Stream Fishing for Steelhead
The Pennsylvania streams in the Lake Erie Watershed are renowned for their steelhead fishing. Some coho salmon can also be found in the fall run. The Fish Commission and 3CU have discontinued stocking Chinook or King Salmon because of poor return rates. Brown Trout are also stocked in several of the creeks for the regular trout fishing season.
In addition to a valid Pennsylvania fishing license, to fish for steelhead, salmon or brown trout, anglers must also have a trout stamp. See the Regulations page for more details.
All the Pennsylvania streams in this watershed are located in Erie County. The streams can be divided into the Western streams, which are west of the City of Erie, and the Eastern streams, which are east of the City. Except for Conneaut Creek, all the creeks are shale bottomed. As a result, the creeks are not well suited for the natural reproduction of trout, steelhead or other game fish (although there have been reports of some reproduction of steelhead in the creeks).
Elk, Walnut and Twenty Mile are the three largest creeks, in that order. These creeks support a good fishery at their mouths. During the summer, bass, catfish, catfish, carp, perch and other panfish can be caught near the mouths.
The steelhead in the creeks are a strain derived from the steelhead of the Pacific Northwest. These fish are "lake run" rainbow trout. They are a species of rainbow trout which lives in Lake Erie during the summer, and in the creeks during the winter. Steelhead in the creeks generally run from 3 to 8 pounds. Fingerlings, which are about one year old and approximately six inches inches in length are stocked in the creeks in the late winter and spring for "imprinting." Steelhead generally return to spawn at three years old. Some will return the first fall after their release as fish of about 3 pounds or about 17 to 20 inches in length. Most steelhead spend three summers in the lake before they die. Few steelhead make it past five years old, or four summers in the lake. "Fresh fish", or fish that recently entered the creek from the lake, are bright sliver. Fish that have been in the creek for a long time become dark. Female steelhead have a rounded mouth. Males generally exhibit a hooked lower jaw.
Steelhead will make runs up the creek, with no apparent consistency. Generally a run will occur after a substantial rain which raises the creek levels, but some rains do not produce runs and sometimes runs occur without a rainfall. The number of fish in the creeks depends on the number and intensity of the runs, and the water level. If the water level starts to drop, the fish may move back out of the creeks and into the lake. One week a creek could be full of fish after a good run, the next week the water level drops and all the fish are holding in only the biggest pools, and the next week most of the fish are gone.
When the water levels are low, the streams can become nearly clear. In a fall with little rain, this condition can persist for months, except for the occasional days right after a rain. When the creeks are low and clear, it can be very difficult to catch steelhead. The anglers can see the fish in the holes, and the fishing pressure can be intense. The fish can also see you, and they get easily stirred-up.
Often the best fishing days occur while the creeks are dropping after a good rain raised the water level. However, steelhead are often unpredictable and usually difficult to catch. They can suddenly "turn on" and start to bite, then suddenly "turn off" and refuse all offerings. Today they can be striking glo-bugs, and tomorrow they are striking minnows. Today the fly fishermen are getting all the hits, and tomorrow the bait fishermen are doing better. Like all fishing, no one bait or lure, no one time, and no one method is always best.
Stream etiquette is important both for everyone's enjoyment of the sport, and to preserve our privilege and opportunity to fish. Please consider the following suggestions:
Upon arriving be sure you have parked in an approved area (see stream descriptions) and make sure your vehicle is off the road. Do not park on anyone's lawn and do not block any roads or driveways.
Most of our streams are on private property. Contrary to popular belief, in Pennsylvania you can own the stream bed, and a landowner can prevent others from walking anywhere on, around or in the creek. If you are fishing on private property, ask permission to fish if you can identify the landowner. Consider offering the landowner a fillet or to clean up the area in return for the privilege of fishing on his or her property.
When arriving at the streams, remember many areas run through residential neighborhoods. Remain quiet, especially at dawn.
Walk in or along stream beds as much as possible; avoid private lawns as much as possible.
Keep flashlights pointed at the ground.
Never "relieve yourself" within sight of any person or home. Nothing will make the landowner mad faster.
Be courteous to those already on the streams. Walk behind other anglers and out of the water if possible. If you must stay in the water, walk with a minimum surface disturbance. Do not walk through the area where others are fishing. If the area is deep, you should probably be fishing it, not walking through it.
