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Steelhead Alley Fall Forecast

by John Nagy   |  August 19th, 2010 10

John Nagy Photo

Lake Erie has a reputation as a steelhead factory. John Nagy photo

Over the last few years steelhead runs have been down in the world famous “steelhead alley” region of Lake Erie (which includes the Lake Erie tributaries of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York). After record high catch rates in the mid-2000s, when angler creel surveys by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) showed incredible catch rates of .63-.65 steelhead per angler hour on the tributaries, steelheaders have been “hooking-up” with less steelhead and wanting to know what is going on.

Steelhead fishing is by no means bad in steelhead alley right now, just noticeably off. A recent angler creel survey by the Ohio Division of Wildlife and Ohio State University (conducted through the fall of 2009 through the spring of 2010); showed catch rates had dropped to .354 steelhead per angler hour which compares favorably to steelhead fisheries in other areas of the Great Lakes.

Chuck Murray, fishery biologist with the PF&BC, says that steelhead catch rates over the years have always fluctuated on the Lake Erie tributaries despite consistent stocking levels by lake wide agencies (averaging 1.7-2.0 million yearling steelhead since 1993 with 1,929,029 stocked in 2010). He believes that steelhead runs can be affected by natural variability’s in the lake including walleye and bass predation which can impact steelhead juvenile survivability and subsequent steelhead runs.

Weather, as most seasoned steelheaders know, can have a tremendous impact on steelhead runs and catch rates. In recent years the weather trend of a relatively dry fall, severe winter and a wet spring seems to have taken hold in steelhead alley. Lack of run-off in the fall can delay runs and limit fishing opportunities to bigger tributaries. Brutal winters can freeze tributaries over making winter steelheading impossible. Too much run-off in the spring can make most tributaries unfishable.

Case in point was the spring of 2011 which had record run-off that made many Lake Erie tributaries unfishable (particularly the larger size ones like the Grand River in OH and Cattaraugus Creek in NY) due to high/stained flows. Many smaller to med-size tributaries were fishable though.

These tough conditions have made steelhead fishing to say the least challenging in steelhead alley. Steelheaders more than ever are required to be “weather junkies” and familiar with the run-off rates of each specific tributary.  This knowledge enables steelheaders to predict run-off conditions and “prime” conditions for a tributary or tributaries (over a several day period) and target the “right” tributary or tributaries for the specific day(s) he’s fishing.

The recent spike of both sea lamprey and walleye populations in Lake Erie could be having an impact on adult steelhead populations in Lake Erie. Sea lampreys are an invasive fish predator originally native to the Atlantic Ocean. They invaded the Great Lakes in the early 20th century via man-made shipping canals causing major ecological and economic damage to the Great Lakes. On average, a sea lamprey will kill over 40 lbs. of predator fish over its lifetime (including salmonids, walleye and catfish). Through the efforts of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC), the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USF&WS) and the Department of Fisheries & Oceans Canada (DF&OC), sea lamprey populations in the Great Lakes were reduced by 90 % over the last 50 years.

 Photo by Jim Markham NYSDEC

Increased numbers of lampreys in Lake Erie may be a factor in decreased catch rates throughout Steelhead Alley. Photo by Jim Markham NYSDEC

During the summer of 2011, the USF&WS was getting anecdotal reports of high numbers of adult sea lampreys in Lake Erie from commercial trap net fisherman (who were finding feeding lampreys in their trap nets that they had not seen before) and sport fishing charter captains (who were reporting high numbers of lamprey wounds on caught steelhead). This was despite heavy lampricide treatments of known sea lamprey producing tributaries by the USF&WS in the spring of 2008 and fall of 2009. Follow-up sea lamprey larval assessments in the treated tributaries by the USF&WS showed treatments were successful.

Since the treatments, more evidence of increased sea lamprey reproduction and populations has been turning up. The NY Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) in the spring of 2011 found high sea lamprey nesting counts on Clear Creek (a feeder to Cattaraugus Creek  in Western NY) that was the second highest ever recorded (76.1 lamprey nests/mile).

In the fall of 2010, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission surveyed returning adult steelhead in nursery waters of Trout Run and found an 18.3% sea lamprey wounding rate for 142 steelhead sampled. In 2009, the NYDEC found record lake trout sea lamprey wounding rates in an August assessment gill net survey, specifically in lake trout greater than 22 inches. 20% of the lake trout sampled had sea lamprey wounds which is much higher than the acceptable 5% target level for lake trout wounding rates set by the GLFC. (Note: Steelhead are infrequently caught during August gill net assessment surveys and observations of wounding rates must rely on other sampling methods and surveys). Lake trout sea lamprey wounding rates have historically been the “canary in the mine” for gauging lamprey populations in Lake Erie.

