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Steelhead School Presents

Ohio Steelhead Fishing

History in the Making

By:  Don Dfishinfool Mathews

Don with a fresh March steelhead caught on an un-stocked Ohio tributary.

 In my younger days there were very few steelhead to be had for a kid living in Ohio.  Pennsylvania had been stocking a few steelhead since the early 60's.  Ohio was still experimenting with Salmon and hadn't started stocking steelhead yet.

  Steelhead are not Native to the Great Lakes. They were first stocked into Lake Erie around 1900.  Since then there has been a small population of wild fish.  Most of these wild fish reside in the cooler Canadian streams on the North side of the Lake.  A few of these wild  Canadian fish stray to our streams, but not many.  

 My first Ohio steelhead came from Conneaut Creek. You see Conneaut creeks head waters are in Pennsylvania.  They stock put and take trout in the upper stretches of Conneaut creek.  When the stream warms up in June these stocked trout are forced to migrate to Lake Erie in search of cooler water.  Three years later these put and take trout reached sexual maturity and come back to spawn.  To beat the odds they faced and make it back to spawn meant these fish were true survivors.  They are few and far between.  In my youth we knew them as Lake run bows.  Every one was a trophy..!!

Guide Jeff Novak Shows off a late spring Manistee caught swinging flies on Ohio's Conneaut Creek

In the late 70's I was a young teenager who spent my summers in the Conneaut and Ashtabula areas.  On occasion I found work first mating, cleaning fish and puke on the areas Walleye Charter Boats.  My uncle Pete Mathews ran the charter boat "Sin or Swim" and I spent a lot of my time on his boat.  This was the good old days of our Erie Walleye fishery.  Limits were easy and the guests were always smiling. 

  I have always loved fishing Lake Erie's waters but I have a thing for our area streams.  In those days I spent my winters trapping the Grand, Cuyahoga, Ashtabula, and Conneaut creek watersheds.  Muskrat, Mink, Coon and Beavers all fetched a good price and I did well for a kid.  I loved the streams and spent all the time I could on them.  In the fall you could often find me and my buddies floating the Grand or Conneaut in our Canoes.  We hunted ducks, deer,  squirrels and whatever else we could find along the riverbanks. 

  If you would have told me then that one day I would make my living fishing these streams.  I would have looked at you like you were crazy.!    You see there were very few fish in our streams back then.  If I caught a Lake run bow it was cause for celebration.  I would string it up and show it off all over town.   The state was experimenting with stocking Salmon in those days.  We did catch a few Salmon in the fall but the returns were poor.  Lake Erie didn't have the Alewives baitfish like the other great lakes.  Salmon just never did well in Erie.  For the most part we caught Catfish, Smallmouth and Suckers.  On rare occasion the Grand would give up a walleye or two if you were lucky. 

My wife caught this late spring Ohio Manistee in May on Conneaut Creek

One fall day myself and a couple of buddies were fishing under the High Trestle Bridge in Lower Conneaut in hopes of tangling with a big King salmon.  As usual we were catching nothing.   Along comes old Curtis Knightlinger.  He sets up directly across the river from us.  Even in those days Kurt was old.  Especially to a kid who didn't have his drivers license yet.  Kurt owned the local bait shop in town.   Old Kurt had a slow methodical way about him.   He never hurried anything.  That day after about 30 minutes of fussing with his gear he makes a cast.  The ripples from the splash hadn't even disappeared when suddenly the water erupts in Silver.   Old Kurt fights the the silver trout in and reaches down and unhooks it.  I watched in disbelief as he let it go.  Surely this old man has went crazy letting a fish like that go.   I watched with amazement as he repeated this five more times.  Six lake run bows in one day,  heck that was more than I had caught in all of the previous year.  I just had to know what he was using for bait.  So we talked my buddy Rich into casting across old Kurts line to discover what the magic bait was.   Of course this pissed off Kurt who knew what we were up to.   He yells out  You little Sons of !@#$@,  don't you dare tangle up my line again,  come on over here if you want to find out how to catch them.  That afternoon I sat and listened.  I learned about light line, floats, black jigs and maggots.  Soon after I was fighting a big silver hen.  Kurt also told us how these fish didn't die after spawning like the Salmon.  I learned the importance of letting them go.

