The Thrill Of Catching Steelhead
Inside the Outdoors, February 26, 2010

It’s said that if one loves to fish for steelhead, there is no better place than Erie. There must be some truth to that statement because people come from all over the world to visit there annually to try to tag onto some of the heftiest rainbow trout catchable.

When I see pictures of what we consider keepable trout and then compare them to what is caught up there, it’s like A to Z – really there is no comparison. Down here we go by inches. Up there, pounds. A matter of fact, the average steelhead may weigh five to seven pounds. It is not uncommon to haul in ones in the 12 to 13 range.

Just a few notes about this fish, the steelhead does not reproduce on its own, generally. It is a stocked fish by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. According to one source, there are literally millions of fish dumped in the waters each year.

One of the most popular areas is Walnut Creek. Even though I hear about the goings on at other locations, it seems many people seem to congregate at the mouth of the popular water basin.

And anglers will continue to fish along the creek as long as they get permission from the landowners. Of course, that’s a two-way street, so to speak. As long as fishermen support and respect the landowners and care for their property, they will be able to have access to the creek. When anglers get sloppy, signs will be posted, and restrictions made. Once littering takes place, that’s always a sign that sportsman are not respecting landowners. Some people have even cleaned up after others just to make sure there will be continued access to favorite fishing holes.

By the way, if one is considering going up for his first time, and doesn’t know what to take, here are some pointers.

As far as equipment, take a rod that is nine feet or longer with a line weight of seven to nine pounds. I have heard of some using less pound weights, and I guess that is possible for the experienced angler only. Sinking line is a good option if streamers are to be used. Floating line is good for nymphing.

Traditional salmon streamers will usually work for steelhead, since the fish are closely related to salmon. Egg patterns and nymphs will also work. Some of the most steelhead flies include the woolly bugger, egg-sucking leech and Kaufmanns Stone. The best option, however, is to stop by a local fly shop for an update on patterns, stream conditions and where the fish may be holding. Nobody knows a stream better than a local guide, and one is bound to get some good tips if flies are purchased while procuring this information.

Here’s a good rule of thumb. In rivers that run to the ocean, these fish will begin to enter the streams after the few major storms of the season. I’m told, once the sandbars break free and the fish can access freshwater runs that lead to spawning grounds, they’ll begin to make their journey upstream. The smart move is to follow the path of the fish, from the river mouth upstream toward the spawning grounds and back down toward the ocean once the spawn has passed. Fish typically face upstream, so if one is fishing in that direction, one may do better, because, one, there aren’t so many anglers at a certain location, and as a result, fish are unlikely to be spooked.

If not successful at one place, keep moving. Steelheads typically stick to a certain area in a pool. So if one area does not produce fish keep moving upstream until a hole is found where the fish are hanging out.

Unlike salmon, steelheads often return to the ocean after spawning. Salmon typically die after the spawn, so while it may be OK to harvest salmon in some instances, it’s best to release a steelhead immediately and unharmed so they can carry out the spawning cycle and return next season. In so doing, one will ensure sold steelhead runs for years to come.

If anglers are thinking of making a trip to Erie and the waters in that region, consult a bait shop as to conditions. Right now the waters are frozen over and few fish are being caught. Once a thaw takes place, chances will improve greatly.

One last note. Tickets for the 37th Annual Forbes Trail Chapter of Trout Unlimited Banquet and Raffle are still available. They may be purchased at The Angler’s Room, Ligonier Outfitters, Loyalhanna Fishing Post, or by calling me at 724-539-8850 to set up a time for pick-up. Specify stuffed chicken or pork breast dinner. The price is only $25 per person.

- Paul J. Volkmann
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