Steehead fishing is different this season and for the foreseeable future. A gradual change took place over many years. You may have not noticed where we now are if you are unaware of from where we came.
For many years, expectations for excellent steelhead fishing during October, November and early December seemed reasonable. Your proof is that during the recent past, your trips for steelhead at that time of the year provided a dependable level of success.
I am not suggesting that now a trip to Lake Erie for steelhead is not worth the gas and time. No, steelhead fishing your favorite Lake Erie tributary remains a "world-class" experience. What I do believe is success expectations are being adjusted to a "new normal".
The base resources that produce Lake Erie's steelhead experience seem to be unchanged. I have not heard any reports about the failing health of Lake Erie. The steelhead stocking rates for Lake Erie have remained nearly constant for the past decade. The survival rate of smolts and their growth in Lake Erie seems to be consistent with what we have experienced in the past. So what has changed?
Here a few variables that affect your Lake Erie fishing experience: Fishing pressure has spiked. Fishing skills have improved. Catch and release rates have dropped. Miles of private water sanctuaries have increased. Water hydraulics annually re-designs the best holding water. Water and weather challenge our ability to adjust. Did I miss any?
This season the best and worse Westside place to fish was the same location - Walnut Creek from the falls to the lake. Best because with each high water event a strong run of fish entered and stacked in the stream's public water. Worse because everyone who could stand upright and hold a fishing rod crowded into the limited fishing space as water levels returned to normal.
A second-best location to fish was the private water on Elk Creek for the "pay to fish" crowd and any public water locations on Elk Creek were migrating steelhead paused after high-water events. I won't list the locations, we all know their names.
Finally, the fourth best place to fish location are all of the small-water, tributary honey holes that hold a few fish. These places are often overlooked by most anglers because two anglers are a crowd and 3+ anglers will outnumber the fish.
The "new normal" is this. You may experience a few 20+ fish days, but the majority of your outings will be 3-10 fish days that test your ability to adjust presentations. Once the "run" begins, fishing pressure will hold steady until the snow and cold arrives. Finally, a January thaw or spring-like weather in March will jump-start the late season. This will turn up the fishing pressure gauge.
The "new normal” has nothing to do with the demise of Lake Erie steelhead fishing; however, a fishing trip to Erie will be more about fishing and less about catching.
When fishing pressure drops due to crowding or low catch rates, experienced, good anglers that have lived through steelhead angling highs and lows will once again have plenty of stream space to drift that sac or tandem fly.