Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 1)

So you’ve heard a lot of talk about the steelhead fishing in Erie, PA and you’ve deicded that this fall you want to try it. Perhaps you’re a bass fisherman who likes the idea of big, aggressive fish biting all winter. Maybe you’re a trout angler enticed by the thought of an average fish being 6-9 pounds. For whatever reason, you plan to make the drive north this fall to see just what it’s all about.

With this piece (and the two that I plan to follow up with), I hope to give you a much better idea of what to expect for your first trip to Erie. I do want to preface all of this by saying that I’m by no means any sort of steelhead expert, and that if you have any doubts about anything I say that you should definitely do your own homework. My aim with these articles are simply to give prospective Erie anglers a clearer picture of the overall Erie fishing experience, from the surroundings to the tactics, from the fish to the other fishermen. This fall I’ll be entering my third season of Erie steelhead fishing, so, like I said, I’m no kind of a know-it-all guide or a local guru. Rather, like the readers these articles are aimed at, I’m an out-of-towner that only gets the oppotunity to make the journey north a handful of times each season, who likes to make the most of his time in Erie county. Anyone who’s been through their first steelhead season in Pennsylvania won’t learn much from these articles, but the new guy who’s only caught bits and pieces about it, I hope to provide a solid, realistic foundation for you to begin building your own base of knowledge and experience.

Like I said, I’m going to be splitting up this information into three pieces. In this, the first, I’ll attempt to demystify the experience with a down-to-earth, realistic description of what to expect when you get to Erie, as well as the unpleasant facts that the Erie steelhead anglers are forced to face. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from giving it a try, but rather help to avoid that sense of let-down that some people get the first time they pull up to Walnut creek and think “This is it?”. The second piece will cover the facts and myths of the fishing itself, from covering questions like “Isn’t Elk Creek public property?” (It’s not.) to “Is it legal to clean my fish streamside?” (It is...sort of...). I’ll try to cover the questions I had starting out, and, as always, welcome further questions. The third (and final) piece will be for the people that have read the first two, still want to try it, and need a clue as to where to begin. It will be all about the methods and tactics for actually fooling these fish. I won’t go as far as to guarantee you a catch, but I’ll share what I’ve learned over the past two seasons. All of this, just in time to give you the knowledge you need to head up to Erie for your first time and...well...still look very much like a rookie...but at least (hopefully) a rookie with an idea of what’s going on.

As with most types of fishing, there are many, many ways to go about catching these fish. While I’ll try to address as many methods as I can, understand that my primary experience is concerned with using a fly rod to catch fish that have entered the streams. I will have far less to say about using spinning gear, and even less to say about pursuing the steelhead along the lakeshore, before they run up the tribs. Still, if this is what you plan to do, much of the information I will share will still be very applicable.

So, without further ado, let’s talk about the reality of Erie fishing.

Steelhead fishing in Erie is not a wilderness experience.

If you’re looking for a “back to nature” outing, you drove too far. Should have gotten off 79 and headed for the Allegheny National Forest to fish for tiny brookies. No, Erie steelhead fishing is all about the fish. Sure, many of the streams are in picturesque environments, but for every beautiful gorge, there’s a highway passing overhead. For every rock and tree, there’s an equal number of passing cars, concrete blocks, and drainage pipes. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s urban fishing but don’t be under the impression that you’ll be fishing out in the sticks.

Steelhead fishing in Erie is not a solitary experience.

Let’s be realistic here. How did you hear about fishing the Erie tribs? Probably from another fisherman, yes? Where do you think he heard about it? Now look at a map, and see how big Erie county is, how big the streams are, and how many there are. Subtract from that all private streamside property closed to fishing, as well as any part of any trib that is upstream from an obstacle the fish can’t get past (they’re pretty persistent buggers, though), and you’re left with a huge amount of anglers fishing over relatively little water. Add to that the fact that while the steelhead are in the streams from October to March, the best fishing is usually about a 4-6 week period from late-Sept or early-Oct to mid to late November, and you’ve got an idea of what to expect in terms of crowds. That said, don’t be discouraged by the guy that tells you about his trip to Erie grumbling that it’s shoulder-to-shoulder everywhere you go. Chances are he hit one or both of: the Walnut Creek Project, and the Elk Creek Access. Two very good areas to fish, but also the most crowded, popular spots in the county.

