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. 


2017 Fall Steelhead Report and News by John Nagy

Fall Steelhead "Chrome" on a Lake Erie Tributary

On November 30, 2017 the Lake Erie water temperature (degrees F) off Toledo was 41, off Cleveland was 47, off Erie was 44 and off Buffalo was 45.

News Around the Great Lakes and Lake Erie Region

2016 Lake Erie Steelhead and Brown Trout Stocking

Total Lake Erie yearling steelhead (smolt) stocking numbers for 2016 include: PA (1,074,849; 55%), OH (418,593; 21%), NY (407,111; 21%), Michigan (68,000; 3%) and ON (4,324; less than 1%).

Total steelhead stocking in 2016 was 1.969 million which is a 10% increase from 2015 (7% above the long term average of 1,825,000 since 1990).

New York’s steelhead stocking was the highest annual stocking of steelhead in the history of their Lake Erie stocking program due to surplus yearlings from the Salmon River State Fish Hatchery. 

This follows a low of 153,923 stocked in 2015 (41% less than 2014). The majority of steelhead were stocked into Cattaraugus Creek (154,080) with elevated steelhead numbers stocked into Chautauqua Creek (22,148) to maintain an ongoing research project on stocked steelhead emigration (see New York report below).

Cattaraugus Creek also received an additional 25,000 Skamania strain fall fingerlings from the Salmon River hatchery. The Skamania steelhead are a summer run strain steelhead (originating from the Washhougal River in Washington State) that is expected to run earlier in the Cattaraugus (August/September) than NY's Chambers Creek/Washington State strain which run in good numbers starting in October. 

The primary stocking strain of steelhead in Lake Erie for New York is the hatchery Chambers Creek strain. Pennsylvania stocks the hatchery Trout Run strain which is a fall/winter runner that has been described as a "mutt" due to its Chambers Creek, Skamania and domesticated rainbow background. Ohio stocks the wild Little Manistee/Michigan strain (spring runner) and Michigan stocks the wild Little Manistee/Michigan strain.

Ontario stocks a limited number of wild Ganaraska River/Lake Ontario strain steelhead (fall runner) since their steelhead runs are primarily based on natural reproduction.

Average mean length of yearling steelhead stocked by Lake Erie stocking agencies in 2016 was 174 mm. MI averaged 198 mm, PA averaged 186 mm, OH averaged 188 mm and NY had the smallest average size at 127 mm.

Lake Erie brown trout stocking in 2016 was a 15% decrease from 2015 with a total 121,359 brown trout yearlings stocked by NY and PA (but still above the long term average of 83,508 since 1990).

For 2016 Lake Erie steelhead/brown trout stocking by specific tributary locations (by state/province) please go to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission/2016 Lake Erie Coldwater Task Group Report (pages 52/55):  

Asian Carp

A study released in January of 2016 headed by the University of Michigan concluded that if bighead and silver carp took a foothold in Lake Erie (migrating from the Mississippi river into Lake Erie), they literally could take over the lake ecosystem and make up 34 percent of the total fish weight in the Lake. This imbalance would greatly affect sport fish populations like walleye and steelhead.

A long awaited plan to stop the migration of Asian Carp into the Great Lakes was released by the USACE in July 2017. The $275 million plan recommends a new electric barrier and underwater noise generation speakers to prevent carp movement through the lock and dam at Brandon Road in Joliet, IL (which is considered an ideal “bottle neck” for making defenses against Asian Carp migration). The USACE fell short of recommending of closing the lock and dam (or even structural changes) at Brandon Road due to the severe economic impact it would have on waterway commerce.

The USACE is collecting public comments on the plan through Sept. 21 at their website http://glmris.anl.gov

The State of Michigan is accepting proposals for protecting the Great Lakes from Asian Carp migration with a $700,000 Asian Carp challenge. Go to the crowd sourcing company InnoCentive www.innocentive.com/ar/challenge/9933993 to register and submit your proposal.

Sea Lampreys

2016 wounding rates on lake trout (the traditional measure of estimated  sea lamprey populations in Lake Erie), and lake wide estimates of adult sea lamprey populations, still indicate the continuing presence of a large sea lamprey population in Lake Erie (which is above acceptable target levels).

Adult steelhead surveys in 2016 on Godfrey Run, PA and Chautauqua Creek, NY by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the NY Department of Environmental Conservation have also shown an increase in wounding rates by sea lampreys.

Sea lampreys can have a negative effect on steelhead and other Lake Erie fish species such as lake trout, whitefish, chub and herring. A parasitic phase sea lamprey can destroy up to 40 lbs of fish during its lifetime.

