Winter to spring steelhead fishing transition . . . .
Steelhead fishing is a series of transitions. Summer to fall water flow and temperature changes bring about a fish migration from Lake Erie to tributaries that flow into the lake setting up the fall-run. Likewise winter to spring, flow and temperature changes affect the spring-run. Finally, the spring to summer flow and temperature transition drives what few steelhead that remain back into the cool waters of the Lake Erie.
As potential great anglers in training, we are constantly casting our way through slow fishing days while gathering data to improve our steelhead catching skills. Some of us even graduate to the next level while others are forced to repeat the grade.
The holy grail of understanding we seek is . . . What changes when inactive steelhead suddenly turn-on and start hitting like starving bluegills? Like me, most anglers have no clue. Theories abound, but all we have is anecdotal evidence that we use to predict and prepare for the next feeding frenzy.
If we cannot accurately predict when fish are going to bite, the best we can do is anticipate when the steelhead will be in the tributaries so we can cast and expand our fish catching information database. So much for the intro!
A winter to spring weather transition is underway, and it will bring about the annual spring-run of steelhead from Lake Erie into all the tributaries that feed into the lake.
Unlike the need for water cooling in the fall, spring stream temperatures need to warm. Steelhead prefer water temperatures in the low fifties. Lake Erie is currently about thirty-six degrees and the tributaries about 4 degrees cooler. At those readings, fish migration from lake to stream will be minimal.
As you monitor the lake/stream water temperatures, tributary flow rates, and gather information from other anglers fishing through the winter, you will notice increased catch-rates that correlate to increased water temperatures. If you are planning a future trip, you can roll the dice and go or keep track of the variables that control steelhead movement and the baitfish/food they follow to better plan a future fishing day.
I know what you are thinking. Do Lake Erie tributaries have a spring-run? If you consider that all fish stocked by the PFBC are labeled “fall-run” fish then the answer is no. If you consider the experience of most anglers who have fished Erie for many years, the answer is yes. Not much of a definitive answer for sure because the right answer is somewhere in the middle and somewhat confusing.
Stream stocked 1year-old smolts mature after 2 years in Lake Erie. You will recognize them as the large, colored males and egg-heavy, bloated females you catch in the fall and early winter.
Before ending up in your net, that fish was stocked two years prior. Some of those same fish, after only one year in the lake, return as jacks/skippers the spring after they are stoked. They also return six months later in the fall and again the following spring. Finally, the next fall, the remaining large mature fish of that “year-class” form the basis of a fall run. Not all steelhead safely make three runs into the tributaries before making their mature, 4th entry, but those that do make multiple runs are an important addition of the “spring run” fish we catch.
If you think I wrote all of that to encourage you to practice Catch & Release, you are right. Released fish return over and over again.
Spring or fall we have all caught immature steelhead. Remember those skinny, silver 15” jacks, those larger 18” jacks, and the 20” super silver fish that have filled out with more girth? If you answer yes, you are catching the fish that represent the majority of the spring-run. When you add to those fish, any Manistee strain spring run stockings, fall run drop-backs, and mature fish that have finally found their way to the home tributary, you can honestly say, yes there is an Erie steelhead spring run.
If you already know or have been convinced a spring run is coming, you just need to predict when. That takes us back to water flow and water temperature. Assuming adequate flow, when stream temperature is higher than the lake water, steelhead bait will gravitate to the warmer water and the predatory fish will follow.
Click here to find flow and temp data. Use Conneaut or Cattaraugus links to get stream temperature readings. For some reason, Walnut and Elk Creeks do not post that data.
By the way, when clouds of shiners enter the tributaries, the smallmouth cannot be far behind.