When lake-bound steelheads feel the urge to reproduce, the chemical scent of their particular nursery waters triggers a series of runs up those creeks in often-failed attempts to spawn. A high flow rate increases the desire to travel upstream.
When Pittsburgh steelheaders feel the urge to angle, rising water on Lake Erie tributaries triggers a series of runs up Interstate 79 in often-failed attempts to catch fish. High flow rates increase the desire to travel north.
But too much or too little flow can lead to unrequited casting and a squandered tank of gas. Anglers who understand how to use water and weather data available for free on the Internet have a better chance of predicting when the fish are moving, which creeks are hot or not, and when it's better to just stay home.
Millions of dollars in data collection devices and digital posting technology were not intended as fishing aids. The information is gathered for flood control, pollution monitoring, weather prediction and other purposes. Savvy anglers know where to find the information and how to use it to find fish.
The virtual pre-trip scouting techniques are used by many steelhead guides, whose livelihood depends on their ability to put clients on fish.
"There is almost always somewhere to fish," said steelhead guide John Nagy of Brookline. "The most successful fishermen know where that is."
George Douglas, a West Coast fishing author, editor of Kype Magazine and professional steelhead guide, rents a house in Northeast Ohio during the Lake Erie steelhead runs. In an interview earlier this year, he said he routinely uses digital data to place him and his clients, "at exactly the right place at exactly the right time to take advantage of the very best runs in Steelhead Alley."
FishErie.com, a member site of a nationwide online tackle store, is a good place to start. Before heading north, lots of Pittsburgh steelheaders check the site's "Fishing Reports" link, posted by anglers. Volume is the key to analyzing those updates. Some sources are more credible and articulate than others, but when reports on a particular stream are mostly consistent, it's a good bet. Still, Douglas cautioned that while angler reports can be helpful, they're almost always yesterday's news.
"The Pennsylvania rivers are all small and there's a lot of slate bottoms. They rise and fall faster than some of the big rivers in Ohio and New York," he said. "So by the time you read the forums, the water has changed and the fish are doing something else."
Weather reports are vital to steelheaders -- the more specific the data, the better. But it's not about whether to bring a raincoat. Those who know what's happening to the watery habitat know where the fish will be active.
Weather.com breaks it down from 10-day to hourly predictions, which anglers can use to anticipate optimal flow. A monthly calendar stacks recent history against near-future prognostication, providing a sense of ongoing weather patterns. To make a best guess on hourly water conditions, compare sites including the National Weather Service (http://forecast.weather.gov), Weather Underground (www.wunderground.com) and Intellicast.com, which allows users to zoom in and see radar graphics depicting specific areas.
Erie is a three-hour drive from the Central Pennsylvania home of fishing author, guide and former U.S. national fly fishing champion George Daniel. He and many guides refer to Erie TV news websites to give them the most up-to-date reports. Try www.erietvnews.com/weather.
"What I look for is inches of rainfall," said Daniel. "I normally go to a local station for immediate weather. Typically they have a focus on one area."
If seeing is believing, check out multiple webcam snapshots of current conditions on Elk Creek near Erie Bluffs State Park at a site run by Uncle John's Elk Creek Campground (www.unclejohnselkcreekcamp.com).
What is the rate of flow? Is it rising or falling? How cloudy is the water and what's its temperature? Real-time Erie-area water conditions are posted at 15-minute intervals by the U.S. Geological Survey. A station on Walnut Creek collects water quality information for local authorities. A station on Brandy Run near Girard, built many decades ago to monitor toxic residue from an old tannery, is near enough to Elk Creek to provides a reliable assessment of its conditions. Data from the automated stations, funded by the state Department of Environmental Protection, can be easily accessed at FishErie.com. Click on "Weather and Waves" and scroll down.
"This can give fishermen a reliable look at what [the water is] like right now, and help them predict what it's likely to be in the near future," said USGS hydrologist John Fulton, a fly fisherman from Pittsburgh.
The "Gauge Height" chart shows the depth of the water at the intake point. A measure from the creek bottom to the surface, it's arbitrary in that changes in sediment could impact the depth. "Discharge" is a measure of flow passing the station -- yellow triangles show the 25-year median discharge at the given date and time. Water temperature is provided in Celsius and Fahrenheit.
On each gauge display, parameters can be set to assess trends. Check USGS data on the morning of a fishing trip, or in real time on your smartphone. For a personal heads-up on when the chromers are likely to run, click the "Water Alert" link below each chart and preset the parameters important to you. The automated water station will email or text a timely message to your smartphone. The service is free.
Water conditions at Walnut Creek and Brandy Run can be transposed to other Erie tributaries. Twentymile Creek is almost identical in size and flow to Walnut. The smaller, shorter streams east of the peninsula drain about as quickly as Brandy Run, which drains a mere 4 1/2 square miles.
"When everyplace is low and clear, find bigger, deeper pools on Elk and Walnut creeks," said Nagy. "After a storm, Walnut, Elk and Conneaut will drain the slowest. On the first day of runoff, you go to the east side and fish the smaller creeks. The day after that, Walnut. Day after that Elk, then Conneaut."
Matt Hrycyk of Poor Richard's Bait and Tackle said all of the Erie tribs rise within hours, but they drain at different rates.
"Once it peaks, it will take Elk about 24 hours to get about perfect," he said. "Walnut drains in 12 to 18 hours, and Twentymile is like a twin sister of Walnut. Sixteenmile drains about 12 hours from when the creek stops rising."
Established Erie-area fishing shops are likely to give anglers reliable information. Reports posted by Lake Erie Ultimate Angler are categorized by creek (www.shopultimateangler.com, 814-833-4040). East End Angler posts reports at www.eastendangler.com (814-898-3474).
The fly shop at Folly's End Campground has current information on middle Elk Creek (814-474-5730). And on an average day in steelhead season, Hrycyk said, Poor Richard's Bait and Tackle (814-474-5623) gets 200 phone calls about water conditions.
"If the creeks are going down, you're good," he said. "If they're spiking up, you're done. Don't even make the trip."