2019 Fall Steelhead Report and News by John Nagy

Elk Creek, PA fall run buck steelhead that took a bead-head scrambled egg ("top fly") on tandem fly setup. Fish was very active, like most fall steehead, and caught along a "seam" in a fast water riffle/run area. "Bottom fly" was Nagy Flash Nymph.

As of December 20th, the Lake Erie water temperature (degrees F) off Toledo was 34 degrees, off Cleveland was 38 degrees, off Erie was 37 degrees and off Buffalo was 38 degrees.

News Around the Great Lakes and the Lake Erie Region

2018 Lake Erie Steelhead and Brown Trout Stockings

Lake Erie steelhead (smolt) stocking numbers for 2018 include (1,857,271 total): PA (979,851; 54%), OH (478,408; 26%), NY (257,693; 14%), MI (62,000; 3%) and ON (35,500; 2%). This total was slightly above the long-term steelhead stocking average (1990-2016).

The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) stocked approximately 98,966 brown trout in its Lake Erie waters (the only fishery agency stocking brown trout into Lake Erie presently). The PF&BC has now developed a captive brood stock source for its Lake Erie brown trout program. In previous years it had depended on the NY State Dept. of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) for certified IPN free brown trout eggs.

The primary stocking strain of steelhead in Lake Erie for New York is the hatchery, fall/winter running Chambers Creek/Washington State strain. Pennsylvania stocks the hatchery Trout Run or Lake Erie 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 and Michigan stock the spring running wild Little Manistee/Michigan strain. Ontario stocks a limited number of fall running wild Ganaraska River/Lake Ontario strain steelhead since their steelhead runs are primarily based on natural reproduction.

Average mean length of yearling steelhead stocked by Lake Erie stocking agencies in 2018 was 7.09 inches. MI averaged 7.6 inches, PA averaged 7.32 inches, OH averaged 7.52 inches and NY again had the smallest size at 4.96 inches.

The NYSDEC, in addition to their yearly steelhead smolt stocking, also stocked 76,291 surplus fall steelhead (Little Manistee strain) fingerlings into Chautauqua Creek in 2018. These fingerlings were obtained from the Castalia Fish Hatchery in Ohio. Return rates for these fingerlings are not expected to be high due to their small size (2 inches or less).

 Also, the NYSDEC stocked 49,000 fall fingerling and 4,350 fall yearling domestic strain rainbow trout (into Cattaraugus, Eighteen Mile, Canadaway, Chautauqua Creeks) to replace their Lake Erie brown trout stocking program which was terminated in 2017. These domesticated rainbows are from NY’s Randolph State Fish Hatchery.

A NYSDEC Cooperative Net Pen Project with the Bison City Rod and Gun Club produced 10,000 unmarked yearling steelhead in 2018 (which were released into the lower Buffalo River in NY).

For 2018 Lake Erie steelhead/brown trout stocking by specific tributary locations (by state/province) please go to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission/2018 Lake Erie Coldwater Task Group Report (pages 37-38):

Sea Lamprey

Wounding rates recorded by the NYSDEC of Lake Trout in Lake Erie (which have traditionally been an indication of Lake Erie sea lamprey populations) have remained relatively stable the last 20 years but are still above target levels acceptable for the Lake. The NYSDEC has also found lamprey wounds on Lake Erie warm water species such as burbot.

Surveys by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) in the last few years (including adult, juvenile and larval assessments) have shown that the biggest source of Lake Erie sea lamprey production could be the St Clair River versus the traditionally monitored and treated streams in the eastern basin of Lake Erie.

Tributaries scheduled for lampricide treatment by the GLFC in 2019 include: Buffalo River (including Cayuga, Cazenovia and Buffalo Creeks) Cattaraugus Creek, Crooked Creek and the West Branch of Conneaut Creek.

Asian Carp

An August 2019 released study by the University of Michigan has revealed that Asian Carp species such as Silver and Big Head Carp have flexible diets and can feed more than 1 meter below the surface in Lake Michigan.

The study showed that these voracious feeders not only target algae and plankton (which is actually declining in Lake Michigan due to reduced phosphorous pollution and invasive zebra and quagga mussels) but can feed on dead organic matter or “detritus”. Invasive mussels discharge enormous amounts of nutrient dense waste (a form of detritus) onto the Lake Michigan lake bed every year.  

