Currentseams Best of 2022 #1: Erie Tribs Steelheading

For the second consecutive year, our #1 slot goes to steelhead. Normally, my August trip out west would have been the runaway winner, but what I experienced over the course of two days in December in Ohio and Pennsylvania was nothing short of extraordinary. Let me tell you about it…

Saturday, December 17: Conneaut Creek, OH. This trip was years in the making. I’d originally booked a trip to Steelhead Alley with guide Bob Packey (you can find Bob at Solitude Steelhead Guide Service LLC) for a fall trip, but we got flooded out. We rescheduled for last spring, but when the date all the fish had returned to the lake. That left us with a long wait for mid-December 2022. But oh, my goodness, what a worthy wait.

My plan was to drive out to Wooster, OH, on Friday the 16th to pick up #2 Son Cam from college. What should have been a nine-hour drive turned into well over ten, thanks to a snow squall in the Poconos. By the time we had dinner and reached our lodging in PA, it was pushing 11pm.

Conneaut Creek reminded me of the Sandy Creeks north of NY’s Salmon River. A medium-sized creek, shale bottom, water with a peculiar greenish-brown tint, and fish that hold in its deeper pockets and runs. Cam, who could hardly be called a fly fisher — his only serious big river foray in the last decade was this summer in CO — was into three steelhead before I even had my rod set up. Such is the teaching acumen of Mr. Packey, who knew the water by rote and had Cam casting and presenting functionally in minutes. I was using Bob’s leader system with one of my yellow yarn indicators, which was a good choice for me since I had great difficulty seeing Cam’s indicator. (I learned and relearned many lessons on this trip, and the first was: always fish the way you are most comfortable/have the most confidence in.) I dropped my first hookup, but before long I was putting my first Erie trib fish in the hoop.

Giving my first Erie Mykiss a kiss. If this had been my only fish of the day — or, let’s get greedy and say the first of five — I would have left the creek a happy man. Little did I know the magnificent bounty that awaited us in the next pool. (Unless otherwise credited, all photos by Bob Packey.)
We hiked/waded upstream several hundred yards to the next mark, a deep slot in the tailout of a faster moving pool. I’ve included this photo to show you the incredible shale walls that surround many of the Erie tribs. We were literally fishing from the ledges upon which you see each of my boots — backs to the wall — it’s only a few feet of wiggle room, and if you make a wrong step you’re into deep, 34 degree water. This mark was phenomenal; we had to alternate casts/presentations, and for the first several it was a hookup on every cast. After that, we took turns, the rule being you presented until you hooked up. We’d been using egg patterns — Bob’s favorite is the Blood Dot with an egg body and apricot supreme dot. I switched over to some of my bugs, and hooked up on a 60 Second Redhead and a Copperhead Stone. You can use two flies in both PA and OH, and that was the setup we fished with over both days.
The third mark was an intriguing maze of ledges and submerged formations that created several fish-holding slots. I remember Bob suggesting we prospect in a mysterious looking pocket not far from our feet. Gold — or should I say chrome — was struck after a few casts. We fished a bit, ate some lunch, then went back at it. I’m good for at least one act of stupidity per trip, and on today it was a missed hook set that went straight over head and sent my leader cascading into the unreachable upper branches of a tree. While Bob was building a new leader for me, Cam hooked and landed this beauty with me handling net duties. We ended the day far downstream casting to a pod of steelhead that suddenly had lockjaw. My best guess was the cold front that was pushing through; the mercury had dropped, the wind had picked up, and it was a classic case of game over. My final tally for Saturday: 14 steelhead. After countless hours of disappointing fishing in near-freezing water and sub-freezing air in rivers and creeks long ago and far away, I had to ask myself: Was it all a dream? I fell asleep that night certain that it was not.

Now, before I continue, the reader must understand that it took me 40 hours of fishing time to land my first steelhead. It then took me over a decade to land 99 more. This will make what I am about to tell you seem positively magical.

Sunday, December 18, Elk Creek, PA. Bob had warned us that the water in Elk Creek was painfully low and clear. This would would make sight fishing easy; the tradeoff would be that the fish might be uber spooky, and their instinct for self-preservation could overpower any primal urge to strike. The weather had turned decidedly colder; air temperature in the 20s, buffeting wind gusts, lake effect snow squalls. We spent the entire day picking ice out of our guides.

The section of Elk Creek we fished is a hydrological wonderland. There are long sections that are literally only inches deep, and long glassy, glides that race over slippery, table-like pitches of shale. The bottom in other sections is a hodgepodge of skipping stones. Sprinkled throughout are small pockets only one or two feet deep; virtually all of them hold fish. Then there are deeper pools, veritable steelhead hotels with room for a hundred or more. Add in the clarity of the water and it’s an aquarium effect on steroids.

It was in the midst of this steelhead fantasyland that I decided to have one of my worst mornings, technique-wise, of my fly fishing career. Shoddy hook sets, late hook sets, hook sets in the wrong direction — it was embarrassing enough that I made Bob promise not to tell anyone. I wasn’t happy with my casting or my presentations, either. But sometimes you can do everything wrong and still land steelhead. Happily, it was that kind of day. I’m pleased to say that eventually, I got it together, and at one point it almost seemed like the steelhead were being delivered to my feet via conveyor belt. Figuring it all out put me in an even better mood, and I didn’t want to leave this paradise.

Holy aquarium, Batman! This just-released steelhead is 90% submerged, yet it looks like it’s high and dry on the rocks. The astonishing water clarity and cloud cover made for some exceptional sight fishing. I found this steelhead in a pocket the size of queen mattress. Nonetheless, you had to make a precision cast and presentation to get a hookup. At just over 33 degrees, the water had the fish firmly in winter lethargy mode. Thanks to Bob for letting me take this shot without revealing our location. Photo by Steve Culton.
I mentioned a — ahem — less than stellar start. That improved during the morning, and by lunch time I was really dialed in. We were fishing a very slow moving, deep water pool that was loaded with steelhead. At Bob’s suggestion, I’d been using one of his tiny indicators, a mini-corkie in fluorescent yellow and orange. The takes were nearly imperceptible; the indicator didn’t go under. I didn’t even wobble or pause. It just slowed a tiny bit, a subtle enough deviation that you could only perceive it if you were simultaneously watching the tiny foam bubbles alongside it. In water this cold, a few fouls are unavoidable; I was delighted to see that these steelhead were indeed eating, as I hooked fish after fish, fly nestled firmly in the mouth every time.
And that’s a wrap. Sunday’s score: Steve 21. Final tally: 35 landed over two days. Cam was also well into double digits. Well done, Bob Packey. Well done.