A fresh from Lake Erie Ohio Manistee Strain Steelhead or "Chromer".  Notice the silver color.  This fish has not got it's spawning colors yet.  Fish will start to change colors about one week after they enter the stream. Judging by the size this fish is a repeat spawner.  Meaning it has survived previous spawning runs.

Sure I had caught steelhead before, but it was on this day that I became a Steelheader.   Kurt passed away about three years ago and he is missed by many.  The knowledge he shared with me and many others lives on.  In my youth, I spent many days just hanging out at his bait shop.   It was there that I learned about,  curing eggs, tying egg sacs, salting shiners and all the other odd tricks Kurt had up his sleeve.  Little did I know Ohio steelheading was in for a big change.

Both of these fish are typical first run fish (3 yr old) appx 22-24 inches long. Both fish are in their spawning colors. Notice the hook or kype on the bottom jaw of the top fish.  This is a male or buck. The males also get a red or crimson cheek and stripe down the side when in the streams.  The bottom fish has no kype and a more rounded nose.  This is the female or hen.  Notice the white mouth and gums. This is typical of all steelhead.  Salmon will have black mouths or gums.  These fish will loose their spawning colors and turn silver when they return to the lake.

Ohio is the new kid on the block when it comes to trout fishing.  They started to stock fishable numbers of Steelhead in the Early 80's. Trout fishing has a long heritage in Pennsylvania but in Ohio we lack the cold water streams necessary for a year round trout fishery.   People definitely do not associate Ohio with trout fishing, even though our steelhead fishery is booming..!!  

The reason for our success is the wisdom of the Ohio DNR and the abundant forage in our shallowest of the great lakes.  It is my honest belief that Ohio will soon be known as the premiere Steelhead destination in the Great Lakes region. 

You see Ohio has something that Pennsylvania lacks.   ACCESS.... We have lots and lots of miles of river flowing into Lake Erie.  Our forefathers here in Ohio were very wise.  Thanks to a large network of State and local parks we have many miles of public access to our streams.  In Ohio we have more unobstructed river miles flowing into Lake Erie than Pa, and Michigan combined.   Pennsylvania on the other hand has a small handful of very short streams that are almost entirely privately owned.  Angler crowding is becoming a big problem in Pennsylvania. So far the landowners in all of the states have been very tolerant of the crowds of anglers but I fear it is reaching a breaking point in Pa.  Already we have groups leasing the streams in an attempt to privatize the fishery.  It seems like every day I hear about another section of stream being posted or closed to fishing.  The situation in Pennsylvania worries me.  I find each year I do fewer and fewer guide trips in Pennsylvania.  BUT

Pictured are two young Ohio Manistee strain steelhead.  Notice the lower fish still has it's par markings and is in the smolt stage of it's life cycle. The top fish has just left its smolting stage. The top fish is about 9 inches long.  These are the typical size of the fish Ohio stocks each spring

The steelhead fishery in Ohio is coming of age.  We trade Channel Catfish fingerlings to Michigan for Steelhead smolts and eggs.  Michigan gets these eggs from the Little Manistee River Weir.  The fish in the Little Manistee are a self sustaining wild population.  The Michigan streams are cold enough year round to support natural reproduction. 

 Unfortunately here in Ohio our stream temperatures do not allow the fish to successfully reproduce.  Our fish do spawn but the fry die shortly after hatching due in large part to our stream temperatures.  Virtually all of our fish in Ohio and Pa are stocked by the states. 

Our streams are some of the most densely stocked streams in the world. Pennsylvania stocks close to 1.5 million 6-9 inch long smolts each spring.  Ohio stocks 400,000 in her streams.  The survival rate of these implanted smolts is very good.  It is considered a success If 10% of the smolts reach adulthood and return to the stream.  One Pennsylvania study had close to 50% of the fish returning.  This is almost unbelievable and shows how well Pennsylvania understands the Steelhead game.  Of course Pennsylvania has over 100 years experience raising trout.