Since earlier Asian Carp studies did not look at the flexibility of Asian Carp feeding habits as well as how deep they can feed (which increases their survivability if and when they enter Lake Michigan), the Asian Carp threat to the Great Lakes becomes even more serious.

The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has recently approved a $778 million plan to block Asian Carp from entering the Great Lakes. Ground zero for the plan is a concrete channel and electric barrier at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in the Illinois River. The plan is waiting congressional approval and funding. The state of Michigan says the best approach would be to wall off Lake Michigan from the Chicago Waterway System. Illinois opposes this plan which they believe would disrupt commercial navigation into the Great Lakes.

Lake Erie Prey Fish

NYSDEC’s The Lake Erie Fisheries Research Unit (LEFRU) performs several lake surveys yearly geared toward understanding  predator/prey fish community in Lake ErieThese studies include trawling to assess prey fish abundance, studying predator diet and monitoring the lower web food.

Initial trawling surveys showed rainbow smelt have been the dominant forage fish in the lake. Goby abundance was initially high (after their introduction in the late 1990’s) but has now dropped to lower numbers.

In recent years, the NYSDEC says that the prey fish biomass in Lake Erie has generally been lower due to lower adult smelt abundance and variability in emerald shiner recruitment. Also, there has been a shift in predator diets from smelt to a more diverse diet including goby, yellow perch and other fishes.

A general trend of declining forage base in Lake Erie since 2014 has not indicated a decline in growth and condition of predator fish like Lake Trout (although recent declines in walleye growth and condition have been observed). Further studies are needed to determine if the declining Lake Erie forage base is affecting Lake Erie steelhead populations.

Mass Steelhead Marking

Fishery agencies of the GLFC are continuing to develop a plan for mass marking steelhead in Lake Erie.

The plan looks to find the impact of steelhead in the Lake Erie fishery (namely the forage base), performance of specific fishery agency stocking programs and improved management polices to benefit tributary steelhead fishing. The proposal will include lake wide and specific agency goals, a steelhead study plan and logistics to implement the mass steelhead marking.

Based on the current lake wide steelhead stocking levels, it is estimated that it would cost $218,700 ($0.117/fish) to clip/tag all steelhead stocked into Lake Erie by all fishery agencies.


Harpersfield Dam Lamprey Barrier Project

In 2018, work on the Harpersfield Dam Lamprey Barrier Project on the Grand River, OH by the USACE included a review of the Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) and the barrier design. Priorities for the design include an 18 inch drop between dam crest height and dam tail water elevations. Also, water flow velocities high enough to prevent sea lamprey passage during flooding events.The USACE also awarded 4.3 million dollars to the construction vendor in 2018.

Construction of the barrier began in the fall of 2018 with completion of the project expected in 2020. As of October 2019 the project is 40% complete with work expected to continue through this winter depending on how severe the winter is.

There are some restrictions during construction at the dam site according to the USACE including: limited parking, no fishing at the dam and no put-in/pull-out spot for kayaks and canoes. 

Ashtabula County also has just announced that they are in the beginning stages of planning the rehabilitation of the bridge below the Harpersfield Dam. Work is expected to start in 2021-2022.

USACE videos of dam project:

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

Arcola and Euclid Creeks

The USACE is working on two other projects in Ohio including Arcola Creek and Euclid Creek (all these projects are under the Great Lakes Ecosystem and Restoration Act authority). The Arcola Creek project involves wetland restoration, creation of riparian corridors and installation of new culverts to allow for increased fish passage. Presently, the USACE is waiting on a funding commitment by Lake County, OH for the project. Then it can proceed with the signing of a PPA.

The Euclid Creek project addresses the 185th Street/I90 spillway located on lower Euclid creek. Goal of project is improving the aquatic connectivity of Euclid Creek. Restoration measures include hydrological stabilization, in-stream and stream bank habitat improvement, riparian corridor restoration which would result in diverse fish migration (to 18 river miles of previously inaccessible stream), fish spawning, rearing and refuge habitats. Once the USACE completes a feasibility study for this project (which should be completed this year), it will negotiate a PPA and initiate a detailed design.

