Photo by Forrest Fisher

Lake Erie steelhead fishing reports

Angler with colorful male steelhead caught on Canadaway CreekNew York's Lake Erie steelhead fishery is supported by an extensive stocking program and natural reproduction. Current NYS DEC stocking targets are 230, 000 Washington strain yearlings that are stocked annually between 9 major tributaries. In recent years, the DEC has also stocked surplus Skamania strain steelhead in Cattaraugus Creek when available. Stocked steelhead typically spend two years in the open lake, feeding on smelt and other forage, before maturing and returning to the tributaries as three year olds. Besides steelhead, brown trout and a small number of domestic rainbow trout are stocked into Lake Erie as yearlings. These stockings supplement and diversify the harbor, main lake and tributary fisheries. In addition to stocking, the steelhead population is further supplemented by natural reproduction in the New York tributaries, most notably Cattaraugus Creek and its feeder streams.

The Washington strain is a winter run, anadromous strain of rainbow trout (steelhead) derived from eggs imported from the state of Washington. In Washington, the native stock migrate between the Pacific Ocean, where they do most of their growing, and freshwater mountain streams, where they spawn. Similarly, the naturalized Washington strain steelhead in Lake Erie utilize the lake for the bulk of their feeding/growing and the tributary streams for spawning. Mature Washington strain steelhead enter the Erie tributaries as early as mid-September; however the bulk of the run occurs from mid-October through April.

Cattaraugus Creek receives excellent runs of hefty steelheadThe Skamania strain also originates from the state of Washington. This anadromous strain is considered a summer-run fish as they have the potential to enter streams earlier than Washington strain fish. The DEC has stocked Skamania steelhead in Cattaraugus Creek since 2005 with the hopes of boosting the early runs by having fish enter the creek in late August through September. A portion of stocked Skamania steelhead have a double fin clip: adipose fin and left pectoral fin.

Steelhead Tackle and Equipment

Steelhead in the Lake Erie tributaries generally average 5-8 pounds; however fish up to 10-12 pounds are common, so specific equipment is required. Lighter equipment used for inland trout will simply not do. Leave your ultralight spinning rod or 3-4 weight fly rod at home as these powerful fish can break lighter equipment. In addition, by using light gear, there is also a tendency to overplay or completely exhaust the fish which could lead to delayed mortality.

Spinning Combo

Steelhead that are fresh out of the lake are often very silvery like this Chautauqua Creek fishThe spinning rod and reel combo is the most widely used fishing gear; so many anglers first try for steelhead using this combo. Its versatility and ease of use are good reasons for its popularity. A spinning combo works well for drifting egg sacs or casting spinners, spoons and stickbaits. At the very minimum, a 6.5 foot long medium action rod combined with a spinning reel capable of handling 6-12 lb test line will work for steelhead. Eight pound test main line is a safe bet for a combo like this. More often, steelhead anglers employ 8.5-10 foot rods with medium or medium-light action that are rated for 6-12 pound test line. These rods combined with a multiple ball bearing reel with a smooth but strong drag system and at least 150 yards of 6-8 pound test line is a good all around steelhead spinning combo.

Some anglers prefer to use a spinning reel with an ultra long and lighter action "noodle rod", which can be up to 14' long and rated for as little as 2-4 pound test line. An advantage of noodle rods is they allow for delicate presentations of small baits on light leaders, which is beneficial when fishing for spooked fish in clear water. A longer rod also helps improve your drift by reducing slack and keeping more line out of the water.

Float Fishing

Float fishing is a very effective method of catching steelhead and subsequently has become quite popular among steelhead anglers. Also referred to as center pin fishing, this method gives the angler better control over drifts and the ability to make much longer drifts than their spinning combo counterparts. Rods are generally long, between 11.5 and 14 feet long. The center pin reel is the basis behind this technique. These reels resemble fly reels, but with a larger diameter. The main difference is that center pin reels are free-spinning with no drag mechanism. Essentially, the angler's hand acts as the drag when fighting a fish. The spool sits on a central spindle and line peels from the reel smoothly when pulled by the stream current. Center pin reels for steelhead should hold 250-300 yards of 8-10 pound test line.

Fly Fishing

Anglers can use 6-8 weight fly rods that are between 8-11 feet long to catch steelhead. However, a 7 weight, 10 foot long rod is considered a good all around steelhead rod for the Lake Erie tributaries. This size can be used effectively to dead drift egg patterns or swing streamer patterns. Fly rods of 7 weight plus often come with an extended fighting butt, which is helpful when fighting these powerful fish. Fly reels should have a smooth adjustable disc drag system and have the capacity to hold the floating fly line and at least 100 yards of 20 pound test dacron backing. Large arbor reels are ideal for steelhead fishing. The larger spool diameter of these reels allows for quicker line retrieval, reduces line memory and allows for a more consistent, uniform drag. Most steelhead anglers go with a weight forward floating fly line because of its versatility; it can be used effectively for dead drifting with a strike indicator and also works well casting large streamers.

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