Fly-fishing for Steelhead on Lake Erie Tributaries
This contribution is authored by my friend and, often, fishing companion, Lars Hudnall of Falmouth Flats Fly Fishers. All photo credits belong to Lars.
The weather wavered between drizzle and downpour as we pulled on waders and boots in the relative comfort of the picnic shelter. While the last morning of this fishing trip would certainly be wet, I was eager to get to the water as I tightened the hood of my jacket against the wind and rain and started walking. At the end of the well-maintained trail was Mill Creek and hundreds of Lake Erie steelhead.
I am a rookie steelhead angler. I have been fortunate enough to join trips organized by Virginia’s own Trout Bandit to the southwest section of Steelhead Alley the past two years. While we’ve fished other waters around Cleveland both times, notably the Rocky River, the bulk of our time – due to inclement weather and preference - has been at Mill Creek at Hogback Ridge Park east of Cleveland.
Mill Creek is a tributary of the Grand River. While exceptions exist, notably near a waterfall/ rockface that defines the upper reach for the migrating fish, most of Mill Creek is rarely deeper than three feet and no wider than thirty feet. It’s also more than 25 miles from Lake Erie up the Grand River before the fish can make the detour into this tributary.
My experiences and observations, based almost exclusively on Mill Creek, may not fully transfer to successful fishing on the area’s larger rivers. There are hundreds of on-line articles and videos from experts offering sound recommendations for Lake Erie steelhead. I offer the following as what worked to make for a successful trip for this rookie steelhead angler:
Research the Area
Take the time to research the area and the available waters before loading the SUV and heading north. Our focus area around Cleveland extends for more than 75 highway miles paralleling Lake Erie and includes four major rivers (Vermilion, Rocky, Chagrin, and Grand). There are scores of parks within both the Cleveland Metroparks and Lake County Metroparks to the east which offer public access to anglers. The Rocky River map alone lists thirteen access sites. Review what’s there, read the Fly Shop’s posts, watch the web site videos on the different streams, narrow your focus to sites of interest, and print the Metroparks maps and directions. This level of preparation will give you more time on the water and less time driving around searching for water.
Take the Right Gear
Similarly, take a look at the various websites and posts for recommended gear and adjust your kit accordingly. Most sites recommend a 10 foot, 7 weight rod or a 9 foot, 8 weight rod. You’ll find numerous suggestions on how to rig for the three distinct steelhead techniques (stripping streamers, nymphing under an indicator, and tight line / euro-nymphing). We primarily nymphed under an indicator. I initially selected a recommended rig which called for a 9 foot, 3X leader to a tippet ring, followed by 18-24 inches of 3X tippet to the first nymph, and another 12-18 inches of 3X tippet to the second nymph. I found this set up to be too light – I was breaking off repeatedly the start of the first day – and went to a 2X leader directly to the first nymph with 12-18 inches of 3X to the second nymph. This heavier set up didn’t seem to bother the fish and eliminated my breakage problem.
Go with a Reasonably Sized Fly Box
The first year I went up, I wrote a local Fly Shop and asked for suggestions on which flies to bring. They sent me a list of 24 patterns. I dutifully tied or purchased everything on the list. Naturally, 90% of them produced no strikes. If you’re building a steelhead box with limited time or finances and intend to nymph under an indicator, I’d recommend focusing on egg patterns and the small streamer known as White Death (or White Zonker). The egg pattern is your first nymph, the White Death – which represents a dead or dying fish – is the second nymph.
I had success with a peach-colored nuke egg, but other patterns worked as well. If the steelhead didn’t care which egg pattern we offered, they did seem to have a preference for smaller, lightly dressed White Death pattern. Regardless of the fly you choose, go with heavy hooks. Standard trout hooks, even those that I use for similarly sized brown trout in Montana, came back broken or in twisted pretzels as the steelhead swam away.
Buddy System for Landing Fish
While I watched experienced steelhead anglers land fish by themselves with modestly sized nets, this proved to be a challenge for me. We recognized early on that any success would require a buddy system. When one of our team hooked up, the nearest angler would reel in, put his rod on the bank, and move in to be the net man. This can be a difficult commitment when you’re also on fish and you know this detour could take 5 minutes or more, but it’s a necessary commitment if you want to see your fish in the net. A very unscientific survey indicated that trying to land the fish by yourself resulted in success less than one-third of the time. Even using the buddy system, we would lose about every third fish. Steelhead are strong and have great endurance. Landing fish became a team effort which required the skill of both the angler and the net man.
It’s a long drive to Steelhead Alley from the DMV, the weather can be fickle, and the fish challenging. We had as many ‘no fish’ locations as ‘fish on’ locations. I will embarrassingly admit more than 50% of my hooked fish either threw the hook or broke off. Still, I’ve been home for two months and I’m already counting down the days until I can be standing on the side of one of those rivers watching steelhead cruising upstream. Something about those fish will draw you back again.