I’m always struck by Pennsylvania’s fishing diversity. In the southeast, the state offers access to the Delaware Bay, where enterprising anglers can fish for massive striped bass. To the northeast, the Pocono Mountains provide excellent wild and stocked trout opportunities. Central Pennsylvania contains some of the best limestone, wild brown trout streams in the entire country. Slicing the state in half is the Susquehanna River, a large, relatively flat, body of water that possesses a renowned smallmouth bass fishery. Located nearby, Raystown Reservoir, the biggest lake circumscribed within the state, owns state records for striped bass and Atlantic salmon. And, finally, the far northwestern section of the Keystone State has over 40 miles of Lake Erie shoreline. The lake and its tributaries have combined for eight state records, including rock bass, yellow perch, Chinook salmon, coho salmon, pink salmon, brown trout, lake trout, and, of course, steelhead rainbow trout.
It was the steelhead that drew me to Erie County in March of 2010. This particular type of rainbow trout cast its spell on me about five years ago, when I visited my best friend during my college’s fall break. He went to Edinboro University, a school located about 20 miles from the Great Lake. I was anxious to see Lake Erie for the first time, so we decided to take a drive up to the lake the first day I arrived. On our ride along Pennsylvania’s gorgeous Route 5, I noticed cars lined up along every river that emptied into Erie. This piqued my interest, and subsequent research revealed that October is one of the hottest months for steelhead fishing. Having never heard of a steelhead, I did more investigating. What I learned changed my fly fishing life forever.
Steelhead are remarkable creatures, alien rainbow trout that dominate the natural Lake Erie setting. They are imports from the American West, anadromous visitors that tantalize anglers with their size, their determination, and their numbers. Born in the many tributaries of the big lake, steelhead venture into Erie after their smolt stage (around one year), where they live until they reach sexual maturity. They then return to the rivers of their birth in order to spawn; it is during this period that anglers most regularly target them. Once they leave the lake behind, and re-enter the tributary streams, they carry with them a tell-tale marker of their journey: a grayish, sometimes light green sheen, often compared to the color of steel, on the top of their skulls.
Because rainbow trout can live for many years, and do not die when they reproduce, Lake Erie steelhead can reach immense physical proportions. Six pound fish are common, and 10+ lbs fish are often catchable. They tend to travel in groups, sometimes with as many as 100 other fish. These packs are mesmerizing: on occasion, they are so populous that a person could walk across a stream on a “steelhead” bridge.
In addition, the sheer physical presence of steelhead produces a maniacal effect on anglers.