When Lake Erie steelhead are staging . . . . Is is time to plan a fishing trip!

IMG 0119Preparing for the fall steelhead season may not be high on your priority list. Summer-like temperatures make it hard to imagine a snowy, wind-driven blast coming across Lake Erie that forces you to turn away as you land another steelhead. 

Rest assured the snow, the wind, and the steelhead will return.

To get you started here are some Lake Erie steelhead fishing axioms on which you can depend. . . .

  • Be skeptical of two statements – The run has started . . . . The run is over.
  • The best fishing occurs the day before you arrive.
  • A run of fresh steelhead enters the tributary the day after your departure.
  • Your favorite tributary always has a run of fresh steelhead that coincides with the arrival of a flash mob of anglers. 
  • The best stream to fish is not necessarily the best stream from which to catch steelhead.
  • Everyone said, the fall steelhead run ended, but you just discovered “a-fish-every-cast” honey hole. 
  • Any angler who brags about recent success seeks a fool to believe and boost an inflated ego.
  • Stream flow and structure will change with every high water event.
  • At times, Pennsylvania’s Trout Run may be the best place to catch steelhead, but is often the worst place to fish.
  • The majority of low-water, early season steelhead are caught at the tributary mouth or a short distance upstream.
  • Lake Erie steelhead program is a put and take fishery.  Catch and release is not a popular as “catch and smoke”.  Respect both opinions.
  • All stream access beyond the public boundary belongs to someone so keep out unless you have permission.

After decades of steelhead fishing experience, many angers have fine-tuned their fish catching skills.  They understand the where, when and with what process needed to catch steelhead.  Reading stream flow gauges and weather charts is a natural part of trip planning too.

Those new to steelhead fishing, on the other hand, are at a slight disadvantage.  The angling techniques, required equipment, baits, stream locations, and general understanding of the species need to be learned.

The steelhead fishing learning curve is not as steep as you may think!  If you can catch “stocked” trout, you can catch stocked steelhead; however, there is a distinct difference between catching a 10” rainbow trout and a 10 pound steelhead. You will enjoy the one and never forget the other.

First time and experienced steelhead anglers now are poised for another steelhead season that begins when the first fish are spotted in Lake Erie tributaries.  From that point forward, thru the winter months and ending in late spring; we get to enjoy world-class angling.

As you prepare and plan a trip, keep in mind that professional personnel in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Canada, as well as, many volunteers have invested countless man-hours and dollars creating an annual fishing experience for you to enjoy.  Be grateful for what you have and do not take this fishery for granted!

What can we expect?

Mike Todd Zoar ValleyWhen asked for his perspective on the upcoming steelhead season, New York State Senior Aquatic Biologist, James Markham, noted we are once again experiencing the annual pattern of below average rainfall in the early part of the run.  He said, “It started here in 2000. In the early-2000’s, we had steelhead runs in the 3rd week of August; great runs in September.  We are lucky to have some fish in during the 3rd week of September now.  Late October and November is when things really heat up, and sometimes it is Thanksgiving to Christmas, with some of the best runs coming during February.  I scratch my head wondering if we did something to change it, or just the changes in the lake temperatures and weather that has occurred over the past 15 years.  I am leaning towards the latter as for the most part our stocking on a lake-wide basin has remained fairly consistent.  If you are not fishing the winter months, you are missing the best runs of the steelhead season.  Wacky stuff!”

Jim added that the NY Lake Erie Fisheries Research Unit constantly seeks to improve our steelhead fishing future.  He offers these comments on a Chautauqua Creek research project as one example.

Tom Pritchard 18 Mile CreekIn New York’s Lake Erie tributaries, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is engaged in research focused on increasing returns of New York stocked fish to eight tributaries. Two recently completed projects have changed our thinking about traditional stocking protocols, and new protocols are expected to greatly improve the performance of stocked fish.  A research project in Chautauqua Creek conducted from 2015 to 2018 revealed that stocking larger-sized steelhead upstream (> 5 miles from the mouth) provided adult return rates over four times greater than smaller-sized fish stocked upstream, and six times greater than large or small fish stocked near the stream mouth. It is now evident that a larger average stocking size, preferably > 6.0 inches, is critical for steelhead to survive in Lake Erie. 

In spring 2019, staff at DEC’s Salmon River Hatchery began experiments to explore measures to increase average steelhead stocking size to a minimum of 6.0 inches and reduce length variation through rearing density reduction, size grading, improved hatchery diet and feeding regimen, and/or water quality improvements.  Pre-stocking measurements made in Spring 2020 indicated that the modified rearing techniques significantly increased the average size (both length and weight) of the yearling fish stocked, provided a more consistent stocking product (i.e. reduced length variation), and substantially increased the “effective” stocking number (number of stocked fish > 6.0 inches) despite stocking nearly half the fish compared to previous years.

While refinement and further experimentation will occur, the results are favorable for improved adult returns of New York stocked steelhead in upcoming years that should result in a better angling experience.

New York is the only jurisdiction on Lake Erie that conducts periodic tributary angler surveys to monitor the status of the steelhead fishery. Results from the latest survey conducted during the 2017/18 fishing season indicated a catch rate of 0.56 fish/hour - an increase compared to the previous two surveys (2011/12, 2014/15) and comparable to catch rates observed in the 2000’s, widely considered the peak of the Lake Erie fishery. These results were also well above DEC’s steelhead management plan catch rate goal of 0.33 fish/hour (https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/fish_marine_pdf/lertmanageplan.pdf).

Information on both open lake and tributary fisheries can be found on DEC’s Lake Erie Fishing Hotline. The hotline is updated each Friday, and anglers can access the report by phone (716-855-FISH or 716-679-ERIE) or on the DEC website at www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/9217.html. 

Now is the time to get your fishing gear ready and gas the truck. Steelhead season is here.