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

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) and its control agents including the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&WS) and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DF&OC) continue to apply the Integrated Management of Sea Lamprey (IMSL) program in Lake Erie. This program annually assesses sea lamprey populations, selects streams for lampricide treatment and implements alternative sea lamprey control methods.

The GLFC has found in recent years (based on their surveys) that the largest source for sea lamprey production in Lake Erie is more than likely the St Clair River versus the traditionally tracked and treated Lake Erie tributary streams.

2017 GLFC Lake Erie lamprey control activities will include:

-Barrier control projects on Big Otter Creek, ON (Black Bridge Dam), Big Creek, ON (Obermyer gates), Grand River, OH (Harpersfield Dam), East Branch Chagrin River, OH (Kirtland Country Club Dam), Cuyahoga River, OH (Gorge Plant and Brecksville Dams), Rocky River/Baldwin River, OH (Webster, Lucerne and #4 Dams) and Cattaraugus Creek, NY (Springville Dam).

-Lampricide application on Grand River (OH), Tributary 3 of Crooked Creek (PA), Big Otter and Big Creeks (ON).

-Larval assessments on 79 streams (54 U.S. and 25 Canada) including the St. Clair River.

-Adult assessments on Big Otter, Big and Youngs Creeks (ON) and Catttaraugus Creek (NY) and Grand River (OH).

-Juvenile assessment for out-migrating juvenile sea lampreys in the St Clair River.

-Adult assessment traps will be operated on 5 tributaries.

-Conduct non-target surveys from Harpersfield Dam to Vrooman Road during the Grand River, OH lampricide treatment.

-Ongoing research studies at understanding the dynamics of adult sea lamprey migration in the Huron-Erie Corridor and survival and metamorphosis rates of larval sea lampreys in the St Clair River and other sea lamprey producing tributaries in Lake Erie versus those in Lakes Michigan and Huron.

In Pennsylvania

Walnut Creek Stream Improvement

The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (WPC), along with input from the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, Pennsylvania Steelhead Association, SONS of Lake Erie, US Army Corps. of Engineers and Erie County Conservation District, spearheaded a project to place 200 linear feet of tiered rock ledges on lower Walnut Creek’s east bank (near the “stop sign” hole). This structure will prevent stream erosion and facilitate better angler access to Walnut Creek.

The WPC is working on a similar project for nearby steelhead tributary Elk Creek on WPC owned land in Girard Township. The design plan for Elk Creek project is targeted to be finished by the fall of 2017.

Adult Spawning Steelhead Study

The Pennsylvania Fish &Boat Commission (PF&BC) continued its adult spawning steelhead study in 2016 (which began in 2010). In the study adult steelhead were sampled at a fish weir located on Godfrey Run and measured, sexed, checked for lamprey wounding, gill lice and fin clips and marked and released.

The study over the years has shown a decline in mean length (71 mm since 2010) for adult steelhead, with this decline more pronounced in males. Average mean length for adult steelhead in the study (2010-2015) is 580 mm/22.8 in.

The PF&BC believes an increase in male “jacks” (immature returning steelhead) in spawning runs since 2010 (20% of sampling in 2016) and increased juvenile stocking size (which influences jack numbers) has impacted this decrease in mean length.

The PF&BC also believes the increase in relative percentage of jacks could be a result of efforts to increase stocked smolt size. This has shown to increase smolt survival and lead to high residualism, accelerated maturation and precociousness particularly in males.

The study has also shown a decline in mean length of spawning run adult steelhead since 2010 (although 19% of the steelhead in the fall assessment of Godfrey Run were larger than 650 mm/25.6 in.).  

The PF&BC is not sure why this decline is occurring. Steelhead wounding rate data collected during the study showed high wound rates in 2009-2010 which corresponded to a decline in the steelhead sample size (population) for those years. Interestingly steelhead wound rates have decreased in the study since 2010 (except for a bump up in 2016). 
Barrier Assessment Study

The PF&BC just completed an assessment of Erie County tributary streams identifying any impediments or barriers (such as waterfalls or shale cut chutes) that could disrupt steehead movement upstream. A total of 67 small barriers and 186 large barriers (over 3 feet) were found.

The eventual goal of the assessment is to remove/alter or provide access through or around these barriers (using fish ladders, rock ramps or bypasses) in order to allow steelhead to run farther upstream on their spawning runs.

This will give steelheaders more opportunities for steelhead fishing (in normally low fish density areas) and relieve fishing pressure downstream of the barriers. Funding for the barrier removal/modifications will come from the Lake Erie Permit Stamp Program.

