November Steelhead Outing 2011

After battling low water in the streams around Erie, PA for the last couple of years, almost no returning fish last year, and then flood conditions in New York this spring, we said we weren’t going again until reports of fish and water levels were back to normal. Then sitting around the camp fire at the October outing at Big Run State Park, we started feeling the pangs of Steelhead withdrawal and decided we would rather deal with poor conditions than to not go Steelhead fishing at all. Besides, no matter the conditions we always do manage to catch at least a few fish.

There was some discussion about going to New York and the Salmon River, we’ve fished the Salmon the last two springs, but it soon became apparent the guys that go on these Steelhead outings really prefer the creeks of Pennsylvania. They’re smaller and easier wading for one, but that’s not really the reason, more importantly they’re beautiful. From the top of the ridges they look like ribbons of water that twist and wind their way through conifer and hardwoods. They resemble true trout water, dark pools gather at the base of high banks, in between wide riffles tumble through pocket water and duck under the root balls of overhanging trees, where huge fish can often be seen tucked amongst their gnarl. This intimacy in size gives these creeks a special charm. Anyway, it’s what we all like.

And sure enough, as in years past, the water was low. Pulling off the interstate to check the big pool on upper Elk Creek it was even lower than last year and resembled a huge stone bowl with a little water slowly swirling in the bottom, choked with leaves and completely devoid of fish.

Pushing on East we headed for 20 mile Creek which usually holds more water even in dry times. Stopping to gas up along the way we noticed some puddles and wet pavement on the west side of Erie so they had had a little rain, and this year it even felt like steelhead weather, cold, windy and overcast, the skies looking angry enough to rain, sleet or snow.

We parked something less than a mile upstream from the mouth where there is an access path running along the edge of a field before it plunges down the ridge and onto the creek. Last year the remnants of a bell pepper crop were still rotting off the vine when we walked through, this year it was discarded pumpkins littering a far edge. Directly across the road from where we park there is a vineyard, and every year piles of old grape skins left from the juice pressing are piled in this field probably to be used as fertilizer. In 2009 an unseasonably warm November awakened a horde of fruit flies, and when temperatures dropped they invaded our parked vehicles and hitchhiked back to Maryland with us - I was still killing fruit flies in January. This year I noted the skin piles were on the far side of the field, which made me wonder if there hadn’t been some feedback from fishermen.

Opening up the truck cover we geared up and soon noticed anglers trudging back through the field stringers of fish hoisted over shoulders, the tails of the larger fish dangling down past wader belts. This spoke volumes and hurried us along in our preparations. Getting down to the creek I was relieved to see enough water to sport some good riffles, and at the first long pool we ran into fish. Just below the old mill ruin there’s a high bank with a long pool at its foot, and as we approached its dark green surface it erupted in boils as panicked fish spurted away in waves.

There is one big advantage to low water, if the fish are in the shallows you get to hunt and sight cast to individual fish and when it works see the take. The big disadvantage is that in these conditions the fish generally get pounded by anglers. No real place for the fish to seek refuge they often pile up in the deeper holes and just sulk. Fish are indeed caught by drifting flies through these pods, but this can end up in snagged fish; the leader tickles and spooks a fish that in turn spooks the other fish that then scatter causing the leader to get caught on a fin pulling the hook into a fish. However, if there are no fish in the runs and riffles, then its pool fishing or nothing.

Ken Bowyer landed one

We had some foul hookups, but we also fair hooked and landed some. On the first day Ken Bowyer got one on a size #14 red San Juan worm fished with no weight, Carl Smolka one on a white foam egg, and I caught one on a white woolly bugger, then things got tough for awhile. After a few hours I delved into my private stash of Dick Friis tied flies. I don’t know if Dick spits on these things or what, but several times over the last few years I’ve been able to end the drought with one of his creations. On the third or fourth drift with some cherry sucker spawn a fish, just like she was on cue, slid out from under a root ball and smacked the fly.

On the way back out to the truck I was suddenly confused about where to intersect the path back to the road. I muddled around a while then finally asked another angler. For some reason my memory melded Elk Creek and 20 Mile together confusing the land marks. I felt a little silly, but then on the way back to the motel we cruised four exits in a row before finding the right one and the Red Roof where we were staying. I told Ken that if we were ever to venture into true wilderness we would probably profit from hiring a guide.

An angry Lake Erie near 16 Mile Creek

Bob O"Donnell's 8.5+ lb. Steelhead

Friday we woke up to snow. Not a lot, but enough to almost cover the leaves in places. It was 36 degrees and the wind was gusting between 12 and 20 miles an hour. Driving east towards the New York border we had a mix of snow and sleet greasing the road and was glad we had put our gear on in the warmth of the motel that morning making rigging up a less frigid experience. We stopped at the mouth of 20 Mile Creek first joining a slew of vehicles already in the lot. People were already walking out finding it very low and no fish, so we drove back to the field parking lot. I decided to walk all the way down to the wire to a fairly nice pool just up from the no trespass sign where I found a half dozen skittish fish all trying to hide under one small branch. For the next three hours I showed them the contents of my boxes, hooked one, fairly I thought, that popped off as I skidded it up on the gravel bar, only to find an impaled scale on the hook point. Earlier in the trip, on Thursday, Bob O’Donnell hooked and landed a large Steelie that was also snagged up close to the head thinking fair hooked fish until after landing it. Sometimes it’s really hard to tell you’re snagged if you get them somewhere around the head until you get them in because throughout the fight you’re able to raise their head and have a modicum of control. The wind was picking up and the temperature was dropping and so far that morning it had snowed, sleeted, and peppered us with pea sized ice balls. By lunch I was thinking we should try somewhere else and rounded up the guys to see if they wanted to check out the mouth of 16 Mile Creek. The waves pounding the beach looked like they were coming off an ocean instead of Lake Erie, and the creek mouth was completely different than last year. It’s now just a big wide deep looking creek about half way up to the low waterfall, then a long mud bar the rest of the way where bait fishermen had poked forked sticks into the mud to hold their rods.

