Monday, April 12, 2010

Fly Fishing for Lake Erie Steelhead

In mid-March I drove out to visit my family in central Ohio. The week of my visit was marred by the massive flooding that inflicted havoc on the eastern part of the country. While my current town of Blackwood got about 8 inches of rain, the area of Ohio I was visiting caught the very edge of the system. Nevertheless, the rain threatened a planned trip to Lake Erie steelhead country.

Steelhead are rainbow trout that travel from the big lake into small tributary streams to reproduce. They are called steelhead because their color is more of a grey-silver (the color of steel, I suppose). As the big fish make their way into the small rivers, their progression upstream is often blocked by low water conditions. Consequently, you can often see numerous fish pressed up against one waterfall. Once it rains, the elevated waters allow the fish to continue up the river. There are two runs per year, one in the fall and one in the spring. As it was early-ish March, I was hoping to catch the very beginning of the Spring 2010 run.

Despite the rain, the Lake Erie tributary streams were fishable. The weather was decent, if not exactly warm, and the fishing itself was okay. On my first day, I drove from Columbus, OH to Sevenmile Creek (all of the streams to the east of Erie, PA are titled by their distance from town center, not by their length), a small tributary located near the grounds of a convent. This eastern stream is marked by beautiful cascading waterfalls, a shiny blue-green shale bottom, and slightly less fishing pressure. Although I didn't catch anything, I did notice one specific pool that was holding steelhead. As this is Lake Erie, though, there were 4 guys standing right on top of the fish.

I left Sevemile and drove to Twelvemile, where I fished with no success. I then moved on to Twentymile, which seemed fishable and likely to hold a few of the big rainbow trout. After watching a person lose a fish (a spot I would take care to remember), I decided to try Sevenmile Creek again. The hole with the steelhead in it was still covered by many of the same fishermen, so I fished the pool directly above it. I caught three small rainbow trout, each about 7-9 inches long. These fish are future steelhead. When they leave the creek in June or July, they will become fodder for the lake's huge walleye population. The few that survive will return to the creek of their birth in a few years, where they will procreate and leave behind the next generation. Although they were tiny, it was fun to catch some fish just beginning their entry into the reproductive cycle.

After catching the smallish fish, I decided to try the run located below the steelhead pool. I drifted a size 14 bead-head pheasant tail nymph through the fast water; the strike indicator stopped; surprised, I lifted my rod up, fully expecting it had fastened onto a rock; on the end of the line was a beautiful, 20+ inch, 6lbs-ish steelhead. Because I didn't pay the money for a more appropriate rod and reel combination, I was using my standard 9 foot, 5 wt pole. The rod couldn't really handle the weight of the fish, so much of the energy was transferred to my shoulder and biceps. I also didn't have the strength to pull the fish to shore in the flooding river. Luckily, I was only 50 feet from Sevemile Creek's confluence with Lake Erie. So I fought the fish downstream, carefully avoiding putting too much pressure on the end of the line, while not offering it too much slack. Finally, after what felt like an eternity but was probably only 10 minutes, I made it to Lake Erie, where the lack of current allowed me to pull the fish to shore. It was a beauty, and my inappropriate equipment made for a hell of a fight. After taking the nymph out of its mouth, I let the big fish swim off into the lake.

I fished Sevenmile for a while after my catch, not catching anything else. In the twilight, I fished Fourmile Creek and didn't so much as see a fish. I then checked into my hotel and fell asleep, exhausted after hundreds of miles of driving, and hours of fishing.

The next day I returned to Sevenmile Creek at 6 AM, hoping to finally get a chance to fish the hole with the steelhead. Of course, the same two guys were already there, crowding the trout. At that point, I headed back to the car and drove to Twentymile Creek. I decided to check out its mouth: I was hoping that some fresh steelhead had entered the river the night before. As I was walking along the rocky beach, I saw three steelhead splashing in the water, about 100 feet upstream from the lake. To my surprise, I was the only angler around. I eagerly headed to the spot, and tied on a few different flies. The fish were actively feeding, but they didn't take my offerings. Finally, though, one of the steelhead hit a size 10 bead-head golden stonefly nymph. Just like the day before, I fought the fish down to Lake Erie. My muscles were aching from the last steelhead, and right before I was about to die/pass out from the exertion, the fish mercifully tired. I photographed it, and subsequently released it. Another amazing experience.

I fished Twentymile for a few more hours, hooking into two steelhead, but losing both of them. One hit the same stonefly; the other took a single orange egg-pattern. One of the fish I lost was nearly 10 lbs, and I stood no chance of landing it on my 5 wt. I spent the rest of the day fishing the western streams, many for the first time. I fished Raccoon Creek, Elk Creek, and the mouth of Trout Run. I found no fish in Raccoon, saw a few steelhead caught by a tour group on Elk, and couldn't stand the frigid water of Lake Erie at Trout Run. I did, however, get some ridiculously interesting pictures and video from Trout Run. Since it's a hatchery stream, hundreds of steelhead pack its small confines. Of course, it's rendered off limits to fishermen, but anglers can fish in Lake Erie at its mouth.

I had a blast during my two days in Erie. I caught two big steelhead, three small fingerlings, and one sucker. Although this total would be scoffed at by steelhead experts (something I most certainly am not), I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Image #1 - Sevemile Creek
Image #2 - Shale run on Sevenmile where I hooked the first steelhead
Image #3 - Fingerling rainbow trout
Image #4 - The steelhead
Image #5 - Twentymile Creek
Image # 6 - Second steelhead
Image #7 - Trout Run ridiculousness
Video Link of Trout Run:

Overall Total: 5

River Breakdown:
Sevemile Creek - 4 (3 Wild Rainbow Trout, 1 Steelhead)
Twentymile Creek
- 1 (1 Steelhead)

Species Breakdown:

Rainbow Trout - 5
Wild - 3
Steelhead - 2
Stocked - 0

Brook Trout - 0
Wild - 0
Stocked - 0

Brown Trout - 0
Wild - 0
Stocked - 0

Wild Trout - 3
Lake Erie Trout - 2
Stocked Trout - 0

Trout 15+ Inches: 2

Fly Breakdown:
Bead-head Pheasant Tail Nymph, size 14 - 4 (3 Wild Rainbow, 2 Steelhead)
Bead-head Golden Stonefly Nymph, size 10 - 1 (1 Steelhead)

Angling Breakdown:

Fly Fishing Rod - 5 (3 Wild Rainbow, 2 Steelhead)
Spinning Rod - 0

State Breakdown:
Pennsylvania - 5