Bullets On The Fly
By Jim Chamberlin
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.