Looking for cold ‘steel’ in the Erie tributaries

The fall run of steelhead is well under way on the Lake Erie tributaries in Pennsylvania.

About 25 years ago, I first started traveling to Erie County each fall and winter to fish for steelhead. Back then, the “smaller” ones averaged around five toseven pounds, with a fair number of fish pushing the eight- to nine-pound mark. A 10- or 11-pound steelie would usually be over 30 inches long. My personal best steelhead taken in an Erie tributary weighed 13 pounds 13 ounces and taped just over 34 inches long. Even though Erie is about a three-hour trek from the Altoona area, doing battle with a few of those big lake-run rainbows usually made the effort worthwhile.

In recent years, however, the Erie steelhead runs seemed to be off somewhat, both in the numbers and average size of the fish. But so far this fall, all the reports I have received have been encouraging. Several Erie steelhead guides I talked to are reporting the best run of fish in the past five years. The average size of the steelies they are catching has been much better too.

We downstate anglers face a few obstacles when it comes to experiencing the great steelhead fishing available in the northeast corner of the state. The first is timing. Good fishing conditions often come in spurts generally related to rain and water conditions. Some of the best fishing will happen just the creeks are going down but still a little off color after a significant rain. Because the Erie tributaries rise and fall rather rapidly with any rain event, it is easy to be there a day early or a day late.

Another problem for visiting anglers is finding a place to fish. Most of the Erie streams are small and flow mostly through private. Because of the crowds of anglers the steelhead run attracts, many landowners have chosen to post their land. Parking can also be a problem in those areas where fishing is permitted. Fortunately, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has been working to obtain easements on some of the better steelhead streams to provide public fishing access. The PFBC website, www.fishandboat.com, has a whole section devoted to the Erie steelhead fishery. In addition to your regular fishing license, you will need a trout stamp and a Lake Erie permit or an Erie combo permit to fish for steelhead, either on the lakeshore or in the tributaries.

If possible, go to Erie on a weekday, and even then, don’t expect a lot of solitude if the fishing has been at all good. Weekends can be a little crazy at times, but I have had good fishing on a weekend too. Just be ready to deal with some crowds. In some ways, it’s not much worse than the opening day of trout season on some streams around here, only the fish up there are about ten times bigger.

When the water is low and clear, steelhead will stack up in the tails of pools and other locations in incredible numbers. Most of the time, fish that are staging in that manner develop a severe case of lockjaw and refuse to look at almost any offering tossed their way. Patience and finesse, along with presenting a wide array of flies or baits, will usually yield a hook-up or two even on the slowest days.

Life jackets mandatory during cold weather

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is reminding boaters that they are required to wear a life jacket from November 1 through April 30 while under way or at anchor on boats less than 16 feet in length or on any canoe or kayak. The requirement applies to all Pennsylvania waters.

“Life jackets are the most important piece of safety equipment on a boat,” says Ryan Walt, PFBC Boating and Watercraft Safety Manager. “According to Pennsylvania’s boating accident reports, almost 80 percent of all boating fatalities happen to boaters not wearing a life jacket. A disproportionate number of the fatalities occur during the months of November through April. During these cold weather months, boaters are especially at risk due to the water temperature and the risk of sudden cold-water immersion.”

Cold water, of course, is what this law is all about because falling into cold water is extremely dangerous. And the colder the water, the greater that danger becomes. That’s why most of the most of the common excuses for not wearing a life jacket have even less validity from late fall through early spring. At the top of that list is: “I’m a good swimmer.” In reality, surviving a fall from a boat or the capsizing of a canoe or kayak has absolutely nothing to do with swimming ability. Such an event is an accident, which is likely to happen quite suddenly and unexpectedly. It’s also highly possible you might be injured while going overboard. Add to the fact the crippling shock of being plunged into frigid water and the situation is anything but a routine dip in the backyard swimming pool.