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Where Have All the Steelhead Gone?

Great Lakes catch rates are plummeting and anglers don't know why.

Where Have All the Steelhead Gone?

The Lake Erie steelhead fishery in Pennsylvania alone was worth $40 million in 2016, but catch rates are plummeting. And the bad news isn’t just in Pennsylvania. Fly fishers all over the Great Lakes are wondering what’s happening to a world-class fishery. (Jack Hanrahan photo)

Marty Grazco has been President of the Pennsylvania Steelhead Association (PSA) for seven years, caught his first steelhead in 1976, and lives less than a mile from what some would consider to be the highest concentration of steelhead in Pennsylvania—the lower section of Walnut Creek. Stream improvement projects sponsored by the PSA, monumental stocking efforts by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PFBC) and 3-C-U Trout Association, and a set of high falls found just upstream from the Manchester Hole that blocks migration, make this PFBC Access Area a heavily fished destination for in- and out-of-state anglers.

Grazco likes to do it the old-fashioned way, casting $2.97 knockoff Walmart spoons off of what locals call The Wall, a boat channel leading to Lake Erie at the lower end of the creek. This is drive-up steelheading at its finest, when fresh fish stack up with predatory instincts still intact, crushing hardware and cartwheeling through other anglers’ lines. It’s quite the show, drawing onlookers from all over Erie County.

But Grazco hasn’t been catching as many steelhead as he used to. Neither have thousands of other fishermen who flock to “Steelhead Alley”—the south shoreline of Lake Erie stretching from the city of Buffalo in New York all the way west to Toledo, Ohio. The reduction of steelhead numbers returning to these tributaries is evident not only on Steelhead Alley, but throughout the Great Lakes region.

Grazco noticed the decline in returning steelhead starting around five years ago, on Walnut Creek in particular. “Last year The Wall was dead, and nobody was catching fish from the short jetties. We don’t get good lake and stream temperatures anymore until late October or early November. Everything has a cause and effect,” he said.

“The fundamental thing is that overall numbers are way down,” explained fly fisher Jeff Blood, who is well known for his steelhead acumen. “The decline started when the PFBC changed its stocking program. Steelhead are now stocked 18.6 miles upstream from the mouth of Elk Creek. There used to be lots of fish in Cattaraugus Creek in New York, but the numbers have plummeted. The steelhead are not straying anymore from Pennsylvania into New York. Perhaps there is a correlation between the change in stocking practices and the survival rate of smolts returning to the lake. As fishermen, we don’t see state lines. State agencies care about state lines. All I can conclude is that something has happened.”

Steelheaders like Grazco and Blood know things. There simply can be no better observations of what is happening on our tributaries than those from anglers who spend innumerable hours on the water through decades of experience. The better question may be how to accumulate these observations using angler-collected data about where steelhead are caught, and catch rates per hour.

Where Have All the Steelhead Gone?
Great Lakes steelhead stray beyond state boundaries, and many do not return to the streams where they originated. This makes it difficult for state agencies to quantify the successes or failures of their own strategies. (Dennis Pastucha photo)

Pennsylvania uses one time-honored source for this type of information, the Lake Erie Cooperative Angler Logbook (LECAL). Volunteer anglers are provided with a pamphlet-style hard copy logbook with a stamped return envelope to record the dates and times their fishing occurred, the locations fished, and number of fish caught. Used by the Lake Erie Research Unit of the PFBC, its mission is to “Collect quantitative data from fishermen in steelhead and brown trout fisheries in tributary waters of Pennsylvania. The collected data allows us to estimate the numbers of fish returning to each tributary during the season to see the impact of changes we make to the management of the fishery.”

Blood thinks the LECAL data, “measures a fisherman’s skill, not how many fish are in the water.”

The PFBC acknowledges this, saying that, “Those who make many trips and catch many fish obviously bias the conclusions.”

Local fly fisher and PSA board member Sam Zacour, a volunteer in the LECAL program, saw his catch per hour drop significantly, down from 0.42 in 2014 to 0.19 per hour in 2019.

Michael Hosack, a PFBC Lake Erie Unit Biologist says that while, “We don’t have any reliable data about returns, we pushed for a wire-tagging study that the Lake Erie Committee (a consortium of all the states and Ontario) did not approve.” Without a mass marking initiative, the number of steelhead returning to Pennsylvania tributaries may never be known, even though the PFBC has changed its hatchery-rearing practices to produce and grow larger steelhead smolts.

