Fly Fishing Cattaraugus Creek, NY for Steelhead by John Nagy


November Cattaraugus Creek hen steelhead that could not resist a Nagy Steelie Rock Worm.

Of all the steelhead tributaries in the Lake Erie watershed, Cattaraugus Creek in western NY is considered by many steelheaders to be the classic steelhead river. 

Located 30 miles south of Buffalo, NY, in the northern part of the famous “steelhead alley” region (a group of about 50 Lake Erie tributaries extending from Buffalo, NY to Vermilion, OH), it provides the ideal features as well as challenges to keep both novice and veteran “chrome chasers” coming back every season.

The future also looks bright for Cattaraugus Creek, with plans in the works for modification of the Springville Dam to allow Lake Erie migratory steelhead to move to new water above the dam where 34 miles of public fishing access is already in place.

The River: A Land of Glaciers, Indians and Natural Wonders

Hundreds of years ago Native American Indians that fished and hunted along the banks of Cattaraugus Creek encountered natural gas oozing from the river mud. Because of this natural phenomenon the Indians named the river “Cattaraugus” which means “foul smelling banks.” These days steelheaders in the Lake Erie region simply refer to it as the “Cat” for short.

More of a river in size than a creek, the Cat averages 100 foot wide and 2-6 foot deep in its lower reaches on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation. High gradient in nature, it travels 68 miles from its headwaters at Java Lake in Arcade, NY to Sunset Bay at the Lake Erie shoreline, dropping a 1000 feet in elevation along the way.

The Cat is a relatively new river geologically speaking. Twelve thousand years ago, the advancing, 1 mile-high, Laurentide Ice Sheet blocked various northerly flowing rivers in Western NY, forming numerous finger lakes. Low spots in several of these finger lakes spilled over onto the Allegheny Plateau and flowed westerly (toward what is now Lake Erie), forming the Cattaraugus Creek watershed. Since that time the erosive force of water has progressively shaped and lowered the Cat forming its high-cliff canyons, gravel-bottom pools and shale-ledged streambeds that we see today.

The fishable steelhead water on the Cat begins at the Springville Dam, in the lower part of the Springville Canyon, and ends 34 miles down river at the lake shore. There is an undeveloped County Park at the dam (the dam blocks all steelhead migration up river) with some fishing opportunities below the dam and a short stretch of water below the Scoby Hill Road bridge (check for posted signs for this lower section).

Below the dam area begins the magnificent Zoar Valley. The upper part of the Zoar is a broad valley with limited public access except for 3.8 miles of New York State Public Fishing Rights (PFR) lands (two separate sections).

New York State PFR's are permanent easements purchased by the State of NY from landowner’s, giving anglers the right of way to fish and walk along the bank (usually a 33’ strip on one or both banks of the stream).

Below the upper valley, the Cat (and its south branch), flow into a wild and remote, 14 mile long, narrow canyon area known local1y as the “gorge”. This geological and natural wonder contains 400 foot high cliffs, bald eagles, numerous waterfalls and the second largest concentration of old growth forest in NY State.

The Zoar Valley gorge is boulder strewn and contains many rapids in higher flows. A few rafting companies run white water trips through it during spring run-off, but at fishable levels it is very difficult to float due to low water between the deeper pools and runs.

Because there is limited streambed gravel areas in the gorge, steelhead seem to push pretty quickly through it (as a general rule steelhead prefer to hold and rest on gravel lined streambeds) although there is nice pocket water and shale ledges for indicating as well as some decent runs and pools for swinging flies.

Half of the canyon is contained in a 3,014 acre, state owned property known as the Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area (ZVMUA) which is open to the public for outdoor recreation use (including NY State PFR fishing access). 1,492 acres of the ZVMUA was named by the State of NY as a state nature preserve or “Unique Area” to protect it for posterity.

Accessing the ZVMUA is very strenuous and difficult and fisherman need to be aware of debris falling from the cliffs when fishing in the canyon floor as well as river water levels which can change quickly. There is roughly 7 miles of fishable water in the ZVMUA canyon section with numerous marked trails in the canyon accessing the river itself.

Around the town of Gowanda, NY no formal public access is in place within city limits. Good fishing opportunities exist above the Aldrich Street bridge and above the route 39 bridge to the ZVMUA (which begins 1 ½ miles above Gowanda). Be aware of some posted private lands below the ZVMUA towards Gowanada city limits.

