A look into the multi-million-dollar steelhead fishing industry in Ohio and Pa.

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Steelhead anglers are hoping for a "rain event" that will lure their favorite fish upstream. Steelhead fishing is a multi-million-dollar industry in Ohio and Pennsylvania that supports not only fishing guides, outdoor suppliers and bait shops but hotels, restaurants and other businesses as well. (Ohio Division of Wildlife photo)

It’s probably not common for anglers to be wishing for a prolonged, drenching rain, let alone the leftovers from a hurricane. But that’s what a lot of steelhead fans are hoping for these days.

When the rains do arrive, it will trigger the bright silver fish to move up into the rivers and streams that flow to the southern shores of Lake Erie.

Meteorologists

However, anglers will have to learn the river run-off rates to decide the best time to go after them.

“Steelhead fishermen almost have to be meteorologists,” said Tom Blotzer, president of Ohio Central Basin Steelheaders.

That’s because following the rain, the fish will wait until river flows come down a little, but not too much, and the color of the water changes from brown to green. Then they will feel safe from birds and other predators — safe enough to begin their spawning run.

The whole process may take 24 hours in one river, 48 in another. The Grand River sometimes takes as much as a week to clear, and water to reach the correct level for optimum fishing.

Blotzer suggests looking at the U.S. Geological Survey’s river flow charts online to see when river levels drop. If the angler has calculated correctly, the battles can begin.

Fighters

Steelhead are some of the most sought-after fish, not for their taste — walleye and perch are more pleasing to the pallet — but for their fighting spirit.

“They’ll take a run, jump real high, then do it over and over, multiple times,” Blotzer said. “It’s truly sport fishing,” he said, which is why he and most other steelheaders practice catch and release. They’re looking for a fight rather than a fish dinner.

“It’s almost like hunting because you have to find them,” Blotzer said. “You can’t just sit on a bucket and wait for the fish to come to you.”

Steelhead Alley

It’s no accident that the rivers, creeks and streams that drain into the south shore of Lake Erie from Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York are collectively called Steelhead Alley. Not only are anglers praying for rains that will start the steelhead runs, but business owners in those areas as well.

That’s particularly true in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, which juts into the Lake Erie shore.

“Erie County in and of itself is the freshwater fishing capital of Pennsylvania,” said Karl Weixlmann, vice president of the Pennsylvania Steelhead Association.

With Presque Isle Bay and the many rivers and streams flowing into Lake Erie, the area provides “world class steelhead fishing from fall through spring.”

Weixlmann, who has been a fly fishing guide for 20 years and has authored three books on the subject, said steelhead fishing contributes “millions and millions of dollars” to the local economy.

It provides income not only for fishing guides, outdoor suppliers and charter boats, but for hotels, restaurants and other businesses as well. In a normal year, people travel to the area from all over the country, even other countries, to fish for steelhead.

Weixlmann has customers who make the trip from Denmark every year. “Unfortunately this year, we’re feeling the repercussions of COVID,” he said.

He and others are hoping that when steelhead runs begin, the regular crowd of anglers will follow. After all, “fishing is a great outdoor activity where you can social distance and still have a good time. And this year, it’s a great way to help local businesses,” he said.

Praying for rain

Anglers in Pennsylvania may be praying harder than others for rain. Drought conditions this summer, and some record-high temperatures, have led to low water levels in the tributaries.

A substantial rain a few weeks ago was just sucked up by thirsty trees and plants along the edges of the streams, Weixlmann said.

“The success of steelhead fishing in the tributaries all depends on water levels,” he said. “So the start to steelhead season is a little slow this year.”

Only one Erie County tributary is having a decent run: Walnut Creek, which had “high-water episodes in the headwaters,” he said. That’s because the area around the headwaters is all paved, including the area around the Millcreek Mall in Erie. Rainwater flows into storm drains, which in turn flow into the river’s headwaters.

