Lake Erie Steelhead
July 26, 2011
Already the epicenter of Lake Erie steelheading, New York's Cattaraugus Creek may see miles of improvement.
Of all the rivers along Lake Erie's famous Steelhead Alley, Cattaraugus Creek MAY BE the best example of the area's outstanding fishing. "The Cat" — as local steelheaders fondly refer to it — is just 30 miles south of Buffalo, has excellent steelhead runs, plenty of public water, and ideal fishing features to keep both novice and veteran chrome chasers coming back every season.
The downside is that this fine fishing often attracts crowds. However, even this situation may improve in the near future, as there are tentative plans to modify the upriver Springville Dam, allowing Lake Erie steelhead to populate an additional 75 river miles, where 34 miles of public fishing access is already in place.
Native Americans first noticed natural gas oozing from the mud along the river and named it Cattaraugus, which means "foul-smelling banks."
In its lower reaches on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation, the Cat averages 100 feet across and 2 to 6 feet deep. It travels 68 miles from its headwaters at Java Lake, New York, to Sunset Bay on the Lake Erie shore, and drops 1,000 feet in elevation along the way.
Geologically speaking, the Cat is a relatively new river. The advancing, mile-high Laurentide Ice Sheet 12,000 years ago blocked various north-flowing rivers in western New York, forming numerous finger lakes. Low spots in several of these finger lakes spilled over onto the Allegheny Plateau and flowed westward (toward what is now Lake Erie), forming the Cattaraugus Creek watershed. Since that time, the erosive force of water has progressively shaped and lowered the riverbed, and in the process formed high canyon cliffs, gravel-bottom pools, and shale-ledged streambeds.
The steelhead water on the Cat today begins at Springville Dam and ends 34 miles downriver at Lake Erie. The dam blocks all upriver steelhead migration, but there is an undeveloped county park below the dam with some fishing opportunities, and a short stretch of water below Scoby Bridge. (There is also posted water below the bridge, so watch for signs.)
The magnificent Zoar Valley begins below Hammond Hill Road bridge. The upper part of the canyon is a broad valley with limited public access except for 3.8 miles of New York State Public Fishing Rights (PFR) lands. PFRs are permanent easements purchased from landowners by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). They give anglers the right to fish and walk along the bank — usually a 33-foot strip on one or both banks of the stream.
Fly fishers can access these PFR lands via Hammond Hill Road (south bank only) although there is a landlocked PFR section that requires permission from a private landowner to access.
Below the upper valley, the Cat and its South Branch flow through the wild and remote, 14-mile, narrow Zoar Valley gorge. This geological wonder has 400-foot cliffs, bald eagles, numerous waterfalls, and the second largest concentration of old-growth forest in New York State.
The gorge is a boulder-strewn kayaker's dream at high flows. A few rafting companies run whitewater trips in the gorge during spring runoff. At fishable flows, it is difficult to float due to the shallow water between the deeper pools and runs.
Because there are limited gravel areas in the gorge streambed, steelhead push through it rather quickly. As a general rule, steelhead prefer to hold and rest over gravel, but there is fishable pocketwater and many shale ledges in the Zoar Valley gorge where fish pause temporarily on their upstream journey. Indicator nymphing in the pocketwater and around the shale ledges can be good while steelhead are moving through, and there are decent runs and pools for swinging flies.
Half the valley lies within the 3,000-acre, state-owned property known as the Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area (see www.dec.ny.gov/lands/36931.html for details). Access the 7 miles of fishable water in the gorge section by hiking in and out from Valentine Flats or Forty Roads parking areas. (See detailed maps at www.dec.ny.gov/docs/fish_marine_pdf/cattcreeksteelhead.pdf.) The steep, unmarked foot trail is hazardous in felt wading boots. Studded rubber soles are better both on the trail and in the river. Also, be aware of debris that may fall from the steep cliffs while you're fishing along the valley floor.
There is no formal public fishing access in or near the town of Gowanda, New York, but there are opportunities above the Aldrich Street bridge, and above the New York 39 bridge 1½ miles upstream of Gowanda. Be aware of some posted private land downstream, closer to Gowanda.
Much of the steelheading on the Cattaraugus occurs on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation of the Seneca Nation of Indians (SNI). SNI lands begin just below Gowanda and include most of the 14 miles of river down to Lake Erie. The exceptions are the Versailles, New York, area and the south bank of the half mile of river nearest the lake.
On the reservation, the Cat flows over a sand and gravel plain formed by the glacial outwash of the last ice age. Particularly below Versailles, the reservation has bigger water than the Zoar Valley, with larger pools ideal for swinging flies. If you have a Spey rod and prefer to swing flies, this may be the best place along the Erie shore to do it, but there are also numerous tighter areas such as chutes, shale ledges, and pocketwater for indicator fishing.
