Spring is a great time to get away from home and explore fishing in other parts of the country and I took the opportunity to visit Erie, Pa., for some steelhead fishing last week.
Steelhead are migratory rainbow trout that grow large living in the great lakes and enter the tributary streams from fall through spring to spawn. I thought it might be a little late for my trip since I have been getting reports that the fish have been on the gravel for the last few weeks and were about done spawning.
But after seeing the weather in Erie, rain and snow through the weekend, I made a couple phone calls on Monday morning and got the good news. The streams were a little high and muddy but clearing and fresh fish were entering the streams to spawn. That was all it took and I was on my way.
When I arrived Monday evening at the lower Elk Creek access, where the creek enters the lake, the parking lot was empty. I was afraid some one gave me some bad information. It was cold, cloudy and breezy with some snow on the ground but I couldn't believe no one else was fishing, especially if fresh fish were entering from the lake. I rigged up and headed for the river and just like the reports said, the creek was a little high but was clearing nicely by this time. I could just make out some shadows moving up through the riffles and the more I watched the the more shadows I saw -some on gravel and others moving - jockeying for position among other shadows. Some large, some small but all steelhead. Things were looking good and not another angler in was sight.
That first evening was excellent, the fish were everywhere and apparently had not been harassed too much because they were on fire. I fished until dark and landed probably fifteen fish between 22-28 inches long in just a couple hours.
Many of these were fish that had been in the stream for a while, the males looked like wounded warriors, bruised and battered from fighting and spawning over the last few weeks. But they all fought like champions, making strong runs and jumping often in the shallow stream. However, there were also fish entering from the lake, bright fish with dark backs and silver sides, strong and energetic from the big water. These fish are crazy once hooked - making long runs and tail walking through riffles - in an attempt to free the hook from their jaw.
Apparently, word was out the next morning because when I got to the creek about a half hour after sunrise, the parking lot was full and the small stream was crowded with anglers hoping to catch some of the fresh steelhead.
The fishing was much more difficult with all the pressure and the fish were there, but the conditions were deteriorating. Overnight the creek had dropped and cleared and the steelhead were plainly visible in the water, good sight fishing conditions. The fish were reluctant to hit but after repeated drifts and a couple fly changes, you could usually find something the steelhead liked. My most consistent flies were black stone nymphs, green caddis larvae, purple prince nymphs, and red fox nymphs - all in size 10 to 14. I always fish two flies for steelhead and pair one of the above with an egg fly, something with chartreuse seemed to produce best for me.
As the sun came out later in the morning, the steelhead activity tapered off, they were still spawning but just wouldn't take anything. With the bright sun and low clear water, the fishing was slow the rest of the day but the forecast called for rain and the next morning it was pouring as I slipped on my waders for my last day of fishing.
I was not the only one crazy enough to be in the downpour as the river was crowded again with everyone anticipating the rising water that would bring in a push of fresh steelhead to take their turn on the gravel.
Once the water got a bit of color to it the fishing really heated up, most of the fresh steelhead I caught were jacks (smaller steelhead 18-22 inches, too young to join in the spawning). Small but very energetic on the seven weight fly rod, these smaller steelhead are much more acrobatic when hooked and usually jump and make long runs attempting to free the hook.
The best fish of the trip came as the rain let up and I was fishing a deep run where the fish were holding before moving up through a shallow riffle. I was swinging a small green and black wooly bugger through this run and as it swung behind a boulder, a fish just crushed it. I didn't have to set the hook as the line sped across the river and a big silver hen steelhead erupted through the surface shaking its head. She must have seen the tree lying along the far bank when she jumped because that is where she wanted to go. This was easily the best fish I hooked, 28 to 30 inches long and around 8 to10 pounds. It was bright as chrome and hot as fire, fresh from the lake. I ran downstream trying to turn her from the timber hoping my six-pound tippet could take the strain. I managed to turn her twice but she was strong and determined and we parted company after she made a long run downstream, turned and came screaming back upstream wrapping my line around a branch underwater.
Shortly there after, the heavy rain caught up and the stream rose six inches and became very muddy, putting an end to the action.
All in all not a bad trip, 30 or so steelhead in three days of fishing. I could not have asked for better results and look forward to another shot in the fall when the steelhead will once again return to the streams. And with a bit of luck, I'll be there.