Fall buck steelhead that took a Nagy Bead-Head Olive Stone on Elk Creek, Pennsylvania
As of March 31st, 2023 the Lake Erie water temperature (degrees F) off Toledo was 41 degrees, off Cleveland was 38 degrees, off Erie was 39 degrees and off Buffalo was 37 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 lake shore begins to nudge down to 68 degrees F, in early to mid September, steelhead (including some brown trout) will begin staging along the Lake Erie lake shore and tributary mouths as a “pre-spawn” movement.
Early cool fall rains and tributary 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
2021 Lake Erie Steelhead Stockings*
*2022 steelhead stocking data not available yet
Lake Erie steelhead (smolt) stocking numbers for 2021 include (total of 1.851 million): PA (1,091,197/60%), OH (498,972/27%), NY (194,569/11%), and ON (67,062/4%)). This total was a 10.9% increase from 2020 and slightly above the long-term steelhead stocking average since 1993. No steelhead were stocked in the Michigan waters of Lake Erie in 2021 since no steelhead eggs were collected in 2020 due to COVID-19.
NY also stocked 45,000 domestic rainbow trout in 2021 (averaging 7.0 inches) as fall fingerling plantings in Cattaraugus, Eighteen Mile, Canadaway, Chautauqua Creeks and also as spring plantings in Eighteen Mile Creek (5,000 yearling) in late March and in Cattaraugus Creek (12,000 surplus yearling) in early June.
This was the forth year of stocking fall and spring 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.
The 2021 stocking strains of steelhead by the Lake Erie fishery agencies are 97% “naturalized” Great Lakes strains (with West Coast origin including Washington State Chambers Creek Strain).
They are as follows: PA (Lake Erie strain collected from Trout Run, PA nursery waters), NY (Chambers Creek 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.
2021 Lake Erie Brown Trout Stockings
The Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) stocked approximately 46,607 yearling and adult brown trout in its Lake Erie waters in 2021 (the only fishery agency stocking brown trout into Lake Erie presently). This is 30% decrease form 2020 and 47% below the long term (1990-2020) average annual stocking of 89,456 Brown Trout.
These fish are in support of a put-grow-take brown trout program that was initiated in 2009. This program supports both an inland PF&BC brown trout fishery for tributary spring trout anglers and a Lake Erie lake-run brown trout fishery based in the Lake (with the potential of trophy lake-run brown trout “running” into the lake shore/tributaries on a fall spawning run).
A public information meeting, hosted by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), was held on May 24th, 2022 in Albion, PA to discuss the potential construction of a lamprey barrier on Conneaut Creek in OH or PA.
The new barrier would prevent movement of invasive sea lampreys upstream on Conneaut Creek to lamprey spawning habitat. It would also reduce/eliminate the number of stream miles to lampricide treatments (which would protect fragile native species like mudpuppies, hellbenders and northern brook lampreys).
Stakeholders in the project, in addition to the general public, include the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC), US Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&WS), PA Dept. of Environmental Protection, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC), the OH Dept. of Natural Resources and PA Sea Grant. The project is being executed under the USACE with federal funding from the Great Lakes Restorative Initiative.
A total of 7 possible barrier locations have been identified in Ohio and PA. The USACE is presently finalizing the Federal Interest Determination Report for the project.
Sea lamprey were initially documented invading the upper Great Lakes during the 1920's and quickly had a major impact on many native cold water fish populations in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) started coordinated sea lamprey control in 1986 primarily to support native lake trout rehabilitation. The GLFC regularly conducts lampricide treatments to reduce sea lamprey populations in the Lake Erie tributaries.
Annual monitoring by the NYSDEC Lake Erie Fisheries Research Unit (LEFRU) of Lake Trout sea lamprey wounds has historically been a good indicator of sea lamprey populations in Lake Erie. Lake trout wounding rates have been relatively high and stable over the years but fell below targets in 2021 (for only the second time in the past 27 years). GLFC lamprey population surveys in the last 3 years have also shown a decline in adult sea lamprey in the Lake Erie watershed.
