Low & Clear on The Erie Tribs

Early Friday morning I drove to Erie, Pennsylvania to kick-off my 2016 steelhead season. I met my buddy Jon at the Green Roof Inn in Girard and we decided to start our weekend of fishing on lower Elk Creek below Uncle John’s Campground. I had been watching the fishing reports out of Erie for a few weeks and the reoccurring theme was few fish and low and clear water. After fishing the Salmon River for a month, I was familiar with drought conditions and low water, but Erie has not been experiencing drought conditions, simply low water. I wasn’t sure what the Erie tributaries would look like but I was expecting conditions similar to the 2015 season. When Jon and I arrived at the state lot below the campground, we got geared up and headed down to the creek. When we got to the water, my jaw hit the ground. I couldn’t believe how low the water was. Our favorite riffle water was down to a few inches at best and there was little to no water movement in areas where it traditionally flows strong. We walked down to the deep hole at the river bend below the campground and there we found fifteen fishermen throwing everything in their tackle box at twenty or so steelhead in the deeper water. The fish were boxed in to a small area and to say that they were "spooked" would be an understatement. While we observed a fish or two hooked while we looked on, not one of them was fair hooked or brought to hand. After watching several steelhead swim back and forth between fishing lines for an hour, Jon and I decided to move further up Elk towards the Legion Hole to see if we could locate better fishing opportunities.

 The low water on Elk Creek above the Rt. 20 bridge and the Legion Hole.

The low water on Elk Creek above the Rt. 20 bridge and the Legion Hole.

When we arrived at the Legion Hole, it was more of the same. The water in the hole was crystal clear and there were maybe thirty fish dodging fishing lines being thrown at them. At this point, Jon and I decided to split up and do some walking and try and get a better assessment of what the fish situation was. Jon headed downstream and I head upstream. There were a half-dozen steelhead in the large hole around the bend from the Legion Hole and there were a handful of guys pounding them over the head with lures. As I got up above this second deep hole, I was able to find riffle water that was just deep enough that it’d make for a good hiding spot for running steelhead. I had high hopes that like in years past, I’d eventually stumble onto a good number of fish laying in the riffles. It never happened. About 300 yards upriver, I found a decent section of water and located three steelhead. I tied on a fly called an Intruder and dead drifted it the best I could in the limited current moving into the pool. Fortunately for me, I was just quick enough to set the hook on a reasonably sized steelhead before he spit it out. When the fish took my streamer, he went on two or three exciting runs, complete with jumping out of the water. Here’s a short video clip I shot just after catching that fish.

Upon releasing my first steelhead of the season, I continued walking upstream. I walked another 300 yards to the property line and did not see another steelhead. I left no stone unturned, I looked everywhere and there were simply no fish. I buzzed Jon and told him I’d meet him back at my truck. When we rounded back up, we decided to grab some lunch and then head over to Walnut Creek.

We arrived on Walnut around 12:30pm. At this point there were a lot of folks coming off the water, so Jon and I figured it would be a good time to survey the creek. Below the Manchester Road Bridge there were a dozen decent sized steelhead spread out through the small series of pools. There were a good number of people casting at these fish, so Jon and I headed up to Manchester Hole. As expected, Manchester Hole had a good number of people, but there were also a decent number of fish. I attributed this to the direct runway of good water the fish have from the lake to Walnut Creek. As we observed at Elk, the water was clear and there was little to no movement in the water to drift normal steelhead fly fishing rigs. Jon and I were finally able to settle in upstream and we had a good number of fish to try and get flies to. I found that with the low and clear conditions, the standard steelhead patterns with their bright colors weren’t as effective. The estaz flies, the egg patterns, etc., they seem to turn off the steelhead in low water and bright conditions. Flies that are more effective in these conditions are some of the same small flies you’d use for fishing Pennsylvania trout, for example, pheasant tails, zug bugs, or san juan worms. Throughout the afternoon, Jon and I were both able to hook up with a couple of fish, but none were landed. The fish just seemed generally disinterested in eating anything.

Our buddy Mike drove over from Williamsport in the late afternoon and we fished Elk until dark. All of us had at least one hookup but we were unable to land any additional fish.