Not sure where else to go we pondered the maps and ended up at a new place for us, the Stinson Road access to 20 Mile Creek. The Creek is a little smaller up there but we found some fish along with a fair number of other anglers. Bob and Carl walked down stream then back up reporting a good deep run around the bend but said it was surrounded by anglers. They came back just in time for two other guys to vacate a pool just above me that held a good number of fish. After a fruitless hour I waded down to find Ken but along the way I came to that deep run Bob reported earlier. There was an angler at each end but twenty yards of free space in between and fair number of large Steelhead slowly cruising its length. Fishing the deeper slot where the fish were holding I changed flies for a half hour or so before putting on some chartreuse meth tied on a #12 scud hook. Following the line as it drifted through I could see fish move out of its way.

Dennis's on Chartruese Crystal Meth

I got the idea to drift it through the shallow water over a light colored shelf where a fish would occasionally rise out of the deeper water, skim the shelf, and then slide back into the deeper slot. Remember, this was the same fly that was scaring fish in the deeper water, but up on the shelf they were suddenly interested. A fish followed it without taking on the first cast, and then a couple casts later three or four huddled up shoulder to shoulder to watch it slide across the shelf. I didn’t quite see the take, but when the line stopped I set the hook and she was there. There must be thousands of theories why steelhead will or will not hit, and I’m not going to bore you with any of mine here, but I think this totally unpredictable behavior of the fish is one of the great charms of the sport. You can drift a fly past fish 100 times without a second look, and then on the 101st, wham! I really wanted to land this one and gave it some play but really didn’t need too; it was hooked so solidly in the corner of the jaw I tore up the sparkle braid on the hook getting it out.

Walking back up to the pool where the guys were I stood on the bank to warm up. Every year at least one of us hooks into a huge fish that screams off reminding us what these small creeks can hold, this year it was Carl. He hooked a fish on a hot glue pink egg cluster that peeled off line all the way into the backing making the reel scream. Following the fish up creek he tried to keep enough pressure on the fish to gain back some line and some control but the fish snapped his 3X fluorocarbon tippet. I was stamping me feet trying to induce some circulation and he said a few minutes ago he was cold too, but after that fish he was still warm from the experience. It was late afternoon and my thoughts were turning to large slabs of grilled meat. We had spotted a steak house the night before and I was thinking we should make that our last pool.

We had parked on a bend of the road and now standing next to the truck taking my rod down I heard a dog. I looked up to see a car coming towards us that was at least still an 8th of a mile away with a huge dog’s head sticking out of the back window mouth open and ears back. Most dogs like me, but this one had the indisputable look and sound of a dog that would gladly tear my butt up if the driver would just stop the car. By the time they went by he had wriggled a third of his body out of the window and looked as big as a wolf and mad as hell. Maybe we were parked in his spot? Don’t know, but whatever the reason I was glad he was hanging out of the inside lane window as they rolled on by well out of reach.

The last day was Saturday and a warming trend was in the offing. Back at our usual spot on 20 Mile we walked up creek instead of down. We found some spooky fish in the pools to which we drifted small nymphs. Small black stoneflies with no indicator and 5X tippet would spook them; just the sight of the fly within a foot or two of them was enough to make them slide out of the way.

By 9 o’clock the sun was breaking out and I was shedding clothes. Carl found some fish holding in a pool and fooled one of them with a stonefly. I found and was terrorizing two fish under a hemlock branch just downstream of Ken who was positioned at the tail of a pool. Walking down to ask Carl what he had used to fool the fish I spotted an elongated shape in a fast run just below a slot in the rock. First time I had seen this all trip and had to wade out a little to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. Nope, it was a fish. I drifted some copper crystal meth, and once I got the fly weighted enough to drift on the bottom she took it without hesitation.

A couple hours later, getting warmer and brighter, the two fish I was drifting to sliding two feet apart on every drift to let the fly pass through had me thinking maybe it was time to go. We needed a weather change and this wasn’t it. Since the last showers had quit the fish had just turned to lying on the bottom. Sometimes it’s hard to pull the plug and break free of the place, and Ken, who earlier had a couple hook ups on an olive beadhead was still game. But, after some discussion of where else we could go we ended up opting for a sit down lunch and headed out afterwards.

On the way back to Maryland we discussed the upcoming spring outings and decided to go back to Erie in March. I’ll post more information as we get closer but we are thinking about the 3rd week.

Dennis Covert


Ken and Dennis

Dennis's 26" Fatty

Carl and Ken walking thru the woods

Field we park at for 20 Mile

Another view of Lake Erie

Ken fighting one

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This document last modified 11/22/11