You need to understand that with the amount of pressure these streams get, its a rare occasion that you fish for a day in October and don’t see another fisherman all day. In all honesty, you’ll probably spend 90% of your fishing time with at least one or two strangers within view. Its just the nature of the beast. On the other side of the coin, anyone willing to get more than 100 yards from a parking lot will quickly see that every section of water isn’t like Manchester hole. That section is so crowded that anglers must time their casts to avoid creating a tangled mess, and anytime a fish is hooked, you’d better reel in to keep out of the way. If you get away from these popular areas, you’ll find plenty of good fishing, and while others will be around, they’ll be people of a similar mindset, that avoided the hectic atmosphere for a reason. The most important part of dealing with the crowds in Erie is your mindset. Understand that yes, people will be around, and move on.

You will meet all kinds of different fishermen.

Just like any other large group of people, the steelhead fishing crowd is made up of all kinds of people. Also like any other large group, the few bad apples give the rest a bad name. If you fish up there very often, you will almost definitely, at some point, meet someone who is an utter ass. It’s math. Like any other social setting, the way you respond to it will be the deciding factor in the overall encounter.

My approach, with anyone I encounter while fishing (in Erie and elsewhere), is to start off assuming that everyone I meet is a good person. It keeps me from slipping into a defensive mindset of ‘everyone is trying to crowd me out’ or ‘these guys are purposely wrecking my fishing’, and makes me far more inclined to be amiable. If I think someone is purposefully being rude, I will usually try to strike up a conversation with them rather than accuse them (if they’re too far away to make conversation, in Erie, they’re probably not crowding you). I’ve found that many people that I thought were trying to edge in on me simply didn’t know any better and are actually quite nice. Also, the few that really are trying to be rude will usually give up rather than try to be nice and talk. Always remember that at the end of the day, they’re just fish. If someone is really going to be a jerk over a fishing spot, they aren’t worth your time or attention, and you’re better off just to move to another spot. There’s millions of fish stocked every year (no, really), and you don’t need that kind of aggravation to get yours.

In most cases, though, you'll find that the guy that's 'being an ass and crowding you out' is, more often than not, a beginner just like you, who simply had no idea he was getting too close, or, in his excitement, didn't really think about it. This is why in busy areas, a guy off a little ways that catches a fish, often finds himself sharing the hole with 3-4 more people within minutes. Just try to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and treat every interaction as an opportunity to make a friend. At the very least, this usually makes the real jerks feel awkward enough to move on.

The streams are small.

These aren't rivers. At all. In fact, I can't think of anywhere I've fished on the tribs where you couldn't throw a stone to the opposite bank. On one hand, this doesn't help the crowding situation at all, as anglers on one bank can easily interfere with guys on the opposite bank. On the other hand, this helps trout anglers familiar with small streams to make the adjustment to trib fishing. Another bonus of this situation is that, realistically, the fish don't have anywhere to go. When you hook them they can run up or downstream, but really, they're confined to a fairly small area.

It also means there's very few places for fish to hide. This has the dual effect of making every fish in the stream accessible to anglers, while also making many of the fish so spooked that they just shut down and don't eat anything. Just because they aren't hiding from you doesn't mean they wouldn't like to if they had a hiding spot.

Conditions are everything.

With such a small amount of water and no hiding places for the fish, stream conditions can mean the difference between a day where even a rank amateur catches several fish, and a day where only the most cagey veteran manages a hookup or two. Ideally, you're looking for water levels that are high, without being blown out: dangerously high, fast, and muddy. Perfect water conditions will be a stream that is deep enough that fish can hold in 2-5 feet of water, with a slight greenish tint that prevents an angler from seeing the bottom in most places. This effect works both ways, meaning the fish can't see the fishermen, and consequently feel more safe & secure, and therefore more likely to take you offering. This doesn't mean that fishing high & muddy or low & clear are useless. In fact, I'd estimate that about 70% of my Erie fishing has been in low, clear conditions, but rather that these conditions make fishing harder and the fish more nervous.

