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Confessions of a Guide: Pennsylvania's Steelhead Conundrum

Leveling the playing field in a time of increasing privatized water.

Confessions of a Guide: Pennsylvania's Steelhead Conundrum

As more stream miles become private along the Lake Erie shoreline, the angling public is sequestered into increasingly smaller spaces. (Jack Hanrahan photo)

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2013 issue of Fly Fisherman.


An ongoing controversy exists between public and private access on Pennsylvania’s heralded steelhead streams, and I got caught up in the middle of it when I went to work guiding for a fishing club that boasts private access to steelhead streams that are stocked with fish at the expense of the angling public.

Before I began working for the club, I was the president of the Pennsylvania Steelhead Association, a board member for the Lake Erie Region Conservancy, and a Lake Erie Advisory Committee member. And I was also an independent steelhead guide on public water until another guide, with good intentions, introduced me to a private trout-fishing club on Spruce Creek, Pennsylvania.

“This ain’t for everybody,” the head guide at the club told me upon arriving, but that warning was soon forgotten as I viewed the sparkling Little Juniata River, and its large brown trout rising to Sulphur duns.

I slept in posh surroundings, had my face plastered on advertisements, and had access to a streamside cabin with a hot tub. I could spend summer weekends in the cabin with my family, and by working for the club, I had full-time summer guiding work. That sounded a whole lot better than watching people get their fingers sawed off at the local lumber mill. Instead of being a part-time steelhead guide for a few months of the year, I could make fly fishing my entire professional life.

I knew that this club had received a lot of negative press for preventing public access to the Little Juniata, had lost a court case brought by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and that I would be chastised at home in Erie for going on the club’s payroll. You see, the private trout-fishing club was expanding its home waters to include Lake Erie tributaries, which legally have never been declared as “navigable” and could be made “private waters” if the landowners could be convinced to post them for private use only.

I’ve lived in Erie most of my adult life, and know many of the landowners, so the club put me to work helping a landowner liaison secure several leases for members’ use.

I was told that I could still fish and guide on these properties when not in use by club members, and I liked the idea of guiding with less competition on increasingly crowded waters. “It’s about time the landowners were compensated,” was a frequent refrain. And it was a fact that many landowners had suffered abuse and property damage from the angling public.

The new president of the Pennsylvania Steelhead Association told me I worked for the enemy, and as anticipated, I was the subject of much hostility on Internet bulletin boards and forums. But the checks kept coming, and I helped post some of the first “no trespassing” signs at the direction of the landowner liaison. More were to come.




Without comprehending the end result, I fell into conflicts with other fishermen, some of whom were friends, and it was my first realization that maybe I didn’t fit in with this private club. I was a fly-fishing guide, not a trespass enforcer. And I was helping take away fishing access from people who had fished these streams their entire lives.

On the other hand, crisp Ben Franklins were pressed into my hand at the end of every day. This was my environment, this was my stage, and I enjoyed turning new people on to the thrill of hooking steelhead with a fly rod. The fishing was easy on Twenty-mile Creek where with our club members we had access to the second-highest concentration of steelhead in Erie County.

Many of the club members came from the world of corporate boardrooms, where success can only be measured by numbers, and they often asked each other, “Well, how many did you catch?” They were often disappointed if they didn’t hit double digits by lunch. It’s just the way it was for people who spent outrageous amounts of money for exclusive access to steelhead stacked up like cordwood.

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For me it became a monotonous grind. Steelhead fishing is about adjusting to daily water conditions by choosing the right tributary to fish on the right day. My excitement for something I loved to do had dwindled like a Lake Erie tributary during drought. A couple of years went by and the pay was good. Many of the members were great people who treated me like a guide and a friend. Free weekend lunches at the local tavern didn’t hurt either.

But maintaining this private fishing preserve became more and more difficult as the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission acquired a public easement on the west side of Elk Creek, upstream from Interstate 90 and directly across the stream from the club’s “private water.”

“No trespassing” signs on the surrounding properties ensured the public could not get to the fishing easement that Erie permit holders had paid for. Some fishermen used to walk into the area using the railroad tracks, or by walking down Brandy Run, but the club also attempted to curtail that activity.

A fly angler kneeling in a river holding a Great Lakes steelhead.
Elk Creek is Pennsylvania’s largest Lake Erie steelhead tributary, and a sore spot among local anglers. (Ross Purnell photo)

Shut Out

In the following year, more “no trespassing” signs were put up. Another outfitter guiding downstream on Elk Creek had secured his own private access, and he could ensure the public couldn’t make it upstream to the isolated public water.