A quarter mile down below Gowanda begins the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians (SNI). SNI lands surround 14 miles of the river down to the lake shore (except for Versailles area and the south bank of the river between Lake Erie and ½ mile north of Lake Erie).

The Cat on the reservation flows into a sand and gravel lake plain area that was formed from glacial outwash from the last ice age. It has bigger water than the Zoar Valley area (particularly below Versailles), containing good size pools and runs lined with gravel, rock and sand that are ideal for swinging flies as well as numerous tighter areas such as chutes, shale ledges and pocket water for indicating.

Non-Indians fishing on the reservation require a SNI fishing license (no New York State license is required though). SNI fishing regulations are in effect on the reservation. Licenses can be obtained at the William Seneca Administration Building on the reservation (https://sni.org /716-532-4900) and also a few authorized vendors on the reservation including the Seneca One Stop at the intersection of Routes 20 and 5.

Steelheaders who have a SNI fishing license are allowed to drive, park and walk just about anywhere on the reservation unless it is specifically posted. Be aware when taking dirt roads to access the river on the reservation. Driving can be hazardous in the loose, sandy soils and it is not uncommon for vehicles to get stuck (even 4WD’s). A good strategy is to park in heavily used parking areas and walk down to the river from there. Expect heavy crowds early in the fall on the lower reservation, with less pressure in the upper reservation (above the town of Versailles).

The Steelhead of the Cat

The steelhead of the Cat are legendary for their aggressive nature in taking flies and strong fighting ability. The majority of steelhead “running” into the Cat every season from Lake Erie are 3 year-old fish, averaging 5 to 6 pounds. Steelheaders commonly catch 8 to 12 pounders, with steelhead over 12 pounds caught every season.

The NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) stocked 56,030 steelhead yearlings into the Cat in the spring's of 2020 and 2021. These juvenile steelhead are obtained from the NYSDEC Salmon River hatchery in Altmar, NY and are of Chambers Creek strain origin. They are popularly known as Salmon River strain, a naturalized Lake Ontario hatchery strain of steelhead which is basically a late fall/winter and spring run fish.

This is substantially down from the NYSDEC annual stocking target of 90,000 steelhead for the Cat due to a new experimental approach to rearing steelhead at the NYSDEC Salmon River Hatchery.

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 NYSDEC. (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.

In addition to stocked fish by the NYSDEC, it is estimated that approximately 25% of all returning steelhead to the Cat are of wild origin. Most of the spawning of wild steelhead in the Cat occurs in its tributaries such as Spooner Brook, Derby Brook, Coon Brook and Connoisarauley Creek.

Steelheaders on the Cat should also expect to catch a few steelhead that have “strayed” from nearby states of Pennsylvania and Ohio (both have extensive steelhead smolt stocking programs) as well as the Province of Ontario which are all almost exclusively wild fish.

Water Conditions and the Seasons

Run-off conditions and associated water clarity are the biggest challenge for steelheaders fishing the Cat on a daily, weekly and seasonal basis. The Cat is similar to most steelhead alley tributaries in that it is heavily dependent on run-off from rain and/or snow melt to get it up to fishable flows. Because it has such a large watershed (551 square miles), excessive and consistent run-off can “blow-out” the Cat for weeks or even months at a time with high, unwadable flows and heavily stained water. It is not unheard of for the Cat to be only fishable for only a handful of days during the fishing season (fall, winter and spring) due to excessive and consistent run-off from rain and snow-melt.

Even when it does finally get down to a fishable flow, water clarity (or lack of) on the Cat can be an issue. The culprit is the Gowanda shale and siltstone contained in the Cat’s high cliff banks and river bottom. During run-off episodes, water erosion causes this very unstable strata to breakdown into fine clay sediment that suspends in the water. Along with topsoil erosion, early run-off flows on the Cat (like many steelhead alley tributaries) are a high, muddy mess. As run-off decreases, water visibility slowly improves as well.

Steelheaders should be prepared for water visibility to vary on the Cat from heavily silted water in early stage run-off to an opaque, chalky green color cast (after 1 week or less of run-off) to a somewhat clearer green tint after a week or more of run-off. Water visibility of less than 12 inches makes fishing very difficult. Steelhead not only have a hard time seeing your fly but they also spread out in the river more (particularly in higher flows) forcing you to work more for them.

During extremely dry fall seasons, the Cat clears up pretty good and maintains a fishable minimum base flow (unlike other Lake Erie tributaries which can be bone dry) due to its large watershed size and spring sources.