When conditions are crowded be aware of your fellow anglers. Watch where you cast to avoid tangles and injury.
Just because you were "there first" does not mean you can continue to fish as large an area as you please regardless of how many other anglers arrive. Fish an area appropriate for the number of people fishing around you.
In crowded conditions, play your catch only as much as necessary.
If your are inexperienced, the best education is from watching those who are successful. Crowded stream conditions seem to form a cooperative camaraderie among anglers that can be enjoyed even when it is "elbow to elbow." Many anglers are more than willing to assist you if you ask.
Foul language is unnecessary, especially around younger anglers.
Be tolerant of the inexperienced angler . . . remember we were all beginners once.
If in a crowd, alert others when you have a "fish on."
Leave with everything you bring. Litter can be a real threat to our fishing privileges.
Do not keep any more fish than you are going to make use of. If you do not think you will eat the fish, put it back gently and give someone else the opportunity to enjoy the catch.
Do not clean fish in or around the streams. It is discourteous to residents, and it is prohibited by the Fish Commission.
The steelhead begin to school in the lake off the creek mouths about mid-September. The fish will enter the creeks any time thereafter, if the flow of the creeks is adequate. The number of fish in the creek, particularly in the fall, is heavily dependent on the amount of rain the region receives. If the fall is dry, the fish will get only a short distance up the larger creeks, and may not enter the smaller creeks at all. As a result, in a dry year most of the fishing for steelhead will be right at the mouths of the creeks, in the lake at the creek mouths, or in the holes that are a short distance up the in the larger creeks. Erie has a beautiful fall. With the often fine weather and the fish concentrated at the mouths, the fishing pressure can be intense. Venture to the mouth of Elk or Walnut Creek on a warm weekend day in mid-October you will be greeted by hundreds of anglers trying their luck for steelhead.
Steelhead in the fall are usually the most energetic and exciting. The fish are generally "fresh" from the lake, and have a brilliant silver appearance. The water is still warm, and the fish are aggressive fighters.
By November the steelhead are usually well up the creeks, unless it has been a very dry fall. Often the best fishing of the season is in late November (sometimes, unfortunately for hunters, the best times coincide with antlered deer season in Pennsylvania). The fishing can be good throughout the winter when the creeks are open. Occasionally the creeks will remain open nearly all winter. In severe winters, the creeks can freeze over by December and not open up until March. Fishing over a frozen creek is difficult and dangerous. Ice on a moving stream is very unpredictable and falling through into the cold water can be unpleasant at best, and life threatening at worse.
As long as the creeks remain open, steelhead can be taken. As the water gets colder, the fish, being cold-blooded, move slower. It is less likely the fish will move far to take a lure or bait. The fish may take a hook and move slowly, making it more difficult to detect a strike. Some fish remain in the creek for longer periods of time. These fish lose their bright silvery appearance and become dark along the bottom.
Because the water can be so cold, fishing early in the morning during the winter months is not normally an advantage. During the winter the fish often become more active later in the day as the air and water temperatures warm.
When the creeks freeze over, the steelhead fishing is nearly over. However, some anglers do fish through the ice in the marina at the Walnut Creek access, and an occasional steelhead is taken through the ice on Presque Isle Bay. Fishing through the ice on the stream itself is dangerous. The depth of ice over moving water is unpredictable, and it is impossible to determine how deep the water is if you happen to fall through.
Fishing for steelhead in the winter is a sport for the hardy. The air and water are generally cold. Multiple layers of clothing and insulated waders are a must. A pick for clearing ice from the rod guides is also handy (the stick from a long float works well). Felt-bottomed wading boots will get packed with snow; rubber-bottom boots with cleats work better.
Steelhead remain in the tributaries usually through April, with a few fish remaining into May. As the water temperature warms, the fish return to Lake Erie for the summer. March is generally considered the "second best" month for steelhead, after November (depending, as always, on water flow and the number of fish in the creeks).
Since good numbers of steelhead often remain in the creeks during the first weeks of regular trout season, the added draw of the trout opener brings heavy fishing pressure to the tributaries. Although on opening day you could catch a trout measured in pounds, not inches, chances are excellent you will not be alone when you do so.
