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). 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.

On August 22, 2014 the Lake Erie water temperature (degrees F) off Toledo was 70, off Cleveland was 68, off Erie was 71 and off Buffalo was 70.

News around the Lake Erie Region

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. 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.

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 fingerlings were fin clipped (Presque Isle Bay/LV clip, nursery streams/RV clip and sportsman’s club stockings/adipose clip).

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, 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.

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).

The Army Corps. of Engineers is will start the design phase of the Grand River (OH) lamprey barrier (construction target 2015) as soon as the Detailed Project Report is approved and the Project Partnership Agreement is signed by all parties.

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:

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).

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 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.

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) due to the cold water in-flow of the Salmon River Hatchery in Pulaski, NY which limits steelhead yearling growth rates in the hatchery environment.

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. This 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 and 2014 NYDEC Lake Erie Annual Report 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).


Weather Junkie Steelheader's Catch More Steelhead by John Nagy

Chrome chaser's in steelhead alley can avoid high/stained run-off conditions like these by monitoring weather patterns and tributary run-off rates

Successful steelheader's in the “steelhead alley” corridor of Lake Erie (OH, PA and NY tributaries of Lake Erie) have become fanatics about the weather. They realize that by diligently monitoring both real-time weather conditions and projected weather patterns (pre-trip and on the road via mobile smart phones or tablets) they can greatly increase their hook-up success on the tributaries

More specifically, weather junkie steelheader's are keenly aware of how rain fall and/or snow-melt episodes affect the run-off rates of the steelhead alley tributaries

This scrutiny is critical, because the normal state of the Lake Erie tributaries is low and clear (due to poor ground water flow) and they are highly dependent on run-off  from precipitation to get them up to higher flows. Even the damned flows of the Grand River in OH and the Cattaraugus in NY don’t provide much of a minimal base flow.
When the tributaries do approach (or reach) peak run-off levels (the result of a substantial rain fall and/or snow-melt episode) most become a muddy torrent with few fishing opportunities. As stream levels drop, the water clarity improves, eventually reaching the coveted “prime” conditions sought after by steelheaders.

“Prime” run-off flows on the Lake Erie tributaries have characteristic green-tinted water coloration (due to suspended clay particles eroded from shale streambeds). In this type of water clarity steelhead are easier to catch because their visibility is limited. They can see your fly offering, but not too clearly. This ambiguity in their vision makes them very cooperative fly takers.

These ideal conditions can be short lived and vary in length from only several hours, a few days or as much as a week or more depending on the amount of run-off received, ongoing weather patterns, water table levels (current ground saturation) and the run-off characteristics of that particular tributary watershed.

Higher tributary flows translate into more fishable water to properly perform both indicating and swinging presentations. It also means steelhead can locate into a greater number of resting and holding locations during their upstream migration movements. This gives steelheaders more fishing opportunities (unlike low and clear conditions which can concentrate both steelhead and fisherman into “fish bowl” conditions).

Run-off also initiates fresh runs of steelhead into the tributaries from Lake Erie, “energizes” older fish already in the stream which have experienced daily fishing pressure (and the stress of low water flows) and helps the movement of steelhead upstream toward spawning gravel. 

Since the watershed size of the Lake Erie tributaries vary greatly, each tributary will run off to prime conditions depending on its size. Knowing the “run-off rates” of the Lake Erie tributaries is very important in predicting how fast a specific tributary will run-off to prime conditions after receiving precipitation from rainfall and/or snow-melt. The run-off rates of all the major Lake Erie tributaries are summarized in John Nagy’s Steelhead Guide book. The steelheadsite.com (under OH reports section/OH tribs ideal flow project) also has ideal flow charts.

These run-off rates (in hours, days and weeks) are generalizations and are based on an “average” run-off episode of an inch of rain (or equivalent snow/ice melt) in less than a 24 hour period for that particular watershed. The length of these run-off rates roughly correspond to the size of each tributary watershed with bigger tribs like Conneaut Creek, OH (3-4 days) encompassing large watersheds and smaller tribs like 12 Mile creek (less than 1 day) draining smaller ones.

Steelheader's can also monitor the weather and tributary run-off conditions in steelhead alley by accessing:

-Internet real time USGS tributary flow data (http://water.usgs.gov/realtime.html) graphs 24/7 water flow of many Lake Erie tributaries (in discharge/cfs and height/feet). Non-gaged tributaries can be monitored if you know by experience how they run-off in relation to a gaged river. Some gages include temperature and turbidity measurements. Remember that most tributaries will begin to clear in their upper reaches but some like the large Grand River in OH typically clear at the bottom first (due to its long length). The Cattaraugus Creek in NY can still flow turbid even at fishable levels.

-Short and long range weather forecasts by the National Weather Service (http://www.erh.noaa.gov/).

-Local 24 hour precipitation amounts by the National Weather Service to more precisely determine the location and amount of precipitation that has fallen. The characteristics of a weather system (speed, location, intensity) moving through can affect specific tributary watersheds differently versus other areas of steelhead alley.

-Real-time weather radar by the National Weather Service

-Internet fishing reports and tributary conditions (www.fisherie.com or www.steelheadsite.com)

-Local tackle shops (reliable reports are from shop owner or employees who actually visited a tributary or tributaries that day).

-Local steelheader's (probably the best report since they are most intimate with the local steelhead tribs and can give up to the minute and projected water conditions.

-On location webcams which give a real-time visual of some tributaries (for Elk Creek visit http://www.unclejohnselkcreekcamp.com/webcam/).

