Every March I head to Erie, Pennsylvania with a group of fly fishing buddies (“the steelhead crew”) to chase spring run steelhead. We’ve been making the trip for five years now and each time we get better at understanding the tributaries, finding fish, and catching them. This past weekend was the 2017 spring trip. Last week flew by and before long I was packing my truck with gear and looking at online steelhead reports out of Erie. Jack York’s Twitter feed was saying the creeks would be ice locked until Saturday and every post that went up on the Fish Erie thread made the weekend sound less and less promising. At one point I was texting the steelhead crew and seeing if they wanted to postpone our trip. After thirty minutes of back and forth, my enthusiastic friend Matt said we should just go and see what we find. And after I thought about, I realized that almost every trip we’ve taken to Erie has involved some type of uncertainty with weather, fish numbers, or water levels. It was settled, we were going to Erie, ice or no ice.
On Thursday evening I made the five and a half hour trip to Girard, Pennsylvania. I have a habit of being the last one to show up to the hotel so after taking an hour of verbal abuse, we all crashed for the night. When we got up on Friday morning, the air temperatures were in the low 30s and everyone agreed that trying to get on the water early didn’t make a lot of sense. Instead we slept in and then headed to the Girard Dinor for breakfast. After eating we stopped in at the new Big Foot Fly Shop across the street. I’ll reserve comments about this place, but if you visit Erie, you owe it to yourself to make a visit.
We decided we’d start fishing on the east side creeks and that we’d start on 16 Mile Creek. I’ve mentioned this tip in previous blogs, but it bears repeating. If you are steelhead fishing in Erie and are dealing with ice lock conditions, consider 16 Mile Creek. This creek has a municipal sewer plant upstream that releases warm water into the creek. The warmer water keeps the stream from icing over.
16 Mile is also a great creek to fish during high water conditions, as it seems to be less impacted. As far as finding steelhead in 16 Mile Creek, like any other body of water in Erie, it’s a guessing game. You simply have to put your time in to find fish. Fortunately for our steelhead crew, we found fish. Throughout the afternoon hours we found several small pods of steelhead. They seemed to be a mix of fresh spring run fish and drop back fish from the fall 2016 run. I was fishing with my 10’-8wt Redington fly rod that was outfitted with my Sage 2850 fly reel. I hooked up and landed a half dozen good-sized steelhead in the 20-25” range, using rubber legged Golden Stonefly Nymphs, Hare’s Ear Nymphs, and weighted glow bug patterns in pink.
In several locations on 16 Mile Creek we ran into large schools of steelhead smolts stocked by the state. In some cases there were so many in the creek that it looked like a black cloud. Friday turned out to be a beautiful weather day and the temps rose much higher than expected. By days end we figured any ice plaguing the west side tributaries would be on its way out by Saturday morning. We spent the night watching March Madness at the Avonia Tavern and reminiscing about past trips.
On Saturday morning we were up at first light and everyone wanted to fish lower Elk. After grabbing a breakfast sandwich we headed to the state lot below Uncle John’s Campground. When we arrived at the water, the Mud Hole was full of fishermen, but the riffle water at the bend that extends upstream was not being fished. We started working riffle water up towards the Rt. 5 bridge. Below the bridge along the high wall, my buddy Matt Fuddy was able to hook-up with a fresh jack and land him.
When I got up to the Rt. 5 Bridge, I waded out to the pylon and walked the ledge under the bridge. I was able to see several steelhead hanging along the edge of the concrete bridge abutment. I drifted flies for a long time and eventually the crew decided to call it quits and take a shot at going to the Legion Hole. When we arrived on middle Elk, there was still a decent amount of ice on the water. It was starting to break up, but there were sections where ice still stretched the across the entire creek. I ended up taking a walk from the Legion Hole downstream to the Girard Sewer Treatment Plant. The water on Elk was flowing well and it had a nice green color to it. Along my walk I didn’t lay eyes on a steelhead but did see several large schools of spawning suckers.
After I reached the sewer plant, I called my buddies and told them to come pick me up. After they arrived we fished the large run and pool in front of the sewer plant. No one was able to hook up with a steelhead but a couple of the guys caught huge suckers on the fly.
As the day rolled into the afternoon we decided to try our luck at the Elk Creek railroad tubes. I haven’t fished this section of Elk for a long time. The water looked great here and I explored water above and below the tubes. With the additional snowmelt adding to the water flow and light rain falling all day, the water was coming up and there were quite few deeper holes to fish. While fishing our way down to the Rt. 5 Bridge, Matt was able to hook up with a fresh chrome steelhead. What a fight, and a gorgeous fish. By late afternoon most of us had no hook-ups and were soaked from the rain. We called it a day and headed back to the Avonia.
On Sunday, my buddies Mike and Travis decided to stay in bed and get a head start on the trip home. Matt and Jon and I couldn’t stop thinking about the steelhead we’d found in the 16 Mile Creek on Friday. We decided we’d head back and fish until lunch. To our surprise, when we started exploring there were even more fish there than on Friday. We counted over 24 steelhead in a several hundred-yard area. I was able to hook up and land two more steelhead, including one fresh run hen that was one of the most beautiful steelhead I’ve ever fought and landed.
By lunchtime it was raining again, we were exhausted, and knew we needed to make the six hour trek back to southeastern, Pennsylvania. While Matt and Jon got on the road, I decided to grab some food at the Freeport on Rt. 5. I sat at the bar, reviewed fish pictures, read the online posts that were now glowing about Erie fishing conditions, and listened to the locals chat over Sunday dinner.