Sea lampreys are very similar to lake trout in that they are both pelagic feeders and prefer feeding on or near the lake bottom. This makes lake trout a primary target for lampreys with steelhead more of a secondary target (since steelhead feed throughout the entire lake water column including the surface). The problem is that adult lake trout populations have been declining steadily over the last decade in Lake Erie (despite consistent stocking numbers) forcing sea lampreys to find other food sources such as adult steelhead.

Michael Fodale a supervisor with the USF&WS says that sea lamprey populations in Lake Erie right now are at the “pre-treatment” levels of the mid 1980’s. (Note: Sea lamprey treatments were not done in the Lake Erie prior to this time since the water quality of Lake Erie, including many of its tributaries limited lamprey reproduction up to this point) He feels that there must be an unknown source for sea lampreys in the Lake Erie Basin. Some possibilities include upstream spawning areas above dam removal sites which the USF&WS is not aware of, “leaky” dam barriers which could encourage upstream lamprey movement to spawning areas, the upper Chagrin River, OH (the Daniels Park Dam collapsed in the spring of 2005) and the Detroit river delta which has potential larval habitat for successful sea lamprey recruitment.

As soon as the USF&WS finds the source(s) they plan on aggressively treating these areas (although federal funding for sea lamprey control in the Great Lakes will be reduced by 14% in 2012). In the future sea lamprey control may also include using lab refined lamprey mating pheromones (scents emitted by male lampreys to attract females) to “guide” spawning sea lampreys into rivers baited with lamprey traps or treated with lampricide.  For more information on sea lamprey control in the Great Lakes visit the GLFC website at: www.glfc.org.

Walleye predation of steelhead juveniles in Lake Erie has always been a factor but the recent record walleye abundance in Lake Erie may be affecting steelhead alley steelhead runs more than normal. The year 2003 had the highest year class for walleye in the last two decades with the year 2005 setting a record for walleye abundance (fish 2 years old and older). Walleye can live up to 14 years old and become major predators after age 3. A prime target for feeding walleyes are steelhead smolts that have dropped down from the tributaries in the spring and locate along the Lake Erie shoreline.

In the Western NY tributaries of Lake Erie another factor may be contributing to declining steelhead runs. A steelhead otolith microchemistry study by graduate student Chris Boehler of Bowling Green State University showed that a good number of returning adult steelhead sampled in various NY Lake Erie tributaries (both spring and fall sampling) were of Pennsylvania and Ohio origin.

Photo by Jim Markham NYSDEC

Fly fishers are seeing more and more steelhead with wounds from lampreys. Walleye and bass may be also preying on steelhead. Photo by Jim Markham NYSDEC

The marginal return rate of NY steelhead may be a result of the small size of the steelhead smolts stocked by the NYDEC (5-5.5 inches) which could possibly be contributing to higher than normal juvenile mortality. The PA and OH smolts are much bigger averaging 6-8 inches. Steelhead smolts stocked by the NYDEC in the Western NY tributaries of Lake Erie (including many Lake Ontario tributaries) come from the Salmon River Hatchery in Pulaski, NY where the cold water source for the hatchery (temperature wise) is a limiting factor for growth rates of steelhead smolts. BGSU plans to do more steelhead microchemistry work in the future to better understand the dynamics of returning adult steelhead to their release tributaries in Lake Erie. They will also be looking at emigration of steelhead smolts from the tributaries as well as sea lamprey attach rates.

Whatever the steelhead runs turn out to be this upcoming season in steelhead alley, rest assured that both steelheaders and state fishery biologist’s will be watching closely for trends both good and bad. Steelheaders should also remember that when out on the tributaries this season to respect fellow steelhead fisherman, private landowners and the magnificent steelhead itself which will help to ensure a better experience for all.

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For more information on steelhead alley refer to John Nagy’s book Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead (Updated and Expanded 4th Edition) which is available through Great Lakes Publishing at (412) 531-5819, steelheadguide@hotmail.com or JohnNagySteelheadGuide.com

John Nagy’s newly released Steelheader’s Journal  is designed to help steelheaders in the “steelhead alley” region of Lake Erie, as well as throughout the Great Lakes, efficiently record information related to his or her tributary steelhead fly fishing trips (both in log and journal sections). It also includes the “dos and don’ts of steelhead fishing,” knot diagrams, a gear  “pre-trip” checklist and a “steelhead profile”. Illustrated with line-art and paintings by artist and steelhead fly fisherman Les Troyer, the Steelheader’s Journal (192 pages/7” x 10”) is leather bound with natural paper and sepia ink including a silk ribbon page marker. Contact Great Lakes Publishing for ordering information.

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