Steelhead, whom I heard referred to as a rainbow on steroids, is a fish that makes its annual spawning migration from Lake Erie into the creeks and tributaries of Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio.
Some of the local names I also heard them called include “steelies,” “chromers,” “silver bullets,” and “hens and bucks,” just to name a few. After my first fish hooked, I called them tenacious, powerful, acrobatic, and heartbreaking.
When I hooked my first steelhead, I vividly remember exercising all emotions in less than two minutes and then observing it swim away with my fly. I felt like I was standing alone on the prom dance floor and watching my best friend take my girlfriend home.
During years past I had read with envy about this special area in Pennsylvania being part of “Steelhead Alley” and the big fish that made this area famous. I wanted to meet firsthand the fish which drove fishermen into frustration personally fits. I was graciously invited to see for myself what the fuss was all about. I wasn’t disappointed and promised myself to return.
With a standing invitation from my buddy Jack Barr, a good friend and local guide with intimate knowledge of these tributaries, I headed north from South Carolina. I knew Jack’s thirty years of local knowledge of Steel Alley would help me better understand this fishery and the dynamics involved in maintaining it. But, most importantly, it would help me learn how to catch these fish.
The first morning Jack rode over to the mouth of a creek closed to fishing. I never will forget the words that came from my lips, and I dare not repeat them here. Standing on the bridge and watching hundreds of steelhead stacked in a pool so thick I could step across their dorsal fins is not for the faint of heart, especially if you are a fly fisherman. I think Jack was testing my heart rate and restraint before fishing. For fifty yards all I could see was a ball of dark, long fish mushroomed into a deep pool of running water.
Watching them dart, jump, and crash into each other, creating surface tension, was a piscatorial circus to enjoy. I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by their size, strength and agility. In my mind, I quietly picked a single out of about 8 pounds and hooked him. Then Jack bumped my arm and broke my concentration as I tussled with my imaginary fish. He told me there was something else I needed to see. It was time to leave anyway because this mythical steelhead broke off as he peeled my backing.
At our second stop, swimming into the mouth of this creek twenty feet from the water’s edge of Lake Erie were thousands of steelhead trying to make their way upstream, only to be blocked from passage further by a barrier and low water. It was surreal to fathom the large numbers of fish staged here.
This creek provided an area where these fish could be netted and stripped of eggs, fertilized, and later released. The fertilized eggs would be taken over to the nurseries to grow and eventually stocked back into Lake Erie.
Seeing hordes of fish stacked up naturally in a tiny creek was nothing short of amazing. It makes a person appreciate all the hard work of maintaining this fishery. I would have enjoyed lying flat on the creek bottom and letting thousands of fish swim over me, but I was informed this area was monitored and protected. It would have been a great picture to send back home to my buddies. My wife always accused me of being a little boy about my fishing. She may be right. Jack mentioned something about lunch, but who could eat? I couldn’t quit thinking about the fish.
Visually observing and standing amid a gazillion-spawning steelhead is breathtaking for sure. This is going to be easy pickings, I thought as I watched them. That idea lasted about an hour and a half, or not long after we started fishing.
When we reached our third destination, it was finally time to flip a fly at them. I quickly threw on waders, readied my fly rod and snickered, looked at Jack and said,
“What’s taking you so long to get ready, Bo?”
“Don’t you hear em?”
“Come to me they say.” He laughed and we gathered the rods and briskly walked upstream.
Approaching the river, the first thing I noticed was the extremely low water levels. It reminded of the rained-starved rivers back home. These types of conditions force a stealth approach. Combined with the above circumstances, the lack of rain would make the fish extraordinarily spooky and sensitive to movement and shadows.
The river, a hint of what it should have been, was still beautiful and pristine. I tried to imagine it at full pool. The streambank was carpeted with fallen leaves, distinctly outlining the river’s edge. Nothing a good rain couldn’t flush out.
The river itself consisted of a series of shale rock shelves with crystal clear water polishing the slippery, gray bottom. Pockets of leaves were also nestled on the rock outcrops, which were perfect for snagging errant flies that drifted too close. A few leaves were still falling but overall, the trees were almost bare. The ones left gave the woods a muted brown and orange aura on an overcast, chilly fall afternoon.
