Blame the weather for this years disappointing steelhead season
Written by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette   
Sunday, 25 December 2005 12:00

Anglers disappointed with this year's steelhead season can blame walleyes and the weather. "Rebounding walleye populations have caused smolt numbers to drop," Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologist Chuck Murray said, "although weather played a greater influence on the quality of fishing in the tribs this year. It was dry and then all of sudden, it got cold and we lost open water about a month earlier than usual."

"The big runs that normally peak in November never materialized," steelhead guide and author John Nagy said, "although we still had decent runs of fish during infrequent run-off periods."

Though no creel surveys were taken this fall, Murray said steelhead were plentiful, but fishing wasn't on a par with other seasons.

"We're used to such extraordinarily high catch rates, it feels like a drop," he said. "We're on the downside of the peak catch rates of 2003-2004."

Matt Hrycyk, president of the Pennsylvania Steelhead Association, said that while fewer fish may have come into Poor Richard's Bait and Tackle shop this year, trophy-size steelhead were more abundant.

Those of more than 26 inches would represent the 2003 stocking, when hatchery losses reduced the number of yearlings planted to 700,000, or more than a quarter fewer than normal, Murray said. "Fewer fish meant they had more room to grow big in the raceways. That could explain the nice size four year olds that folks were seeing."

Ray Travis, who guides for Lake Erie Ultimate Angler, also commented on the quality size of this year's steelheads, such as the spurt of five year olds in Twenty Mile Creek more than a month ago.

"There were a couple of quick hits after a good rain," said Travis, whose typical fall tactic -- targeting skinny water up against banks and shallow riffles, rather than the deeper pools most anglers go to -- was especially productive this year.

Most fish caught on Erie streams are three year olds, including some "intensively cultured fish" making runs for the first time, Murray said. "After age three, steelhead mortality becomes significant, between fish getting beaten up by anglers and by the shallow [tributaries] we have in Pennsylvania. They're not easy for fish to get up into."

One million steelhead yearlings are planted every spring. All are hatched from brood stock taken out of the lake, including wild steelhead from Ontario and Little Manistees bearing Michigan fin clips that sometimes show up in Trout Run.

"It was John Nagy who coined the term steelhead mutts," Murray said of Pennsylvania's Heinz 57 variety of fish. Though it may be years away, Murray said a plan is in the works to tag steelhead on all Great Lakes tributaries, including those in Pennsylvania, so that scientists can track their movements and numbers, and document natural reproduction.

While it is likely that some steelhead imprinted with Pennsylvania streams wind up far from home, especially in years such as this one when low water kept fish out of the tributaries, evidence so far is anecdotal, Murray said. "We aren't sure what happens to steelhead who can't get up a stream. We think they roam, but we don't know where or how much."

Though some tagging of fish is done now by hand, a major maps marking study would use an automated process to insert tiny laser-imprinted ID chips, about the size of a pencil tip, into the nose of fish, Murray said. All Great Lakes states and Canada would share in the cost.

Even New York's Cattaraugus River, which normally fishes well in a low water fall, yielded fewer steelhead this year because warm lake water temperatures delayed runs, Nagy said. By contrast, Ohio's Grand and Chagrin rivers and Conneaut Creek seemed to get more fish and they were Pennsylvania strain steelhead.

Conneaut Creek can offer good late winter, early spring steelhead fishing because Ohio stocks it with spring-run Little Manistees as part of a cooperative program with Pennsylvania. Springtime angling can be productive on many of Erie's Pennsylvania tributaries, which yield a mixed bag of spawned out, pre-spawn and even fresh-run fish.

"It typically begins in March, after ice-out on the lake, and can last until the end of April. The ideal is if we have a cold, wet late winter and early spring," Nagy said.

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