By Dan Neuland
Steelhead are more than trout. Any angler that has played a steelhead on their fly rod will attest to their energy and power as well as their beauty. Steelhead Alley refers to the many river tributaries that flow into Lake Erie from its southern shore bordering New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The steelhead trout is a migratory variant of the rainbow trout that originate from the Pacific Coast states. The fish are stocked as fingerlings in tributary streams and after a year or two in the creeks and rivers, the steelhead swim out into the lake where most of their growth occurs. Most Lake Erie steelies usually weigh 3 to 6-pounds and are generally 18 to 26 inches in length, while 30-inch fish weighing 10 or more pounds are not uncommon.
The prime months to fish for steelhead are late October, November and December in the fall and winter and March and April in the spring. Steelhead Alley waters are well worth the drive north when water levels are fishable. Rising waters bring in fresh steelhead from the lake but too much water can make fishing impractical.
Cattaraugus Creek is considered the crown jewel of Steelhead Alley. From the lake to the dam in Springville, the steelhead run some 34 miles up the waterway to spawn each year. The first 17 miles of creek flows through land owned by the Seneca Indian Nation. Anglers who fish that stretch must possess a special $60 license that’s good for a year. Three other popular waterways for steelhead are Eighteenmile, Canadaway, and Chautauqua creeks.
I was fortunate to spend a few hours fishing for steelhead on Cattaraugus Creek following the morning after I attended a memorial service for my uncle at my hometown in western New York State. It was a brief, solo trip in late October with time well spent with family and distant relatives. My plan was to fish a run in the early morning on my property near Springville before driving back to Maryland to attend the PVFF annual banquet that evening.
At first light, I began working the fast, shallow water at the top of the run. I cast my streamer, a white wooly-bugger, across the current, quickly mended my line upstream to allow the fly to sink and then stripped the fly in short strokes as it swept downstream through the run.
I continued working my streamer in a similar fashion as I slowly moved downstream toward the deeper and slower section of the run. I wasn’t sure where the fish would be holding so fishing a streamer in
this way would allow me to methodically cover the run. The chilly, early morning temperature in the 30’s had ice forming in the guides of my fly rod.
I worked to the tail of the run without a hit. The warmth of the rising sun was welcome relief to my numb fingertips. I returned to the top of the run and switched flies to a black egg-sucking wooly-bugger streamer. It was now a little more than an hour after I began fishing when a steelie grabbed my fly. I was fortunate to bring to hand a beautiful chrome buck. A light splash of crimson was evident on the side of the gill plate, as the spawning season progresses, the brightness will give way to deeper and vivid colors on the male steelhead, not unlike the colorful transformation of a fall leaf.
My morning was already a success when I hooked a second fish in the run soon after the first. It was a slightly larger hen steelie. The bright silver color indicated that this was a fresh run fish that entered the river recently. Besides color differences, female steelhead can be recognized by their rounded head while males generally exhibit a hooked lower jaw. Both were strong, hard-fighting fish.
Catch and release is an important concern for most steelhead anglers. Both fish landed that day were quickly returned to the river. I fished only a few hours, as I had to make the long drive back to Maryland. It was an absolutely gorgeous fall day on the ‘Catt’ and I hated to leave.
Due to heavy stocking, Pennsylvania has an excellent run of steelhead each year. The PA Fish and Boat Commission website lists a dozen steelhead streams, most are small and medium sized. Elk Creek is the largest and most popular. Chuck Dinkel arranged a guided group outing with Ben John of Precision Fly Fishing on November 11. Unfortunately, heavy rain was expected to start that morning. Interesting to note, despite the impending storm, he was told that trips are not cancelled. So, he had no choice but to show up and hope for the best.
Rain was predicted to start that morning – at least two inches from the recent hurricane. The group arrived at Elk Creek before first light and started drifting egg patterns under a float. Chuck was using an 8-weight fly rod that he built in 1993. Before the rain started, Chuck landed his first steelhead, an 8-pound male. The rain started at 9AM and within two hours the Elk was too high and it was decided to break for lunch. After lunch they spent about two hours driving to other streams looking for water to fish. With the rains still coming down they finally decided to call it quits for the day.
The next day, a cold front arrived. “We started out a bit later because we knew the streams would be high…most were a raging torrent!” said Chuck. They tried one small stream and fished the edges for about two hours without success as the water continued to rise. Other guided groups tried a few other streams but all were very high. After lunch, Chuck’s group wound up on 16-mile Creek as the stream was dropping. Fortunately, some fish were beginning to be caught but fishing was difficult. The high water washed debris into the stream and drifting leaves were problematic when drifting egg patterns. “Around 3PM I caught my second fish – a bright steelie; fresh from the lake. I gave my spot to another angler who hadn’t caught anything. This was a good way of making sure that everyone had an opportunity to get a fish,” said Chuck.
At the same time, Larry Forte and John Dunkers had traveled to Erie, PA to fish the tribs only to find that heavy rains had blown out the rivers. They rescheduled a trip for late November. We are looking forward to their report.
Ohio raises approximately 450,000 steelhead smolt at the fish hatchery at Castalia. The smolt are stocked each year in the Vermillion, Rocky, Gran, Chagrin, Conneaut and Ashtabula Rivers. In the spring of 2021, Bob and Ruth Eichler made their way to the Ohio tribs. They had great success fishing several waters including the Conneaut River, the Ashtabula River at the Cedarquist Park location and the Grand River at Harperfield Covered Bridge Park in Painesville, Ohio.
Despite low flows from a lack of snowmelt and dry conditions, the husband-and-wife team landed several steelies making for a very successful trip. “Ohio is a great state to fish in the spring and fall,” said Bob. According to Bob, the strain of steelhead Ohio stocks is from a spring spawning steelhead. “They also tend to grow larger that the steelhead PA stocks,” he said.
For gear, Bob and his wife recommend 7-weight fly rods with floating lines. Both 9’ and 10’ rods are preferred. Steelhead were caught on a variety of patterns including a White Death streamer with an egg fly dropper, black stonefly nymphs and natural colored egg flies.
Before you go
Steelhead provide great cold weather action for hardy anglers looking for a challenge. The primary fly fishing techniques for steelhead are dead drifting flies under a float or bottom bouncing using added weight to keep the flies near the bottom where steelhead lie. Swinging streamer patterns is an exciting method that can produce hard strikes, do not go light on your tippet strength. Newly arrived steelies will even smack a surface fly, such as a ‘Bomber’ pattern when fishing an undisturbed run. Steelhead tend to attract hordes of anglers so heavy fishing pressure should be expected on weekend trips while an angler may have no company on weekdays. Most importantly, anticipate water levels and weather conditions online before embarking. Guides are helpful but certainly not necessary for Steelhead Alley success as important information on such as stream descriptions and access locations are well documented.
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