Mop Flies, Green Water & Winter Erie Steelhead

I’ve wanted to get back up to the Erie tributaries to chase steelhead for a few months. I hadn’t been in Erie since October 2016 when I took my annual fall run steelhead trip. Anyone who has been reading my blog since that time knows that October was a terrible month for Pennsylvania steelhead fishing. The creeks were low and clear and the fish didn’t have the water required to move in large numbers. Because of the poor conditions, I lost interest in steelhead and moved on to chasing lake-run brown trout in western New York. I followed reports from November through January and things improved during that time. Pennsylvania creeks received much needed rain and I occasionally heard from anglers that were fortunate enough to hit a good day on steelhead alley.

Over the past three weeks, steelhead chatter from Erie has picked up. I’ve talked to several folks who’ve had great one-day trips on Elk, 16, and 20 Mile Creeks. Early last week I saw YouTube videos showing incredible steelhead sessions in late January. The encouragement of those videos combined with a desirable weather forecast for steelhead, had me thinking about visiting Erie again. On Tuesday, Erie saw heavy rain and warmer temperatures, which created high water and snowmelt.  This put the tributaries at hazardous flood stage. By Thursday however, the reports out of Erie were that the tributaries were back down to fishable levels and the coveted green water was flowing. That was all the convincing I needed to chase winter steelhead. I texted my buddy Jon and by lunchtime Thursday, a Saturday steelhead trip was planned.

Jon and I decided that we were going to do a suicide run on Saturday, up and back in the same 24 hours. This trip is not for the faint of heart, but for those who can do it, maximizing the overnight hours to drive means a full day of fishing on Erie waters. We left shortly after midnight and headed north to Rt. 80. We decided to start the day fishing 16 Mile Creek. This was for two reasons, one, I’d read reports of fish being there, and two, the water on 16 Mile is typically warmer because of the upstream sewer plant water release. Moving the destination slightly northeast of Erie had my GPS taking us through Allegheny National Forrest on Rt. 948. If your GPS ever suggests taking Rt. 948 in the middle of the night, you may want to reconsider. While it was a nice drive under the full moon, I have never seen so many whitetail deer on one road in my life. I don’t know how many we had to hit the brakes for, but it was a lot. At one point we had a buck and a doe run out of the woods to our left at full speed with no warning. The doe jumped the bed of my truck and the buck was so close to the front of my truck I could see the fear in his eyes as he missed going under my truck by inches. It was an adventure!

Jon and I arrived at the park at Freeport Beach on 16 Mile Creek at 6:00am Saturday morning. It was still dark when we arrived and my truck was the only vehicle in the parking lot.  We got rigged up, grabbed our headlamps and headed down to the water. When my headlamp illuminated the edge of the shore, I was surprised at how low the water was. After all the images I’d seen online and the rain that I knew had fallen, 16 Mile still looked low.

 Looking upstream at the low water conditions on 16 Mile Creek.

Looking upstream at the low water conditions on 16 Mile Creek.

Rather than fish the falls, Jon and I decided to move downstream and we chatted in the dark until first light broke on the horizon. As we were able to see well enough to drift an indicator, another fisherman had parked and started fishing at the falls. He wasn’t there two minutes and had a good steelhead on his line. After I watched him land two more I told Jon I was going to head downstream closer to the mouth. On my way downstream I spooked two steelhead that were lying in shallow water. Just below this area was a small run where the water flowed through a deep cut into a long still pool with a bunch of brush piled up on the far side. I was fishing a 9’-1X leader with 3X tippet to my first fly, which was a two-color sucker spawn fly tied with Angora yarn. Below my sucker spawn I ran 4X tippet and used a mop fly I tied with a mop segment from a hand shammy I bought at AutoZone. For the head of the mop fly I incorporated a small red dot yellow antron egg. As I was preparing to cast I spotted a gray shadow on the far bank. I could see it was a steelhead. I cast my line several feet ahead, mended the drift, and when my mop fly reached the fish, it took the fly. The fish pulled up out of the shallow water and raced downstream. I fought it for a couple of minutes and then finally landed a 20” bright chrome steelhead.

 The chrome jack that I caught on the mop fly I tied.

The chrome jack that I caught on the mop fly I tied.

On my second cast, I drifted my fly through the deep cut on the far bank and as it reached the head of a large submerged rock, my indicator stopped and I pulled up thinking I was stuck on the bottom. I saw a flash of pink and then headshakes rocked my 10’-8wt. This was a noticeably larger fish and was obviously a large buck. I fought him for a short time until I was able to beach him on the bank. I measured this steelhead at 28” from head to tail. It was a beautiful fish and my biggest fish of 2017.

 Holding the 28" male steelhead I caught, looking like I haven't slept in days.

Holding the 28" male steelhead I caught, looking like I haven't slept in days.