Stocking numbers continue to be high, with just over 1 million one-year-old juveniles going into Pennsylvania tributaries annually. Conditions were ideal on Lake Erie during the early 2000s for optimal steelhead growth and return rates, but that was before the current walleye explosion. Based upon anecdotal information from anglers, steelhead return numbers today do not compare to the high-water mark previously set by the fishery. Pennsylvania’s steelhead fishery may just be a victim of the success of the thriving walleye fishery.


The LECAL program is just one tool used by the PFBC to manage steelhead. Hard data from the Lake Erie Boat Anglers Survey has also showed a decline in catch and harvest rates. In 2000 the catch per angler hour on the lake was 0.54 with a 62% success rate, and a harvest rate per angler hour of 0.34. By 2007 those numbers went down to a 39% success rate per angler hour and a 0.06 harvest rate. If there are less steelhead available to the open-water fishery, there are certainly fewer steelhead returning to the tributary fisheries. However, this a small sampling size out of the total number of boats fishing out on the lake.

Steelhead in Michigan

In Michigan, things aren’t looking any better, and the decline started more than a decade ago when the spring steelhead count at the Little Manistee River fish weir dropped from 4,191 in 2009 to 1,961 in 2010. In that same time period, the fall run count went from 343 down to 91. Compare this with historic highs from 1997, when 10,480 spring- and 2,031 fall-running steelhead returned to the weir. The Little Manistee River provides a wild-strain steelhead egg source and hatchery production, not only for Michigan but also for Indiana and Ohio. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, no eggs were taken from returning fish in 2020, and in April 2021, only 1,611 steelhead came back.

“In my opinion, we have a couple of things going on here when it comes to declining returns,” says Heather Hettinger, fisheries biologist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “First, the Dreissenid mussels show up in the early 90s and change everything. Water clarity increases, we lose the frequent setups of offshore surface scumlines for steelhead to feed along, alewife numbers begin to drastically decline . . . things like this in combination are impacting steelhead from a dietary standpoint. As diverse feeders as they can be, steelhead really like to eat alewives. That is their preference.

“Second, the past five or six years have seen record high water levels in the Great Lakes. Lake Michigan’s shoreline has a ton of drowned river mouth lakes, most of which coincide with our good steelhead rivers. High water means more flooded shoreline available for spawning, which is very good for pike, bass, and walleyes.

Where Have All the Steelhead Gone?
Record high water in the Great Lakes over the past five or six years has provided additional spawning habitat for pike, bass, and walleyes. It could be that climate change is favoring these warmwater species, and they are eating or out-competing the steelhead. (Matthew Supinski photo)

“Long story short, I believe we have an increase in predatory fish that these steelhead have to swim past, to even make it out to Lake Michigan. There used to be an advantage of safety in numbers.

We used to stock more Chinook, more coho, more brown trout. We’ve cut back stocking of everything except steelhead, and now these fish are trying to out-migrate without the bonus of those other species in high numbers to run interference. Yes, there are wild fish of those other species going out with them, but stocking used to significantly inflate the numbers of fish leaving these river systems.”   

Hettinger also mentioned an “interesting contrast” between Michigan and Wisconsin. “Most anglers who troll Wisconsin waters from Milwaukee to the north catch a lot of steelhead along with salmon. The differences are that Wisconsin has no drowned river mouths and is much more productive, nutrient-wise, on the northern shoreline. They don’t have the abundance or quality of rivers that we have over here in Michigan, yet they are still seeing good numbers of steelhead in the open-water fishery.”

Fly fisherman and guide Matthew Supinski—who wrote the book Steelhead Dreams—said the problem is simple: “We are killing too many wild fish in Michigan.

“A textbook model for good steelhead management is the Pere Marquette River with a 100% wild population. It is closed to fishing from September 30 to the last Saturday in April—that’s 7 months of closed sanctuary water with no harvest. But with climate change, warmwater predators are going through the roof. We’re just feeding 50% of out-migrating steelhead to other species like walleye.”

Supinski thinks its imperative to get the three-fish steelhead limit reduced. “Protect it and they will come,” he said.

Bigger Steelhead Smolts

Michigan biologist Paul Seelbach’s studies showed that stocking smolts from 6 to 8 inches long, higher up in a tributary system, helped them imprint better, increase smoltification, and avoid predators that want to eat them. However, this may not be working in Pennsylvania during an era of climate change, where a lack of precipitation has produced extremely low water flows in shallow, shale-bottom creeks during the spring season. These smolts get trapped in upriver pools and cool-water refuges, making them easy prey for avian predators like great blue herons and cormorants. They also suffer the negative thermal effects of high water temperatures from record-breaking heat in recent years.

