Monday, September 13, 2010

Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 2)

Now that you know you want to go to Erie to do some steelhead fishing, you're wondering where to begin. Hopefully, you've already perused the first part of this beginners' guide. If not, you should definitely check it out. While each of the parts of this guide should be able to stand alone, a beginner will be able to learn something from each of them.

These next two parts of the steelhead primer will focus on the nuts and bolts of the experience: the 'where' and 'with what' of the steelhead fishing. First, the gear, then the locations. For gear, I'll try to help the newbie understand how to choose the proper tools for the task, from the basic most entry-level setup to some of the higher end gear...but stopping well short of the extravagance some guys bring to the tribs (and look thoroughly ridiculous doing so).

For locations, I'm most definitely not going to discuss any secret spots or little-known areas, but rather give you a good base of knowledge upon which to do your own scouting and find your own 'secret spots'. Hopefully I'll be able to help you avoid some of the mistakes I made my first October on the tribs.

After getting into the article, I decided to tackle gear independently of locations, making this a 4 part series. This entry will concentrate on helping you select appropriate gear, and the next installment will help with fishing spots. You can find the other parts of the primer linked below:

Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 1)

Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 3)

Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 4)
Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 5)

Erie Steelhead Fishing Gear: Rods, Reels, and Lines

The most important thing to remember about choosing steelhead gear is that you don't have to spend a ton to get gear that will do everything you ask of it on the tribs. Like I mentioned in Part One, the creeks are small, the fish have nowhere to run, and compared to the steelhead of the Pacific Northwest, these Erie steelhead are fat & lazy. This means you can get budget-priced, entry level gear and catch just as many fish in just as much time as the guy with a $500 rod, $700 reel and $100 line. In all honesty, you can get a completely serviceable setup, out the door, for under $200.

Choosing a Fly Rod

The fly rod will, obviously, be one of the most important parts of your gear. For Erie fishing, your rod choice depends on a few simple factors: where, how will you be fishing, how experienced are you at fighting similarly-sized fish, and whether or not you have any gear already that might be capable of pulling double duty.

If you ask 100 different Erie steelhead anglers "What is the perfect fly rod for steelhead?" you will get a huge variety of answers. If you were to sort those answers, however, I think you'd find that the vast majority of them would recommend a fly rod in a 6, 7, or 8 weight, somewhere in the 9-10 foot length range. In my own very humble, very personal opinion, I prefer a 10 foot, 7 weight rod for Erie steel, though that doesn't mean that a 9' 6wt or a 9'6" 8wt wouldn't be just fine. While the majority of trib anglers will have a 6-8wt, you'll also come across a few trout anglers bringing their 5wts out as well as, I'm sure, a handful of salmon anglers from New York, armed with a 9wt or even the occasional 10wt. Just like with any other target species, there's no one single right or wrong answer, although anything much lighter that a 5wt will leave you seriously underpowered in many situations, and a 10wt is generally considered a little overkill.

One thing to remember as far as rod choice is that the amount of 'backbone' a rod has will translate directly into the speed at which you can bring a fish to hand, as well as the extent to which you can control and direct the fight. While this may not seem like a terribly big deal to some, keep in mind that I mentioned in Part One that while there's no need to fish shoulder-to-shoulder, you're still often fishing near other anglers. If you hook a 13 pound fresh fish with attitude...with your 5wt, and it runs up to where the next guy is standing (not a rare feat), he's got to reel in and wait for you to land your fish. When it's taking you 10 minutes to do so because you're using a light rod that can't steer the fish, he's going to be understandably upset. Thus, it's good to use common sense. If you're the guy with a light rod, try to get yourself even farther away from other anglers when choosing a spot to fish, even if it means passing up on fishing a nice spot at the head of a pool when another guy is fishing the tail. Just try to imagine how you'd like it if someone did the same thing to you.

Ultimately, for many guys, their choice in fly rod will be dictated largely by what's already leaning in the corner. If they use a 9' 6wt for trout, there's no reason to buy a new rod just for steelhead. If you're a bass guy with an 8wt, that'll be just fine. Unfortunately for my fellow wild trout chasers, your 7' 3wt isn't going to cut it and you'll need to start shopping. Within the realm of 6-8wts in the 9-10 foot range, there are a multitude of choices, so ultimately, your end choice will be defined primarily by your budget. If you're planning on spending under $200 dollars on a rod (a good idea), you can safely eliminate quite a few rods from your selection process. Another thing to keep in mind is if you plan on using this new rod for any other fishing, and if so, how will it be used. If you typically chase wild trout, but would like to try your hand in some larger tailwaters, swinging streamers, then a 6wt would be a great choice. If you're a trout angler or a bass spin fisherman who would like to target bucketmouths on the fly next summer, an 8wt might be just the thing. If you already have a 5wt, you may feel that a 6wt wouldn't diversify your rod selection enough and may opt for the all around versatility of a new 7wt.

As far as length, I like a 10 footer to assist in getting a good drift (all important factor in Erie trib fishing). Usually in Erie there's little need to cast at all, and almost never a situation where a cast over 30-40 feet will be desirable. Even with this in mind, there are very few areas where a 10 footer will be 'too much rod', so I opted to get the extra reach. Again, no wrong answer here, just personal preference.