Tackle and Gear
Fishing for steelhead is generally done with either a spinning or fly outfit. Regardless of the type of rod and reel used, there are other gear requirements. A good pair of waders is essential. Chest waders give greater versatility and allow you to reach deeper areas that might exceed the height of hip boots. In times of low flow, or on the smaller creeks, hip boots will be adequate. In the colder months, insulated waders are essential. Many anglers opt for neoprene chest waders.
Many anglers use boots with spikes for traction. Although "corkers" are not as popular on these tributaries as they are in other places, they are sometimes seen. In the early season, the creek bottoms can still be algae covered and very slippery. Even after the algae is gone as the water gets colder, the shale bottom can be quite slippery. If you are not sure of foot, spikes and/or a wading staff are a good idea. Felt-sole waders generally work better here than rubber-soled boots (except when there is snow on the ground).
Whether to carry a net on the creeks seems to be a point of debate. Many anglers release all the steelhead they catch, and often they carry no net. Others new to the sport carry can be seen carrying a traditional trout net that will have a very difficult time holding an 8 pound steelhead. Steelhead can be "beached" in many places, and therefore taken without a net. If you want to be sure you land the fish you hooked, and don't mind carrying a net with you along the creeks, a net is a good idea.
Like any trout fishing, a good fishing vest or chest pack is a must. In the winter, gloves are also necessary. When the water is not too high or cloudy, steelhead can be "hunted" or spotted in places in the creeks. A pair of polarized sunglasses is another necessity for spotting steelhead in the creek.
If you plan to keep any fish, a good stringer is necessary. If you fish with skein, a scissors works well to cut the eggs.
A well-stocked fishing vest contains the following: either fly boxes or a small plano tackle compartment with hooks, small pinch-on sinkers and assorted lures, slip-on bobbers or floats, clippers, pocket knife, hemostats (for hook removal and opening split shot on really cold days), spare spools with different test line for different conditions, leaders and tippet, various baits, lighter and compass (as a precautionary holdover from hunting), stringer, stream thermometer and bandages.
Line and Hooks
Spinning gear still seems to predominate on the tributaries, although fly fishing has become increasing popular. In normal conditions, six pound line works well. Many experienced anglers use four or even two pound line, especially in clear water conditions. Use some sense when selecting line. You will have a difficult time stopping an eight pound fish on two pound line once the fish gets into fast water and heads for the lake. Likewise, if you are fishing in a crowded area, your fellow anglers will not be pleased as you take 20 minutes to try to land a fish on ultra-light line.
No particular type of hook is needed. However, the traditional salmon or steelhead hook, which is a strong, short shank, eye-up hook, is often used. The hook size depends on the steam conditions and the type of bait used. A size 6 should be big enough under any circumstances. A size 10 or 12 will get more strikes in clear conditions, but landing a fish with this size hook can be challenging. Experienced anglers, who don't mind trading more hook-ups for fewer landed fish, will fish with hooks in size 14 or smaller.
The common rod for spin fishing is an extra-long (e.g., nine foot) light rod designed for four to eight pound line. The "noodle rod", which is very long (often 10 feet or more), and extremely soft for fishing very light line (e.g., two pound test), is becoming less popular on the streams. Most steelhead fishing in the creeks is drift fishing. For drift fishing, many prefer a short butt-end to the rod. A longer rod allows you to keep more of the line off the water to get a better drift, and the short butt is easier to handle. Steelhead can take a hook very lightly, so a sensitive rod is helpful. On the other hand, they can be aggressive fighters, and a rod with some backbone is also helpful. Local tackle shops can recommend a good rod for this type of fishing.
Using a spinning reel on a fly rod is not uncommon. The fly rod is sensitive, long, and has a short butt.
No particular size of reel is essential. As long as the spool has the capacity for enough line to play the fish and a drag strong and smooth enough to withstand the stress, the reel should work. Large reels used on the lake are overkill. Even with six pound line, a spinning reel with a smooth drag is essential. (Front drags seem to be smoother). I use a 2000 series Shimano front-drag reel, and it works well for this type of fishing.
Line & Leader
Floating line is the norm. The creeks are typically too shallow for any type of sinking line. Be sure to use sufficient backing to be able to play the fish.
Leader and tippet sizes depend, as always, to a large degree on what flies you are using. Many anglers tie their own leaders. Since you are often fishing with split shot, this is not finesse fly fishing and it is not necessary to have a perfectly tapered leader. Similarly, the leader need not be too long for this type of fishing, unless you are fishing in very clear water with a very small fly. Under normal conditions, a leader and tippet combination that is not longer than the rod itself should work. A longer leader and tippet combination on the small creeks will be too long and difficult to handle. Many anglers tie in at least one length of high visibility line in the upper end of the leader.
