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Steelhead Fishing in Lake Erie Tributaries

Lake Erie's tributary streams, both big and small, receive an annual run of migratory rainbow trout called "steelhead." From October through April, thousands of steelhead ascend New York's Lake Erie tributaries on their mission to spawn. Excellent fishing opportunities await any angler who wishes to try their hand at steelhead fishing. Between the acrobatic leaps, long drag-screaming runs and rod quaking head shakes, the fight of an early run steelhead is a truly exhilarating experience. It is no wonder that this steelhead fishery draws anglers from across New York, surrounding states, and Canada.

Lake Erie Steelhead

Steelhead that are fresh out of the lake are often very silvery like this Chautauqua Creek fish

New 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.

The 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

Angler with colorful male steelhead caught on Canadaway Creek

The 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

Cattaraugus Creek receives excellent runs of hefty steelhead

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.

Fishing Locations

Tributary fishing is by far the most utilized and productive aspect of the Lake Erie steelhead fishery. Any stream that empties into Lake Erie has the potential for a steelhead run. The major Lake Erie tributaries such as Cattaraugus, Canadaway, Chautauqua and Eighteen Mile Creeks are the most popular among steelhead anglers. This is due to the high quality of steelhead runs and the amount of public access on these streams. Stream information and Public Fishing Rights Maps that detail public fishing areas are available for each of these popular tributaries. Other tributaries such as Buffalo, Cayuga, Cazenovia, Silver and Walnut Creeks receive good runs of steelhead; however there is very limited or no public access on these streams. In addition, numerous small tributary streams or feeders to the larger streams can provide decent fishing. To fish sections of stream that are on private lands, you must have landowner permission. Your fishing license is not a permit to trespass on private property.

Chautauqua Creek catch and release section

Lake Erie harbors also offer steelhead and brown trout angling activity, most notably Dunkirk and Barcelona Harbors. Anglers can catch trout in these harbors from October through April; however the most productive months are March and April. Dunkirk Harbor remains a popular fishing site throughout the winter as a warmwater discharge from a power plant keeps the harbor ice-free. Sturgeon Point Marina, Buffalo Harbor and the Upper Niagara River also have some trout fishing activity.

Starting in mid-August, steelhead begin staging in deeper water off the major tributary mouths in preparation for their seasonal run. At that time, trollers can target steelhead in 70-90 feet of water. Spoons work well when run near the thermocline at 2-2.5 miles per hour. The deep water bite can last through September. As creek temperatures drop during September and October, trolling closer to the creek mouths becomes productive as the first of the steelhead start to enter the creeks. Also at that time, wading and casting spoons near creek mouths or from the Cattaraugus Creek breakwall works well at dawn and dusk.

Lake Erie Steelhead Fishing Overview Map (261 KB pdf file)