Get off the crowded creeks to catch steelhead in the lake on flies


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ERIE -- The plume of fly line flew about 60 feet before draping across calm, clear water off the mouth of Twentymile Creek at Lake Erie. Waist deep in the water, I counted to 12 as the beaded streamer dropped about 4 feet. I stripped in line and waited, then stripped again ...

The strike wasn't hard -- for a moment the 20-inch steelhead jack didn't seem to know he was the central figure in a September fishing trip that pulled me off the creeks and into the "surf zone" with Erie fly fishing guide Karl Weixlmann. Once the chromer caught on, he turned abruptly and ran toward Canada, peeling off line, zigging, zagging, diving and leaping through the froth into the air.

The fight was everything Weixlmann had described a week earlier at a Brentwood meeting of Penn's Woods West Trout Unlimited, where he offered fly anglers an alternative to Erie County "combat fishing."

"When the creeks are low and clear, or when the pressure is elbow to elbow, get off the tribs and onto the shore," he said. "Surf zone fly fishing for steelhead can be extremely productive, especially early in the season in late September and October."

Stocked by the state as fingerling rainbow trout, the anadromous fish imprint on the specific chemical composition of their nursery waters. In time they move into the lake, where for several years they bulk up on prey growing into feisty slabs of muscle, stretching 2 feet and larger. Reaching sexual maturity, they're drawn back to the creek mouths waiting for a good rain or spring snow melt to wash a whiff of home-water scent into the lake, triggering a run and an attempt to spawn.

Last week steelhead trout and a few browns started moving up the major Lake Erie tributaries and were spotted above the Manchester Pool on Walnut Creek, north of Route 5 on Sixteenmile and Twelvemile, and several miles up Elk Creek. The big runs, however, are still weeks away and steelhead are staging near the tributary mouths.

Weixlmann says that's right where he likes them.

"Right now the lake's still in the high 60s, the creeks are low and clear, and the fish are cruising back and forth sniffing around the beaches," he said. "It's a good time to catch them in the surf with a fly rod -- kind of like ocean fishing, like Lake Erie bonefish."

A fly-fishing guide and outdoors writer, Weixlmann's detailed and well-received book, "Great Lakes Steelhead, Salmon and Trout" was released by Stackpole in 2009.

Getting fly anglers off the creeks and into the lake requires no new gear. In most conditions, a 9-foot 6-weight or 7-weight rod matched with floating weight-forward line will accommodate the long casts sometimes necessary to reach cruising fish and keep the fly in the water for maximum presentation. In the wind, Weixlmann goes to 8-weight.

On 2x or 3x leader and 8-pound Fluorocarbon tippet, he ties a bead head or weighted streamer (No. 10 to 1/0 longshank heavy wire hook that won't bend in the mouth of a big fish).

In the lake, fly size can trump leader length and tippet weight. When the rollers come in cloudy, use a bigger, flashier fly -- Deceiver-style or any streamer with a lot of bling. In clear water, go to smaller earth tone streamers. We fished all day and never snipped off a Weixlmann creation. (Search YouTube for a tutorial on tying Karl's Little Precious.)

Indicators can help when the fish are in 6-foot to 8-foot troughs, but Weixlmann says at times they're almost on the beach with their backs out of the water.

"I've seen them cruising in 2- or 3-foot rollers just before they hit the shore," he said, "just like stripers up in New England."

Sight fishing in the streams, it's easy to find fish. But locating staging steelhead off 76.6 miles of Erie County beaches can be a challenge. Weixlmann says to find the fish, check the wind.

"Generally, a south wind means you have a nice calm beach. A north or northwest wind brings in breakers which create a mud line on the beach, and you can't cast beyond it," he said.

Another Weixlmann rule of thumb: Wind from the west blows the scent of the tributary to the east side of the mouth. That's where to fish. An east wind blows the scent to the west of the mouth.

Surf zone fly fishing for steelhead is not possible in 4- or 5-foot waves, when a stiff northwest wind collapses casts, or when a blown out creek spews mud a couple hundred yards off the mouth.

"But if you have 2-foot breakers but the water's clear, you can still catch fish," said Weixlmann. "Another good time to fish the surf zone is in the spring."

On the beach, anglers can avoid the crowds and find a fly fishing experience they can't get on the streams.

The jack I hooked jumped once, then dove. On open water -- with no current to play, no frantic runs up or downstream, no wood structure or anglers in the way -- the fight was like nothing that occurs on the creeks. Somewhere on the bottom, he outsmarted me, wrapping around a boulder or dislodging the hook against a rock. Well worth a day on the beach.

huntingfishing


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