Fishing on the reservation requires an SNI fishing license, available from the William Seneca Administration Building on the reservation (716-532-4900) and also from a few authorized vendors, including the Seneca One Stop at the intersection of U.S. Route 20 and New York 5. A New York State license isn't required on the reservation, but is necessary everywhere else on Cattaraugus Creek.
You can drive, park, and walk just about anywhere on the reservation with an SNI fishing license, unless land is specifically posted. Be careful when using dirt roads and trails to drive to the river — it's not uncommon for even four-wheel-drive vehicles to get stuck.
Park in heavily used "safe" parking areas and walk to the river. Expect heavy crowds in early fall on the lower reservation. There is less pressure on the upper reservation, above the town of Versailles.
Cat steelhead are legendary for their aggressive takes and strong, powerful fights. The majority are three-year-old fish, averaging 5 to 6 pounds. Fly fishers commonly catch 8- to 12-pounders, with a few steelhead over 12 pounds caught every season.
New York State stocks about 90,000 steelhead yearlings into the Cat every spring. These juveniles from the Salmon River Hatchery in Altmar, New York, are popularly known as Salmon River steelhead — a naturalized Lake Ontario hatchery strain, basically late fall/winter and spring-run fish.
Since 2005, the DEC has conducted experimental stockings of approximately 12,000 surplus Skamania steelhead. DEC biologist Jim Markham hopes the summer-run Skamania fish will move into the river in late August and September, earlier than the existing Salmon River strain, which run in October. About half the Skamania steelhead have clipped adipose and left ventral fins for identification.
In addition to stocked steelhead, up to 25 percent of Cat steelhead may be wild. Spawning occurs in such tributaries as Spooner Brook, Derby Brook, Coon Brook, and Connoisarauley Creek.
Fly fishers also regularly catch steelhead that have strayed from nearby Pennsylvania and Ohio — both have extensive steelhead smolt stocking programs — and from Ontario, Canada, which has exclusively wild fish. Stray fish are considerably more common in dry years, when smaller watersheds run low and warm. The Cat's larger drainage area and spring sources maintain better flows that attract migrating steelhead moving along the Erie shore.
The Cat is similar to other Lake Erie tributaries, in that it is heavily dependent on runoff from rain and/or snow to raise water levels to fishable flows. But because the watershed drains 551 square miles, excessive precipitation can blow out the Cat for weeks at a time with high, unwadable flows and heavily stained water.
When the river level first drops to fishable flows — below 600 cubic feet per second (cfs) — dirty water can still be an issue on the Cat. The culprit is the shale and siltstone along the high cliff banks and river bottom, which forms a suspended clay sediment. The first flood in the fall usually creates a muddy mess. As runoff decreases, water clarity slowly improves.
Water clarity on the Cat varies from brown and heavily silted to an opaque, chalky green color — about a week after high-water events — to a clearer green tint more than a week after heavy runoff.
Water visibility of less than 12 inches makes fishing difficult. If you are standing in knee-deep water and can't see your boots, you are likely to have a bad day.
Steelhead have a harder time seeing in dirty water, forcing you to work harder to keep your fly right in front of their faces. In 2008, the New York 219 expansion project in the Springville Dam area made the water downstream more stained than normal, even at fishable flows. It's possible this trend will continue in the fall of 2009 and until the road work is completed.
When the main stem of the Cat is unfishable, some of its feeders such as the lower section of the South Branch in the Zoar Valley, Clear Creek on the reservation, and Connoisarauley Creek — are worth trying. Nearby Lake Erie tributaries such as Eighteen Mile, Silver, Walnut, Canadaway, and Chautauqua creeks are also good alternatives.
The Cat is primarily a fall steelhead fishery, with late September through mid-November the best months. Early in the fall, steelhead congregate on the lower reservation. Providing there is adequate water, fish start moving through Gowanda and into the Zoar Valley by mid-October.
A mild winter in this part of New York means high, unfishable flows due to rain and snowmelt. A severe winter makes steelheading difficult if not impossible, due to ice-over and heavy snowpack along the banks.
When things warm in the spring, there is excellent fishing to a mixed bag of fresh fish moving into the river, steelhead holding over from the previous fall, and dropback steelhead working downstream to the lake after spawning.
Spring fishing is best in May and June, when flow levels and water conditions are most favorable, but April can also be a good month. As a bonus, smallmouth bass run upriver from Lake Erie into the lower reservation water in the spring.
Many stretches of the Cat have long runs and large pools of moderate depth, with relatively level bottoms of broken shale and rock that are custom-made for traditional down-and-across presentations using Woolly Buggers, Zonkers, Spey flies, large soft-hackles, and tube flies.
The relatively warm flows of the fall and spring (above 40 degrees) make Cat steelhead — particularly the wild fish — aggressive, and "players" move actively for flies on or near the surface. Look for these hard-hitting fish to hold along current seams in moderate to fast runs, pool tailouts, and below midstream rocks and obstructions. Ideal flow conditions for swinging flies on the Cat are in the range of 300 to 600 cfs.