In May of 2022, the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&WS) found eDNA from invasive Silver Carp in Lake Erie at Presque Isle Bay, PA. In response to this, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) on May 18th, 2022 did invasive carpet sampling (using boat electro fishing) at the site of detection.
No invasive carp specimens were collected but the PF&BC requested that the USF&WS collect more samples in the bay in the fall when more ideal conditions exist for eDNA sampling.
The presence of eDNA in bay water cannot show if it came from live fish, bird feces, live well water transported from another body of water or from melted ice used to cool Silver Carp sold at fish markets (which could flow into storm sewers). Though, repeated eDNA detections in a sampling area over a period of time could mean that the genetic material is coming from Asian Carp living in the area of sampling.
The PF&BC is encouraging live bait anglers to become familiar with identifying Silver and Big Head Carp (both adult and juvenile stages) since using live bait buckets (various live fish baits) can be a potential source of directly introducing these invasive fish into Lake Erie.
If invasive carp take a foothold in Lake Erie (and other Great Lakes) the impact would pose a major threat to ecosystems of the Great Lakes, the 7 billion dollar Great Lakes sports fishing industry and numerous economic interests dependent on the Great Lakes and its tributaries.
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:
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.
In 2022, federal funding (a 20% local states match is required) allowed for the project to be kept on track with the completion of pre-construction and design work. The first project contract is planned to be awarded in 2024.
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 (see John Nagy Lake Erie Rainbow Smelt Tube Fly Pattern in right menu bar) 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.
Overall biomass of soft-rayed forage fishes decreased in 2021 and was below average, mainly due to a lower abundance of adult rainbow smelt. Smelt dominated lake trout diets while goby dominated walleye diets in 2021. However, other fish species, including yellow perch, have been more prominent in diets over the past five years.
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.
The Ohio Central Basin Steelheader's Association will be holding their 28th annual Steelhead Expo on September 24th, 2022 from 9 am to 3 pm at the Rocky River Nature Center in North Olmsted, OH. The event will include speakers covering fly and spey fishing, spin fishing and center pin float techniques. Local tackle shops and product manufacturer's will be present as well as conservation organizations.
Lake County Fishing Access
Lake County Metro Parks has completed two public accesses (for paddling/fishing) on the Grand River in Ohio. These include Blair Landing at Blair Ridge Park (mile 16.4) and at Baker Road at Baker Road Park (mile 18.5). See Lake County Grand River Water Trail Map for details at: https://www.lakemetroparks.com/KenticoTemplate/media/LakeMetroparks/Grand-River-Water-Trail-map_low-res.pdf
Pennsylvania Lake Erie Access Improvement Program
The Board of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) awarded a $99,000 grant to PA Sea Grant/Penn State University for a Manchester Falls Fish Passage Feasibility study on Walnut Creek. Funds for the grant came from the PF&BC's Lake Erie Access Improvement Program (LEAIP) which is funded by fishing license Lake Erie Permits collected by the PF&BC.
The study will determine ways to improve fish passage at the falls (which would increase steelhead fishing opportunities upstream) as well as prevent invasive sea lamprey migration and spawning upstream.
Additional grant money from PF&BC LEAIP funds in 2022 includes $150,000 to the Western PA Conservancy for on going stream bank stabilization and habitat improvement on their property along Elk Creek, PA (work is planned to be completed in 2022), $85,000 to the YMCA of Youngstown for a public fishing easement on 4,999 linear ft. along Crooked Creek, PA and $14,000 (some of this money is also obtained from other public sources) for a public fishing easement on 860 linear feet along Elk Creek, PA.
Pennsylvania Steelhead Association
The Pennsylvania Steelhead Association's (PSA) 2022 Fall Run Picnic will be held September 24th at the Pleasant Ridge Park Pavilion between Fairview and Girard Pennsylvania. The event will honor Frank Scicchitano and Don Clayton for their contributions to Pennsylvania Lake Erie steelhead fishery over the years. Event will also include an auction, raffle and fly tying demonstrations. More information about the picnic (including purchasing tickets) are on the PSA website (https://pasteelhead.wildapricot.org/).
