9/2/21

2021 Fall Steelhead Report and News by John Nagy

Fall on Elk Creek, Pennsylvania means chrome time!

As of September 22nd, 2021 the Lake Erie water temperature (degrees F) off Toledo was 72 degrees, off Cleveland was 73 degrees, off Erie was 69 degrees and off Buffalo was 69 degrees*

*Please go to the USGS real-time temperature data in the right menu bar for water temperatures for select Lake Erie tributaries.

As the days or “photo-periods” become shorter and the Lake Erie lakeshore begins to nudge down to 68 degrees F in early September, steelhead will begin staging along the tributary mouths as a “pre-spawn” movement. Early cool fall rains and run-off (54 degrees F or less) will initiate the first steelhead “runs” of the season into the lower part of Lake Erie's tributary streams. The smaller size tributaries (which cool quicker in late summer/early fall) will result in some of the earliest steelhead action in “steelhead alley” region of OH, PA and NY.

News Around the Great Lakes and the Lake Erie Region

2020 Lake Erie Steelhead Stockings*

*2021 steelhead stocking data not available yet.

Lake Erie steelhead (smolt) stocking numbers for 2020 include (total of 1.770 million): PA (1,049,000/59%), OH (469,265/27%), NY (138,530/27%), MI (64,373/4%) and ON (0). This total was 4% below the long-term steelhead stocking average (1990-2019) of 1,852,627 steelhead. Percentage stocking increase/decrease for 2020 (versus previous year) are: PA (-2%), OH (-8%), NY ( -40%) and MI (0%). No steelhead were stocked in Ontario waters in 2020.

Average mean length of yearling steelhead stocked by Lake Erie stocking agencies in 2020 was 7.1 in/179 mm. (PA 7.17 in/182 mm, OH 7.01 in/178 mm, NY 5.98 in/152 mm, MI 7.76 in/197 mm).

The 2020 stocking strains of steelhead by the Lake Erie fishery agencies are 97% “naturalized” Great Lakes strains (with West Coast origin). They are as follows: PA (Lake Erie strain collected from Trout Run nursery waters), NY (Washington Strain collected from Lake Ontario's Salmon River in NY), OH (combination of L. Manistee River strain/Lake Michigan, Ganaraska River strain/Lake Ontario and Chambers Creek strain) and MI (L. Manistee River strain/Lake Michigan). Note: The most recent fin clips for steelhead done by a Lake Erie Fishery Agency were done by MI in 2020 and 2019 (right adipose fin clip). Prior to that 2016 (by NY) was the most recent year.

NY also stocked 45,000 domestic rainbow trout in 2020 (averaging 7.5 inches) as fall fingerling plantings in Cattaraugus, Eighteen Mile, Canadaway, Chautauqua Creeks and also as spring fingerling plantings (3,750 fingerlings) in Eighteen Mile Creek. Approximately 3% of the rainbow trout stocked into Lake Erie in 2020 (which includes steelhead and domesticated rainbow trout) were the domesticated variety.

This was the third year of stocking fall and spring fingerling domestic rainbow trout into the Lake Erie tributaries as replacements for yearling brown trout by the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). Brown trout stocking by the NYSDEC was terminated because the most recent 16-year brown trout stocking effort failed to produce a reliable lake, harbor, or tributary fishery based on angler surveys.

2020 Lake Erie Brown Trout Stockings

The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) stocked approximately 69,323 yearling and adult brown trout in its Lake Erie waters in 2020 (the only fishery agency stocking brown trout into Lake Erie presently). This is 48% decrease form 2020 and 22% below the long term (1990-20120) average annual stocking of 89,456 Brown Trout. 19,000 adult brown trout were stocked to provide catchable trout for the opening day of the 2020 PA Trout Season. 42,000 yearling Brown Trout were stocked to support the put-grow-take, trophy lake brown trout program. This trophy program started in 2009.

For 2020 Lake Erie steelhead/brown trout stocking by specific tributary locations (by state/province) please go to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission/2021 Lake Erie Coldwater Task Group Report (pages 38-41):

http://www.glfc.org/pubs/lake_committees/erie/CWTG_docs/annual_reports/CWTG_report_2021.pdf

Sea Lamprey

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.