Guiding was rapidly becoming a chess game, attempting to checkmate the public until they couldn’t move.

The final straw came when I was told I was also not allowed to fish on club water, either by myself, with my children, or on independently arranged trips. I could no longer fish in a place where I formerly had unlimited access—a place that I had helped secure from the landowner. I could guide club members there, but couldn’t fish there myself.

It was then that I profoundly realized what it’s like to be one of the thousands of Pennsylvania fishing license holders who no longer have access to a favorite fishing spot.

Money had bought me. Now money had shoved me out. That’s when I quit, and went back to work at the lumber mill in the summers.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) has an immense amount of finances and resources invested in its effort to create a sustainable steelhead fishery in northwestern Pennsylvania. The PFBC uses our license and permit sales not only to raise and stock fingerling steelhead, but also for the salaries of those who manage our fisheries. If the trend of private club water increases, the steelhead fishery in Pennsylvania will not be sustainable.

Money Talks

The huge amounts of money spent within the local economy for sport fishing are in jeopardy of being lost or reduced. According to a study conducted by the PFBC in 2004, “anglers attracted to the Erie County, Pennsylvania stream and shoreline steelhead fishery spent nearly $9.5 million on trip-related expenditures in 2003. Overall, this activity generates $5.71 million in new value-added activity in Erie County, supporting 219 jobs in the economy through direct and indirect effects.” I suspect that the economic value of the fishery is now much greater than it was in 2003.

It takes money to fight back, and through the sale of seasonal Lake Erie Permits, the PFBC has raised more than $5 million for the express purpose of securing access to Lake Erie steelhead streams, and for related infrastructure improvements on Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay. Of that amount, a little over $4 million has been expended or committed, leaving a balance of $1,269,703 for future use.

The Lake Erie Permit sales have resulted in five easements on Crooked Creek (3.1 miles), 17 easements on Elk Creek (7.78 miles), four easements on Walnut Creek (2.27 miles), two easements on Twentymile Creek (1.22 miles), one easement on Fourmile Creek (1.03 miles), and one easement along Lake Erie (0.11 mile) at the mouth of Trout Run. The total miles of stream under permanent public fishing easements is 15.5.

Despite the obvious successes outlined above, the PFBC is still losing ground to private interests that want to secure as much steelhead water as possible.

As recently as 2012, the PFBC was negotiating with a landowner to purchase property along upper Elk Creek near Gudgeonville Road. Unfortunately, a higher offer was made by a group of private investors.

Possible Solution

According to Eric Levis of the PFBC, the commission has also talked to all of the landowners with posted land who are currently engaged in private leases for fishing access.

“The Commission has tried to negotiate with these landowners for public fishing easements on the properties. However, the landowners seem to be concerned about entering into a permanent easement, and they prefer the idea of a short-term lease, which gives them the option to renew or cancel after a couple of years. Since the Erie program was created, the Commission has pursued permanent public fishing easements because we believe that it is the best use of the funding to ensure that anglers will have access to these streams now, and it will ensure access for anglers for future generations.”

So in cases where the land can’t be purchased or put under an easement, yet private fishing leases continue to gain stream miles, how can we level the playing field?

One solution may be to offer property tax incentives that could reduce or eliminate taxes for property owners who allow public fishing—but this tax-break idea is not in the realm of control of the PFBC. What the PFBC does have control over is fishing regulations. The PFBC has already designated portions of Lake Erie tributary streams, such as Trout Run and Crooked Creek, as “Nursery Waters” where fishing is prohibited.

If the PFBC can’t buy or lease posted property, then why can’t they designate it as a protected Nursery Water to protect and keep state-stocked steelhead unmolested as they rest or pass through?

This will reduce the incentive to lock up even more Erie streams and turn them into private fishing clubs, and it will protect our steelhead for the exclusive use of the public. It’s a hard-nosed solution, but the private leases are valuable only because of the state-stocked steelhead.

I’m not trying to say there is a moral to this story, and I’m not looking for redemption. What I have learned is that money can buy great fishing, and that there are a lot of people willing to pay for it if we allow them.

I want my children and their children to be able to catch steelhead in the streams I love. I don’t want America to become a place where only the wealthy have access to the best hunting and fishing. It especially shouldn’t happen here in Erie, where the public pays the bills for their pleasure.


Karl Weixlmann is the author of Great Lakes Steelhead, Salmon & Trout: Essential Techniques for Fly Fishing the Tributaries (Stackpole Books, 2009).

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