Steelhead Expo

The Ohio Central Basin Steelheaders and Cleveland MetroParks will be sponsoring the 26th annual Steelhead Expo on Saturday, September 21st, 2019. It will be held at the Rocky River Nature Center in North Olmstead, OH from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm

Vrooman Road Bridge Construction on Grand River

According to the Ohio Dept. of Transportation (ODOT), construction is continuing the building of a new bridge over the Grand River, with completion of the main bridge expected by the spring of 2020.

The project also includes a free-standing pedestrian bridge to access trails on the north side of the Grand River (which is planned to be completed in the fall of 2020).

The project will have impacts on Indian Point and Mason’s Landing Lake Metroparks on the Grand River. This includes 3.5 acres of land permanently acquired from Indian Point Park (including 5.4 acres to be temporarily used during the project). Mason’s Landing will also be relocated onto the south side of the river.

Lake Metroparks will be compensated for affected lands by gaining 2.6 acres at the old Vrooman Road bridge site and an additional 14.9 acres purchased by the state.

The ODOT says that during construction, Indian Point and Mason’s Landing parks will remain open to the public (but some temporary closures are possible). It is to be noted that Mason’s Landing Park will only be accessed during construction via Vrooman Road.

To view a live work zone cam of Vrooman Rd bridge construction please go to: https://www.workzonecam.com/projects/lakecounty/vroomanroad1 


New Public Fishing Access

According to Scott Bollinger, statewide Public Access Program Manager for the PF&BC, the Lake Erie Access Improvement Program (LEAIP) is very strong right now. With $3,127,685 in the account as of September 2019 (which came from Lake Erie Fishing Permit sales) they are actively pursuing a number of land acquisitions and easements using this funding.

Bollinger says that in addition to acquiring public access, LEAIP funding is also used for constructing public parking areas, installing signage, boating access and riparian and fishery management.

According to Bollinger, a number of new properties could close this year, with some being ready for angler use this upcoming steelhead season.

These include a property along Crooked Creek off of Happy Valley Road that the PF&BC acquired earlier in 2019 and just recently had some parking areas constructed for anglers. Also, the PF&BC is very close to closing on an easement on 7 Mile Creek off Rt 5 east of Lawrence Park, PA and also a large property along Elk Creek and several easements along Conneaut Creek that also should close soon.

(Note: It usually takes 6-12 months after PF&BC approval for property acquisitions/easements to become open to the public. Also, for more specifics on these property locations see John Nagy’s 2018 Fall Steelhead Report and News in the right menu bar.)

In addition, Bollinger says the LEAIP has some habitat improvement programs on 7 Mile, Elk and Cascade Creeks as well as working with the Erie Port Authority to improve public access to Presque Isle Bay at the Holland Street Pier.

For a detailed interactive online map by the PF&BC of Lake Erie fishing access in Pennsylvania (including LEAIP land purchases and easements) please go to:

Pennsylvania Steelhead Association Fall Run Banquet

The Pennsylvania Steelhead Association (PSA) will be having its annual Fall Run Banquet on Saturday, October 26, 2019 (3-9 PM) at the Colony Restaurant & Banquet Facility, 3014 W 12th Street, Erie, PA 16505. The banquet will be honoring PSA founding fathers John Bodner, Matt Hrycyk and Joe Egnot. 

New York

Springville Dam

The Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project on Cattaraugus Creek, NY is currently in the engineering and design phase. The Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) was signed by the USACE, NYSDEC and Erie County, NY in 2017. Construction is targeted for 2021 after the sea lamprey spawning run. Funding for this project is now projected to be at 10.7 million (up from 7.5 million a few years ago) with the USACE contributing 75% and the NYDEC and Erie County NY contributing 25%.

The selected plan for the project will lower the existing spillway from 38 to 13.5 feet to serve as a sea lamprey barrier. A 15 foot wide rock riffle ramp (denil fishway) with seasonal lamprey trapping/sorting capability is included in the design. Requests from the National Historic Registry will be fulfilled by preserving a portion of the original spillway on both banks to show the original structure.

For a video of the Springville Dam PPA signing and discussion of the project please go to:

In the meantime, James Markham, Senior Aquatic Biologist with the NYSDEC (along with NYSDEC inland fishery biologist's), are continuing a research project they began in 2017 on some of the major tributaries of Cattaraugus Creek, upstream of the dam. The goal of the study is to obtain a base-line of the fish community now in place above the dam to determine possible impacts once the steelhead pass over the dam.

