Experts offer steelhead tips
The answer is, as of now, no.
Steelhead haven’t yet moved into Lake Erie’s tributary streams to stay. A few have made exploratory runs, and anglers have been catching a few at the creek mouths and off the Lake Erie shore, especially early and late in the day.
But that soon will change.
“The water’s been a little bit too warm to bring a lot of fish in. We need some rain and cooler temperatures,” said Jeff Staff of Poor Richard’s Bait and Tackle Shop in Fairview.
When those conditions are met, crowds of anglers will descend on Erie County. Their goal: to catch trout so big as to be unlike any others in Pennsylvania.
History says some will. According to the Fish and Boat Commission’s angler awards program, the five biggest steelhead caught last year each topped 13 pounds, with the heaviest an ounce shy of 15 pounds. Four of the five biggest brown trout likewise came from Lake Erie tributary streams, topping out at 11 pounds, 12 ounces.
Consistently finding, hooking and landing those kinds of fish means paying attention to detail, experts say.
For starters, that means searching not so much for fish as for promising water, said Mark DeCarlo of Indiana, who has been guiding anglers for steelhead in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York since 1992.
“One of the biggest things I’ve seen over and over every year, the Pennsylvania crowd of anglers, they tend to think that if you can’t see the fish, there aren’t any in the stream. They walk up and down the bank looking for fish rather than reading the water,” DeCarlo said.
Steelhead in particular — and especially “chromers,” fish fresh into the streams and still bright silver in color — reflect their surroundings almost like a mirror, he said. That camouflage makes them hard to spot, he said.
DeCarlo encourages clients to focus on relatively deep water with structure like rocks and trees that provide cover and current breaks.
“Fish anything that looks like it holds fish,” he said. “Because it probably does.”
John Stanton of Forest Hills, another steelhead guide, recommends paying attention to weather.
He keeps an eye on the stream gauges operated by the U.S. Geological Survey. Available at waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/rt, they show water levels in real time and indicate whether they’re trending up or down.
“Plan to fish in the dropping side of a precipitation event,” Stanton said. “You want to fish on the side of the water coming down, not when it’s going up.”
Rising water is typically turbid and causes steelhead to “hunker down and shut off,” he said.
Both guides agree even when conditions are perfect, presentation counts.
Whether tossing flies, lures or bait, it’s usually better to fish deeper than shallower, Stanton said. He compared it to nymph fishing for trout locally.
“You want to fish near the bottom because that’s where the water’s slower, and that’s where the fish are going to be,” he said.
Steelhead are in the streams not so much to eat as to spawn, DeCarlo added. The result is they won’t often chase a fly or bait far, especially when the water is cold.
“You have to have good drifts. You have to have a good presentation that puts it in front of their nose,” DeCarlo said. “You have to put it in their face.”
Once his flies are there, he said it helps to have a float or strike indicator above tippets in the 6- to 10-pound class. The indicator announces light bites, and the heavier line makes it possible to land heavy fish.
That doesn’t mean you can “horse” them in, though. Play them until they tire, he said.
“Those fish, especially in the early part of the season and again in spring, when the water is warm, they’re just beasts,” DeCarlo said. “They’ll tear you up.”
Stanton said following fish throughout the season is another good strategy.
Early in the fall, the best angling will be at the creek mouths and even just off the lake shore — especially if there’s a south wind — because fish are stacked up, he said. But as the season progresses, he suggested moving upstream with the fish.
That often brings with it the benefit of leaving some of the crowd behind, he added.
Throughout the year, don’t miss opportunities to cast into fishy-looking water other anglers have just left, even if they didn’t seem to have any luck, DeCarlo said. Many overlook fishing the stream nearest the bank they’re standing on, he said. And even if they do, and spook fish, steelhead often return quickly, sometimes within minutes.
None of those tips will guarantee success, he said. But they’re all pieces of the puzzle.
“It’s usually not any one thing. It’s usually putting a lot of little things together that helps you have success,” DeCarlo said.