2014 Fall Steelhead Report and News by John Nagy

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

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

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

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

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

News around the Great Lakes and the Lake Erie Region

Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

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

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

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

Sea Lamprey Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Ohio

Steelhead Expo

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

Conneaut Creek Public Access

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

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

Harpersfield Dam  Lamprey Barrier

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

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

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

OH Asian Carp

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

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

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

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

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

In Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Public Fishing Access

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PA Smolt Emigration Study

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

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

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

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

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

PA Brown Trout

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

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

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

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

In New York

Cattaraugus Creek Dam Proposal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More detailed information on fly fishing for Great Lakes steelhead can be found in John Nagy's classic book "Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead."  John Nagy's "Steelheader's Journal" makes a great companion book to the Steelhead Guide for Steelheader's looking to keep track of their steelhead trips on the steelhead tributaries. Please go to the sidebar for ordering information for these books.

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