The first project they plan on tackling is altering a small waterfall near the mouth of 4 Mile Creek which holds up steelhead, particularly in low water. Previous work upstream on 4 Mile included a fish ladder installation and bypassing a large waterfall.

A big concern of the PF&BC is that the barrier removal will also facilitate the migration of aquatic invasive species such as sea lampreys which is already a big problem in the Lake Erie ecosystem (see Sea Lampreys above).

Penn State University in 2015 completed a similar barrier assessment study on the Pennsylvania steelhead tributaries as well as recommendations on which barriers should or should not be removed to prevent invasive species expansion. The PF&BC plans on consulting with the Penn State assessment to determine which barriers will be removed or modified in the future.

International Coastal Cleanup Day

The 2017 International Coastal Cleanup day will be September 16, 2017 from 9 a.m. until noon. Cleanup locations will include several Lake Erie steelhead tributaries in Erie County, PA. (including Walnut Creek where the Pennsylvania Steelhead Association   http://pasteelhead.com/ will be participating in the event). See  http://nie.goerie.com/coastal-cleanup/ for locations and more details.

Fall Run Banquet

The Pennsylvania Steelhead Association Fall Run Banquet (honoring SONS of Lake Erie) will be held Saturday, November 4th, 2017. See http://pasteelhead.com/  for details. 

In Ohio

Harpersfield Dam Lamprey Barrier Project

In 2017 work continued on the Harpersfield Dam Lamprey Barrier Project on the Grand River, OH by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) which included lamprey barrier design, review and preparation for permitting and bid solicitation. Construction of the barrier is targeted to begin in 2018.

For a video explanation of the project by the USACE click on the link: 

(See past 2015 Fall Steelhead Report in menu bar for background information on this project.)

Ohio Steelhead Expo

The Ohio Central Basin Steelheader’s Association will be holding its annual Steelhead Expo September 30th, 2017 from 9:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m. See http://ohiosteelheaders.com/ohio-fishing/ for more details.

Phil Hillman Passes

It would not be an over statement to call Phil Hillman “the father” of Ohio’s steelhead fishing program. As a biologist and supervisor for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife, he was instrumental in the development of Ohio’s very successful Little Manistee steehead fishery as well as pushing for public access for steelhead anglers. 

An avid outdoorsman and steelhead fisherman, Phil passed away in July 2017 at the age of 62. He will be sorely missed but his legacy and hard work will benefit Ohio steelheaders for years to come.

In New York

Steelhead Emigration Study

The NY Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) Chautauqua Creek steelhead emigration study is continuing to gather data to determine the best combination of stocking location and juvenile size for smolt survival and out-migration to the lake (with the goal of improving adult returns). Steelhead stocked into Chautauqua Creek in 2016 were marked with combination fin-clips and coded wire tags for this study.

Recent results of the study have shown that upstream stocked steelhead exhibit better homing to the stocked stream relative to fish stocked at downstream locations.

Springville Dam

In August 2017, a Project Partnership Agreement for the Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project on Cattaraugus Creek, NY was signed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC), Erie County and the United States Army Corps. of Engineers (USACE).

This agreement allows the project to progress forward with design work and eventually construction. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) will give final approval on fish ladder design due to concerns of sea lamprey getting through the barrier.

For a video explanation of the project by the USACE click on the link: 

For an overhead drone video of the Springville Dam go to:

(See past 2016 Fall Steelhead Report in menu bar for background information on this project.)

Much of the fishery data and information for this 2017 Fall Steelhead Report was referenced from The 2017 Great Lakes Fishery Commission/ Lake Erie Coldwater Task Group Report and the 2017 NYDEC Lake Erie Annual Report. Special thanks goes to Kevin Kayle, Chuck Murray/Tim Wilson and Jim Markham, Lake Erie fishery biologist’s (of OH, PA and NY respectively), who helped with this (and past) steelhead reports.

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


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.


Teardrop Spey Tube Fly by John Nagy

The Teardrop Spey Tube Fly can be tied in a number of hot color combinations
Simple and quick to tie, the Teardrop Spey Tube Fly mimics a classic spey fly pattern by incorporating select marabou with its characteristic long/thin barbules and long flowing Lady Amherst feathers into its design

The Teardrop Spey Tube Fly uses the Eumer Tear Drop brass “hybrid” bottle tube (Ball and Nubby brass tubes can be substituted/see below) and Eumer inner plastic tube “liner” which allows the fly to be tied in front of the metal bottle tube (and finish with a small tying head). The Teardrop Spey Tube Fly works well on the swing not only for steelhead, but also for smallies, brown trout and salmon.

