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Best Steelhead Fly Fishing Around the Great Lakes

Fishing for steelhead is not just limited to the Pacific Northwest. Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Michigan also deliver for anglers. While steelhead are not native to the Great Lakes, they were introduced in the late-19th century. Thanks to improved stocking programs in the 20th century, the states around the Great Lakes boast some of the best steelhead fly fishing the entire country has to offer.

Which exact steelhead fly patterns will be most effective varies depending on the time of year, the conditions of a particular river, and of course the steelhead’s natural food sources in that area. In general, you can usually get the job done almost anywhere with steelhead flies that mimic the movements of two staples in a steelhead’s diet: Gizzard Shad and Emerald Shiners.

The precision needed to fly fish will take practice but trains you to execute a perfect cast even in waters with a fast current. Below are the best spots to swing your steelhead flies around the Great Lakes. 

Elk Creek

Fed by tributaries from Lake Erie in Erie, Pennsylvania, this is the longest steelhead run the state has to offer – yet comes with the crowds to match. Fighting the crowds can be pretty tough especially during weekends when the weather is nice. Autumn days with a moderate climate produce the best steelhead runs to cast your erie trib steelhead flies.

Hitting Elk Creek during the week should help thin the crowds a bit. For those looking for a relaxing fly-fishing trip, this might not be the best option on this list. Crossed lines and arguments over fishing holes are unfortunately all too common on Elk Creek. It’s common for fly fisherman that have fished the creek for years to follow the fish further downstream to beat the crowds. The local media has covered several great steelhead runs that regularly experience overcrowding and conflict.

Walnut Creek 

Walnut Creek is the second-largest steelhead tributary in Pennsylvania (after Elk Creek). The depth of the water directly impacts where steelhead can be found. Going upstream offers many streams and pools ideal for fly fishing. So unfortunately, in mid-to-late summer the steelhead can dry up in Walnut Creek as temps increase and water depths decrease often to under 6 inches.

The best time to swing steelhead flies in Walnut Creek is the fall season which carries on through winter and into April. On the other hand, for those looking to skate their steelhead flies, springtime and into early summer is a great opportunity. 

Manistee River 

Fly fishing on the Manistee River in Michigan can be extra exciting due to the variety of steelhead, Coho salmon and trout. The fall months are ideal for catching these fish as there are an abundance of baitfish that call the river home. Early October is the ideal timeframe to effectively try your steelhead fly patterns as the fish enter the river to feed on salmon eggs. South of the Tippy Dam is known for the healthiest runs of steelhead.

Fly fishing near this area without a boat should be done carefully because wading in these fast-moving waters is a recipe for disaster. Egg flies, wooly buggers and spey flies are all recommended steelhead fly patterns when fishing the Manistee River. 

Pierre Marquette River 

The Pierre Marquette River feeds into Lake Michigan and is a prime fly-fishing area for those trying to hook a monster steelhead. From Gleason’s Landing to the mouth of the river is considered by many fishing enthusiasts as one of the great productive sections of the Pierre Marquette. The powerful runs can yield large steelhead because fallen trees and other debris allow fish to hide and thus grow larger.

Taking safety into consideration is always paramount when planning any quality fishing trip. Yet that’s even more crucial to pay attention in waters like those after Gleason’s Landing, where the river picks up immensely and makes it far more difficult to fly fish while wading. 

Rocky River

The Rocky River in Ohio in close-proximity to Cleveland has been named on the top-150 fishing spots in the country. This will be the least appealing in terms of natural beauty as it is only around 10 miles from downtown Cleveland. The appeal of this river are the massive steelhead that migrate through, and which couldn’t care less about the natural beauty outside of the water. The river is stocked annually which allows for healthy fishing on an annual basis. The stocked fish migrate to Lake Erie then return to the river during early fall. 

Especially on a steelhead fly, hooking and battling them can be one of the most exhilarating fish to target. Keep in mind that fish from different waters are attracted to different types of steelhead fly patterns depending on season and local food sources. 

For those that do not want to brave the chilly temperatures, taking a fly-fishing trip down south could be for you. Fly fishing tarpon on the saltwater flats of Florida offers a very different experience from targeting steelhead on the Great Lakes or Pacific Northwest.

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