A 2017 dissertation from the Graduate College of Bowling Green State University examined straying of steelhead in Lake Erie using otolith chemical signatures to identify where the steelhead came from. With four U.S. states stocking approximately 1.8 million juvenile steelhead into Lake Erie tributaries, the research was used to identify straying populations of steelhead, survival and return rates, and practices that increase straying.

The adult steelhead collection sites were  on Cattaraugus and Chautauqua creeks in New York, Sixteen Mile Creek in Pennsylvania, the Vermillion River in Ohio, and the Huron River in Michigan. The research found that, “ . . . the large proportion of Ohio and Pennsylvania fish present in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus creeks in New York suggests that large numbers of individuals from Ohio and Pennsylvania are choosing to spawn in New York tributaries.

New York, meanwhile, confirmed that “ . . . return rates for fish stocked at a size of 140 mm (5.5 inches) by New York are poor.”

The Bowling Green State University study showed that “juvenile steelhead stocked below 150 mm (5.9 inches) were more likely to remain in Lake Erie tributaries for an additional year where they are exposed to high mortality risk due to high summer water temperatures.”

Where Have All the Steelhead Gone?
Record high water in the Great Lakes over the past five or six years has provided additional spawning habitat for pike, bass, and walleyes. It could be that climate change is favoring these warmwater species, and they are eating or out-competing the steelhead. (Matthew Supinski photo)

Research like this is extremely valuable to hatchery managers and biologists for managing Great Lakes steelhead populations. In a new five-year study, Michigan started mass-marking steelhead with an adipose fin clip and a coded wire tag inserted into the nose of the fish. Each tag has a regional assignment for the river systems into which they are stocked. Hettinger says that while straying isn’t a big problem on Michigan tributaries, “This five-year study will definitely help us reaffirm and better understand what our hatchery fish are doing.”

In addition, a 2020 Michigan Sea Grant Extension project allows steelhead anglers to track wild and stocked fish in Michigan rivers. The Great Lakes Angler Diary is a simple smartphone app and online reporting system. It has codes for fin clip designations that help in determining whether the steelhead comes from a wild or stocked source. Canonical information on length of fish, which relates to age and growth, along with where, when, and how long you spent fishing, are also recorded using the app.

Once you register, agency partners from the Michigan DNR also provide information on previous research, stocking history, and river conditions. App users are even invited to Zoom meetings with local biologists and other steelhead anglers. Programs and studies like this help nurture and promote Great Lakes resources that boost economic growth.

According to the 2016 report “Assessing the Economic Impact & Significance of Recreational angling on Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie Waters,” the annual economic input to the economy is $40 million. Anglers visiting the region reported spending $503 on expenditures such as overnight lodging and accommodations, gas, and food and drinks at restaurants and bars. The fishery supports approximately 539 jobs in Erie County and provides more than $13 million in income for Erie County residents.

The steelhead fishery is the biggest segment of this economy, with 27% of fishermen targeting them, and 26% identifying themselves as walleye fishermen.

Steelhead make money—not just in Pennsylvania but in all Great Lakes states. The reality now is that many of these coldwater fisheries have to be supported through stocking and sportsmen’s dollars, and many state agencies have funding shortfalls.

There are many intricate, complex, and variable factors that might be contributing to a fishery that has historically been known to go from boom to bust. One solution to diminishing returns of steelhead could be the pen rearing projects that have become an important component and management principle in Lake Ontario’s coldwater fisheries for more than 20 years.

Sportsmen in cooperation with the  New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) have raised more than 111,000 Chinook salmon fingerlings annually in pens to protect the fish from avian predation.  

It’s been so successful that NYSDEC is now trying the technique with Atlantic salmon, a native fish that once flourished in Lake Ontario. In a press release from April 2021, NYSDEC Commissioner Basil Seggos wrote, “We hope to increase the survival of stocked salmon smolts for greater returns of adults to tributaries and improved angling opportunities.”

Pen rearing is a process in which young salmon (smolts) are stocked into protective net pens at the river mouth and held at the stocking site for approximately three weeks while the smolts imprint on the river water and prepare to out-migrate to the larger lake system.

Perhaps this is a strategy that should be considered for steelhead as well, in an age when stream temperatures and a thriving population of predators are not conducive to steelhead survival.

When we think of steelhead, endangered populations of native steelhead in West Coast rivers immediately come to mind, but many of the same problems are also impacting our Great Lakes sport fisheries. Sadly, things always seem in a state of decline. Unless we create change—reverse the weather patterns, improve the habitat, or else change our fisheries practices—it seems that trend is likely to continue.

Karl Weixlmann is a longtime Lake Erie steelhead guide and author of Great Lakes Steelhead, Salmon & Trout: Essential Techniques for Fly Fishing the Tributaries (Stackpole 2009).

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