Not surprisingly, small flies (e.g., size 12 or smaller) should be fished with a light tippet. 5x and lighter tippet will have difficulty landing steelhead. 3x and 4x tippet is popular.
Whether fluorocarbon tippet actually helps produce strikes remains a point of dispute in this area.
Anglers typically use rods from 5 to 8 weight. A 5 weight rod will not give you much backbone to land a large steelhead, and an 8 weight rod has more than enough backbone. Many agree a 7 weight, 9 foot rod is ideal.
Any respectable fly reel should work. An smooth disk drag is certainly helpful for playing a larger fish. Generally a reel which accommodates a 6 to 8 weight line will work well. Large arbor reels have become common.
Lures and Bait
Common baits used for spin fishing include the following:
Live or salted minnows
Power bait or power nuggets
Egg sacks (of either salmon or steelhead eggs)
Skein (of either salmon or steelhead eggs)
Nightcrawlers (usually not used during the winter)
Single salmon eggs (the variety in the small jars in oil, or the loose eggs found at the bait shops)
Grubs (a.k.a. maggots)
Lures are not too commonly used in the creeks. However, spinners can work. Occasionally a small casting spoon (like a Little Cleo) will work, particularly near the mouths. Large lures of the variety used in the lake a far too big for use in the creeks, and will only serve to agitate or snag whatever fish might be there.
The "MiniFoo" jig, which is a dressed, painted leadhead, is popular. It is commonly tipped with a grub and fished below a float.
The two most common flies are the Glo-Bug (imitates a salmon egg; tied with Glo-Bug yarn) and the sucker spawn (imitates sucker eggs; tied with angora yarn). The popular flies are available at FishUSA.com, the sponsor of this site, or at the local bait shops. For fly patterns, check the Recipes page on this site.
Steelhead fishing in these tributaries is heavily dependent on the water flow.
During or just after a good run, the fish may be about anywhere - in the pools, in the riffles, in deep water and in shallow. If there has been no recent run, the fish will tend to be in the pools or deeper water (unless they are spawning, in which case they may be in the riffles). When the water is very low and clear, typically the fish will be only in the pools. Steelhead are a trout - they tend to be in the same places in a stream where other trout would be found.
Most fishing for steelhead is drift fishing. The common method is to cast across and up the stream, and let the line drift naturally down stream. Steelhead are almost always near or on the bottom. If the hook is fished near the surface, you have little chance of getting a strike.
A typical spinning rig without a float includes a single hook tied directly to the line, with several split shot about 8-12 inches above the hook. Use enough weight to get the line down so you can occasionally feel the bottom, but not so much weight that you keep getting hung-up on the stream bottom. Carrying split shot in size BB, 3/0 and 5/0 should cover all conditions.
Another common rig is to use a small float above the hook. This works well in the deeper pools, and avoids losing so much tackle on the stream bottom. Use the smallest float and least weight you can get away with.
Fly fishing techniques are usually quite similar. Few steelhead are taken with dry flies, especially as the water gets colder. Normally some weight is needed to get the fly down. Either a weighted fly or split shot is used. Many fly fishermen also use a float or strike indicator.
Steelhead can strike lightly and quickly. However, if you hook up an 8 pound fish, you will certainly know it. Landing an 8 pound steelhead is not the same as landing a 12 ounce brook trout. Many novice anglers loose many fish they hook. The two most common reasons the fish are lost are (1) the drag is set too tight or does not work smoothly, and (2) the angler tries to "muscle in" the fish. In either case, the fish is lost either because the hook is pulled out of the fish's mouth or the line breaks. The drag should be set just tight enough to be sure you can set the hook. Once the fish is on, you can always tighten the drag. If the drag is too tight to start with, you will probably lose the fish. Larger fish cannot be "muscled in." Use your drag, let the bend of the rod work for you, and play the fish until it tires and you can work the fish toward you. A steelhead will be difficult to land until it is ready, no matter what you want to do.
If you plan to release the fish, hemostats work well for releasing the hook without having to handle the fish at all. If you bring a net, remember that a small trout landing net may have a hard time holding a large steelhead.