Along with the knowledge of what conditions to look for, you should also keep in mind how quickly conditions change, and that this varies from stream to stream. As a general rule, immediately after a rainfall that has the streams high and muddy, the smallest streams, like Cascade, and most of the east side tribs, will clear within 6-12 hours. The medium sides creeks, like Walnut and 20 mile, will clear in around 24 hours, and Elk, the largest Pennsylvania trib, will take anywhere from 24 hours to 3 days to come back down to a normal clear flow. Your job is to choose which one will be up a little, and colored...but fishable. This may mean spending some time driving from stream to stream, but if you find good conditions, it's well worth it.

Somewhat less important (and far less manageable) is the ambient weather conditions. Ideally, you'll find yourself fishing in cool, cloudy or overcast conditions, possibly with a light drizzle. Realistically, just take whatever you're given. Fishing in a downpour isn't really fun, but you're in Erie, you might as well fish. Obviously you need to get out of the water if there's any sign of lightning.

The fish are easy to catch.

At the end of the day, they're just trout. Nothing especially tough about catching an Erie steelhead as opposed to any other trout anywhere else. They'll take almost any fly, bait, or lure that they can see, that is fished properly. This fact is mostly to help you maintain your confidence and to give you a bit of perspective the next time you stop by a tackle shop and some "old seasoned vet" tells you they're only hitting on size 18 beadhead prince nymphs tied on curved hooks.

While the fish may have certain preferences (depending on those all-important conditions), they're only about as specific as "large dark flies" or "small natural colored flies" or "small flashy eggs". Simply put: the guy who only carries #14 pink glo bugs but knows how to drift them flawlessly will, over time, catch more fish than the guy with a full assortment of eggs and nymphs that can't drift.

This also means that while its perfectly fine to get excited about getting into some fish, it's actually pretty ridiculous to actually brag about your catch. Unless it was a truly large fish (by Erie standards), or something added significantly to the difficulty of that particular fish, in most cases, all it means is that you managed to put a good drift onto a steelhead's nose; everyone that's catching fish on the stream is doing the same thing.

The fish are tough to catch.

Just the same, its entirely possible, even likely, that on your first trip to the tribs, you'll get blanked. Does this mean the fish are smart? That you aren't a good fisherman? That you had the wrong flies? a word...yes.

Scientifically, fish...all fish...are fantastically dumb. They have no problem-solving intelligence, poor memory, and do not improvise. They are, however, remarkably good at knowing when a strange object (that might be food) isn't behaving like all the rest of the bits of stuff floating by. And when something isn't behaving right, they are very good at not eating it. These fish are also very good at not wasting energy. And if a strange object (that might be food) isn't drifting close enough to them to just grab it as it floats by, they are very good at waiting for the next one.

What all this means to you, the fisherman, is that these fish, in small streams with nowhere to hide, are cast to, day after day, week after week. You aren't going to show them much that they haven't seen before, so your best bet is whatever you drift past them, make it a good drift. While a wild trout on a small stream (that only sees a handful of anglers each season) may dart across 2 feet of water to grab a passing nymph, this almost never happens in Erie. Ideally, your drift has no tension in your line, presents the fly without any drag at all, and drifts it right into the fish's nose. Even at that, the fish will often see the fly coming and dodge it at the last moment. Its frustrating, but that's Erie.

The fish are stocked.

It always surprises me how many people think these fish run and spawn, and that the eggs hatch to produce next year's steelhead. For one thing, the fish spend roughly 3-4 years in the lake before making their first run up into the creeks, meaning that every fish in the stream is at least 3 years old. Secondly, the streams in Erie fulfill neither the habitat nor temperature requirements for these fish to successfully spawn on a sustainable scale. While it's nearly impossible to get an accurate number, it's estimated that over 95% of the fish in the Pennsylvania streams are stocked, and of the remaining 5% most of those were stream-bred in some stream in another state and migrated into a PA trib instead of its native stream.

While this fact doesn't affect your fishing in any way, it's something to keep in mind when that moron back at the cleaning station sees the hen you roped, sticks his nose in the air, and comments, "I always put the hens back. They're the future of our fishery."

They are not.

If you want to see the future of the Erie fishery, you need look no farther than the license on your vest, and remember fondly the dollars you spent on it.

Simply put: within the limits of the law, keep as many or as few fish as you want. Its bad form to let a fish go to waste, but if it will get eaten, there's absolutely no harm in keeping a full limit every time you fish the Erie tribs. Bucks, hens, whatever. Seagulls eating the stocked smolts will have a bigger impact on the fishery than you roping a week's limit of hens.