  Ohio is making great progress with their steelhead program.  Our DNR  seems genuinely committed to making continuous improvements to our steelhead program.  Stocking steelhead is a costly and the states have appx $1 in each stocked smolt.

Here a group of excited school children watch as the steelhead smolts are stocked in the Vermillion River in Ohio. The fish were raised at Ohio's Castalia facility. The Ohio DNR stocks appx 65,000 Manistee smolts in the Vermillion River each spring

Once a steelhead reaches maturity it returns to the stream it was implanted in to spawn.   They locate their home stream by smell.  Our steelhead smolts do not have a long time to acclimate to the stream before warming spring water temperatures chase them to the lake.  It is my belief that this is why so many of our Ohio fish stray.  This is a good thing in my opinion.   It helps to spread the fish out  to un-stocked streams. 

 When I say our fish stray, what I mean they make a mistake and run up  different river than the one they were implanted in. Simply put some of our smolts do not spend enough time in the stream to acclimate.  This seems to be especially true in Ohio.  Pennsylvania has figured out that stocking fish in the upper sections of the stream helps prevent straying. 

Many of the Pennsylvania smolts are stocked in the far upper sections of the streams.  In Conneaut Creek the Pa smolts are stocked about 45 miles from the Lake.   Ohio on the other hand stocks their fish near the stream mouths.  This does help keep the smolts from becoming unintentionally caught by anglers in the upper river.  It is my belief this is the reason several of our our un-stocked Ohio streams get such a prolific runs. 

Year after year I track where the trucks dump the smolts into the streams.  Let me tell you the majority of fish comeback to the exact spot they were implanted in.  On the Pennsylvania streams there are noticeably less fish upstream of the point the trucks put them in at.  Its a sure bet there will be a good pod of fish near where the trucks stock the fish.  This is why I so carefully keep track of where the fish are being stocked. 

I may have already caught a few of these fish I helped stock in the spring of 05 in the Vermillion River.

Our Manistee Strain Ohio fish tend to run much later than their Pa and NY cousins do.  This is because of their Genetic lineage.  Their parents are from the little Manistee River in Michigan.  It stays a cool temperature year round.  Most fish in the Little Man  tend to spawn in Late April or Early May.  It only makes sense that their offspring will tend to spawn at the same time.  This is why most steelhead veterans consider the Manistee to be a spring run fish. 

 Our Ohio fish will start to enter the streams in Late November. They will continue to run and will holdover all winter.  The bulk of the Ohio run will happen in Early March most years.  The fight of our wild Manistee strain fish is terriffic.

 Years ago Ohio used to stock London Strain fish.   They were a fall run fish.   There were several problems with the London's so Ohio decided to stock 200,000 Manistee Strain Fish in 1996.   Ohio soon discovered that  the return rate was much better with the Manistee strain.  Now have switched to a Manistee only program. 

At first I was upset.  I feared the fall fishery would disappear in Ohio.  As I predicted the catch rate for the Fall month's in Ohio went down.   I discovered that there were enough fall run strays from Pa and Early run Manistee to make fall fishing Good for most of the fall.  It also helps that Pennsylvania is stocking Conneaut Creek with it's fall run fish.   I will admit the more I get to know the Manistee the more I like them.  Its nice having fresh fish around in the spring, plus their wild genes show in the fight they give on the line.  The mighty Manistee has earned my respect.

Little Manistee River weir in Michigan.  This cool running stream is home to a population of wild fish.  This is where Ohio gets their steelhead eggs from.

Ohio stocks five of it's streams with Steelhead.  Conneaut, Grand, Chagrin, Rocky, and Vermillion.   All of these streams receive appx 65,000 smolts each spring.   Conneaut  Creek also receives 75,000 fish from Pennsylvania.  This makes Conneaut unique, it gets both spring and fall run fish.  Many Ohio streams that do not get stocked get good runs of fish each year.   Ashtabula, Cowels, Wheeler, Arcola, Euclid, Cuyahoga, Black,  Portgage,  and the Huron River all receive runs of Steelhead strays.  There are dozens of smaller streams or ditches that are worth mentioning also but I will not for obvious reasons.