The Teardrop Spey Tube Fly
Tube: Brass Eumer Teardrop (22 x 4 mm/metallic silver finish) and Eumer stiff plastic tube liner (.07 inch outside diameter/1.5 inches long) which comes with the Eumer Teardrop. The rear of liner tubing is melted slightly to hold snugly up against rear of the Teardrop tube. Liner tubing extending in front of Teardrop tube is then used to tie fly on.

The tapered design of the Teardrop tube puts the center of gravity toward the front of the fly (under the base of the Spey Hackle) which balances the fly and keeps it “swimming” level on the swing. This is problematic with straight metal tubing which can experience unnatural rear “hang-down” on the swing.

Canadian Tube Fly Company Nubby Tube or Eumer Ball Tube can be substituted for the Eumer Teardrop Tube (body is wrapped over the front “ball” component of these tubes).

Thread: White Bennechi, 12/0 or Uni-Thread, 8/0

Body: Wapsi Pearl Palmer Chenille (medium size) wrapped to approximately 1/4 inches in length to support spey hackle.

Inner Hackle: Natural Guinea Feather hackled through body also to support spey hackle.

Spey Hackle: (Inner to Outer) Spirit River UV2 or Hareline Extra Select White Marabou (3 inches long) folded back and wrapped, Silver Krystal Flash (4 inches long), Silver Doctor Blue Lady Amherst Tail Fibers (5 inches long).

Head: Threaded and lacquered head (1/8 inches long)

Front Cone (optional): Pro Sportfisher Brass Pro ConeDisc (medium) or Pro Sportfisher Plastic Pro SoftSonic Disc (xl). Note: Pro SoftSonic Disc can either be mounted permanently on tube or “line-mounted” on the river. Using Brass Pro ConeDisc provides additional weighting to fly (for higher/deeper flows).

Junction Tubing: Canadian Tube Fly Company solid fuschia Flex Tubing (9/16 inch long) slid over rear of Teardrop tube.

Hook: Partridge Nordic Single tube fly hook, #MM3STBN, size #8, connected to rear of Eumer Teardrop Tube via junction tubing (hook eye is inserted into junction tubing). By making the junction tubing connection longer you can locate hook further back for “short-strikers”.

Comments: The finished fly measures approximately 4 1/8 inches long and can be tied in smaller versions for low water steelhead and inland trout. For higher/stained flows use thicker/denser marabou spey plumes. The Teardrop Spey Tube Fly can be tied in an endless number of color combinations. Some hot color variations include (junction tubing/tube/guinea feather/marabou/Krystal Flash/Lady Amherst tail fibers):

-transparent red junction tubing/metallic gold tube/pearl chenille/natural guinea/silver doctor blue marabou/pearlescent Krystal Flash/orange Lady Amherst
-transparent orange junction tubing/metallic gold tube/pearl chenille/natural guinea/hot chartreuse marabou/pearlescent Krystal Flash/orange Lady Amherst
-transparent blue junction tubing/metallic gold tube/pearl chenille/natural guinea/hot orange marabou/pearlescent Krystal Flash/blue Lady Amherst

More detailed information on tube flies for Great Lakes Steelhead can also be found in John Nagy’s book “Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead”.


Tube Flies for Great Lakes Steelhead (Part I) by John Nagy

Steelheaders across the Great Lakes are quickly discovering the many advantages of  using tube flies for catching steelhead like this late fall buck caught on John Nagy's Lake Erie Emerald Shiner tube fly.

Many Great Lakes steelheaders have seen the popularity of tube flies grow over the years but have been reluctant to give them a try. This is a shame, because tube fly systems are especially effective when used to replace the large/long shanked streamer hooks typically used in steelhead streamer, wooly bugger, leech and baitfish patterns and are even useful in steelhead nymph, wet and egg patterns.                                                                           
In recent years, some Great Lakes steelhead tube tyers have incorporated West Coast Intruder designs, Scandinavian Temple Dog styles and even traditional spey and salmon flies into their tube flies. These new tube fly patterns have proven to be killer for steelheader’s chasing chrome in the Great Lakes (including tributary brown trout, salmon and smallmouth).

Available Tube Fly Components and Systems

Steelheaders these days have an amazing number of tube fly components and systems available for both the novice and experienced tube tyer.