White or light-colored flies tied on size 6 to 8, 3XL hooks such as Lake Erie emerald shiner imitations, work well on sunny days — especially in clear water. In stained water, on overcast days, and in early morning, and late afternoon, swing larger, dark-colored patterns to present a large, bulky profile steelhead can spot easily in low light. Swinging two patterns at once, or using tube flies as long as 4 inches, increases your chances of success in turbid water.
When fish become lethargic in the colder flows (below 38 degrees) of late fall and winter, bottom-hugging fish often get lockjaw, and swinging flies becomes much less effective. Try dead-drifting beadhead nymphs, egg patterns, soft-hackles, small Woolly Buggers and other streamers, and make subtle changes to your drift by adding or removing split-shot.
Since the Cat is often stained to some degree, familiarize yourself with the bottom terrain while seeking the best areas to dead-drift flies. Look for obvious breaks in the surface texture to indicate subsurface holding and resting areas, such as shale ledges, spots below boulders, and streambed cuts and depressions.
When flows drop to fishable levels after a runoff episode, Cattaraugus Creek is mostly shallow. This allows fly fishers to wade close to steelhead lies and try high-stick nymphing with long fly rods, floating fly lines, and long leaders, by either indicator fishing, or bottom-bouncing without an indicator. Ideal flow conditions for dead-drifting on the Cat are 200 to 400 cfs.
Fluorescent (particularly chartreuse) egg patterns work great in stained water. A good setup is to rig an egg pattern (#8-14) in tandem with a beadhead stonefly nymph, soft-hackle, small Woolly Bugger, or streamer as the bottom fly. (Note: SNI regulations allow tandem-fly rigs on the reservation, but using more than one hook is illegal on New York State waters.)
Keep your flies close together on the leader (within 6 inches) so the steelhead can see both at the same time. If the fish does not take the bright egg pattern, which acts as an attractor, it usually takes the more natural looking fly. Using flash in egg patterns, nymphs, soft hackles, buggers, and streamers helps steelhead spot them in dirty water.
Since the Cat is often off-colored, tippet diameter is normally not critical. The water color allows you to use heavier tippets, which means more fish landed. For swinging flies, 1X or larger is ideal. For dead-drifting, use 2X or 3X.
Use long, 9½- to 11-foot rods for high-stick nymphing the Cat. They give you maximum line and leader control, and allow you to lift your floating fly line off the water to avoid drag. Long, moderate-action (as opposed to fast-action) rods also help you land steelhead when using light tippets and small flies, which are sometimes needed when the water is clear.
Two-handed switch rods can act as great crossover rods for both nymphing and swinging techniques. Compact Skagit heads work well with switch rods, and make throwing big flies and heavy sinking tips a relatively easy operation.
In 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) began a four-year feasibility study to determine whether to install a fish passage structure on the 40-foot-high, 338-foot-wide Springville Dam on the Cattaraugus; remove the dam entirely (since it may have a limited lifespan); modify the dam itself; or take no action at all.
The study will evaluate these options (and others) and recommend a plan for the Cattaraugus Creek watershed. Springville Dam has not generated electricity since 1998, and Erie County currently maintains the dam area as a recreational park.
Steelhead passage upstream of Springville Dam would open up 75 river miles, including 34 miles of existing New York State PFR land easements with 15 parking areas. It would also likely result in significantly increased levels of natural steelhead reproduction, thanks to the prime spawning, nursery, and feeding habitat in Cattaraugus Creek and its tributaries above the dam.
The upper Cat and its tributaries — notably Clear Creek, Elton Creek, Hosmer Brook, and the Lime Lake outlet — have better water quality and spawning habitat than any of the tributaries downstream of Springville Dam. Because these streams already support thriving populations of naturally reproducing rainbow and brown trout (and some native brook trout), excellent populations of wild steelhead could develop in these upstream areas.
In the long term, the Cat could develop into a self-sustaining steelhead fishery with minimal (if any) state hatchery stockings. However, this could come at a cost to the resident trout populations due to increased competition for food and habitat with juvenile steelhead.
Government agencies are planning a permanent sea lamprey barrier (as well as a catch trap) for the potential fish passage system to reduce sea lamprey reproduction and migration, and avoid the use of lampricides.
New York State will match 35 percent of federal funds for the design and construction work in the final project. The USACE has estimated total project costs for a fish passage device and lamprey trap at approximately $4 million. If funded, the project could be completed in five to ten years and usher in a new era on the Cat, with more wild steelhead, and more room to fish for them.
John Nagy is the author of Steelhead Guide: Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead (updated and expanded fourth edition, 2008), available from Great Lakes Publishing at www.johnnagysteelheadguide.com.