Action-wise, you're looking for moderate to fast action, with a tendency toward moderate. This will be able to best respond to a hooked steelhead's rapid runs and changes of direction, as well as protecting your tippet with plenty of cushion when you get heavy fish in close and the rod is bent nearly into a U-shape. Again, if you already have a crisp, fast 8wt for saltwater, its fine to use that, or even an agonizingly slow fiberglass 6wt that flops around like a noodle. But if you're shopping around for an ideal Erie steelhead rod, I'd look for a moderate-fast action.

As far as specific rods, the bidding starts at around $40 with Shakespeare's vereable Ugly Stik. This graphite/fiberglass composite rod has an undeniable reputation in a spinning rod as a nearly indestructible tank of a rod, and that same reputation carries over into their fly rods. It ain't pretty, it ain't cutting edge, and you won't get any envious glances from across the parking lot as you string it up, but it'll catch steelhead just as good as that other guy's Helios ($795)...better if you can drift and he can't.

Up from there, entry level rods from makers such as Redington (the Crosswater) and St. Croix (Rio Santo) will set you back around $80-100 and are lighter and more responsive than the Ugly Stik, but also tend to be more fragile. They're also somewhat prettier, of course.

The next tier will get you entry-level in the big names or mid-level with the smaller manufacturers. The $100-200 range will see entry level rods from Orvis (Clearwater) and Sage (discontinued Launch, or newer Vantage) as well as lower mid range offerings from St. Croix (Imperial), Redington (Red Fly 2, RS4, Predator), Echo (Ion), and TFO (Signature, Professional). If you're interested in spending upwards of $200, your options widen considerably, but at that point, we're safely out of the realm of entry-level, and almost certainly dealing with rods that are overqualified for duty on the Erie tribs.

Choosing a Fly Reel

This isn't nearly as big of a deal as picking out your rod. If you already have a rod you're using, it's really, really likely that you have a reel to use with it. If you're shopping for a new rod, it's really easy to pick out a serviceable reel: just choose a reel, in your price range, rated for the rod you plan to buy. If you're going with a 6wt, choose a reel recommended for 6wts. Some features you'll want to look for are:

  • Drag: You don't need to be able to stop a freight train, or do battle with tarpon, but you will want to be able to put the brakes on...and eventually steer...any fish you're likely to hook. This means some sort of disc drag. Sure, you can probably get by with an old-fashioned click pawl reel, but if you're getting a new one, they make very reasonably priced reels that feature disc drags. 
  • Exposed Rim: Simply put, this means that the edge of the spool that hold your line is the outermost edge of the assembled reel. Why this is a good thing is that you can control the precise amount of drag on the fish by 'palming the spool', or cupping your hand to the underside of the spinning spool's exposed rim to increase drag. 
  • Metal Construction: Machined preferably. While it's perfectly possible to fish effectively with a graphite reel, there's a reason why all mid-to-high end reels are made of aluminum. Graphite can warp, crack, and wear out. Aluminum can certainly be damaged as well, but it stands up to punishment better than the "plastic reels". Machined aluminum is even more resistant to damage than the less expensive cast aluminum reels, making the dreaded "bent spool" even less likely to end your day of fishing prematurely. 

For ideas as to a quality entry level steelhead fly reel, look to reels from Okuma (SLV), Pflueger (Trion), and Orvis (Battenkill & Mid-Arbor) in sizes matched to your rod. Large- and Mid-Arbor models have certain advantages over standard arbors, but they won't make a huge difference in your steelhead fishing. If you're interested in them, there's plenty of articles explaining their pros and cons, and they might help you, but they're certainly not necessary.

Choosing a Fly Line

If there ever was an aspect of steelhead fishing to cheap out on, this is it. As I said earlier, your longest cast is going to top out at about 30 (maaaaaybe 40) feet. In 90% of your fishing, the most you'll have to do is flip your line about 10-15 feet upstream and drift it down past you, then flip it again. Most of the fish I caught last year were hooked with less than 10 feet of actual fly line out of the end of my rod, and indeed, the majority were caught with only about 2 feet of flyline dangling from the tip top. With small streams and the necessity of a good drift, its fairly useless to target fish 30-40 feet away.

With this in mind, most of your flyline is going to spend most of the time spooled up on your reel. Also, those advanced "steelhead tapers" and "advanced polymer coatings" are intended for western steelhead and distance casting. The only thing you need on the Erie tribs is a line that won't break. Period. Low memory is also a plus, but any flyline that is structurally sound (no frays, cracks, etc), in a vaguely appropriate weight for your rod, will do the job. Keep in mind that you'll have a good bit of weight on your leader for your drifting, so the advanced tapers are mostly useless, especially since you aren't trying to cast 70 feet.

If you're only looking for an Erie steelhead line, go cheap. If you've spent more than $60, you've overspent. Likely, you can find some line, from some website, on clearance for $30 or even less. Snap it up.

Leaders and Tippet

Some guys will extol the virtues of fluoro, others will say the fluoro hype is just that: so much nonsense. All I can say is if you want to try it, try it. If not, plenty of fish are caught each season on mono. Just make sure you're using heavy enough line. Generally 2-3X is considered appropriate, and you can get away with dropping to 4X in low clear conditions, usually, especially if the fish aren't particularly lively (from Thanksgiving on, and most places far upstream). I sometimes use 5X but I fully realize that it's probably not necessary, and I also tend, like the guys with 5wts, to get out and away from other anglers if I'm going to go to that light of tippet. Also keep in mind with 4X and lighter that you have to really be careful not to break them off when you get them in close.

That's about it for the essential gear. We'll discuss flies in a later entry, as well as proper clothing and common sense accessories. Still to come: where to fish, what to wear, and how to catch.



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