Big business

Steelhead fishing is also a multi-million-dollar business in Ohio. Surveys by The Ohio State University School of Environment and Natural Resources and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife showed “steelhead anglers reported significantly higher replacement costs for rods and reels, lures and tackle, and outdoor wear” than other anglers, spending more than $2,000 — 43%, of their total equipment costs — on steelhead alone.

Adding their cost of travel, steelhead anglers each contributed more than $800 to the Ohio economy that year, almost twice as much as “the average license holder.”

The survey concluded that “Ohio steelhead anglers fish more frequently, spend more money on fishing…are more motivated to fish (and) are more satisfied with their fishing experience” than those “average” anglers, making them “ an important stakeholder group” in the management of Ohio’s fisheries.

Stocked

Of course, Steelhead Alley only got its name because of the tremendous stocking efforts and management in its three home states.

Steelhead are basically rainbow trout, which are native to rivers and streams of the Rocky Mountains and west. Except while rainbows spend their entire lives in fresh water, steelhead migrate to the Pacific Ocean to grow up, only coming back to the streams to spawn.

About 50 years ago, someone decided to import steelhead to the Great Lakes “just to see what they would do,” said Curtis Wagner, fisheries management supervisor for the Division of Wildlife District 3 office in Akron, which covers 19 counties in Northeast Ohio.

What they did was grow, really well. The lakes provide them with an abundance of insects, small fish and other food items. But when it came to reproducing, some had a problem, especially in the southern Great Lakes.

Steelhead require cold water for successful spawning, and tributaries in the south often get too warm — and too shallow — in the summer.

“It’s not that they can’t reproduce; some do,” Wagner said. But in the lower Great Lakes, especially Lake Erie, “they don’t reproduce successfully enough to sustain a sport fishery.”

The Lake Erie fishing regulations for Ohio had a limit of five steelhead (or salmon, or other kinds of trout) per person per day between May 15 and Aug. 31 of this year, and two fish per day between Sept. 1 and May 16 of next year, with a minimum size of 12 inches in both seasons.

Importing eggs

To get that sustainable fishery, the Division of Wildlife started getting eggs from wild steelhead that frequent the northern Great Lakes. In the past 25 years, the eggs have come almost exclusively from the Manistee River, which flows into Lake Michigan, though recently some have hailed from Wisconsin as well.

The eggs have developed enough so that the eye is visible, making them easier to transport safely. They’re all transported to the Division of Wildlife hatchery in Castalia, Wagner said.

Not coincidentally, Castalia is the site of the Blue Hole, but there are also other deep-water wells in the area with enough cold water to sustain the steelhead till they grow to yearlings, usually six to eight inches long. That’s when they’re released in the Vermilion, Rocky, Chagrin and Grand rivers, and Ashtabula and Conneaut creeks.

The division’s goal is to release 450,000 a year, which they usually meet or exceed.

Conneaut Creek

Conneaut Creek also gets steelhead stocked by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Most of the steelhead return to the streams where they were released, though some may become “strays” and go elsewhere, Wagner said.

Similarly, some of the steelhead released in Pennsylvania and New York migrate to Ohio tributaries to spawn. And unlike salmon, steelhead don’t just spawn and die; they can come back year after year.

Some private nurseries and co-ops contribute to the stocking and management efforts, and the steelhead associations help, too. The Pennsylvania association also works with landowners to maintain public fishing locally and improve access, including creating and maintaining angler trails.

Even as steelhead anglers wait for rain, they are having success fishing the shores, piers and breakwalls of Lake Erie, and the mouths of the tributaries. In November and December, the runs in the rivers should be at their peak.

And even if the rivers are frozen in January and February, fishing is still possible, Blotzer points out. After the ice breaks, river action will be “hot through the first week of May.”

Then, when the steelhead return to the lake, “you can still catch them when you’re trolling for walleye or perch,” he said. “Between the lake and the streams, you can catch them pretty much year round.” Which makes a lot of steelheaders happy, pretty much year round.

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