Author and steelhead guide John Nagy with fall run steelhead (mature spawning male) caught last October on Elk Creek, Pennsylvania.
Fly Fishing for Fall Steelhead in the Lake Erie
By John Nagy
As the water temperatures drop to 68 degrees F along the southern shoreline of Lake Erie and the days become shorter (in mid to late September), mint-silver steelhead begin congregating along the Erie tributary mouths. This initial steelhead movement is the beginning of a spawning run which closely mimics the migratory behavior of steelhead in the Pacific Northwest (the original range of Lake Erie steelhead).
When cool fall rains create silty run-off (that dumps into a relatively warm Lake Erie) it triggers a steelhead movement up the tributaries in the fall and the opportunity for the fly fisherman to catch one freshwaters most elusive and magnificent game fish.
Since most of the southern shore Lake Erie tributaries are normally low and clear, it is critical that they get run-off (from either rain or snow-melt) to both facilitate movement of migratory steelhead upstream and create more fishable water for the fly fisherman.
In recent years, consistent, early fall rains have been more a rarity than the norm on the Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York tributary streams. This has limited steelhead movements upstream in the tributaries with most action in the lower large, deep pools (and along the lakeshore). The exception has been the Cattaraugus River in New York which fish’s exceptionally well in the fall. This is due to a good water flow a result of a power plant dam release and substantial spring sources in a huge watershed that encompasses 436 sq. miles.
When heavy fall rains due occur, Pennsylvania tributaries like Elk, Walnut, Crooked, 20 mile, 16 mile and 12 mile Creeks are the place to be for great action for fresh run fall “chromers”. After peak run-off from rainfall or snowmelt these tributaries can quickly clear to fishable levels in a day or two depending on the tributary.
The Ohio steelhead tributaries of the Rocky River, Chagrin River, Grand River and Conneaut Creek can provide good action also in the fall, but are primarily a winter and spring run steelhead fishery (although they get there share of fall running Pennsylvania steelhead). This is due to the late running Little Manistee strain steelhead that is almost exclusively stocked in these waters by the Ohio Division of Wildlife (a small number of London strain rainbows are stocked also by the ODW).
During the fall, Lake Erie tributary streams are relatively warm (in the 45 degrees F plus range) making the steelhead very active and aggressive. They enter the tributaries looking for holding water prior to their spawning. In warm water run-off flows this means the heads of pools, pocket water, fast runs and chutes as well as the lower ends of pool tail-outs where the current flow picks up speed.
Steelhead will use these locations until the water drops below 40 to 45 degrees F (late October to early November) which forces them to seek slower current areas. Many steelhead at this time lose their bright coloration’s and begin to darken up which is a sure sign that they are maturing sexually and getting close to spawning.
Fly fisherman will find that a more dynamic approach in his presentation (as opposed to just strictly dead-drifting flies) can result in a surprising number of hook-ups in the fall. Stripping and jerking wooly buggers and streamers (on the drift and retrieve) through pools and runs can result in some incredibly hard-hitting strikes at this time.
Aggressive fall steelhead will actively move out of holding locations to chase and strike these flies with seeming abandon. These fish not only strike flies hard, but also fight hard; with drag screaming runs and cartwheel jumps not out of the norm.
A traditional downstream fly swinging technique (with either a sink tip or floating line) also works well at this time of year. This method is effective at covering large amounts of water such as the long, wide pools and runs of the Cattaraugus River in New York and the Grand River in Ohio. Popular swinging flies include wooly buggers, streamers and traditional wet flies and spey fly patterns.
As water flows cool down in late October to early November steelhead become more lethargic and less able to hold in strong currents. They seek slower current areas at this time and also seem to key in on drag-free presentations such as achieved with floating indicators and long leaders or strictly bottom-bouncing without a float. Effective dead-drift flies include egg patterns such as sucker spawns, glow balls, scrambled eggs and blood dots as well as bead-head nymphs such as princes, pheasant tails, lightning bugs and copper johns.
Fly equipment for the steelheading fly fisherman includes both traditional fly rods (stiffer, shorter blanks) for stripping and swinging flies and long, soft action fly rods. The latter fly rods allow for maximum line and leader control and mending when dead-drifting flies as well as big fish playing ability when using light tippets.
Fly reel selection includes finding a reel that has both a light-end setting with multiple fine adjustments and slow initial start-up inertia. Both these features help to protect light tippets from the surges and runs of fall steelhead. Large arbor fly reels are ideal for quick line pick-up (which comes in handy when a “hot” fall steelhead decides to come straight toward you after being hooked!)
More information is available on Lake Erie steelhead fly fishing in John Nagy’s book: Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead (revised 2nd edition).
Visit www.fishlakeerie.com/steelhead for ordering autographed books and related Lake Erie steelhead fly fishing products and information.