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 (which has never been treated with lampricide) versus the traditionally monitored and treated streams in the eastern basin of Lake Erie. Lamprey detection surveys and tributary lampricide treatments by the GLFC were canceled in 2020 due to COVID 19 restrictions but are scheduled to resume in 2021.

Sea Lamprey control in the Lake Erie watershed is under the auspice of the GLFC and its control agents including the United States Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&WS) and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DF&OC), applying 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 (trapping adults or out-migrating juveniles, release of sterile males, and pheromone communication disruption).

There is some progress being made, though, on sea lamprey control in the Lake Erie watershed. According to the GLFC, the index of sea lamprey abundance (1300) was down below the target population of 3300 for the second consecutive year.

Tributaries scheduled for lampricide treatment by the GLFC in 2021 include:

Grand River, Raccoon Creek, Conneaut Creek in the US as well as Big Creek and Otter Creek in Canada.

Lamprey barriers are a very effective method for blocking sea lamprey movement (there are an estimated 109 barriers on Lake Erie tributaries). In 2019, surveys were conducted at barriers on 12 Lake Erie tributaries (8 in US/4 in Canada) and showed all were effective lamprey blockers except for the barrier on Venison Creek (a tributary of Big Creek).

New lamprey barrier projects in the Lake Erie watershed include the following:

-Black River/MI (Wingford Dam removal and lamprey barrier), Clinton River/MI (lamprey barrier for natural bypass channel around Yates Mill Dam/ completed 2020).

-Cattaraugus Creek/NY (Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project which includes a Denil fish-way with a seasonal trap and sort operation/USACE fund sources have shifted and the project is on hold in 2021).

-Grand River/OH (lamprey barrier including trap insert in new dam at Harpersfield/ finished in 2021).

-Conneaut Creek/OH and PA (Seven potential barrier sites have been located in Pennsylvania as the USACE works to finalize the Federal Interest Determination report in 2021).

On the Huron River in MI (a tributary of Lake Erie), the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC) requested barrier removal/fish passage modifications for the Flat Rock Hydro Dam and the upstream Peninsula Paper Dam. Consultations conducted with partner agencies (including the GLFC and USF&WS) concurred on the Peninsula Dam but not on the Flat Rock Dam.

Asian Carp

A study released in January of 2016 (and headed by the University of Michigan) concluded that if invasive Asian carp (specifically bighead, silver and black carp) took a foothold in Lake Michigan (migrating from the Mississippi River) 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 in Lake Michigan (and eventually all of the Great Lakes including Lake Erie).

In July 2020, Congress funded The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) approved $778 million plan to block invasive Asian Carp from entering the Great Lakes. Ground zero for the USACE plan is building a high tech concrete channel at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam on the Illinois River (which connects to Lake Michigan via the Chicago Waterways System). The USACE link for the plan is:

https://www.mvr.usace.army.mil/Missions/Environmental-Protection-and-Restoration/GLMRIS-BrandonRoad/

The USACE plan at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam at Joliet, Illinois incorporates a new concrete channel that will be engineered with “layered” technologies to stop Asian carp movement (but at the same time allow for barge passage). This includes a flushing lock, air bubble curtain, underwater sound and an electric barrier.

On December 29, 2020 the state of Illinois and the USACE formalized a design agreement to facilitate a Pre-Construction Engineering Design (PED) for the Brand Road Lock and Dam Project once funding is complete. Also, the state of Illinois formalized an agreement with the state of Michigan to help fund several aspects of the project.

Lake Erie Prey Fish

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

Initial trawling surveys showed the 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.

According to James Markham of the NYSDEC, the overall prey fish biomass in recent years has been generally lower due to reductions in adult smelt abundance and variability in emerald shiner recruitment.

In 2020 the overall biomass of soft-rayed forage fishes increased and was above average, mainly due to a high abundance of age-1 and older rainbow smelt. Smelt also dominated both walleye and lake trout diets in 2020. However, other fish species, including goby and yellow perch, have been more prominent in diets over the past five years. Lower trophic monitoring was not conducted in 2020 due to Covid-related issues.

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.

Annual International Coastal Cleanup

Steelheaders interested in participating the Annual International Coastal Cleanup on Saturday, September 18 in Erie County, PA can sign up on-line at: 

https://eriecountypa.gov/departments/planning-and-community-development/programs/keep-erie-county-beautiful/international-coastal-cleanup/

Deadline for registration is September 15.