The big questions are what is the carrying capacity of this upper fishery? Can it sustain both steelhead and wild trout populations? Also, what impact will this have on wild steelhead reproduction in the Cattaraugus, which is determined to be around 15% by the NYSDEC below the dam.

High hopes are that wild steelhead reproduction would substantially increase, even to the point that stocking the Cattaraugus with hatchery steelhead, would not be needed in the future (although there is a good number of steelhead from other Lake Erie fishery agencies running into Cattaraugus Creek). 

The research project will include pre-fish data (collected prior to fish passage over the dam) and regular collection intervals (every 2-3 years) after fish passage over the dam.

Markham says that the NYSDEC has decided to maintain the current inland trout regulations above the dam, meaning that it will primarily be Catch-and-Release, Artificial Lure Only from mid-October until April 1. This keeps in line with the NYSDEC Steelhead Management Plan (completed in 2016) to promote natural steelhead reproduction when practical.

In June 2019, the NYSDEC released a study called "The Upper Cattaraugus Creek Fisheries Management Plan." Please go to: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1629197503780864 to view this study.

See past John Nagy Fall Steelhead Reports and News (in the right menu bar) for background information on the Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project.

NYSDEC Tributary Angler Survey

Results from the NYSDEC 2017-2018 Tributary Angler Survey showed an average steelhead catch rate of .56 fish/hr which is a significant improvement versus 2011-12 and 2014-15 surveys (total angler effort also increased).

Despite the increase (which are among the highest steelhead catch rates in the country), total catch rates remain well below estimates from surveys done between 2003 and 2008. Yes, those were the glory days!

The NYSDEC Tributary Angler Surveys (which are done on a 3 year cycle) help the NYSDEC monitor fishery performance and evaluate progress of goals set in the NYSDEC Steelhead Management Plan for Lake Erie steelhead tributaries.

Salmon River Fish Hatchery Fishery Unit Experiment

According to James Markham, NYSDEC Biologist, the Salmon River Fish Hatchery (SRFH) in Pulaski, NY, will be conducting a Fishery Unit Experiment in 2020 to determine how they can increase steelhead smolt (yearling) size prior to stocking. Hatchery in-flow water temperature (which is very low) and water flow rates are thought to be limiting factors in steelhead smolt growth rates at the SRFH. The hatchery plans to cut steelhead production in half to determine if that could result in bigger smolt size. The end result of this will be a 50% reduction in steelhead smolt stocked in the NY Lake Erie steelhead tributaries in 2020.

Keep in mind that the NYSDEC, of all the fishery agencies in the Lake Erie watershed, stock the smallest average mean length of smolt steelhead into Lake Erie (4.96 inches). It is a known fact, that the smaller the smolt stocking size, the lower the survivability (return rates into the tributaries they were platnted). 

Also, past studies have shown that most adult steelhead returning into the NY Lake Erie tributaries are non-NYSDEC steelhead and have come from other fishery agencies around the lake, including PA and OH. If the experiment is successful at the SRFH, and produces larger size yearling steelhead, it could mean better return rates for NYSDEC steelhead (even though steelhead smolt stocking numbers would be less).

Silver Creek Dam Removal

The Chautauqua County Soil and Water Conservation District (CCSWCD) is working on removing an old dam (including stream restoration) on Silver Creek at Smith Mills, NY. Construction for the project is projected to be  started and completed in 2020. Presently a hydraulic study is being done by a consultant which will go to the NYSDEC for review. All necessary permitting for this project should be completed by the spring of 2020 according to David Spann of the CCSWCD.

The dam removal has the potential to open up some of the best habitat on Silver Creek to steelhead but since the stream is small and habitat limited it will not have major impacts as far as steelhead natural reproduction goes. Of course, new steelhead fishing opportunities will open up as a result of the dam removal.

Much of the fishery data and information for this 2019 Fall Steelhead Report was referenced from the 2019 Great Lakes Fishery Commission/Lake Erie Coldwater Task Group Report, the 2019 NYDEC Lake Erie Annual Report and various USACE fact sheet 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." (Now available in an eBook version). His "Steelheader's Journal" makes a great companion book to the Steelhead Guide. Both books (including the eBook) are available by going to the right menu bar for ordering information.