Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Find steelhead in Lake Erie’s unsung tributaries

(Photo courtesy ODNR Division of Wildlife)

By Jerry Bush
Contributing Writer

Most of Pennsylvania’s steelhead anglers have only visited the most popular tributaries – Elk, Walnut and Twelve Mile creeks. But the smaller tributaries deserve consideration because they can provide opportunities to avoid congested water.  

Some of the small tributaries are not stocked with steelhead smolts, but anglers should not be deceived. Contrary to false reports and popular belief, all steelhead do not successfully return to the tributary from which they were launched as  a smolt.  

Some steelies enter unfamiliar tributaries of opportunity, before exiting later to instinctively locate their home stream, but many never return exactly to their home water.   

According to Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission biologist, Mark Haffley, there are many reasons why steelhead are found in unstocked waters.

“The main factor affecting misguided return is smolts being stocked that are too large and have already gone through ‘smoltification’ – the process win which they imprint on the chemical signatures of the stream,” he said.  

Pennsylvania’s western most tributary is Conneaut Creek; though I hesitate to mention it simply because the mouth of this long tributary empties into the Ohio shoreline.  

If your goal is to get away from competitive anglers, enough steelhead swim upstream as far as Crawford County to provide a fun time on Pennsylvania water. 

But be careful here! Unlike most of Pennsylvania’s tributaries, Conneaut Creek’s bed includes silt. A careless angler could find himself in deeper water than expected, with stuck footwear to boot.  

Raccoon Creek empties into Lake Erie, next to Raccoon Creek Community Park, where an ample amount of parking can be found. This is one of those tributaries that only occasionally sees a steelhead stocking, and yet fish enter every autumn.  

Though the best fishing is at the mouth, some decent fishing and public access can be found where Raccoon Creek runs through State Game Land 314.  

Crooked Creek is located about 18 miles west of the city of Erie. It’s a fine fishery that receives far fewer visitors than the more popular Elk and Walnut creeks.  

Crooked Creek falls short of reaching south to I-90, but steelhead fishermen would be wise to recognize that water levels in shorter streams will recede quicker than those of long tributaries. So small streams are fishable sooner than longer tributaries after a hard rain.

Fishing is prohibited in the tributaries of Godfrey Run as well as Trout Run because both are nursery waters, but there is nothing stopping adventurous anglers from fishing in the lake, at the mouths of both streams.  

Some people claim the lake’s waters off Trout Run is the best place along the Pennsylvania shoreline to catch steelhead. Though fishing in Trout Run is prohibited, the tails and dorsal fins of hundreds of steelhead can often be observed in the tributary.  

It is a sight to see, and well worth a visit to show children or ignite an angler’s steelhead fever. 

Seven Mile Creek flows through the Glinodo Children’s Camp, a facility owned and operated by The Benedictine Sisters of the Catholic Church.  

Anglers are not permitted to drive on the property, but are welcome to park along Route 5 and walk in. Seven Mile has some interesting holes, and a decent number of steelhead enter this tributary annually.  

Twelve Mile Creek, in Harborcreek Township, is mysteriously spotty, but at times the fishing is awesome.  Its size suggests it would routinely hold large numbers of hard-fighting steelhead, at least between the lake and Route 5, but that is not always the case.  

Still, it’s a fine stream that receives little pressure, and is well worth investigating.  Lots of parking is available at Twelve Mile, and access to the creek is quick and easy, making it simple to check out the fishery before committing to a lengthy outing. 

Sixteen Mile Creek is one of my favorites. For 50 years, I lived near this tributary and saw that it held a decent number of steelhead without being stocked. 

Biologist Haffley informed me it is now stocked annually with 18,500 smolts. That is not an overly impressive number, because the vast majority of 18,500 smolts will not survive to return as adults, but it is encouraging when combined with the number of stragglers that also enter.  

Sixteen Mile is a good alternate when an angler is not in the mood to compete with the crowds at nearby Twenty Mile Creek.  

I believe Sixteen Mile’s lower portion is affected more than any other tributary by the predominant weather each year, and conditions inflicted by the lake’s changing temperament.  

It can provide great fishing one year and leave anglers scratching their heads the next. Most of the cause is attributable to changes occurring within a couple hundred yards of the tributary’s mouth.

I recall when a small waterfall existed 150 yards upstream. Though many fish easily cleared the feature, many others stacked between the cascade and the lake – and consequently were easy targets.  

An extremely heavy rain the next September erased that natural weir, causing the fishery to change dramatically.  

Lake Erie’s aggressive waves sometimes move enough sand and stones at the mouth, near Freeport Beach, to nearly dam the flow, which then restricts steelhead entry.  

Anglers who experience that rare condition should try fishing in the lake, at the mouth, where a quantity of steelhead will almost certainly be waiting to enter.

Please acquire permission before crossing any private property to access all Lake Erie tributaries. Only you can prevent a firestorm of outrage from landowners.  

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