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Silver Bullets On The Fly
By Jim Chamberlin

Fly fishing the Lake Erie tributary streams of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York in the fall for steelhead is an exciting game for any fly fisher. If you are in pursuit of an extremely energetic fish capable of long, drag screaming runs and multiple acrobatic jumps, start planning your trip. These fish are waiting for you and are like silver rockets waiting to go off.

Lake Erie steelhead can be found around the mouths of the tributary streams when the shoreline temperatures drop to 68 degrees Fahrenheit that, in the past has occured by mid-September. This depends on completely on the weather pattern. Good runs of steelhead usually begin to arrive in the tributaries by mid to late September if the early fall period is on the wet and cool side. The cold, muddy run-off created by fall rains into a relatively warm Lake Erie is the key to initiate fall runs of fish.

Early fall tributary run-off, which can range from 65-50 degrees Fahrenheit, typically means active and aggressive steelhead. These fish will move out of their way to take a fly in this water temperature range. To find these fish, look for them to hold in the faster-moving areas of the stream, such as pocket water, fast runs, chutes and the heads of pools. This is the opposite of winter steelhead. These ice-water fish take flies very softly, and at times, light while inhabiting very slow current areas.

After steelhead enter a tributary stream in the fall, they do not actively feed like they have in the depths of Lake Erie. Biological research from the ODNR shows that once in the streams, their feeding habits change as their stomachs shrink and they begin to live off their body fat and reserves. But do not be discouraged, as any angler in pursuit of steelhead will tell you that they indeed "feed" and will take your fly with power. This is a result of a strong, aggressive feeding instinct developed in the lake over the summer months.

As stream temperatures slowly drop into the 40's and 30's steelhead will migrate further and further upstream. Basically, rain is needed to get big runs of fish into the Erie tributaries in the fall. Being conscious of this, the intelligent steelheader will plan fishing trips around weather systems. So, monitor the weather and try to get on the stream just after high water as it starts to drop and clear up. As a result of suspended clay particles, "Prime conditions" will occur when the water develops a slightly opaque green tint to it. These conditions usually don't last more than 24-48 hours due to the remarkably fast run-off rates of the Erie tributaries.

If it is relatively dry fall with very little run-off, don’t worry, steelhead are still available in the tributaries. You will find them holding just above the lake in the first couple of deep pools and runs. Here they will make uncertain runs upstream only to be held up by low water. This scenario can mean a really high concentration of fish in a relatively small area. Crowded fishing conditions are almost guaranteed. Waiting for run-off and steelhead movement upstream will spread steelhead out, as well as anglers, making for a better fishing experience.

Successful fly patterns used to catch Erie steelhead include wooly buggers, streamers, spring wigglers, nymphs, glo-balls and the ever-popular sucker spawn. Because fall steelhead are very active, they will chase wooly buggers and streamers with reckless abandon at times. In fact, "stripping" these flies in at the end of your drift can result in some hard-hitting hook-ups.

Egg imitations similar to glo-balls, sucker spawns, blood dots and scrambled are also deadly, but only when fished on a drag-free drift. Fish these imitations as you would bottom-bounce a nymph in trout fishing. If you stay on the bottom you'll hook steelhead. For slow current areas along ledges, try some sort of floating indicator (like a little corkie) to suspend your fly just off the bottom as it drifts downstream.

Fly size and color are important considerations, especially when fishing egg patterns similar to glo-balls and sucker spawns. During high, turbid water periods, a large fly is a must (# 8's and # 6's) since it is very difficult for a steelhead to see your fly under these conditions. As stream levels drop and clarity improves, use # 14's and # 12's.

Fly colors range from black, brown and white (for woolly buggers, spring wigglers and streamers) to bright neons in chartreuse, orange, yellow and pink (for egg flies). Pastel shades of some of these bright colors are also good (especially cream). If you were to pick one color for the Erie tributaries, it would have to be chartreuse. It is extremely effective in the turbid water conditions of high run-off.

As far as specific fly equipment goes, trout-type fly rods in the 5-7-weight range work sufficiently well for the beginner to intermediate level angler. But as you fly fish for Erie steelhead more and more, you realize that the longer more limber fly rods (usually custom-made from spinning noodle rod blanks) are the ticket. These rods (10 1/2 feet is an ideal length) provide tremendous reach for line control and mending which is critical for drag-free presentations. They also can play the big steelhead on light tippets like 5X or 6X (which is sometimes required when the Erie tributaries are low and clear).

Trout fly reels also work well since storage of large amount of backing line is not required on the small Erie tributaries. But a reel with a progressive drag adjustment (with fine drag settings) will help to prevent over spin or backlash when a hot steelie makes a run, as well as protect light tippets.

A floating fly line (in a weight forward or triangle taper design) works best for fly presentations along with a long, tapered leader (9-12 feet). Tippet sizes used range from 3X-6X, depending on water clarity and flow. If you do go to a 5X or 6X tippet, be prepared for an increase in hook-ups but also an increase in break-offs. This is usually a result of line cuts from steelhead teeth or gill plates, as well as streambed shale, which can be razor sharp.

Fighting fall steelhead is both a wonderful thrill and a contest. After first hooking-up, try to keep your rod vertical and high to absorb the initial runs and surges. When the steelhead jumps, drop your rod to release tension in your line to prevent tippet breakage. Eventually the steelhead will begin to settle down. At this point begin to apply side pressure on the fish in a pumping fashion by bringing your rod down equivalent to the bank. This angle of the rod is the most efficient way to put steady pressure on any fish and will quickly tire it. As you get your fish close to the net again, raise the rod high to absorb any unexpected runs. Good luck and we will see you on the water.