In the corner of northwest Pennsylvania lies the next best thing to a vast ocean: one of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie. With its almost tidal surf and vast, dark, deep waters, it’s an angler’s dream. From roaming schools of smallmouth, giant walleye, and the hard fighting steelhead, Lake Erie has a species for any angler!
We caught up with ANGLR Expert, Nolan Minor just as he was returning home from a trip to the outfitters. The Virginia native was gearing up for a trek from his home in Morgantown, West Virginia to travel three hours to Erie. He and his buddies were heading out fishing for steelhead.
What Makes Fishing for Steelhead in Erie so Unique?
Steelhead is a rainbow trout, but what makes it unique is that it’s migratory, similar to salmon. They live out in the ocean, or Great Lakes in this case, for the first two to three years of their lives before they make their first trip back in the streams to spawn. Unlike trout, they don’t meet their demise in the rivers, but are able to return to the lake in the spring.
They live their lives out in the vast lake, only concerned about food, but then one day something clicks in their brain and they decide they need to go spawn, so they begin to head to the creeks sometime around the end of September, early October. They keep flooding up the creeks until December. That’s where they’ll remain until the spring, when they return back to the open waters. Their life cycle is similar to their cousins’ out in the Pacific Northwest: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, where the biggest difference is that those steelhead live most of their lives out in the open ocean.
There are two main creeks that harbor the majority of steelhead as they make their spawn run: Walnut Creek and Elk Creek.
An average Erie steelhead is usually around 21-22 inches and about three pounds, maybe a little less. Most of the fish we catch there are around that size. The largest one I’ve caught so far was 28 inches. That’s not that large of a fish, but it was really fat and weighed about seven and a half pounds. The smaller jacks are usually around 17-18 inches, but they’re less common.
When I Got That First Bite… I Was Hooked
I didn’t know what to expect on my first trip. I had done a lot of trout fishing in rivers and streams down in Virginia. My skills transferred over pretty smoothly. Fishing for trout and steelhead is closely related. The two fish’s behaviors are very similar, the baits they each take are almost the same, so tackle is similar as well.
This is a huge fish that’s a very aggressive fighter. It’s sort of one of the coveted freshwater fish to pursue. Growing up in Virginia, I hadn’t had an opportunity to go fishing for steelhead before my college years. With Erie being so close [at three hours away], I had to try. My buddy goes regularly, so he took me up there for my first time during my freshman year. Three or four of us still get together and head up to Erie for a long weekend as often as we can. Being college students and members of the West Virginia Fishing Bass Team, it’s difficult but we still manage to make it up two to three times a year.
Because I’m still in school, I’m really only able to get up there about two to three times a year. I’d love to go more often if I was close enough to take a day trip through the weekdays. Fishing pressure is a big factor to your success. When it’s busy, for every 40 fish you see, you may catch one.
Usually about 90% of the fish are being caught by about 10% of the anglers.
Gearing up when Fishing for Steelhead
Most anglers up in Erie fish with noodle rods. I’ve never used one because I was used to trout fishing on creeks in Virginia. I use a shorter 6’6″ light action rod, pretty light tackle. When we’re up there, we’re catching more fish than most people, so we must be doing something right. In the larger rivers like in the Pacific Northwest, a longer rod is necessary to keep your line off of the water, but these creeks are so little, so you don’t need that length. It’s such tight quarters in the trees and under bridges. The trees are actually covered in hooks, line, and bobbers. This is similar to fishing for stream trout; you have to cater your gear to the environment you’re fishing in.
We fish our baits underneath a small split-shot float. We’ll use single eggs, and we’ll use spawn bags, it really depends on what the fish are telling us. Some people use minnows or worms. We use a light line and an 8-14 hook, depending on the bait and conditions. Typically, the clearer the water, the smaller the equipment. We’ll use small jigs, and will grab a trout magnet a lot. Another staple of ours is a three inch pink trout worm. It’s the ‘Wacky Senko’ of trout fishing. Since the water is so small, we typically use smaller stuff.
Some people tend to overcomplicate things, but fishing for steelhead is pretty simple. Unlike bass fishing, you only have a handful of different baits and 3 or 4 color choices for most situations.
The fishing changes from day to day, based on the conditions. That’ll determine the bait or technique that works best for the day. There’s no bait that’ll be any better day in and day out.
You’ve got to have a drag-free drift under your float. That’s the key to being successful. You need that bait to be floating in a natural way. That’s the biggest fundamental, and once you have that mastered, you’ve got it. You’ll have your bait underneath your float, then use small split-shot weights to balance things out. Starting with a larger one, tapering off to a smaller weight closest to your bait since you want your bait to drift a little in front of the bobber to get that drag-free drift; a more natural drift, which is the key to getting a bite.
Steelhead sit up off of the bottom a little bit, and you want that bait to be drifting so they don’t have to move very far to eat it. You almost want it to hit them on the nose, since food is not their main priority when they come into the creek. While you can typically see 30-40 fish in the water at a time, they’re not always taking the bait, so you have to be patient, and present it to them in such a way that they can’t say no.
While landing these fish is exciting, it’s the time spent in the crowds of people that flock to Erie during this time that really makes the outing unique. I will be talking about my experiences fishing off of Lake Erie in our next Steelhead Edition. Make sure to catch it!
This article was contributed by an ANGLR Expert
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