or more. (This finding seems to be confirmed on NY's Lake Erie tributary streams which are not favorable for smolt survival during the summer months).

According the NYDEC’s “length frequency distribution” data of stocked steelhead yearlings in 2013 only 13.4% were larger than 150 mm. Applying the Pacific coast and Michigan coast study results to NY’s yearlings means only 13% will smolt and emigrant out with 87% remaining in the stream with little chance of survival.

(An eye opening 2009/2010 steelhead otolith microchemistry study by Bowling Green University in Canadaway and Chautauqua Creeks found that only 18% of returning adult steelhead were of NY stocking origin. Many of the sampled fish came from PA and OH. Possible reasons included insufficient steelhead smolt “imprinting” practices by PA and OH fishery departments, poor post-stocking survival of NY stocked steelhead yearlings as well as other biotic and abiotic factors that would encourage “straying” adult steelhead to preferentially return to these tributaries).

The NYDEC pilot study was not able to show any predation on steelhead smolts (including the near shore areas) following stocking and smolt emigration to the lake (which the study showed did not occur all at once but gradually). Diet analysis showed walleye were not actively feeding at this time and smallmouth bass were targeting crayfish and round gobies.

The NYDEC feels the results of this study show the need for further research including: tagged steelhead by size groups to give data on smolting and adult returns and an evaluation of smolt out-migration based on stocking location (PA and OH stock closer to the mouth versus NY which has traditionally stocked upstream.) This research would be very helpful for future NYDEC steelhead stocking management practices on NY's Lake Erie tributaries.

(*The Lake Erie Cold Water Task Group Report, 2014 NYDEC Lake Erie Annual Report and the PF&BC Strategic Plan for Management of Trout Fisheries In PA 2010-2014 were referenced for the 2014 Fall Steelhead Report and News)

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 on the steelhead tributaries. Please go to the sidebar for ordering information for these books.

Look for John Nagy's upcoming feature article titled: "Think like a Steelhead to Find (and Catch) more Steelhead" in the October 2014  issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide (available for free in many fly shops).


Surf Fishing for Lake Erie Steelhead by John Nagy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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