The cleanup will occur on 20 sites throughout Erie County, including Presque Isle Bay, Walnut Creek Access Area and upper Walnut Creek at Asbury Park. In 2019, over 900 volunteers in Erie County picked up, counted and tabulated 2,825 lbs of trash!

Ohio

OCBS Steelhead Expo

The annual OCBS Steelhead Expo will be held September 25, 2021 (9:00 AM to 3:30 PM) at the Rocky River Nature Center. Visit https://ohiosteelheaders.com/ohio-fishing/ for more details.

Harpersfield Dam Lamprey Barrier Project

Construction of the Harpersfield Dam Lamprey Barrier Project on the Grand River, OH, by the USACE, has been completed. This includes installation of two lamprey traps, which will be maintained by the USF&WS

For an amazing time lapse video of the entire construction project please view the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsMqbnM3Q6w

The new barrier has several benefits including:

-Prevent sea lamprey passage at the Harpersfield Dam and eliminate sea lamprey reproduction 1,266 miles upstream of the dam on the Grand River and it's upper tributaries.

-Eliminate the need for future lampricide treatments on the Grand (costing $335,000 per treatment) and any adverse effects the treatment could have on non-target species.

-Achieve the primary goal of the project to lower the overall sea lamprey population in Lake Erie which will have a positive impact on the Lake Erie fishery.

Pennsylvania

Trout Run Live Web Camera

A live web camera has recently been installed at the mouth of Trout Run, PA at Avonia Beach. The Pennsylvania Steelhead Association (PSA) coordinated the efforts (and expenses) along with the SONS of Lake Erie, FishUSA and Fairview Township to install the camera. Costs include camera, installation, cable service and hosting platform.

To view live camera click on the following link: https://www.fishusa.com/avonia-webcam

PF&BC Proposed Fishing Regulation Changes

The PF&BC at it's quarterly business meeting held July 26, 2021, preliminarily approved amending fishing regulations in the Lake Erie watershed (Lake Erie, Presque Isle Bay and Lake Erie tributary streams).

First (which also applies statewide), the opening day of trout season will remain a single, statewide opening day (1st Saturday in April) beginning annually in 2022. Due to the pandemic concerns, the PF&BC changed the opening day of trout to one day in 2021.

Second, the daily creel and size limits for trout (rainbow and lake trout) during the regular season of trout have been amended (note this will not impact the creel or size limit for brown trout).

The new regulations would still allow a daily limit of 5 trout, but only 1 fish may be a Lake Trout and the minimum size would be increased to 15 inches for rainbow trout (including steelhead) and Lake Trout. During the extended season for trout (the day after Labor Day until 12:01 a.m. o the Friday before the opening day of trout), the daily creel limit would be reduced to three trout, only one of which may be a Lake Trout, and the minimum size limit for all trout and salmon is 15 inches

According to the PF&BC, the proposed changes to the season and creel and size limits will provide for greater simplicity to regulations, optimize the trophy component of the steelhead fishery, and provide further protection to native Lake Trout which has a high priority for rehabilitation on the federal level with the USF&WS in Lake Erie.

Final approval for the amendments will occur at a future PF&BC meeting with the goal of the amendments going into effect January 1, 2022.

Conneaut Creek Lamprey Barrier

Preliminary stages have begun to construct a new barrier on Conneaut Creek in OH or PA. The new barrier would prevent movement of invasive sea lampreys and reduce the number of stream miles to lampricide treatments (which would protect fragile native species like mudpuppies, hellbenders and northern brook lampreys) as well as reduce lampricide treatment costs in the future.

Discussions are ongoing between the states of PA and OH, the GLFC and the USF&WS. A total of 7 possible barrier locations have been identified in PA. The USACE is presently finalizing the Federal Interest Determination Report for the project.

New Public Fishing Access

According to Scott Bollinger (Statewide Public Access Program Manager for the PF&BC and the PF&BC’s Lake Erie Access Improvement Program or LEAIP) the following property easements were acquired from private landowner's in the Lake Erie Watershed in 2021 using LEAIP money:

-2,170 linear feet along Conneaut Creek as it flows across two parcels of property in Springboro Borough, Crawford County. The easement area is located along Conneaut Creek, north of Beaver Street in Springboro, PA.

