Cold not a bother for steelhead anglers
For area fishermen who are looking for a trophy-size, late-fall challenge, pursuing steelhead trout in Erie County or steelhead and/or salmon in the northwest part of New York State can be a very fulfilling option.
Steelhead trout normally start running from Lake Erie into the tributary creeks surrounding Erie in the middle of October, and continue running into late February or until the beginning of March of the following year.
In New York State, the salmon run from Lake Ontario into the tributary creeks from October until mid-December.
Both species of fish attain impressive size, according to Creg Strock, the owner and proprietor of the Aquatic Imitations fly and tackle store two miles east of Hollidaysburg.
“If you get a 27 to 32-inch steelhead, you have a big fish,” said Strock, who has made the four-hour trip from Blair County to Erie County many times in his life to fish for steelhead with fly patterns. “Up in New York, the salmon start at 34 inches and go up to 40 or 40-plus inches.”
Strock said that the most popular Erie County creeks for steelhead are Elk Creek, Walnut Creek and Six Mile Creek.
“I’ll probably try to make two trips up there in December, maybe two in January, and maybe one in February,” Strock said of his upcoming Erie County travel plans.
Weather generally isn’t a factor for Strock during his winter-time steelhead excursions.
“Unless it gets below zero or we have a major snowstorm,” Strock said. “I dress warm enough for the cold between my Neoprene chest waders and thermal underwear. I stay warm down to zero. The weather doesn’t bother me.”
Tina Ritchey of Hollidaysburg and her boyfriend, Matt Takach of Indiana, Pa., made a three-day fishing trip up to Elk Creek in Erie County for steelhead in late October.
Using an 8-weight fly rod and salmon egg fly patterns made by Takach, Ritchey landed one steelhead and enjoyed the time of her life.
“We landed four fish total – he caught three and I caught one, and I’m guessing that we probably hooked at least 14,” Ritchey said. “He had one fish that weighed almost 10 pounds, and the one that I landed was probably four or five pounds.
“It was awesome,” Ritchey said of her first-ever trip to Erie for steelhead fishing. “I’m ready to go back. Going up there and experiencing the steelhead fishing was probably one of the best fishing experiences that I’ve had in my life.”
Ritchey has fished for trout with a spinning outfit and baby nightcrawlers on streams in this area for many years. She said that steelhead fishing in Erie County is a total different ballgame.
“They’re some pretty tough fish,” Ritchey said. “They’re tough to land. I like to describe them as trout on steroids.”
Patience is a virtue when pursuing steelhead, Ritchey said.
“There were guys standing right beside us who were there all day and who never got a bite,” Ritchey said. “It just honestly takes patience. On my third cast, I got a bite, but I lost it.”
Later on, she landed her first steelhead.
“I’m guessing that it took three or four minutes before it tired out and I could get it up towards the bank,” Ritchey said. “Matt netted it for me, but I reeled it in myself.”
Bigger nets come in handy when fishing for steelhead. Ritchey also faced a learning curve in Erie. She has only been fishing with flies since this past March, and she was unfamiliar with the surroundings on Elk Creek, having never fished that water.
“It’s a matter of paying attention to the water, and of guessing where (the fish) are, and where you think that they’re going to be sitting,” said Ritchey, pointing out that she and Takach released every fish that they caught. “The water there was deeper in spots, but there were also a couple places where the water was pretty low and you could see (the fish) in the water.
“You have to be diligent about sneaking up on them, and once you hook them, you really have to play with them to get them in,” Ritchey added. “It’s difficult, especially for somebody like me who had never (fished for Erie steelhead) before. It was a lot to learn, and I lost a good bit of them because of the learning process.”
Strock made his second trip to New York State to fish for salmon in late October. He and several friends made the six and a half-hour drive to fish in the Buffalo suburb of Lake Orchard.
Rods used for salmon and steelhead are much heavier than the standard rod that is used for trout while fishing in this area, Strock said.
“Around here for trout, you would use a 3, 4 or 5-weight rod,” Strock said, pointing out that the weight total refers to the stiffness of the fishing rod. “When fishing for salmon in New York, I use an 11-foot, 10-weight fly rod, and for steelhead in Erie, you would use a 7 or 8-weight rod.
“Salmon average 15 or 30 pounds, and because of the size and weight of them, you really have to use a 10-weight rod,” Strock said. “They’ll break pretty much anything else.”
Last year in New York State, Strock caught a dozen salmon and a 38 and a half-inch brown trout that weighed 14 pounds, 10 ounces. He pulled in the big trout on a red rubber worm.
The biggest steelhead that Strock caught in his life was a 37-inch, 11-pounder taken on a purple Glo-Bug fly in Erie two years ago.
For anglers who have never fished for steelhead in Erie, Ritchey is quick to advocate making the trip.
“The only thing that I can say is that if you get the chance to go, definitely go,” Ritchey said.