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Autumn Leaves and Silver Bullets:
Pennsylvania Fall Steelheading

by John Nagy

Fly fishing the Erie County tributary streams of Lake Erie in the fall for steelhead is an exciting game for the Pennsylvania fly fisher. He or she is in pursuit of an incredibly dynamic fish capable of long, drag screaming runs and multiple cartwheel-type jumps. These fish are like silver sticks of dynamite waiting to go off, whose mission after being hooked is to separate your fly from your now seemingly too light tippet!

Pennsylvania steelhead start collecting around the mouths of the tributary streams when the shoreline temperatures of Lake Erie drop to 68 degrees F. This usually occurs by mid-September, depending on that year's particular weather pattern. Good runs of steelhead begin arriving in the tributaries by mid to late September if the early fall period is on the wet and cool side. It's the cold, muddy run-off (created by fall rains) into a relatively warm Lake Erie that initiate fall runs of fish.

Fall steelhead are of the mint silver variety. Some steelheaders call them "chromers," a far cry from their dark coloration of late winter and early spring. After they enter a tributary stream in the fall, they do not actively feed like they have in the depths of Lake Erie. Once in the streams, their stomachs shrink and they begin to live off their body fat and reserves. But ask any steelheader and he will tell you that they indeed "feed" and will take your fly with authority. This is a result of a strong, aggressive feeding instinct developed in the lake over the summer months.

Early fall tributary run-off, which can range from 65-50 degrees F, means active and aggressive steelhead. These fish move out of their way to take a fly in these water temperatures and hold in the faster-moving areas of the stream, such as pocket water, fast runs, chutes and the heads of pools. This is the opposite of winter steelhead. These ice-water fish take flies very softly, and at times, imperceptibly while inhabiting very slow current areas.

The major tributaries of Erie County include 12 Mile, 16 Mile and 20 Mile Creeks east of the City of Erie, and Elk, Walnut and Crooked Creeks west of Erie. Major access is available from Routes 5 and 20, which run parallel to the Lake Erie shoreline and intersect all these tributaries. There are numerous other tributaries of smaller size (such as Raccoon, 2 Mile, 7 Mile and 4 Mile Creeks), which have less fishable water but nonetheless are also good. All of these waters drain south to north in Erie County over ancient shale beds, which also contain large amounts of a greenish-clay. Over the millenniums, this run-off has eroded and carved the shale, creating ledges, chutes and sharp drop-offs in the stream beds. This is what makes Erie County tributaries so unique and challenging to fly fish for steelhead. These lake-run fish will use the maze of stream bed topography to their advantage for resting and holding areas.

The fly fisher who knows these areas intimately (low water is a good time to learn) improves his chances of finding and therefore catching steelhead. The initial steelhead runs of the fall are usually short. That is, the steelhead will not migrate as far upstream as they do when they get closer to their spawning time in early spring. This means the steelheader should concentrate his efforts on the lower part of the tributaries to intercept the bulk of the run.

As stream temperatures slowly drop into the 40's and 30's you will notice that steelhead push further and further upstream. Simply put: If you get rain, you'll get runs of fish into the Erie tributaries in the fall. Knowing this, the astute steelheader will plan his fishing trips around weather systems. He monitors the weather and tries to get on the stream just after high water as it starts to drop and clear up. "Prime conditions" will occur when the water develops a slightly opaque green tint to it (a result of suspended clay particles). Steelhead are very catchable in this type of water because their visibility is just good enough to see your fly offering, but not too clearly. These conditions usually don't last more than 24-48 hours due to the tremendously fast run-off rates of the Erie tributaries. Eventually when the streams become low and clear, the areas of fishable water are drastically reduced and the steelhead can become quite difficult to catch. These circumstances often require lighter tippets and much smaller flies.

If it is relatively dry fall with very little run-off, steelhead are still available in the tributaries. Look for them holding just above the lake in the first couple of deep pools and runs. Here they will make tentative probes upstream only to be held up by low water. This scenario can mean a really high concentration of fish in a relatively small area. Crowded fishing conditions are almost guaranteed. Waiting for run-off and steelhead movement upstream will spread steelhead out, as well as anglers, making for a better fishing experience.

Successful fly patterns used to catch Erie steelhead include wooly buggers, streamers, spring wigglers, nymphs, glo-balls and the ever-popular sucker spawn. Because fall steelhead are very active, they will chase wooly buggers and streamers with reckless abandon at times. In fact, "stripping" these flies in at the end of your drift can result in some hard-hitting hook-ups.

Egg imitations like glo-balls, sucker spawns, blood dots and scrambled are also deadly, but only when fished on a drag-free drift. Fish these imitations as you would bottom-bounce a nymph in trout fishing. If you stay on the bottom you'll hook steelhead. For slow current areas along ledges, try some sort of floating indicator (like a little corkie) to suspend your fly just off the bottom as it drifts downstream.

Fly size and color are important considerations, especially when fishing egg patterns like glo-balls and sucker spawns. During high, turbid water periods, a large fly is a must (# 8's and # 6's) since it is very difficult for a steelhead to see your fly under these conditions. As stream levels drop and clarity improves, use # 14's and # 12's.

Fly colors range from black, brown and white (for woolly buggers, spring wigglers and streamers) to bright neons in chartreuse, orange, yellow and pink (for egg flies). Pastel shades of some of these bright colors are also good (especially cream). If you were to pick one color for the Erie tributaries, it would have to be chartreuse. It is extremely effective in the turbid water conditions of high run-off.

As far as specific fly equipment goes, trout-type fly rods in the 5-7-weight range work sufficiently well for the beginner to intermediate level angler. But as you fly fish for Erie steelhead more and more, you realize that the longer more limber fly rods (usually custom-made from spinning noodle rod blanks) are the ticket. These rods (10 1/2 feet is an ideal length) provide tremendous reach for line control and mending which is critical for drag-free presentations. They also can play the big steelhead on light tippets like 5X or 6X (which is sometimes required when the Erie tributaries are low and clear).

Trout fly reels also work well since storage of large amount of backing line is not required on the small Erie tributaries. But a reel with a progressive drag adjustment (with fine drag settings) will help to prevent over spin or backlash when a hot steelie makes a run, as well as protect light tippets.

A floating fly line (in a weight forward or triangle taper design) works best for fly presentations along with a long, tapered leader (9-12 feet). Tippet sizes used range from 3X-6X, depending on water clarity and flow. If you do go to a 5X or 6X tippet, be prepared for an increase in hook-ups but also an increase in break-offs. This is usually a result of line cuts from steelhead teeth or gill plates, as well as stream bed shale, which can be razor sharp.

Fighting fresh-run, fall steelhead is both a tremendous thrill and a challenge. After first hooking-up, try to keep your rod vertical and high to absorb the initial runs and surges. When the steelhead jumps, drop your rod to release tension in your line to prevent tippet breakage. Eventually the steelhead will begin to settle down. At this point begin to apply side pressure on the fish (in a pumping fashion) by bringing your rod down parallel to the bank. This angle of the rod is the most efficient way to put steady pressure on any fish and will quickly tire it. As you get your fish close to the net again, raise the rod high to absorb any unexpected surges (steelhead don't like nets)

This article is an excerpt taken from the newly revised and expanded 2nd edition of STEELHEAD GUIDE, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead by John Nagy. Mr. Nagy is a professional guide on the Great Lakes steelhead streams.

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