Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Primer (Part 5)

So here we are, at the last portion of the Erie Steelhead series.  So far we've separated fact from myth in Erie, learned about the proper gear you should outfit yourself with for trib fishing, how to determine the areas of the tribs where fishing is permitted, and finally tactics for catching fish as well as setups for using those tactics.  In this final installment, we'll talk about the flies that you should have in your box when you hit PEnnsylvania's Erie watershed in search of steelhead.

In case you haven't been reading the updates as they were posted, you can find all previous installments at the following links:

Essential Erie Steelhead Flies

If you were to take a random selection of 100 Erie fly anglers and look at the flies they carried with them on the streams, you'd find a truly incredible array of patterns, colors, sizes, shapes, and materials.  You'd find extremes ranging from five inch long sculpin patterns to tiny midges, and everything in between.  Still, if you took them all together, you'd find a few strong trends, things that nearly every angler carried, and for good reason.

The first thing you might notice would be that, compared to the average trout angler, the steelheader tends to carry a relatively large proportion of bright, flashy, neon, glow-in-the-dark, and fluorescent colored flies.  Sure, most guys also have drab, natural nymphs too, but while a trout fly box might have a half-dozen hot pink or chartreuse flies, the Erie steelheader's fly box will be dominated with bright, gaudy, overstated colors.  Likewise, while almost any angler appreciates some sparkle and flash, only a steelheader will try to incorporate it on almost every pattern.  Indeed, there are steelhead flies made entirely of krystal flash.

While color and flash certainly set a steelhead fly box apart from a trout box, color and flash are, usually, just a variant of a specific type of fly.  For example, while you might use a stonefly nymph for trout, give it a hot pink thorax and a krystal flash tail and it's a steelhead stone.  Looking at flies based solely on pattern and you will see an overwhelming majority of Erie steelheaders carrying boxes comprised almost entirely of three types: nymphs, eggs, and streamers...especially the venerable woolly bugger.  It is upon these three main types that this article will focus.


There isn't much as far as nymph flies that the average trout angler needs to be taught to choose effective flies for Erie steelhead.  Generally, stick to your classic patterns like the Hare's Ear, Pheasant Tail, Prince Nymph, and your favorite stonefly nymph.  While the standard tie is effective, if you wish to tailor them to the Erie tribs and steelhead fishing, you can make several modifications.

The first modification you can make to your nymph ties is to add weight.  Extra wraps of lead wire in the underbody, heavier lead wire, bead heads, double bead heads, tungsten, you name it.  The more lead you tie into the fly the better.  In fast water, that will mean less lead on the line, and in slow water, you may not need any lead at all.  You can also help to add weight in your choice of hook.  You'll definitely want to go with 2X heavy nymph hooks, and should also consider 1 or 2X long as well, which will allow you to add your bead head plus lead wraps on your thorax, without crowding the proportions of the fly.  

The second typical method of tying nymphs for steelhead is to add brightness, whether in the form of flash or bright colors.  Consider replacing the typical tail with some krystal flash, use a piece of mirage tinsel for your wing case, replace any sort of wing with more flash.  Also, you may accent the typical tie with bright colors such as fluorescent wire ribbing, or a bright pink, orange, or blue 'hot spot' on the thorax.  Check out this stonefly modified for steelhead:
Typically, nymphs for Erie steelhead fishing in the Pennsylvania tribs are tied on heavy nymph hooks from size 10 all the way down to 18.  Conventional wisdom suggests using bigger flies and brighter, flashier colors for murky water, and smaller, more natural colored nymphs in low and clear conditions.


Some anglers regard eggs as a 'lesser fly' that no true angler would stoop to using, but the fact is that steelhead take these flies.  Often.  And anyone who looks down on you for using egg flies on the PA tribs is a snob, plain and simple.  Ignore them, and proceed to catch a few fish on egg flies.

Typically in Erie, eggs are tied to imitate, vaguely, one of two types of eggs: those of the steelhead themselves, or those of the suckers that are also abundant in the Erie tribs.  For the sucker's part, their eggs are tiny and tend to stick to one another and form tiny clump in the water, surrounded by a milky haze.  Rather than try to imitate this exactly by tying a fly with a bunch of tiny eggs in it, most people tend to imitate these eggs in general by imitating the translucent, lumpy mass and the milky haze.  

Possibly the best known fly for this is the aptly named sucker spawn, which uses angora yarn, tied in loops, to simply and effectively imitate an egg mass.