-540 linear feet along Conneaut Creek as it flows across a parcel of property in Springboro Borough, Crawford County. The easement area is located along Conneaut Creek off Beaver Street in Springboro, PA.

-790 linear feet along Conneaut Creek as it flows across a parcel of property in the Borough of Springboro, Crawford County. The easement area is located along Conneaut Creek, north of Beaver Street in Springboro, PA

-2,170 linear feet along Conneaut Creek as it flows across a parcel of property in Spring Township, Crawford County. The easement area is located off Tower Road immediately downstream of an existing public fishing easement.

-5,560 linear feet along Four Mile Creek as it flows across seven parcels of property in Wesleyville Borough, Erie County. The easement area is located along Four Mile Creek south of Route 20 in Wesleyville, PA.

-4,960 linear feet along Seven Mile Creek as it flows across a parcel of property in Harborcreek Township, Erie County. The easement area is located along Seven mile Creek off Route 5 east of Lawrence Park, PA.

-1,900 linear feet along Elk Creek as it flows across a parcel of property in McKean Township, Erie County.    The easement area is located off of West Road near the Commission’s Rick Road Access. 

As soon as the easement boundaries are marked on these properties (by the PF&BC) they will be added to the PF&BC on-line steelhead map ().

Bollinger also says that a new parking area was installed this year on the Gilmore Farm south of I-90 which is located adjacent to an existing Elk Creek PF&BC easement property.

The PF&BC's LEAIP presently has a balance of $3.75 million in it's account, however according to Bollinger, the PF&BC has over $1.75 in LEAIP commitments in the future including grants, easements, acquisitions, fish cleaning stations and other projects in the Lake Erie Watershed.

Besides public access land easements and acquisitions, LEAP funding which is sourced from PF&BC Lake Erie Fishing Permit sales (a PF&BC Fishing License and Trout Stamp are also required to fish Lake Erie and it's tributaries for steelhead) is also used for constructing public parking areas, installing signage, boating access and riparian and fishery management.

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

http://pfbc.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=30d3c4cdaae74096b565da19cbc061d3

Steelhead Fish Rearing Pens

Karl Weixlmann, Vice President of the PSA, relates that there is interest in placing steelhead rearing pens in the PA tributaries. Weixlemann believes that these pens could jump start PA steelhead runs that have been in decline in recent years. These pens are very popular in Lake Ontario with studies showing pen-rearing doubling juvenile steelhead survival and imprinting.

The pens would hold steelhead juveniles (yearlings or smolts that were raised in 3CU race-ways) for several weeks in the spring prior to their release in the tributary (versus a direct stocking from the raceway). The goal would be better steelhead imprinting as well as reduction of predation.

The 3CU (which is the largest PA cooperative nursery with the PF&BC) annually raises 100,000 to 150,000 steelhead per year for the PA Lake Erie tributaries. The lion share of the steelhead stocked in PA though are produced by state run PF&BC hatcheries, which annually averages close to a million steelhead smolt stockings.

The NYSDEC has an annual cooperative steelhead pen-rearing project with the Bison City Rod and Gun Club using two floating net pen designs placed in the lower Buffalo River (a tributary of Lake Erie).

In 2018, 10,000 unmarked yearling steelhead were stocked into the pens in early April and released into the lower Buffalo River in early May (water temperature 62 degrees F). Steelhead weights during the 26-day pen period began at 31.0 fish/lb and ended at 16.2 fish/lb, showing that the net pen raised steelhead almost doubled in size (with mortality in the pens only 15 fish).

2018 was the 14th consecutive year for the Buffalo River project. The project did not occur in 2019 (due to early steelhead stocking dates and shortage of steelhead) and in 2020 (due to pandemic concerns and construction related issues). The project is scheduled to resume in 2021.

New York

Springville Dam

According to James Markham, Senior Aquatic Biologist with the NYSDEC, the design work for the Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project on Cattaraugus Creek, NY is mostly finished as of 2021, but there are some sediment and funding issues that will need to be resolved before the project can proceed.

The Project Partnership Agreement (PPA) was signed by the USACE, NYSDEC and Erie County, NY in 2017. Construction was targeted for 2021 after the sea lamprey spawning run but Project Partners including the NYSDEC, USACE and Erie County have decided to put the project on hold in 2020 due to impacts from the CO-VID 19 Pandemic.

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 fish-way) 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.

