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Steelhead: Same but Different

The Great Lakes tributary system is a pretty remarkable fishery. Sure, the fish aren’t native and they don’t have an opportunity to run to saltwater. But they are big, fight hard, and are discerning. If west coast steelheading is like filet, then the Great Lakes offer up a hearty burger. It isn’t the same thing, but it definitely does the trick. Even if it is a little greasy.

A lot has been said about the Great Lakes / west coast steelhead issue lately. Some have even questioned the validity of calling lake run fish steelhead. I get that. Words mean things. But these big rainbows are something completely different than the 14” stockers you find in ponds and creeks of the Mid-Atlantic. Plus, the majority of the country’s population is within a good day’s drive from the Great Lakes tribs. It all comes together to create a destination fishery that draws in thousands upon thousands of anglers.

I’ve spent all of my time fishing for Great Lakes steelhead in and around Erie, Pennsylvania. You’ve got around 75 miles of shoreline. The properly named creeks (Conneaut, Elk, Walnut) are to the west of the city, and the mile-marker named tributaries (Four Mile, Sixteen Mile, Twenty Mile) are on the east. It is as if the cartographers had a lot of initiative and creativity, and then stopped for too many drinks in Erie and had to phone the rest of their responsibilities in. Along with the main hub of Erie, you have other towns like Girard, Fairview, and North East. North East is, as you may have guessed, northeast of Erie.

Erie and the surrounding townships are prototypical PA. Lived in, but clean and homey. Greasy spoons serving pierogis sit on town squares, and Sheetz are spaced out at appropriate intervals. Tackle dealers that sell hand tied flies and offer fish smoking cater to the fly fisherman and the egg drifters alike. You can camp ($), take your chances in a sketchy motel ($$), or stay in deluxe accommodations ($$$). All of this sits within a fifteen minute drive from the creeks, top. Much of it is streamside. This is convenient for the conscientious angler, because you will be in the company of others who have disheveled hair from wearing knit hats and wrinkled sweatpants from being in waders.

The streams themselves are also typical of the Erie coastline. Low gradient and steady, often smooth on the top as well as on the shale bottoms. Steep cliffs with protruding roots and rock strata tower over the water and the angler. Roads parallel the streams, with bridges for trains and cars crossing the rivers frequently.

I’d be remiss to discuss the Lake Erie tributary system in Pennsylvania and not mention the crowds. Sure, at the river mouths and dozen-car parking areas there are lots of people. Take a bit of a walk, and it is rarely a problem. I won’t go as far as to say that the crowds are part of the experience. Combat fishing, as it is called, has about as much appeal to me as slurping down a jar of dyed salmon eggs. If you don’t like it, fly to British Columbia. But that will cost you a bit more than the gas it takes you to drive across I-80, and probably require more walking than spending fifteen minutes to get past the bait-and-bucket crowd. But hey, to each his own.

The fish are there. Unless the first pool that you walk up to is chalky green and dotted with fish silhouettes, returning to the tribs after a year’s absence requires retraining the eye. The water can appear devoid of fish, or all life for that matter. After a few hours on the stream, the fish appear. In pools, behind rocks and bridge supports, and in the places where you take steps and spook them. You see them when you spook them, because they’re nearly three feet long and as big around as a rolled up yoga mat.

Seeing them takes patience, but when you do it becomes easy. Catching them takes patience as well, but when you catch one there is no guarantee that a second will follow anytime soon. Flows, temperature, pressure – I am sure they all have some bearing on the steelhead’s willingness to bite. But I am 99.2% convinced that catching steelhead in the Great Lakes tributaries has everything to do with being able to put a fly in a six-inch spot in front of a fish. The thing is, it isn’t the same spot for each fish. Pick the wrong six inch window, and you spook the fish by whacking it in the face or offending its salmonid sensibilities (“Crystal Meth? How inappropriate! Hmph!”).

The day then becomes a series of calibration techniques. With line X, fly Y, and flow Z, I have to cast upstream to point A to make a presentation that might work. Change one of those, or any of the other dozen variables, and you have to start from scratch. We’ve all done this. Aiming for a spot right in front of us, we start estimating how far upstream and laterally at what position the fly must enter the water. What follows is a series of casting, dragging, recasting, and mending that, at least for me, becomes a challenge that rivals actually catching the fish.

When it works, it is incredibly satisfying. Casting such that the tiny nymph will tumble just off to the side of where the fish is holding. Successfully guiding an undulating marabou fly to land on a rock six inches in front of and below a fish is like putting a tee shot on the green. All that is left, at that point, is everything. Will the fish take the fly?

If it does take, that first fish of the season is a jarring reminder that this sport involves quarry that are much more menacing that eight-inch mountain brook trout. There is a mixture of excitement that you’re on a fish, relief that you’ve managed to get on a fish, self-consciousness that you’re attached to a giant fish that is making quite the ruckus, and concern that the fish is going to do something to spoil all of that before it comes to the net.

When it is landed, the first steelhead of the season is a special moment. Even if you were out in the spring, the fall run seems to garner a bit more acclaim. Like a climactic finish to the main fishing season, hooking into a big fish can hold you over through the winter. Well, sort of. Plus, it is a pilgrimage. Whether you fish in New York, Ohio, Michigan, or Pennsylvania, you probably have a favorite spot. Since the fisheries are by necessity alongside the lakes, it isn’t like you can fish anywhere. You have to fish there. So it is the same streams, the same restaurants, the same gas stations, the same hotels. The forced consistency is comforting, in a way. To fish like this, you have to fish here. Or, somewhere else far away. When you’re here, you have to eat at these places or drive for quite a while. And everyone that fishes Erie has the same experience (well, outside of being productive on the stream).

I love fishing in remote, wild locales. I also love the coziness of fishing in a town and amidst life happening. No question that the nostalgia is an important factor, but these unique steelhead fisheries on the great lakes afford the anglers of the east coast and Midwest the chance to tangle with a trout that would normally require a flight at least, and maybe even a float plane or boat trip. And those trips are great. But for the average fly fisher they are few and far between. Driving up to the tribs for a weekend can be a yearly event. For the busy or budget conscious, Erie is the equivalent of Alaska or Montana.

Big fish, beautiful water, with the quaint sensibilities of the small town. Steelhead are something different, but fishing for them can feel very much the same.

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