Lake Erie Steel
By: Mark Romanack
The author (left) and friend of the show Rob Jones teamed up to catch these Lake Erie steelhead while filming an episode of Fishing 411 TV a few years ago. The Lake Erie steelhead fishery has remained stable for many years and indications are this gift from the fisheries biologists of Ohio and Pennsylvania will continue to be the gift that keeps on giving.
If 20 years ago you would have told me that Lake Erie would offer the best steelhead fishing in the Great Lakes, I would not have believed it possible. Apparently, all things are possible when fisheries biologists get creative in their thinking and strategy efforts.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Pennsylvania Department of Conservation have both played a major role in establishing steelhead into the Central and Eastern Basins of Lake Erie through an aggressive stocking effort. While most people think of Erie as prime habitat for walleye, perch and smallmouth bass, the truth is parts of Lake Erie could also be described as ideal for producing steelhead. The deeper and cooler portions of the Central and Eastern Basins are capable of supporting significant numbers of both walleye and steelhead.
The first steelhead stocked into Lake Erie dates back to the 1880’s and were fish from the McCloud River in California. Because these fish were stocked in Sandusky Bay, an unsuitable habitat, the efforts failed.
In 1975 a second stocking effort was undertaken involving chinook salmon, coho salmon and steelhead. The chinook and coho did poorly, but the steelhead enjoyed marginal success. In the 1980’s Ohio started stocking London strain raised at the London, Ohio hatchery. A few years later the Little Manistee strain of steelhead from Michigan were introduced into Lake Erie. The Little Manistee strain proved to be more reliable and 1996 Ohio shifted over completely to using this strain in their stocking efforts.
Pennsylvania also contributes to the Lake Erie steelhead fishery, by capturing wild fish from tributary streams and rearing smolts in the Fairview Fish Hatchery. Approximately a million steelhead smolts a year are produced by Pennsylvania and released into Lake Erie each March.
OPEN WATER ACTION
Because steelhead are a pelagic species, they thrive in the open waters of Lake Erie where the water temperature is suitable and also where they find abundant forage in the form of rainbow smelt. Generally speaking these fish spend most of their lives in the middle of the lake, the eastern end of the lake and also along the Ontario shore where ideal conditions for steelhead are found.
A critically important part of finding these fish involves finding sub-surface water temperatures suitable to steelhead. Using a sub surface probe such as a Fish Hawk X4D anglers can easily find the ideal 50-60 degree water temperatures steelhead seek out. The added benefit of the Fish Hawk is it allows anglers to monitor their trolling speed at depth.
While steelhead will strike a variety of lures, most of the open water fish are caught by anglers trolling wobbling style spoons. Downriggers, diving planers and weighted lines such as lead core fished in combination with in-line boards are typically used to get spoons to depth.
Standard and mini or medium sized trolling spoons are the best choice for targeting steelhead. To get the maximum action from these lures a quality ball bearing swivel must be used. Ordinary crane or brass barrel swivels simply do not allow spoons as much freedom of movement in the water.
Often steelhead will school up along the thermocline which separates the icy cold depths from the warmer surface water. Typically the steelhead will be found in or very near this temperature break and walleye who also feed heavily on smelt often school in the same areas.
It’s common to find steelhead and walleye mixed in the same areas on Lake Erie. Jake Romanack (right) and Rob Jones (AKA the SmashMaster) had an awesome day on Lake Erie trolling SilverStreak spoons for this mixed bag.
In the fall, winter and spring steelhead run a variety of tributary streams found in eastern Ohio, Pennsylvania and the New York waters of Lake Erie. A significant fishery nicknamed “steelhead alley” offers anglers some of the best stream steelhead fishing in North America.
Rolling spawn along the bottom or fishing spawn below a float are the two presentations that produce the majority of steelhead in tributary streams.
The tributary streams that feed eastern Lake Erie are in general pretty small in size. Over crowding among fishermen often occurs in popular fishing spots, especially on weekends.
The forage base and the steelhead stocking program on Lake Erie both appear to be stable. This amazing fishery has been providing anglers consistently great fishing year after year and there is no indication that will change anytime soon.
Now that American fishermen can travel to and from Ontario with a vaccination passport and American fishermen can fish border waters without needing a vaccination record, things should start getting back to normal.