In the meantime, Markham has completed a year-round angler survey in the Upper Cattaraugus Creek system in 2020. The survey provided baseline estimates of effort, catch and harvest for the existing fishery (which includes brown, rainbow and brook trout) in the Upper Cattaraugus Creek. This “pre-fish passage” survey will be helpful to determine possible impacts to the local fish community once the steelhead pass over the dam. The survey will continue every 2-3 years after fish passage to document any impacts. A formal report discussing the pre-fish passage data will be available sometime in the fall of 2021.

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.

For a video of the Springville Dam PPA signing and discussion of the project please click on the following:

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1629197503780864

See past John Nagy Fall Steelhead Report’s and News for background information on this project.

Salmon River Hatchery Steelhead Rearing Experiment

According the NYSDEC, stocking targets for juvenile steelhead smolts (for NY's Lake Erie tributary streams) declined 50% in 2020 to accommodate a new experimental approach to rearing steelhead at the Salmon River Hatchery (note: the new NYSDEC steelhead stocking target is now 127,500 steelhead which is down from 255,000 fish). This experimental approach was a recommendation from a study conducted on stocked yearling steelhead in Chautauqua Creek by the NYSDEC.

The study showed the stocking size of NYSDEC steelhead smolts are to small to imprint and emigrate out of Chautauqua Creek. Instead they remain stream residents, resulting in poor survivability and very little contribution to the adult steelhead fishery.

The goal of the experiment is to improve the overall size of steelhead smolts stocked into Lake Erie by the NYDEC. (In recent years NY has had the lowest average mean length of yearling steelhead stocked into Lake Erie by all the fishery agencies). Early results indicate substantial increases in both size and weight as well as a more “consistent” steelhead hatchery product.

Larger stocked steelhead smolts have proven to have better survivability and return rates. Also, the NYSDEC has learned that stocking steelhead smolts well upstream of the lake confluence increases steelhead return rates to their stream of origin. This experiment is planned to continue over the next 2 years.

NYSDEC Documents Lake Trout Reproduction in Lake Erie

The NYSDEC announced that they have confirmed identification of wild lake trout fry collected by the NYSDEC Fisheries Research Unit this past spring. Lake trout populations were once plentiful in Lake Erie but took a downward spiral due to over fishing, habitat degradation and invasive species such as sea lamprey. This restoration was accomplished after 6 decades of major investments to improve water quality and habitat in Lake Erie as well as fishery management policies.

In the future the NYSDEC will continue to evaluate lake trout spawning habitat in Lake Erie and look for areas that have potential for habitat restoration.

Note: Lake Trout have been stocked into Lake Erie since 1982 by the USF&WS in cooperation with the NYSDEC and PF&BC with the hopes of kick-starting a naturally reproducing population. In 2020, 119,175 finger lake trout (Finger Lake and Lake Champlain strains/marked with adipose clip and coded wire tag) were stocked in the NY waters of Lake Erie and 79,450 fingerling lakers (Finger Lakes strain/marked with adipose clip and coded wire tag) in PA waters. None were stocked in OH or Ontario waters.

NYSDEC Stocks Lake Trout into Cattaraugus Creek

Last October, the NYSDEC stocked 41,030 fall fingerling lake trout (Finger Lakes strain/marked with adipose clip and coded wire tag) into Cattaraugus Creek. The stocking was the final year of a 3 year pilot stocking program to determine if stream stocked lakers will survive and return to the stream in the fall with the goal to establish a successful adult spawning population.

The NYSDEC will continue evaluating the pilot program in the fall of 2021 with an electrofishing survey and an ongoing tributary angler survey from Oct 1, 2021 through April 30, 2022. The NYSDEC says that presently no Cattaraugus Creek stocked Lake Trout have been caught during their annual Lake Erie Cold water gill net survey. Any fisherman that catches a Lake Trout in Cattaraugus Creek this fall should report it to the NYSDEC Lake Erie Fisheries Unit in Dunkirk, NY.  

Much of the fishery data and information for the 2021 Fall Steelhead Report and news was referenced from the 2021 Great Lakes Fishery Commission/Lake Erie Cold Water Task Group Report and the 2021 NYDEC Lake Erie Annual Report

Special thanks goes out to James Markham of the NYSDEC and Scott Bollinger of the PF&BC for their contributions to this report.