When Lake Erie tributaries are high and muddy, ‘It’s all about habitat’

By John Hayes
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ERIE — Conneaut Creek oozed northward toward the lake like so much chocolate milk. Steelhead guide and author Karl Weixlmann stood at the edge of an Ohio roadway staring over the bridge. Even the shallows hugging the river bank were thick with mud — visibility zero. My story idea about catching fall steelhead on dry flies with droppers had sunk into the dirty water.

“Come on,” said Weixlmann, hopping back into his car. “I have an idea.”

The previous night, U.S. Geological Survey water gauges showed a stable flow. By dawn, however, an unexpected rainstorm left most of the Lake Erie tributaries high and muddy.

The internet is awash with enough gauges, weather reports and fishing forums to save steelhead anglers from making a futile 130-mile Pittsburgh-to-Erie pilgrimage. Most of that technology is available for free at fisherie.com. Tech savvy anglers can even program their smartphones to beep alerts whenever the creeks are on the rise — from late October through early March that usually means the steelhead are running.

“The thing about blown out,” said Weixlmann, waxing poetic, “is there’s blown out and then there’s blown out. At some point it’s unfishable. But high or dirty? It doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t catch fish, depending on how high or dirty it is. In all hunting and fishing, the main thing is habitat.”

Despite their volume, some Lake Erie tributaries release less dirt or hold more water than others, he explained. “You find the right habitat for the amount of rain [or snow melt] you’ve had, and the water will probably be fishable.”

Pennsylvania’s narrow stretch of Steelhead Alley is crossed at intervals by Route 5, Route 20 and I-90, accommodating quick and easy bouncing from stream to stream and among stream sections. Weixlmann bumped eastward stopping at the crossing of each steelhead stream. An Erie native, outdoors writer and author of “Great Lakes Steelhead, Salmon and Trout” (Headwater, 2009), he checked streamside visibility at each creek, but admitted he had one place in mind.

Approaching the water, 10 steps ahead and carrying his fly rod, he frantically beckoned with his other hand for me to hurry. The well-shaded stream, slightly cloudy and barely two rod lengths wide, rippled with multiple wakes as a silver fleet of steelhead powered upstream. In shallow riffles, tall tails and dorsal fins broke the surface while the pools boiled with the swirls of staging fish. Weixlmann put me at a funneling curve while he rolled a cast into faster water. The moving mass of steelhead continued. Hundreds passed all around us.

“This is the first big migration of the fall,” Weixlmann said. “We’ve had hardly any precipitation. These fish were all stuck down by the lake … waiting for a big push of water. This is the first good push we’ve had this fall.”

Most Pennsylvania steelhead streams are slate bottomed or drain muddy flats. They raise quickly, move a lot of silt or both. The bigger creeks can take days to drain. But at the stream section Weixlmann had chosen, waters were virtually clear near the banks with about a foot of visibility in the pools. The water, said Weixlmann, was “perfect for us.”

Just upstream and around a curve, he ran into a friend. Steelhead guide Paul Krott wasn’t with a client, but when he woke and saw it had rained he traveled to the same creek, same stream section.

“This is where I go when it’s like this, especially early in the fall,” he said. “It’s a little cloudy but not bad, and see? It isn’t high at all. Every creek takes longer to drain when there’s foliage on the water. When there’s no foliage, like now, they drain faster.”

Krott was walking pool to pool dead-drifting 1- to 1 ½- inch streamers in the tail-outs.

“Most of the fish I hooked up with today were on streamers that are a lot flashier than what I would normally fish this time of year or when the water’s low,” he said. “They’re tied with a material — ice minnow fringe — that expands when it gets wet, so it makes a bigger profile and the fish can see it.”

Weixlmann said he usually reserves egg patterns for spring, but had hits on bright bi-colored eggs.

“I tied on a streamer [made] with some flash and one ate it,” he said. “I was swinging streamers in the riffles, right on the inside — the slower side — of a current seam. The reason I put on an indicator, I was swinging this big white streamer and it kept hitting leaves time and time again. With the indicator you don’t hit as many leaves.”

On the morning after a rain, while many steelhead anglers were likely heading for home, the Erie-based guides were posing for fish photos before releasing them.

“Look at the habitat here. It’s coldwater habitat, more so than at some of the other streams,” Weixlmann said. “Cold feeder [streams] and these trees close to the bank keep the water cool. It’s not a shale-bottom substrate creek. It gets cloudy but it doesn’t get too high unless it’s a really big storm. It’s narrow and faster so at worst it drains in about a day.”

He looked up at Krott and tilted his head.

“To be honest,” he said, “I don’t really want to tell people exactly where to go under these conditions. I’ll show them what to look for to find fishable water after it rains — you find the stream section that filters the water best for the amount of precipitation you’ve had. It’s all about habitat. Know what to look for and …”

Weixlmann stopped mid-sentence. He pointed downstream as more wakes moved toward us in the water.

“If we get more rain I’ll stay here all week,” he said.

John Hayes: [email protected]

CREDIT: With blow outs on Lake Erie tributaries, many October fly anglers broke down their rods and went home. But steelhead guide Paul Krott, left, and fly fishing author Karl Weixlmann knew how to find fishable water.