The northeast's best kept secret - Steelhead Alley
Tucked away in the corners of Northeast Ohio, Northwestern Pennsylvania and New York, is a world class fishery that few even know exist. I have fished my entire life, for an array of species, and I have used a plethora of tactics, baits and approaches in my angling career, but even I never knew this experience was in my own back yard. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who was unaware, but I sure am glad I found out!
Growing up in Ohio, I never had any experience fly fishing. I was very aware it existed, but thought it was something that was only done in the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest. It’s something that intrigued my inner fisherman, but I had no idea how to go about getting started. Several years ago, my wife purchased me a fly rod as a Christmas present. Even though I was stoked to get such and awesome gift, I had no idea how to use it. I watched countless YouTube videos about casting, tying your own flies, and trout and salmon excursions other’s had posted in video form. That’s’ when I stumbled across Steelhead Alley.
In the mid 1990’s, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York began stocking Steelhead Trout, a migratory variant of Rainbow Trout, into the connecting tributaries of Lake Erie. Each spring, the three states stock hundreds of thousands of smolt, or 1 year old Steelhead that average approximately 8 inches apiece. After spending two years in Lake Erie, these fish have typically increased in size by over a foot, and weigh somewhere between 4-5 pounds, and they return each fall to these tributaries to breed. This is where the fun begins.
After decades of stocking, these connecting tributaries of the three states have become a haven for fly fishermen across the country. Intrigued by my findings, I set out with my brother to try our luck. He purchased a fly rod, and we shared videos with one another in an effort to figure out how to go about catching a Steelhead. The spawning period lasts from October to April, typically, but the late fall and early winter months are considered prime time.
We made at least a dozen trips, which were approximately an hour and a half drive for both of us, fished several different rivers, and attempted various flies, lures, and set-ups. After an entire season of Steelhead fly fishing, we landed nothing. I was fortunate enough to hook one, but in a panic, I lost it quite quickly. We were dumbfounded. Two grown men, who had plenty of fishing experience, had done all the research, and spent more money than we intended, had been skunked for an entire season. Talk about demoralizing.
We spent the off-season trying to figure out where we went wrong. Granted, we had done many things right, but apparently not enough. We had learned many different fly fishing techniques, casting methods, set ups, and used various baits, but none of them equated to us landing any fish. As the following summer rolled around, we began our preparations for year two. My wife, who had never seen me so frustrated with any fishing experience in my life, opted to purchase us a fly fishing package for Father’s Day. Hopefully, this would be the break we needed to finally figure out what we had been doing wrong this whole time.
We scheduled our trip for late November, and after several conversations with our guide, Dan Bennett, we agreed to fish Elk Creek, a small tributary in Northwest Pennsylvania, just over the Ohio border. He determined that based on water levels, clarity, and the time of the year that this would be our best bet to finally land a Steelhead. This was also a private stretch of the river, so we wouldn’t have to fight through other anglers, like we had on previous trips. Dan also had great familiarity with this stretch of Elk Creek, so my brother and I agreed, despite the additional cost. The trip included an 8 hour day of fishing, all equipment and tackle, and even a lunch. We were ready!
When the day came, we met Dan bright and early, and followed him to the section of the creek we intended to fish. He had much better equipment than we did, and he put us in spots that he had caught fish before. After a brief explanation of how to use the equipment, which also gave us the opportunity to see what we had been doing wrong, he let us fish independently. His entire setup was different than we had attempted over the previous season. Occasionally, he would correct our form, redirect our casts, informed us of the importance of mending to eliminate drag from the line, or remind us to set the hook upstream every time our float sunk.
Then, it happened! After what I assumed to be my float submerging from being stuck on a rock, I reeled it in. Dan quickly informed me that it was, in fact, a fish, and I should’ve set the hook. I threw it back into the same spot, and watched my float disappear yet again. I set the hook, and the fight was on. Reeling in anything on a fly rod is so incredibly different than any spinning reel or bait caster I have ever used. The precision required is necessary though, and any wrong moves can cause you to lose your fish. I had landed our first Steelhead in about twenty minutes of fishing. I was extremely excited, but I had no idea what we had in store for us that day.
My first Steelhead
Both my brother and I tied onto one after another. We had short periods with no bites, and we lost a few that we probably should have landed, but we caught Steelhead like we never had before. Even in driving snow storms, the fish kept biting, and they seemingly got bigger and bigger as the day progressed. We stopped for lunch in midafternoon, and returned to the water shortly thereafter. The fishing intensified in the afternoon. Over our final two hour stretch, we landed some monsters. Around 3:00 that afternoon, our day ended. We were exhausted and elated at the same time. We had no idea that we would have such an awesome day on the water.
My brother, Cody, lands his first Steelhead
If you have the opportunity to visit what we call “Steelhead Alley”, my advice to you is to seek a guide. Not only are these fish hard to find, but every other aspect of your presentation, casting and positioning on the water has to be perfect. We learned so much in one year, but that day on the water with Dan took us to the next level.