On Saturday morning, our strategy was to fish Elk Creek down by the Girard Waste Water Plant because Jon had discovered a deeper hole that was holding a good number of fish on Friday. We got up at 5:30am, got dressed and rigged up, and headed back to Elk. Using our headlamps we headed down to the spot Jon had found. We were the only guys on the river at first light. As the morning light illuminated the pool of water we were standing in, we saw close to thirty fish cruising around. When we cast our flies, weight or no weight, the fish would either scatter, or they’d swim five feet upstream, and then back. After a while, I felt like I could’ve had the same experience at a children’s pay-to-fish trout pond, and probably with less hassle. I decided to take a walk downstream. A couple hundred yards downstream I walked by a familiar hole and sure enough, there were three steelhead sitting in the still water. After several minutes of trying to drift tiny flies to them, I was able to hookup and fight a nice steelhead for a couple of minutes, but eventually lost him when he went on a several minute run followed by jumping and head thrashing. When I got back up to the spot we’d originally started on, Jon and Mike had enough of trying to convince non-eating fish to eat, and they were on board with heading elsewhere. Before we left, we walked upstream along the wall and checked the riffles at the bend. We didn’t see a single fish from the sewer plant to the Rt. 20 bridge. One thing that was news to me on this section of Elk was the removal of the old bridge down stream from the Legion Hole and just above the Rt. 20 Bridge. They completely bulldozed the bridge, removed it, and reformed that portion of the creek. Anyone who’s fished that area knows that it was a good holding area for running fish. There was a nice deep pool of water there that is now entirely gone. I guess things change whether you like it or not.

 The west side view of the area below the Legion Hole where they tore down the bridge.

The west side view of the area below the Legion Hole where they tore down the bridge.

 The east side view of the same area.

The east side view of the same area.

After our walk upstream we decided we’d drive to 20 Mile Creek. Like a guy coming off the water there said to us, “You owe it to yourselves to go down to the mouth and observe what’s going on.” We sure did. When we got down to the mouth of 20 Mile there were approximately a dozen guys on both sides of the creek chasing fish. There were crossed lines, broken lines, foul hooked fish, and it made you appreciate the good times. After deciding it was in our best interest to leave, we headed back southeast and checked out 16 Mile Creek. At the park, there were a half dozen fish in the large pool just before the lake and a guy was throwing some big spoons at them. After eating lunch, we headed south to check out Walnut again.

The Saturday Walnut Creek crowd was a bit heavier than Friday, but not too bad considering how it's been in years past.  During the first two hours on Walnut, I was able to hook up with two small steelhead in the narrow run above the Manchester Hole. I caught those two fish on a chartreuse Wooly Bugger and a Zug Bug.

 The small steelhead that crushed my chartreuse bugger.

The small steelhead that crushed my chartreuse bugger.

 Another small Walnut Creek steelhead I caught on a Zug Bug nymph pattern.

Another small Walnut Creek steelhead I caught on a Zug Bug nymph pattern.

Later in the afternoon, all three of us took a walk upstream to the big waterfall. Here we were able to fish the heavy water for a small pod of steelhead that were strong enough to run to this point in the creek. I hooked into my second best fish of the weekend in the white water and Jon was able to land him for me. It was in this same white water that Jon caught his first steelhead just a few minutes later. It was cool to see him hook into one after several close calls. The rest of the afternoon was uneventful and involved a lot of trying to dead drift small flies on light tippet to spooked steelhead.

 My second best steelhead of the weekend caught at the Walnut Creek waterfall.

My second best steelhead of the weekend caught at the Walnut Creek waterfall.

 Jon's first Erie steelhead on a fly rod.

Jon's first Erie steelhead on a fly rod.

Folks, this was the worst fall run trip to Erie I’ve ever experienced. If Erie doesn’t get rain soon, there may not be a major steelhead run this fall. The water levels were very low and clear. Two or three days of soaking rain would do the trick. Right now there is limited precipitation in the forecast. Based on what everyone I’ve talked to has said and what I’ve read online, there are a large number of steelhead staged to run just offshore. However, if the water levels don’t come up, they simply won’t be able to go anwhere. Pray for rain, because when the floodgates open up, it could be epic, and then I’ll be back in Erie.