When the main branch of the Cat is unfishable, due to high/stained flows, fishing some of its feeders such as the lower section of the South Branch in the ZVMUA, Clear Creek on the reservation and Connoisarauley Creek are worth a try. (Note that the North Branch of Clear Creek and Spooner Brook are closed to fishing from Jan. 1st to March 31st to protecting spawning steelhead).

Also nearby Lake Erie steelhead tributaries such as 18 Mile Creek to the north of the Cat and Silver, Walnut, Canadaway and Chautauqua Creeks to the south provide good alternatives to fish when the Cat is blown-out.

The Cat is primarily a fall steelhead fishery with late September through mid November the best months. Early in the fall, expect steelhead to concentrate on the lower reservation waters. By mid-to-late October fish start moving into the gorge and upper Zoar valley especially with good fall run-off.

Mild winter periods usually mean high, unfishable run-off flows due to rain as well as ice and snow-pack melt. A severe winter can make steelheading on the Cat very difficult if not impossible due to ice-over and heavy snow-pack.

The spring can have excellent fishing to a mixed bag of fresh running, wintered-over and “drop-back” steelhead working their way down to the lake after spawning. Steelhead are spread throughout the river in the spring, with good numbers found early on in the upper Zoar Valley and Springville Dam area. Fishing in the spring is usually better later (May and June) when flow levels and water conditions are more favorable. A great bonus run of smallmouth run-up from Lake Erie into the lower reservation water on the Cat in the spring as well.

Technique, Flies and Equipment

Swinging streamers, wooly buggers, zonkers, spey flies, large soft hackles as well as tubes flies are something steelheaders should not pass up on the Cat. Many sections of the Cat have long runs and large pools of moderate depth, with relatively level bottoms of broken shale and rocks that are custom made for traditional “down-and-across” presentations.

The warm flows of the fall and spring (above 40 degrees F), make steelhead of the Cat very aggressive (particularly the wild fish) and they actively move for flies (referred to as “players”) even grabbing a swung fly on or near the surface. Incorporating materials like marabou, rabbit strip fur, arctic fox tail into fly patterns imparts additional movement to the fly on the swing which can prove irresistible to steelhead. Look for these hard-hitting fish to hold along current seams in moderate to fast runs, pool tail-outs and below mid-stream rocks and obstructions.

Swinging white or lightly colored patterns (size #8-#6/3XL), like Lake Erie emerald shiner or rainbow smelt imitations, work well on sunny days due to their ability to reflect light which attracts steelhead especially in clearer flows. For more stained water, on overcast days and early morning/late afternoon, try swinging larger, dark patterns in black, purple and dark olive which provide a large, bulky profile that steelhead can spot more easily in limited light conditions. Rigging two patterns on the swing, or using tube flies tied as long as 4 inches, can increase your chances of success on the Cat in really turbid water.

John Nagy's Lake Erie Rainbow Smelt tube fly pattern is very effective when swung "down-and-across" in the warm run-off flows of the fall or spring on the Cat.

Warm run-off flows can make steelhead very receptive to added movement to the fly. At the end of a swing presentation (when the fly line straightens out), hold the fly stationary in the water below you and begin twitching it. Also, instead of just directly retrieving your line at the end of the swing, “jerk and strip” it in as you bring it in for the next cast.

Dead-drifting bead-head nymphs, egg patterns, soft hackles, small wooly buggers and streamers is very effective on the Cat for picking up less aggressive and tightly holding fish during the fall (water temperatures typically start to drop below 45 degrees in late October on the Cat). It is especially effective for lethargic fish in the colder flows of late fall and winter (below 38 degrees F). These bottom hugging fish often get cases of “lock jaw” in the ice water flows and require multiple presentations and subtle changes in drift (usually from tippet and shot adjustments) to get hook-ups.

Since the Cat is often stained to some degree, finding areas to dead-drift flies on the big water of the Cat can take work. Look for obvious breaks in the surface water texture that indicate subsurface holding and resting areas for steelhead like below boulders, pocket water areas, shale ledges and streambed cuts and depressions (polarized sunglasses cut the glare on the water to make this easier).

When the Cat does get down to a fishable flow (after a run-off episode) it is mostly shallow and easy to wade (although a stain in the water can make wading difficult in terms of seeing where you are going). This allows the steelheader to wade into close proximity to steelhead lies and “high-stick” nymph with long fly rods, long leaders and floating fly lines by either floating indicator fishing or bottom-bouncing (without an indicator) to achieve drag-free drifts. (See John Nagy's Steelhead Guide Book for detailed information on his Right-Angle-Floating-Indicator Technique).