Automated equipment makes fish collection easy. When the weir gates are raised,  river flow is diverted through holding tanks.  Fish swim into the tanks where overhead cranes and nets collect them.

If one were to compare the number of fish stocked per stream mile between Ohio and Pennsylvania, it would seem like Pa is the place to fish.  This can be true, at times there are unbelievable numbers of fish in Pa.  This is why I continue to shell out the $400 non resident guide license fee each year. There are several other factors to consider though. 

 Angler crowding in much worse in Pa.  Unless there is a blizzard you can forget the weekends.  On the other hand one willing to do a little walking in Ohio can always find a section of stream to himself. 

A recent study done in Pa shows one in three steelhead that is caught is kept.   This is bad news for steelhead.  Believe it or not most fish are caught repeatedly through the season.  Some winter holdover fish are caught and released dozens of times. Sooner or later most Pa steelhead end up that one out of three.  This means all these kept fish will not survive to become a repeat spawner.  Less repeat spawners is not a good thing.  We will get back to that later.

Castalia fish hatchery in Ohio.  This is where Ohio steelhead spend their first year.

 In Ohio on the other hand far fewer fish are kept.  The limits are lower but that doesn't seem to matter.  I really can't explain why this holds true.  I honestly believe that people in Ohio just don't have a taste for trout like they do in Pa.  Maybe its because of the abundance of Erie caught perch and walleye in my freezer.  I personally never eat steelhead.  Most locals around here don't have much trouble catching perch.  If you have never ate Lake Erie perch your missing out.

 Another reason few fish are creeled in Ohio might be because of the work involved.  If your hiking miles into the Grand River in Ohio who in their right mind is going to lug a adult steelhead out of there?   In all honesty I don't know why less fish are kept in Ohio.  The fact that less fish are kept means there are more repeat spawners in Ohio than in Pennsylvania.  If your into big steelhead that's a good thing, trust me..!! 

A 15 lb Ohio repeat spawner taken on the lower river.  For our steelhead to get this size they must survive several spawning runs.

A steelhead reaches maturity at three years of age.  They spend their first year in the stream as fry and then fingerlings. At one year old they migrate out to Lake Erie.   They spend their time in lake Erie gorging on Shiners, Smelt, Shad, Gobies, Mayflies, spinney water fleas and other high protein food sources.  Their growth rate is far faster than a stream trout living on a diet of nymphs. 

 When they return to the stream as three yr olds they are 22-24 inches long.  If they are lucky enough not to end up on a rope or a fatality of weather they return to the Lake.  We call them drop backs as they hobble back to he Lake after the rigors of the spawn.   They are dark and beat up with wounds from fighting and digging in the gravel.

Male Steelhead like this Vermillion River 13 lb drop back warrior, spar with other male fish for breeding rights.  They bite and slash at each other often causing wounds or sores.  It is not uncommon to see beat up males during the spawning season.

After spawning the hens quickly return to the Lake.   Most male fish remain in the river until late spring waiting for more hens to show up.  This is why there are almost always more male fish than female fish in the streams. Eventually the water temperature will warm to the point the Males will be forced to return to the Lake also.  Once the fish return to Lake Erie they will rejuvenate.  They will loose their spawning colors and turn silver again.  The Males Kype will shrink and their battle wounds quickly heal in the cool Lake waters.  By the fourth of July they are completely transformed back into Chromers.  They will spend yet another summer in Lake Erie feasting on its abundant forage until the urge to spawn draws them back to the stream.

DNA testing is the only sure way to distinguish between different steelhead strains.  One good indicator of a Ohio stocked fish is a fully developed dorsal fin.  Pennsylvania crowds their smolts in the raceways.  This close contact with each other wears their dorsal fins down. This doesn't seem to happen with the Ohio smolts.