Along similar lines, these are NOT the steelhead of the Pacific Northwest. They don't travel thousands of miles, they aren't a rare catch, and once they get to adult size, they have no natural predators (other than you, my friend). The PNW steelhead have a devoted following and a strong conservation effort backing them up. Hardcore Pacific steelhead fishermen are thrilled to catch a single fish in a week of fishing huge rivers. In comparison, the Erie fishery takes those same fish (genetically at least...for the most part...kind of...), lets them get fat and lazy, then crams them into the equivalent of a bathtub each fall. These are not the elusive catches of the PNW and to be blunt, they don't deserve that degree of hype.

Some hardcore (read: elitist prick) steelhead fishermen will tell you that the only proper way to fish for steelhead is to swing streamers past them. While this is certainly a fun (and farily simple) alternative to a (technique intensive) drift method, it's certainly not the "ethical choice". The guy that tells you that is also likely the one that acts like you stabbed him when you mention using egg flies. He needs to get over it. Eggs are a perfectly rational approach to catching steelhead, and at the end of the day, is no less ethical than any other approach to jabbing a fish's mouth with pointy metal. This is also probably the same guy that will imply that you're some kind of heathen for disturbing actively spawning fish by casting to them.

Get real.

Like I said, these fish are not successfully spawning, so disturbing spawning fish in no way affects the fishery as a whole. Sure, you probably wouldn't appreciate it if someone started bothering you while you were attempting to...uh...spawn. But at the same time, if your partner is going to ditch you for a properly presented Big Mac, they're probably bad news anyway, and really, humanity won't be endangered because you failed to procreate.

Lots of fish are stocked.

Very similar to the previous point comes the fact that the PA Fish & Boat Commission, among others, puts literally millions of fish into the watershed every single year. Try to keep this in mind at key moments that you will encounter on your first trip to Erie:

  • The first time you see Manchester hole, choked with dozens, if not hundreds of fish...and dozens of anglers. 
  • When you go to Trout Run and see fish stacked so thick that their backs are coming out of the water...but you can't fish there. 
  • When you walk upstream and find a pod of fish in a pool you have all to yourself...until 3 other guys wander up to share. 
  • When you get a fish to bite but miss the hookset, and are certain you can get it to bite again. 
  • When you've clearly spooked a fish, but its still within casting distance. 
  • When you've fished the same pod for 20 minutes, with no results. 

If you ever think that you've been in one place too long, move. There will be fish up in the next good spot. I promise.

...and you'll get away from the annoying guy and his elitist friend.

You're in the middle of the pack.

And are likely to remain there.

You're obviously not a steelhead pro or you wouldn't be reading this. But the fact that you are reading this gives you information that too many Erie trib fishermen don't. If you're familiar with your gear before you get to the tribs, you're head and shoulders over many guys. Hell, if you know how to cast a fly rod, that alone probably puts you ahead of a full third of the 'fly anglers' in Erie county at any given time between Labor Day and Easter.

The experience level doesn't stop at the equipment either. If you realize that you're catching the same species of rainbow trout that the rest of the state catches, you know more than some guys. If you can guess which streams will be fishable at a given time after a rainstorm you're WAY ahead of lots of guys.
I'm not going to explain all the reasons you aren't at the top of the pack. You already know those. You're not a steelhead pro and neither am I. There's always a guy out there who can teach you a thing or two about just about anything, so I don't think I'll ever say I'm at the top of the game in any aspect of my life. Really, I'm trying to encourage you to read and study. Learn about the fish, the environment, and how to catch them. Every little bit you learn takes you farther from being a rookie and closer to being a pro.

Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 2)
Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 3)


Montana fly fishing guide said...

Great post on fishing the Erie tribs. I grew up in Pittsburgh and made frequent trips up to fish Elk, Walnut and 20 Mile. Found memories! Your recommendations are spot on!

Michelle Weber said...

I enjoyed this post. I am going to share it with my subscribers. I fish walnut creek in Erie all the time for steelhead and yes it is crowded but that is part of the challenge. Steelhead are so much fun to catch!

Anonymous said...

Great Blog! I went for the first time last year (2011) and am getting ready to go this year. I laughed out loud on part one, because you've captured the experience exactly! I did learn a few things from reading this, though, and I can't wait to try them out.

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