Holding areas are more difficult to locate in higher flows and stained water on the Cat. Riffles, runs and pools seem to blend together with the steelhead spread out more. Under these conditions find steelhead by working the water methodically until you catch a fish. Mark this spot mentally since more steelhead will likely be holding there.

Neon-colored egg patterns (particularly chartreuse) work great in the stained flows of the Cat. A good setup is to rig an egg pattern (sizes #12-#8) in tandem with a bead-head nymph, soft hackle, small wooly bugger or streamer as the bottom fly. (Note: SNI regulations allow tandem fly rigs on Reservation water but the use of more than one hook is illegal on NY State waters).

Keep both flies relatively close together on the leader (within 6 inches) so the steelhead can see both flies on the drift at the same time. If the steelhead does not take the bright colored egg pattern (which acts as an attractor in the stained flows) he will usually take the more naturally colored fly nearby. Incorporating some flash into egg patterns, nymphs, soft hackles, buggers or streamers can help steelhead spot them in heavily stain water.

Since the Cat normally has some sort of stain to it, tippet size is normally not critical. The stain actually is beneficial in that it allows steelheaders to use heavier tippets, which means more landed fish. For swinging flies, 1X or larger is ideal. For dead-drifting, 2X is a good all around size. In less common, low, clear flows, 3X or less may be necessary when dead-drifting.

High-stick nymphing fly rods for the Cat are on the long side (9 ½-11 feet/6 or 7 line weight) which allows for maximum line and leader control and minimal floating fly line contact with the water (which can interfere with drag-free drifts). They also are somewhat limber to buffer the surges and runs of steelhead after being hooked. Longer, more moderate action rods also help to land steelhead when using lighter tippets and smaller flies, which at times are needed in clearer flows. Smaller two-handed spey rods can act as great “cross-over” rods for both nymphing and swinging techniques.

Fast action, single-handed fly rods (9 ½-10 feet/6 or 7 line weight) for swinging flies have the ability to handle floating lines, sinking leaders, interchangeable sink tip lines or shooting heads depending on the water flows.

Switch” style fly rods are becoming popular for swinging flies on the Cat. These down-sized, double-handed rods give the steelheader the ability to cover the water at greater distances in moderate to higher flows with minimal wading and less casting fatigue all while avoiding rear obstacles. They are ideal for both swinging and nymphing presentations and can perform both standard single-handed or spey type casts. Compact size “Skagit” heads have been developed to work with switch rods to make throwing big flies and heavy sink tips a relatively easy operation.

The Future

The “Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project” on Cattaraugus Creek, NY was initiated in 2004 by the US Army Corps. of Engineers (USACE) and NYSDEC and includes Erie County, NY as a partner. The main purpose of the project is to restore ecosystem connectivity above and below the dam (including steelhead runs) while preventing invasive sea lamprey movement above the dam.

The approved project plan 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.

Allowing fish to pass through the Springville Dam opens up 75 miles of water to steelhead fishing on the Cat where 34 miles of New York State PFR land easements exist (including 15 parking areas). It would also likely result in significant levels of natural reproduction of steelhead due to the prime spawning, nursery and feeding habitat that exists in Cattaraugus Creek and its tributaries above the dam.

The upper Cat and its tributaries, notably Clear Creek, Elton Creek, Hosmer Brook and Lime Lake outlet, are all of higher quality than any of the tributaries located downstream of the Springville Dam with regards to water quality and spawning habitat. Because these streams support abundant numbers of naturally reproduced resident rainbow and brown trout, and some native brook trout, it is believed that excellent populations of wild steelhead would develop in these streams should access be gained. In the long term this could mean a self-sustaining steelhead fishery in the Cat with minimal (if any) hatchery stockings by the NYSDEC.

However, this could come at a cost to the resident trout populations due to increased competition for food and habitat with juvenile steelhead.

NYSDEC Senior Biologist James 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.

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.

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

For a video of the Springville Dam PPA signing and discussion of the project go to: https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1629197503780864

More information on fly fishing Cattaraugus Creek (including access maps, recommended fly patterns and ideal USGS flow conditions for swinging and “high-stick” nymphing the river) is available in John Nagy's book Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead (Updated and Expanded 4th Edition). This classic book is available in both print and E book versions (see right menu bar for ordering information).