After catching fish right off the bat, things slowed down a bit. I located a third steelhead in the same run and gave Jon a chance at him, but he wasn’t biting. I took a walk down to the lake and there was enough water moving between the lake and 16 Mile Creek for additional fish to come in. There was a deep pool that had additional fish in it, but the water was clear and they were obviously the target of many fishermen in recent days. Jon and I decided to head upstream to the Freeport Road Bridge. We walked upstream a hundred yards and looked in every riffle and pool but were unable to locate a single fish. We ran into a handful of fishermen that had walked even further upstream, but they too were fishless.

We decided to continue exploring and headed four minutes up the road to 20 Mile Creek. I had figured that 20 Mile would be as low as 16 Mile Creek, but when we arrived creek side, I was surprised at the flows in 20 Mile. I’d never seen 20 Mile Creek looking so good. The flows were perfect and the water color was a perfect green color. Jon and I walked downstream from Rt. 5 Bridge. We did a quick visual scan in each riffle and deep pool. We didn’t visually spot one fish all the way to the lake mouth. It is possible that there were fish hidden in the deeper runs and cuts, but they were well hidden if they were. There wasn’t another soul on 20 Mile and it was one of those days you’d hope you’d stumble onto some fish because you’d have them all to yourself.

Wanting to maximize the daylight, Jon and I decided to give up on the mile creeks and head to Elk Creek near Girard. Forty-five minutes later we were at the Legion Hole talking to a few other fly anglers. Jon and I decided that we would split up to walk the creek and see if we could locate fish and communicate via cell phone. I would head upstream and Jon would head downstream, and we’d call each other if we found fish. As I headed upstream, the first large hole around the bend from the parking lot had a half dozen guys posted up drifting bait or nymphs through it. As I waded across the creek and walked by, I didn’t observe anyone with fish on stringers or reeling anything in. The flows on Elk were perfect; I haven’t seen them this perfect in a while.

 The classic green water on Elk Creek.

The classic green water on Elk Creek.

I kept walking upstream looking for any sign of steelhead. There were none to be found. About 150 yards upstream I ran into a guy who said he’d caught two out of a swift moving run. Some of the spots I’ve fished for 4-5 years were so deep with green water, you couldn’t see to the bottom. I periodically stopped and blind fished some runs, but with no luck. It wasn’t until I was just below the private property line on that stretch of water that I finally saw the shadow of two medium sized steelhead darting around on the slate bottom of a deep pool. I cast a line to them with no response.

Soon my phone was ringing and it was Jon on the other end telling me that he’d walked down to the Rt. 20 Bridge with no success. He’d watched one fisherman get into battle with two fish, but he personally had not laid eyes on a fish. We decided to meet back at the truck and go to our last ditch spot, Walnut Creek. Everyone has mixed feelings about fishing Walnut Creek but if you are in a steelhead pinch and just want to find fish, Walnut typically delivers. We arrived at the Walnut Creek parking lot in the early afternoon. There was a large group of guys lining the run below the first set of waterfalls along Manchester Road. As we walked by, we could see from above that there were at least a half-dozen good steelhead that these guys were fishing too. We walked up to the Manchester Hole and found half-dozen guys wetting lines. As we walked around them we saw a small number of steelhead, some were good sized. We walked all the way up to the falls and only saw a couple fish in the deeper water along the way. The area around the falls was almost unfishable because of the heavy flows coming down, although I’m sure there were a couple fish in the heavy water.

 Jon fly fishing the heavy water at the Walnut Creek waterfall.

Jon fly fishing the heavy water at the Walnut Creek waterfall.

We decided to walk back down to the bridge and head down to where we’d seen the large group fishing. When we arrived, the group had thinned out, which was surprising because there were still fish in the run. After a couple of casts my line suddenly took off like a lightning bolt and I had a good fish on. I fought him for a couple of minutes but had trouble getting him close enough to beach on the bank with my ten-foot rod. Jon went to net him and I’d forgotten to loosen my drag. The fish had one last run in him and he was off. A few minutes later I hooked and landed a smaller steelhead that was close to 20”. Two other guys next to me were hooking fish consistently. After I saw a half-dozen decent fish landed out of the run, things slowed down considerably. It was getting late in the afternoon and Jon and I decided to spend thirty more minutes up on Manchester Hole because we’d seen most people leave. When we got back up there I put on a white Crystal Meth pattern and went low and slow. On my second cast my indicator shot under and a really nice steelhead shot upstream. On his run he took Jon’s line with him. Eventually Jon’s line came unhooked and I fought him briefly, but unfortunately he broke my 4X tippet. After a few more casts we decided to call it day. We both had frozen feet and we were both exhausted from no sleep and not looking forward to a five and a half hour drive home. We walked back to my truck, got our gear off and headed to the Avonia Tavern for wings before making the long trek home. We’ll be back in March for the spring run.

 Best place to eat on the west side of Erie.

Best place to eat on the west side of Erie.