Steelhead Fly Fishing

Fly fishermen and women living in Western Pennsylvania are indeed fortunate to be within a 2 1/2 hour drive of world class steelhead fishing. These are big fish that can mimic salmon fishing in Alaska.

The tributaries of Lake Erie’s southern shore  provide some of the most exciting big game fly fishing in the country thanks to stocking programs by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the Ohio Division of Wildlife, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation  and to a lesser extent  private fishing organizations.

There are several varieties of steelhead but those that are stocked in the Pennsylvania streams are best described as a sub-species of lake run rainbow trout that are able to spawn without dying, thus allowing them to spawn more than once. They are hatchery raised for one year from steelhead eggs and are known as smolt (about 6 to 8 inches long) when stocked in the steams during the fall. By their nature, they migrate to Lake Erie where they are known to grow to 6 to 8 pounds and up to 25 inches over a two year period. At that stage the mature fish will instinctively begin to gather at the mouths of the tributary streams in which they were stocked in the fall of the year. There, they wait for the streams to fill with enough water from rain for them to start their spawning runs. Depending on the amount of rain raising the water levels, at first they congregate in pools not too far from the lake. At this stage, the fishing is shoulder to shoulder. Not my cup of tea! By December, the survivors can be found many miles far upstream from the lake providing a less chaotic fly fishing experience.

The first video below is one of those December experiences. Here’s how it unfolded: My friend Ted Wong called me on December 17 and asked if I wanted to join him to fish Elk Creek for steelhead the next day. My response was one of surprise, since I had just watched the weather forecast, and though not calling for snow in Erie, it did call for temperatures not to go above 30 degrees.

Old age doesn’t stand up well to being in that kind of cold for very long, so I hesitated in responding to Ted. Realizing my concern, he suggested that we plan on getting to the stream around noon and fishing as long as I could take it. I have good cold weather gear so I jumped on that suggestion.

When we arrived at a section of stream called the gas pipe hole, Ted put me on a ledge of shale that dropped off into a rather deep run. The water level and color was perfect. Not too high but high enough with a dark green color. I was right up against  the bank with no room for a back cast. That wasn’t a problem since the ledge I was on was close enough to the run to just flip my egg pattern flies (2) tied in tandem below a strike indicator far enough upstream to put the flies at the right depth through the run. My first take was a beauty! The strike indicator didn’t just hesitate. It streaked upstream for over a foot before I set the hook. That fish was about 7 pounds and gave me a great fight. Here’s a picture of number one.

That was the beginning of my best day of steelhead fishing to this day. We didn’t stay long, but in three hours I had at least 20 hook-ups and landed 10 fish.  The last fish is pictured in the first video below. That was the biggest fish and toughest fight of all, and I was ready to call it a day when he finally came to Ted’s net after several misses. Below is a drawing I did of a male steelhead to give you a better idea of their appearance.

Drawing of a male (buck) steelhead

I have included 3 videos of me and two of my friends fly fishing for Steelhead in the Lake Erie tributary region. Upon viewing these videos I think you will agree that these are very strong fish. That’s why the catch rate versus the hook-up rate is fractional at best. One need only observe the bend in these 10 foot rods to see the power of steelhead runs. I hope you enjoy these videos.

This was a long fight! Here I am playing a good sized steelhead at Elk Creek.

Here is the steelhead I brought in after the long fight you just watched in the first video.


Here is Dr. John Stuart fighting a steelhead at Cattaraugus River in the state of New York.

Here is John with a beautiful Steelhead!


Here is Ted Wong landing beautiful Steelhead!

Ted holding a 10 pound Steelhead caught at Conneault


Here is a gallery of Steelhead fly fishing adventures!

Please Note: I’m happy to say that no fish was killed or injured in the above videos or pictures. These fishermen practice “catch and release” and return every fish caught to the water.

One Final Note: Sadly, the poaching of steelhead in Pennsylvania tributary streams has been increasing in recent years at an alarming rate. The culprits are not fishermen. They break the laws for profit. Current penalties do not deter them. As a result, a new tougher law with higher penalties has been introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature. I’m hoping for swift passage in time for the 2012 fall run.

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