In this picture, the fly also incorporates a flash tail and a brightly colored body, making it ideal for steelhead.

In addition to the natural, typical colors for these flies (white, cream, pale pink, peach, and yellow), neon colors like hot pink, fluorescent orange, and chartreuse are also highly effective, especially in murky water.  Also, in addition to the angora yarn traditionally used, people use a variety of materials to tie this style of egg including glo bug yarn (to tie the fly called scrambed eggs) and mylar braid (to tie crystal meth).  This is also a fly that lends itself well to experimentation with other materials, and I've found a few yarns at the craft store that make excellent egg flies.  Look for light, wispy materials.

The other main type of egg that is used imitates the larger eggs of the steelhead themselves.  These eggs are held together by a membrane while they mature inside hen steelhead, but that membrane dissolves by the time she is ready to spawn, and generally tend to drift downstream as single eggs.  These eggs may still retain bits of the membrane that originally held them together, they might be transparent, or even pale, milky, and opaque.  These eggs are usually imitated with a glo bug fly.  Made of synthetic materials trimmed into a spherical shape, these flies take on a hazy, translucent appearance when wet, and are often accented by the addition of a synthetic 'egg veil' material to imitate the membrane lining.  Glo bugs with this veiling are generally known as 'nuke eggs', and are a popular variant to the glo bug.  Another highly popular variant is the 'blood dot', which is a glo bug that incorporates a spot of a contrasting color, usually red, in the center of the fly.  This can be considered imitating the yolk of natural eggs, or just giving the fly a little contrast, or that little extra something that will hopefully convince a fish to strike.

While natural steelhead eggs usually are red, orange, or yellow, popular glo bug colors (in addition to these) include white, peach, pink, chartreuse, hot orange, and even blue.  Eggs for Erie steelhead fishing are usually tied on heavy wire, short shanked hooks from size 10 to 18, like the nymphs.  Also, like the nymphs, color and size selection tends to favor larger, brighter, flashier flies in conditions of reduced visibility.


As any fly angler knows, streamers generally represent smaller baitfish and are drifted, swung, and stripped to entice gamefish to strike.  In erie, streamers usually follow one of two main classifications: imitative streamers designed to mimic either the ubiquitous emerald shiner or sculpin, or attractor streamers in bright, gaudy colors, incorporating lots of motion.

In the first category, there are any number of emerald shiner patterns available online, and these are actually quite effective drifted as well as a more active, downstream presentation.  They're typically most effective in the lower sections of stream, but a steelhead can be caught on a shiner pattern anywhere in the tribs.  Although they're called emerald shiners, and do have a greenish back, the majority of the body of the minnow is, like most, white and silver, so keep this in mind in your ties.  Sculpins are small bottom feeders that are usually mottled brown or olive in color, and are usually represented by flies such as the muddler minnow.

The second style of streamer are the general attractors that don't look like any fish.  This group includes marabou streamers, 'modern' speys, and the classic woolly bugger.  While almost any fly angler has a few non-bugger streamers in his box, I think you'd be hard pressed to find any steelheader that did not have any buggers.  Their simple design and buggy appearance have earned them a reputation as one of the most widely used flies for anything that swims, from tiny mountain brookies, to huge 40 pound saltwater beasts, and literally everything in between.  Steelhead are no exception, and thousands of steelhead are caught every fall on these flies.

The fly pictured here is called an egg-sucking leech and it is nothing more than a woolly bugger with a bright head made either of chenille or egg material (like you would use to tie a glo bug).  It also incorporates some krystal flash in the tail and it appears to have a little subdued sparkle in the body as well.  All in all, this fly would be very productive on the Erie tribs.

Another woolly bugger variant is the crystal bugger, which uses estaz in place of chenille, giving the fly a bright, flashy, neon body.  Most guys also choose to add an underbody of lead wire, to get some weight incorporated into their flies.

Woolly buggers and other streamers for Erie steelhead are typically tied on long streamer hooks from size 4 down to 12 or 14.  For buggers, the mainstay trout colors of black, white, and olive are also the favorites for steelhead.  Other, more steelhead-specific varieties are purple, pink, orange, and chartreuse, with all of these colors also making great crystal buggers and egg-sucking leech flies.

My Fly Box

Now I'm sure you can read any of hundreds of web sites explaining what flies you should have with you, with their 'secret hot flies' or some strange looking creation...or, more commonly, the typical list that says you should have a dozen sucker spawn in 10 different colors on 10 different sizes of hook, as well as a dozen glo bugs in 20 colors and 5 sizes and...