From basic tube fly components offered by HMH, Heritage Angling Products, Tubeworx or Veniard or more extensive, “buildable” systems offered by the Canadian Tube Fly Company, Pro Sportfisher, FutureFly, Eumer, Tubeology, Frodin FITS,  tube flies have never been more easily made.

Many tube manufacturer’s also now also offer tube fly starter kits (including vice adapters and tube tying needles), making it even easier for the tube fly wannabe to get into the game.

Tube Flies 101

 Why use tube flies for steelhead or any other species for that matter? The advantages are numerous, but before pointing these out, the tube fly newbie needs to know the basics of the tube fly system.

In a tube fly design, the fly is tied on a hollow plastic or metal tube (separate from the hook) which allows the leader to be threaded through and tied to the hook. The tube fly can then be allowed to spin free of the hook when fished or more commonly connected to the rear of the tube body either by direct hook insertion or by using a short section of hard vinyl or soft silicon “junction tubing” for the hook/tube body connection.

Tube Fly Advantages

One of the biggest advantages for using a tube fly system with steelhead patterns would be the big fly, small hook advantage. Great Lakes baitfish patterns when tied on large/heavy, long-shanked streamer hooks can be hard to cast and will twist and bend during a fight resulting in a dislodged hook and a higher percentage of lost steelhead.

Tube flies allow the steelheader to use smaller, lighter hooks (in combination with a large pattern) which are safer and easier to cast, greatly reduce the number of lost fish and cause less injury to a steelhead versus the “lever-action” of a long-shank streamer hook which can gouge a much bigger wound in a fish’s mouth during a long fight. Tube fly hooks are typically short-shanked, medium wire, straight-eye designs (for tube body insertion) which have a large bite (hook gap) for big species like steelhead.

Another big advantage of tube flies is that the flies last much longer than in standard hook designs. After a fish is hooked on a tube fly, the fly normally disengages from the hook and slides up the leader out of the way. This greatly extends the fishing life of the fly since it is not damaged by the steelhead’s teeth during the fight and is less likely to get soaked from stream mud or sediment when the fish is landed along the stream bank. This disengagement also makes it easier to remove the hook from a steelhead’s mouth since there is clear access to the hook.

Tube flies will not rust out (after use) in your fly box like conventional flies using carbon steel hooks (including Waddington shank flies) since the hooks are separate and can always be replaced.

Steelhead nymph, wet and egg patterns are typically tied on smaller hooks than streamer type patterns, so the big fly/small hook advantage is not a factor when tying these patterns up into tubes. But tying eggs and nymphs in tube designs will certainly extend the fishing life of these flies.
Other Tube Fly Advantages Include:

-A dull or damaged hook can easily be replaced with a new one on the stream without discarding fly.
-Tube flies are generally more economical to tie since only a handful of hooks are needed for dozens of tube flies (although some specialty tube bodies can be pricey). This is especially true when comparing the price of tying on expensive streamer and salmon hooks versus a small quantity of small tube fly hooks.
-The hook can be adjusted to sit further back in longer tube fly patterns (to compensate for “short-striking” fish) by using a longer tube body, extending the junction tubing hook connection or using a “loop” knot for the leader to hook connection (where varying the monofilament loop size to position hook behind the tube fly).
-The hook can also be positioned in the “up” position (like a keel fly) reducing the chances of bottom snagging. This is very helpful when fishing a heavier metal tube body design.
-The hook changing ability of a tube fly enables the fly fisher to easily change the hook design as well as size (thereby increasing or decreasing hook weight) which can help balance the fly and make it swim level on the swing.
-Tube flies allow you to control the weight of the fly by changing the tube material (copper, brass, stainless steel, aluminum) used for the specific fly pattern. Plastic tubes are ideal for lower flows (although faster sinking systems and leader adjustment can effectively sink plastic bodied tube flies in faster, deeper flows).
-Tube flies are “stackable” on your leader, allowing you to change the size, color and material density of a tube fly as river conditions dictate.
-Tube flies can be “converted” into a number of patterns by mixing and matching various “head” and “tail” segments right on the water.

 Check back again with John Nagy’s Steelhead Journal for posting of Part II (metal and plastic tubing options, bottle tubes, “hybrid” bottle tubes and “buildable systems) and Part III (tube fly component manufacturer’s, system interchangeability, USA and International sources) of Tube Flies for Great Lakes Steelhead by John Nagy

More detailed information on tube flies for Great Lakes steelhead (including over 28 hot tube fly patterns) can be found in John Nagy’s classic book “Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead”. His “Steelheader’s Journal” makes a great companion book to the Steelhead Guide and is now available.