The larger fish in the stream are repeat spawners.  Meaning they have survived a previous spawn and have returned to spawn again.  Being fishermen most of us want to catch the biggest fish possible.  On Steelhead Alley this means finding repeat spawners.   I fish sections of the Grand River from my drift boat that I have never seen another soul fishing.  The odds of anyone keeping a fish there are slim. Logic tells us that the odds of finding repeat spawners in such places is far greater.  The average size of the fish is much larger on the Grand River than most streams on the Alley. 

A pod of fresh run fish in Conneaut Creek during low water conditions in April

A friend of mine named Jimmy Dallas has been involved with 3 CU's and the Pennsylvania steelhead program since it's beginning in the early 60's.  Jimmy has forgotten more about steelhead than most of us will ever know.   One theory of Jimmy's is that the larger fish generally come from the lower sections of stream.  He believes that the biggest of big fish do not run very far up the streams instead they quickly spawn in the lower rivers then head immediately back to the Lake. I totally agree with this theory.  I see far more large repeat spawners in the lower river than the upper sections of stream.  Jimmy's reasoning for this phenomenon is that the fish remember from previous runs that there are lots of anglers upstream and little good spawning gravel.  I personally have seen about twenty fish over 15 lbs caught.  All but one came from the first three miles of the stream.  If your targeting big fish this is something to keep in mind.

A nice Ohio buck steelie that was released to fight again.

What will the future bring to our fishery?   Stream Access, Pollution, VHS infections,  Zebra mussels,  Gobies,  Many real threats to our steelhead program exist right now.   I have faith in our current Ohio DNR leadership.   I think they are on the right track.  With a little luck our children will get to catch more steelhead in Ohio than I did as a youth.

Let's Go Fishin..!!

Northeast Ohio Steelhead Fishing OH Steelhead Fishing Guide OH Steelhead Salmon Fishing | Lake Erie Fishing Guide | Steelhead Alley Guided Fishing |   Steelhead Fishing Guide | Steelhead Fishing Reports Ohio

 

 



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Welcome to our Ohio Steelhead Fishing  page.  Here you will find Links to, Ohio steelhead fishing reports and information compliments of Ohio Steelhead fishing guide, Don Mathews and the staff of guides at Dfishinfool's Guide Service.

 

New York Steelhead fishing is best in October

Pennsylvania Steelhead fishing peaks in November and December

Ohio Steelhead fishing peaks in March and April

NEW YORK TRIPS

In addition to our guided Ohio and Pennsylvania trips we offer a select number of trips each Fall to Western, NY and the Cattaraugus Creek. Steel headers often refer to the Catt as the "Crown Jewel" of our Great Lakes tributaries. We fish the Catt during the month of October. It is a beautiful stream and the early fall fishing is great. Give me a call and we will discuss a trip to the Catt. Don Mathews NY License #4348

We also have a presentation "Finding Fish on Steelhead Alley" available to put on at your seminar, event, or club meeting. We have assembled a awesome slide show and have all of our own equipment. We offer this presentation at a very minimal cost, and your audience will learn from it. So Please contact us....

Many lodging options exist along "Steelhead Alley" and Interstate I-90.  Here are a few lodging options located near to the streams that we fish.

LOCAL LODGING
Comfort Inn Elyria Ohio;  440-324-7676
EconoLodge Elyria Ohio; 440-324-3911
Howard Johnson's Geneva Ohio Exit#218; 440-466-1168
State Park Lodge Geneva Ohio Exit #218; 866-806-8066
Hampton Inn Ashtabula Ohio Exit #223; Call   440-275-2000
Comfort Inn Ashtabula Ohio Exit #223; Call   440-275-2711
Days Inn Conneaut Ohio Exit #241440-593-1226
Best Western Erie Pa exit#18 814-838-7646

Clarion Inn Erie Pa Exit#18 814-833-1116

Comfort Inn Dunkirk NY Exit#59 716-672-4450

White Inn Fredonia NY Exit#59 716-672-2103

Best Western Dunkirk NY Exit#59 716-366-7100

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