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Autumn Steelhead Runs

Autumn Steelhead Runs Autumn Steelhead Runs
By Dave Adams

During the autumn steelhead runs, the major Lake Erie tributaries such as Elk Creek, Walnut Creek, and Twenty Mile Creek receive the bulk of angling attention. And although the lesser-known streams such as Crooked Creek and Sixteen Mile Creek provide ample opportunities, with smaller crowds, it was a weekday and fishing pressure was light.

"Catch any yet?" asked the young angler, who, unlike me was excused from a day of responsibility. I had called off sick. Fishing fever strikes hard and without warning. Thinking back to the days of writing my own excuses from school, I thought - only for a moment - about the young man`s excuse for truancy. Then, we continued with our ritual morning fishing conversation. "Yes," I answered, while looking down at the large steelhead, next to the bank.

"What are they hitting on?"

"It would be easier if I didn't have to holler 20 yards up to the road," I muttered. Then, loud enough for him to hear, "Mostly maggots, but had a couple hits on Power Bait," I said.

The stream we were at, like the others, can be accessed easily. Walnut, Elk, and Crooked Creeks are a short ride west on Pennsylvania, Route 5. Exit I-79 at the Presque Isle, and minutes later turn left on Route 5. Twenty Mile and Sixteen Mile Creeks are near the town of North East, which is located 15 miles east of Erie. Follow I-90, and exit to Route 89 north. Sixteen Mile Creek runs along Route 89 and Twenty Mile Creek is east on Route 5.

All offer a distinct advantage to the steelhead angler – beginning around the end of October and continuing until ice-up a large concentration of fish near a relatively short area of shoreline.

By its appearance, that morning, we could be at any other stream in Pennsylvania. It was slightly off-color, with a greenish tint and about 10 yards across. But there is one difference. We were at Elk Creek and below this Lake Erie tributary I knew they were there, remarkably beautiful and maybe approaching 20 pounds (the current Pennsylvania record is 20 pounds 3 ounces). When hooked, they display spectacular high acrobatic jumps, while intermingling runs the kind few fish can match for speed and strength.

While surveying the area thoroughly (for friends or teachers, I imagine) and looking somewhat lost in the world of steelhead fishing (equipment was too new), he walked down the path and said quietly, "Is the steelhead fishing as good as they say it is in the paper?"

"Oh no. Here we go again," even though my wife and usual fishing companion was not here, I could hear her saying that to me. She knows me well. Because I tend to lose track of time whenever I`m discussing any type of fishing. Having already enjoyed my morning, coffee in hand, and one fish caught, I could talk this young man’s ears off.

"When I first started fishing the 'tribs,'" I said, while adjusting the rocks under my posterior, "it was mostly for coho. But that program went by the wayside and was replaced by an ambitious and successful steelhead program."

We walked upstream while I explained that the stocking of steelhead actually began in 1961, when the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission released 15,000 steelhead fingerlings into the tributary waters of Lake Erie. It then evolved into a program that now includes the annual planting of 992,000 steelhead smolt; of which, at the time of release are between six and eight inches. After one to three years, they return (eight to 20 pounds heavier, though) to where they were originally stocked.

And, according to the March, 2001 Cold Water Task Group report, rainbow trout are the most stocked fish in Lake Erie, with each of the five state and provincial fisheries management agencies bordering Lake Erie maintaining a stocking program. Each year, approximately 1.98 million rainbow trout/steelhead are stocked into Lake Erie and its tributaries.

"That's a lot of fish," he said, sounding a little impatient. "What do you think will work best this morning?”

"It’s hard to say," I answered. "But any of the following baits will catch these silver bullets: nightcrawlers, maribou or hair jigs, minnows, maggots, mealworms, single eggs and skein, and spoons; then again, some fish with odd taste will be caught on corn or marshmallows. But if you’re searching for a general rule on steelhead fishing: ‘Keep presentations small - nymphs, maggots, and single eggs are best,' someone at Elk Creek Sports Center once advised me.’"

"Primarily, though," I said, "steelhead are in the water to spawn and most of the time their mind is not on eating. Whether its instinct or not, the trick is to find something that will trigger a response."

I let it go at that. He was getting anxious to fish. In a short while he will see that given the opportunity, steelhead will readily munch his offering of a black 1/32-oz. Mini-Foo jig, which was tipped with three maggots. He could have chosen a different color because the small hair jigs are available in a variety of colors, but white or black is best; and at times, brown or olive also are good colors.

"You know," I said, "while stream fishing, a weighted float (strike indicator) is preferred. That style of float not only allows for better casting, but also for better jig motion. Some days you want to let the jig float down by itself, but most days its better to jig with the float."

I was proud to see that this young angler's spinning reel had fluorocarbon line. Line weight and type is important. Currently, most anglers are using the new fluorocarbon lines in four-pound test. If the water is high or off color you can use a heavier line, but no more than six pound.

His presentation was ready. It was a perfect cast, slightly upstream and just ahead of the deeper pool. The equipment was new, but not his ability.

The float moved with the current. He was "ticking," perfectly.

By attaching a float just high enough, he was getting the bait and to just touch the bottom. The tributaries of Erie are mostly shale and he might get a few hang-ups, but he'll want to see his float stop, momentarily, just for a split second; then keep going, this means he is ticking the bottom. Most important, he will need to watch that float because just a small change in the drift or a stop in the float could mean a fish. Also, he should have the drift be as drag free as possible.

“Watch the float more than line,” I said, being the impatient mentor, again. “You don`t want a big curl of line in the water. Have the line follow the float and have it move the same speed as the current.”

"Fish on!" he shouted.

The steelhead, fresh from Lake Erie, ripped off line. The drag was screaming; as well as the young angler, “I can’t stop him!” he said. After the initial run, the fish leaped and danced across the water, each time its silver sides flashing off the morning sun. “Please don't snap his line,” I said to the fish. It didn`t. The young angler worked the fish like a pro and 10 minutes later, I slid the net under the steelhead.

“I guess I`ll have to buy you another reel for Christmas,” my son, Don said, proudly and with a huge smile. “This one is used.”

While I don`t advocate truancy from work or school, that day on such a world-class fishery did no harm. We left for home shortly after admiring his fish. Over dinner that night, my wife asked how his school day went. I looked away, as my son managed to say, “Fine.” He continued on with school, did well, and graduated with honors; after which, was appointed to United States Air Force Academy. He stills flies for his country and is expected home this autumn for at least one trip to Elk Creek.

Christmas morning, that year, long ago, I unwrapped a fishing reel. It appeared new yet had a slight aroma of fish. Now, years later and many fish caught, the reel was tired. It was not replaced. It still catches fish every time I look on my mantle. It`s scratched and dirty, while occupying a distinguished place next to the family pictures and trophies.

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DIRTBALL2 | Posted: September 6, 2002