-For lakeshore steelheaders (fishing at or near a tributary mouth) a Lake Erie live webcam (http://www.greatlakesvista.com/ or www.lakevision.com) and a National Weather Forecast near shore marine forecast (which includes near shore lake temperatures). Real-time and forecasted lake conditions can be very helpful for determining best surf fishing fishing conditions (occurs when the lake “flattens out” with a southerly wind) and to monitor steelhead near shore staging movements (a 68 degrees F shoreline temperature initiates staging steelhead near tributary mouths in late summer/early fall).

Snow or ice melting very quickly due to rain and/or rapidly increasing air temperatures (occurring both during the day and night) can cause tremendous run-off especially if heavy snow pack and ice accumulations exist. This obviously spikes the river gages to extreme levels and prolongs the run-off rates. Ideally you want a slow melt of snow and ice during the winter months with moderating air temperatures during the day (30’s and 40’s) to allow for a slow melt and sub-freezing temperatures at night to keep the run-off in check. This type of melt run-off typically runs clear to moderately stained as well as ice cold, keeping the tributaries fishable for extended periods of time.

Being on a tributary during prime conditions does not guarantee steelhead heaven though. A number of scenarios can play havoc with your day on the water including early fall run-off which can be very silty even at ideal levels due to summer silt accumulation, fall leaf-drop which can clog the stream with leaves hindering drifts and obscuring your fly, morning slush and ice flows which can make getting your fly on the bottom a challenge, spring smolt stockings and sucker runs which can make it impossible to hook a steelhead in some areas and unexpected run-off from bridge or road construction that is often a muddy mess ruining downstream fishing.

Note: Great Lakes steelheader's fishing outside the steelhead alley region often encounter power generating, damned tributaries with controlled flow releases (such as the Lake Ontario’s Oak Orchard and Salmon Rivers in NY).  Flow releases can vary daily, affecting both the wading and fishing conditions. Major run-off events can have minimal effect (in the short term) on these rivers due to the “buffering” effect of large impoundments above the dams. Steelheader's are advised to monitor power company dam release flows on the internet to target the best fishing conditions for flow, as well as for safe wading. These rivers also are usually very fishable during the winter months due to the power generating dam releases which are warm enough to prevent freeze-over.

Also, in regards to winter steelhead fishing, often the toughest aspect of winter steelheading is actually getting to (and traveling back) from the steelhead alley tributaries. Local steelheader's 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 fishing) seriously consider spending the night at a local motel to avoid any problems.

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. Please go to the sidebar for ordering information for these books.


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”.


Drop-Backs and Smallies by John Nagy

Lake Erie tributary smallmouth which took an Emerald Shiner tube fly on the swing

The steelhead will always be the glamour fish on the Lake Erie tributaries but the scrappy smallmouth (most average 2-3 lbs with an occasional one pushing 4 or 5 pounds) provides some good variety for the Lake Erie tributary fly fisherman.>
Smallmouth start showing up into the Lake Erie tributaries in the spring when the tributaries start to warm into the 50’s (late April) with good numbers arriving by May.
Running up from Lake Erie in a spawning movement, they are thought to be a river strain of spawning smallmouth as opposed to the smallmouth which exclusively spawns in Lake Erie’s rocky shoreline shallows. During this upstream migration they invariably mix in with “drop-back” steelhead in the tributaries which have already spawned and are moving back to the lake.
Drop-back steelhead will be in the tributaries into May and even June (particularly on the bigger “tribs” like Cattaraugus Creek in NY and the Grand River in OH). They will start exiting the tributaries when they get above 70 degrees F. (Note: It is not advisable to fish for steelhead in the tributaries when they are above 70 degrees F since they are highly stressed under these conditions). Tributary smallmouth finish spawning by early June and exit the tributaries by mid-June.>

Smallmouth typically don’t run as far on the tributaries as steelhead, so look for them in the mid-to-lower part of the tributaries. They also prefer to hold in slower water than steelhead (especially when they first come in and the tribs are relatively cold), such as slower runs, slow/deep pools, pool tail-outs and also pool back-eddies.>
Streamer patterns that imitate Lake Erie baitfish such as round gobies, emerald shiners and rainbow smelt are killer for these fish. Crayfish, sculpin and large nymph patterns are also very effective. Top water bass flies will work when the water starts to warm up.>
An exciting way to catch tributary “smallies” is with a down-and-across swing presentation using a sink tip fly line. A slow and deep presentation through streambed shale ledges and cuts and near boulders and fallen logs will produce smallmouth. It is not uncommon to think you have hooked a drop-back steelhead on a swing but turns out to be a hard hitting and fierce fighting smallmouth.


Some of the bigger tributary running smallies actually are better fighters than most spring drop back steelhead which (although having voracious appetites) seem de-energized from wintering over, spawning-out and enduring the gaunlet of fisherman. (The exception would be late winter/early spring arriving Little Manistee strain steelhead which have all the fighting ability and more of fall running steelies).

Spring-run Little Manistee steelhead that took a dead-drifted egg pattern

Smallmouth and steelhead are not the only fish to be found in the tributaries in the spring. Some of the larger tributaries also have spawning populations of walleye and catfish (running in from Lake Erie) which also can be caught with fly tackle and flies.>
Lake Erie tributary smallmouth fishing in the spring has a lot of pluses. A variety of fish are available to be caught, pleasant weather conditions are the norm and most of the crowds chasing “chrome” are gone, leaving solitude a refreshing companion for the fly fisherman.
More detailed information on Great Lakes tributary fly fishing can be found in John Nagy’s book “Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead”.