I had spent months tying eggs, large stone flies, and a box of other assorted flies in preparation for this day. Luckily for me, I threw in a couple of boxes of my trout “wet” fly patterns and nymphs when packing for the trip, hoping for the opportunity to introduce them to a few Southern Appalachian flies. There are some items that I don’t leave home without.
The first run we approached had faster water at the head and a long tail out below. The foam line riffles separated around a rock outcrop, creating two distinct fishing avenues. A small pod of fish nervously swam back and forth in the tail out between the two runs.
I stood back from the water’s edge and softly landed a size 10 soft hackle above the fish, and high-sticked the rod as it drifted down and across. These steelhead were in constant motion, back and forth, seeming indecisive about whether to keep migrating upstream or hang around and tease my fly.
Careful not to line the fish and keep the fly visually first in their line of sight required aerial mends a considerable distance ahead of the fish’s vision. They were spooky and I suspected they had been fished too heavily, which Jack confirmed. As we fished up the river, he enlightened me about their migration patterns which helped me understand how to fish for them.
On the third cast, my flyline suddenly stopped and twitched. Instinctively I lifted the rod tip up and was introduced to my first steelhead. This river monster appeared aggressive and after a hard first pull, it acrobatically spit my fly back at me. Welcome to Steelhead Alley, I thought. I didn’t know it then, but history would repeat itself several times that afternoon.
After the first fish encounter, I became weak-kneed, disappointed, and defeated. I found a rock formation on the stream bank that resembled a stone bench. It would become a place of reverence and mourning where I could sit and cry in my waders. Jack laughed and told me to get used to losing fish as the day was still long. He graciously consoled me by stating that an average person only lands about one out of five fish and I still had several more to go. I hoped to prove this theory wrong.
Not long afterward, my confidence finally increased by landing a couple of steelheads in a row. It’s amazing how the law of averages quickly catches up and forced repeat visits to the weeping bench. These fish are fighters. Their bull-dogged determination not to be led around by a leash excited every nerve ending. But what’s not to like about catching big fish?
Between fishing days, one evening I was lucky enough to attend a monthly meeting of the PA Steelhead Association in Erie. It was impressive to hear about the ongoing projects and accomplishments of their volunteers. They are to be commended for their hard work and efforts and their affection for the fishery and the fish. Listening to their conversations and speaker, their passion was evident.
Afterward, I reviewed their website, and it was easy to grasp a clear understanding of their objectives, which include preserving and protecting the steelhead fishery in Pennsylvania, working on habitat improvements, continuing to establish increasing public access and assisting other organizations in maintaining the trout nurseries and creating a viable steelhead fishery. Their energy is contagious.
The second morning started off with drinking coffee and meeting the morning crowd at Folley’s. It was fun to hear the stories and get the local fishing report. No trip to Erie will be complete without stopping back by. Anytime a group of fishermen gathers in one location, the stories exchanged are always truthful, factual, believable, and almost as deep as the river. Needless to say, I never met a fly shop that didn’t have something I couldn’t live without. If fish weren’t calling our name so loud, I would have enjoyed more time perusing the fly bins for some local patterns.
Then it was time to start the next adventure. We decided to hike upstream, crossing and climbing around several miles of the layered shale streambank, searching for pods of fish. We found some scattered and tucked in various eddies and landed quite a few, beating the odds from the first day.
It was also nice to land a few fish using southern wet fly patterns and I was glad I had overpacked extra fly boxes. Like trout fishing anywhere, positioning correctly to make an accurate cast is imperative. It didn’t take long to see why Jack calls steelhead fishing addictive. I could quickly develop this habit.
Jack’s passion for the fish and the entire steelhead fishery was apparent as we walked and talked and fished for several days. His persona reflected a quiet admiration and deep affection for this valuable resource in Pennsylvania. It’s an incredible fishery that requires constant monitoring in an ineffable setting.
The picture in my mind of enduring the powerful pull from muscular fish and watching a 7-weight fly rod bend in half, standing chilled on a streambank, is a photo embedded deep in my memory. I will never tire of these recollections but most importantly, I will remember spending good times with a good friend.
Jack Barr can be reached at;
Be sure to check out his Facebook Page;
Raise the Barr Guide Service
Don’t forget to also read about the excellent work of the PA Steelhead Association
Folly’s End Campground.