...who the hell has time for that?  And how many people do you see carrying 2,500 flies around on the water?

The above sizes and colors are meant as suggestions, not a requirement you need to have.  Here's what I like to have with me on the stream.  This inventory is often little more than a dream, as I run out of some flies and tie up a few of a new pattern, or (more likely) forget a batch of flies at home on my tying bench.

Nymphs: I hate fishing nymphs.  A lot.  I just have little confidence in the things, so I rarely fish them, and even when I do, I'm usually quick to switch again.  That said, I usually only tie about two dozen nymphs a year.  When its time for steelhead fishing, I just grab six or eight flies, usually a mix of hare's ear, pheasant tail, and prince nymphs, with a stone or two thrown in, and stick them in with my buggers. Usually, in the spring I still have them all, or all but one or two, and I put them back in with my trout stuff.  Not saying they don't produce fish, I just have little confidence in my own ability to fish with them.

For nymphs, we'll say I carry a pair each of the Hares ear, pheasant tail, prince, and stonefly nymphs, all in a size 14, with a bead head, and lead underbody.

Eggs: I carry an entire box devoted to egg flies.  It's a cheaper Flambeau box with 8 compartments on one side and ripple foam on the other.  I use the compartments for glo bugs and the ripple foam for sucker spawn.  I do this because sucker spawn tend to form a tangled mess in compartments, while glo bugs tend to be fairly easy to separate, and putting them in a compartment keeps them form getting messed up from being smashed together.    For both types of eggs, I make sure I'm well stocked in a few core colors, then tend to experiment with a random selection of others.

For eggs, I carry sucker spawn, all in a #14, trying to keep a dozen each in cream, pink, hot pink, and chartreuse.  I try to have about a half-dozen each in hot orange, pale blue, yellow, and peach as well.  I may carry two or three of other colors, including black, dark blue, purple, mint green, or red just for something different to try.  I may include flashy tails on some of these, or tie them with brightly colored thread, but for the most part, it's just the standard tie.

I also carry glo bugs and estaz eggs on the compartment side, and with my 8 compartments, I usually keep a few different colors in each compartment.  I usually have about twice as many glo bugs as estaz eggs.  For these flies, all are tied on 2X heavy 5X short egg hooks in size 10 (much bigger than most suggest, but that's just my preference).  For the estaz eggs, I carry hot pink, hot orange, chartreuse, blue, and white, about a half dozen of each.  For the glo bugs, I carry a dozen each of pale peach and pale pink, both with red blood dots.  I also carry a dozen big blue glo bugs with and without dots.  Using McFly foam (for a denser, less translucent egg) I try to keep a stock of a dozen each in hot pink, hot orance, and chartreuse.  Other than those key colors, the rest are a hodge-podge of white, yellow, peach, and other random colors, usually only 2 of each.

Streamers: For streamers, I have 3 different types, experimental flies, classic patterns, and buggers.  The first two are just things I'm taking up to try out, so I'm only going to cover buggers.  My selection here is really simple; I carry about a 4 of each in black, white, and olive, in sizes 8 and 10, for a total of 2 dozen buggers.

That's pretty much the core of what I try to have at all times, though, like I said, I often have a piecemeal approximation of that list.  One thing I DO stick to, that I'd suggest you stick to as well is that I always have at least two of every pattern.  The reason is because if you end up finding that a random pattern is the hot fly of the day, you dont want to lose that one fly and be out of luck.

This is about all I can think of to help you go catch your first steelhead.  If you've got any questions at all, feel free to email me at dharmaofthedrift@gmail.com or post a comment on any of these entries, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can.

Good luck in Erie!



Michelle Weber said...

I really liked reading your posts about steelhead fishing and I think you pretty much summed up everything someone needs to know to catch their first steelhead. They can be so fun to catch when they jump everywhere. Great posts, something everyone should read.

Mark said...

Thanks for the kind words, Michelle! Steelhead fishing and I have a love/hate relationship. At the end of steelhead season, I'm usually sick of it, but about this time of year, I find myself looking forward to getting up there to do some more fishing. :)

Anonymous said...

Good read.. wish I had seen it 6 years ago! Thx for the work and editing!
See you on the water.

Anonymous said...

Love your dry wit. Both informative and entertaining.

Unknown said...

Definitely Best guide for Erie Steelhead. Very realistic but still kind and thoughtful. Thank you.

Post a Comment

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More

Top Web Hosting | manhattan lasik | websites for accountants