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.