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Steelhead Alley - part III

Fly-fishing for steelhead in Pennsylvania

first Lake Erie steelhead on fly (photo credit J. Peake)

Until 2022, I had only caught one steelhead and that was while fishing the Cheakamus River in British Columbia a few years back. In the Spring of 2022, I made my first excursion to fish a Lake Erie tributary for steelhead in the Cleveland area and, despite challenging conditions, we found waters that were fishable (thanks to local advice), and hooked up (and released) a few nice sized fish.

Lake Erie steelhead fishing

Recently, a friend who guides in the DMV area invited me to join friends and family to fish tributaries of Lake Erie for spawning steelhead. It was early October and the drive from Northern Virginia was pleasant, with fall foliage at its peak in Central and Northwestern Pennsylvania. The lakeshore areas outside the city of Erie feel very sleepy, with waterfront campgrounds and cottages mixed in with vineyards and farms.

thin water at Elk Creek

Elk Creek steelhead fishing

The intent was to target the more popular Elk Creek, but it was not fishing well when we arrived. Construction upstream at W. Lake Road discolored the creek, which was also thin running into the Lake. So as often happens on fishing excursions, we had to pivot and find a different water where the fish were already schooling and moving upstream.

anglers elbow to elbow on Erie lakeshore at Elk Creek (photo credit J. Peake)

This was the peak of the steelhead run and many of the better-known tributaries were packed with anglers, particularly at the creek mouths along the lakeshore, including Elk Creek, Walnut Creek and Trout Run. Thanks to some sleuthing by my buddy and his companions, a quieter alternative was identified, and we spent several hours of my first afternoon sharing spots along the lakeshore on a prime sandbar at the mouth of this tributary. Because this was quieter than the more popular tributaries, my readers should understand my reluctance to reveal the exact spot. But suffice it to say it was a tributary west of Walnut Creek.

The weather was about as good as fall weather can be, with lively fall colors reflecting a bright sun, temperatures in the high 60s and a light breeze coming off the lake. The frequent swirls and breaches from the steelhead generated excitement not just from us anglers, but also from resident osprey and eagles cruising the lakeshore. To say it was perfect would be an understatement!

steelhead fishing from the Erie lakeshore

Fishing Lake Erie with noodle rods

Some of our party limited out with three fish that afternoon flipping a ¾ ounce Little Cleo spoon with a noodle rod, which is a light action spinning rod generally used for Great Lakes salmon. I stuck with my 8wt fly rod and watched as several fish followed my streamer into shore before refusing the fly and returning to the deeper water. It took about an hour of light takes and refusals before I landed my first Erie steelhead on a black slumpbuster.

a steelhead bending my 8 wt fly rod (photo credit J. Peake)

The next morning, we were back at the same spot before sun rise and the fish were already active, but these fish were just out of reach of my fly casts. The others using noodle rods were able to cover more water nearer to where the fish were surfacing and, as such, were rewarded with hookups. Many in our party were limiting out (the daily creel limit is three fish) before lunch time, but I did manage to hook up on a smaller steelhead retrieving a green and black woolly bugger.

Trophy steelhead on Elk Creek

By this time, fish were finally migrating up Elk Creek, but seemed more intent on torpedoing upstream than hanging around to feed. It was not until after sunset that a member of our party picked up the first fish on Elk Creek, and it was an epic seven-pound trophy brown trout caught on a spoon. I left the next day with three large steelhead in my cooler box, and as would be expected, the fishing on Elk Creek picked up. My buddy caught a 30-inch steelhead hours after I left using a hopper dropper pattern in water that did not produce any fish the prior day.

citation-worthy steelhead caught on Elk Creek (photo credit J. Peake)

I guess I need to stick around a bit longer on the next visit to Erie! If you go, keep in mind that a special license is needed for Erie steelhead, in addition to the state license and trout stamp. If you forget to do so before arriving, these can be purchased from the local bait and tackle outfitter, Poor Richards.

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