The PSA will again begin a Steelhead Angler Survey on September 1, 2022 in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission Lake Erie Research Unit. The survey will collect information to be used to improve the quality of the Pennsylvania Steelhead Fishery. Steelhead anglers are encouraged to participate in the survey even if they have had a fish-less day on the Erie tributaries. The PSA online survey form can be accessed for submissions by scanning a QR code with a smartphone on signs placed in select angler accesses across Erie County and also online at: https://forms.gle/DbuJYGcL5xfixCjw8
The PSA will be again participating in the International Coastal Cleanup Event on Saturday 17th, 2022 from 9 am till noon at the Walnut Creek Access (meet at the office lobby at 8:45 am).
Tributary Angler Survey
The NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) has completed a steelhead Tributary Angler Survey on NY's tributaries of Lake Erie for the 2021-2022 fishing season, According to James Markham, of the NYSDEC, preliminary results showed an overall fishing effort of 0.4 steelhead/hour, with effort on Cattaraugus Creek way down due to excessive rainfall throughout the fall of 2021.
Markham also said that Eighteen Mile and Chautauqua Creeks picked up a lot of the slack for steelhead fishing effort and that most steelhead anglers surveyed believed the NY Lake Erie steelhead fishery was in good shape.
As a side note, Markham relayed that the NYSDEC has simplified it's Lake Erie tributary regulations. Based on NY State Environmental Conservation Officer (ECO) violations (or lack of in this case), the NYSDEC removed the previous restriction on the distance between your hook/lure/fly and any added weight due the ECO witnessing practically no “lining” these days. So tandem flies are legal but so are spinners with a treble hook. As always Markham says, any motion that indicate an angler is attempting to line or snatch a fish still remains a NYSDEC violation.
If anglers are unsure about the fishing regulations on a specific NY body of water they can access that information via a new/free HuntFishNY App https://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/96470.html on their phone or computer.
Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project
The Springville Dam Ecosystem Restoration Project, on Cattaraugus Creek, NY, will allow for fish passage above the Springville Dam (including steelhead) while deterring invasive sea lamprey movement upstream of the dam.
Construction for the project was targeted for 2021 after the sea lamprey spawning run but Project Partners, including the NYSDEC Region 9, USACE and Erie County, have decided to put the project on hold in 2020 due to impacts from the CO-VID 19 Pandemic.
In 2020, pre-construction plans for the engineering and design for the project were nearly complete and real estate and budget requirements were being finalized. According to the USACE, any left over funding for this project was returned after the project was put on hold. Once the project starts up again more funding will have to be established on both the federal and non-federal side (which hopefully won't be problematic).
Salmon River Hatchery Steelhead Rearing Experiment
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 fish). This experimental approach, with guidance from Vermont's Ed Weed Fish Culture Station, 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 (which began in 2020 and is planned for 3 years) 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.
James Markham, of the NYSDEC, believes it is too early to tell if the new stocking experiment (including fall fingerling domestic rainbow stocking) has had an impact on the NY Lake Erie tributary steelhead fishery but there were some excellent early runs last fall (2021).
Steelhead Fish Rearing Pens
Studies have shown that pen-rearing juvenile steelhead in a tributary stream or river, for several weeks in the spring, (versus direct stocking from a hatchery raceway) doubles juvenile steelhead survival and imprinting as well as reduces predation.
The NYSDEC has an annual cooperative steelhead pen-rearing project with the Bison City Rod and Gun Club using 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 two pens in early April and released into the lower Buffalo River NY 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).
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 resumed in 2021 (15th year) with a total of 5,000 unmarked yearling steelhead into a single floating net pen on March 29th and released into the Buffalo River on April 19th. During the 20 day pen period steelhead weights increased by 40% (from 18.1 fish/lb to 10.8 fish/lb) with negligible mortality.
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.