The thirty-four week steelhead season provides plenty of fishing options. Be sure to schedule your trip during months that suit your fishing style because steelhead fishing is affected by the weather and water conditions.
If you had a good day last November catching steelhead by drifting a black jig in Elk Creek, don’t be surprised if you go fishless trying the same thing in early September. Steelhead seasonal patterns do exist so you need to adjust what you use depending on when in the “season” you are fishing.
If you divide the steelhead run by the months from September thru April/May here is what you may experience.
September is a low-water flow month that encourages steelhead to stage near the mouth of the tributaries. Fish enter the streams during low light conditions or at night and return to the lake when the bright sun increases water temperatures. A few steelhead may stay in the streams, but very few.
In early September, successful anglers fish low light times with reaction baits. Tossing spoons at the lakeshore gets results. Tease jigging soft plastic minnows [assassin, gulp etc.] will get you some hookups too.
By mid-September air and water temperatures drop, rain showers increase [hopefully] so stream fishing improves, and you can fish above Route 5. This changing pattern gives anglers more places to fish and reduces early season crowding. The early season baits mentioned above apply, but you will see single egg success picking up. Fly anglers with small buggers can annoy a fish into striking. Pier anglers willing to stay put for hours on end will bottom fish with eggs sacs that contain Styrofoam floaters. The bait hangs in the water a foot off the bottom so the staging steelhead passing by can grab a quick snack! Few early season fish move upstream past Route 5.
Another September phenomenon is “fish stacking” that occurs when steelhead that have committed to staying in the tributaries are trapped in holes because of low water. These fish are pressured daily by throngs of anglers who never give them a moment’s peace. Reaction baits, single eggs, minnows, tiny nymphs, and flies succeed in catching enough fish to keep everyone coming back. Straight lining and out-right snagging is common too. Some call this time of the year “combat fishing”. It isn’t pretty. The only relief comes with increasing water flow that allows the trapped fish to escape upstream.
October is the most picturesque month to fish for Lake Erie steelhead. With the exception of jigs, most steelhead baits work well. The number of upstream fish depends on water levels.
When water flows are normal on Elk Creek, you can find steelhead holding in most “good water” from route I-79 to the lake. Exceptionally heavy rain in October moves fish everywhere on all tributaries, most public water upstream will be holding fish.
November can look more like October or December depending on the Erie weather. A normal November is cool if not cold, decent water flow and dependable fishing. You can use sacs, single eggs, fly tandems, minnows, soft plastics, spoons, spinners and JIGS! Yes, November marks the beginning of good jig fishing. Some will argue October, but the colder water of November turns on the jig bite.
December is just like November fishing except for the addition of plenty of snow and ice. Same baits and techniques apply here. If the month’s temperatures are moderate, you will have good fishing in the open water. Freezing air temperatures will add slush and edge ice challenges to your day. Days of below freezing temperatures will force you to get out the ice auger! The fish are still there, but you will be looking down an 8” hole!
January can be a "truly winter" month on Lake Erie. Fly anglers are gone. Heavy fishing pressure is gone. Bait - minnows, egg sacs, and jigs fished in front of steelhead will get you bit! How you manage to find and access those fish is your challenge.
Open-water is usually shallow – no fish. Deep water is ice covered – fish are there, but you must proceed with caution and test the ice. When you fish through the ice, early and late day are best. For open, slush covered water, fish from 10 am to 2 pm.
February is a transition month between winter and spring steelhead fishing. Again same winter/fall baits that you use in “open or hard” water. Weather in February can be very difficult, but the fishing is decent.
March marks the arrival of spring jacks and smolt stocking. By the end of March, you can begin to see a few smallmouth and the run of spring suckers. The tributaries get crowded with fish species, but the steelhead fishing can be very productive. I like jigs in March. Smolts are reluctant to hit a jig if you don’t tip it with a maggot. Smolts prefer single eggs and sacs.
Predicting where the majority of steelhead can be found is more hit or miss in March. Jacks go everywhere. New mature fish are mostly the Manistee strain. Older fish are drop backs that have been in the tributaries since last fall. It is not uncommon to catch the same “caught and released” steelhead daily from the same hole. In March a few of the older dark-colored males are always willing to give you a battle if you drop a black jig near them.
April steelhead fishing is great because of the comfortable air temperatures, good steelhead numbers, and plenty of smallmouth bass. You get the bonus of “stocked trout” added to the tributaries before the 1st day of trout season. The downside is suckers and smolts that get in the way.
May is the end of steelhead season. You will catch steelhead. Concentrate your effort close to the lake or upstream locations that are smolt free.