Interest #1: Naturalized Steelhead & Smolts in the Springtime

Springtime offers a variety of species to fish for! Directly above: a Golden Redhorse Sucker.

Do you ever notice a wound in front of female Steelhead’s tail fin? It is from kicking out a redd, or nest. Although most spawning is unsuccessful in Erie tributaries, the migratory fish still dig redds and pair up, lay eggs, and so on. Often an egg eater will be sitting behind the spawning pairs—fish the pools after the paired up fish.

Do Steelhead naturally reproduce in Lake Erie Tributaries?

Yes, but not in numbers that would sustain the sport fishery. Most of the tributaries in Erie County are of poor quality overall: they are mainly comprised of shale, a weak, thin clay-like rock that is the pre-stage of slate rock, and they are very rain dependent for flow. The shale creeks lack habitat and expose smolts to predation from avian predators; there are not many riffles composed of stones and pebbles, let alone the necessary gravel substrate needed. Most ‘riffles’ sections are waves in the shale. There is, however, documented natural reproduction of numerous species in Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie tributaries. Some of the species that successfully spawn every season in Erie County tributaries include: Steelhead Trout, Redhorse Suckers, Golden Redhorse Suckers, Quillbacks, and Smallmouth Bass. Unfortunately, natural reproduction in Lake Erie tributaries has also expanded to include the invasive Sea Lamprey. Nonetheless, the current Steelhead Alley Fishery can be traced back to 3-C-U Trout Association, and buttresses claims of natural reproduction. 3-C-U is currently a cooperative fish nursery with PA Fish & Boat Commission; they continue to plant tens of thousands of Steelhead in local waterways. In the mid-1960s, members trapped naturalized Steelhead from a Lake Erie tributary, and from those few hundred fish, began their own hatchery efforts, rearing and planting them back into local tributaries. There is natural reproduction of Steelhead on the Pennsylvania Triangle on Lake Erie.

Additionally, New York State’s Department of Conservation has researched their Lake Erie tributaries and found evidence of notable percentages of natural reproduction of Steelhead Trout especially. Moreover, Chautauqua Creek and Cattaraugus Creek have rather significant populations of naturally spawning Steelhead; however, not nearly enough to sustain the sport fishery at its current level.

In Pennsylvania, there has been documented, successful spawning in some creeks. Crooked Creek is one of three designated nursery waters in Erie County, and has documented natural reproduction. Many of the streams in Pennsylvania are composed of shale rock and lack the pea sized spawning gravel Steelhead truly need to successfully dig a redd and lay eggs that will hold fast until hatching. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has not studied natural reproduction in Lake Erie creeks since the 1990s. The most recent study of Lake Erie, Erie County tributaries was completed approximately 20 years ago by a graduate student; that is linked below. Note, there are no known creeks or rivers entering Lake Erie in the United States* that boast more than 35% natural reproduction. That means Steelhead Alley is, realistically, a put-grow-n-take fishery. However, releasing sport fish to fight another day means larger fish to catch in the future. As a comparison, consider the size of bucks in Northwestern PA once the Game Commission enforced antler restrictions—much bigger bucks are taken on public land now, than ever before.

*Canadian Steelhead waters in Lake Erie boast 90% wild Steelhead. The Grand River in Ontario is known for its wild Steelhead.

What is a smolt?

A smolt is a juvenile Steelhead. The life cycle of a Steelhead begins as an egg, then an alevin, a fry, a smolt, and finally, an adult Steelhead. Once Steelhead have reached maturity, in Pennsylvania that is approximately 3-4 years, they return to the waters in which they were stocked in order to spawn.

Each winter and spring, hundreds of thousands of smolts are stocked into Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie tributaries. Nowhere, not one single location draining into Lake Erie is stocked with Rainbow Trout for Trout Opener. Elk Creek and some other streams are indeed stocked with Brown Trout for spring trout season. If you begin catching 7-14 inch Rainbows in the creek, those are juvenile Steelhead! If they make it out to the lake and survive another 3 years or so they will return to the stream in which they imprinted on, or so the theory goes. The PA Fish & Boat Commission usually stock their Steelies in February and March. The local cooperative nurseries typically wait a bit longer to net, transport, and stock their baby Steelhead. Please do not keep or kill any juvenile rainbows you catch, keep your hands wet when handling, and move away from the spot in which you are hooking smolts if you start catching them hand-over-fist. Those little fish are the future of the fishery.

Wild Steelhead smolt from a Western New York Lake Erie tributary. Note the flawless fins and the vibrant coloration. Typically, stocked fish lack the aforementioned features.
Pictured: a stocked smolt (juvenile Steelhead Trout) from a Northwestern Pennsylvania Lake Erie tributary.

The above link offers more detailed information on the small amount of natural reproduction in Pennsylvania tributaries to Lake Erie.

Small, Western-style Steelhead flies are very productive on East Coast Migratory Rainbow Trout (Steelhead).

The above link offers detailed information on New York State’s game plan for Lake Erie Steelhead. For $50 for an entire calendar year (based upon purchase date) New York is a great option to escape crowded Erie waters.