Fly Fishing Ohio’s Steelhead Alley

When the topic of fishing for the powerful steelhead trout arises, most fly fishers’ thoughts swing toward the wide rivers of America’s Northwest. Those rivers have presented a surplus of stories and memories that built the fame of those fisheries.

During the last couple decades, an additional prime steelhead fishery has risen, but in the East and has rightly gained attention from anglers seeking chrome. Ohio’s portion of “steelhead alley” consists of five primary rivers of the Northeast, which are tributaries to Lake Erie.

Ohio steelhead guide Josh McQueen of North Fork Outfitters, watches his client battle a rod bending steelhead.

Ohio’s Division of Wildlife annually stocks these rivers with Little Manistee River strain steelhead. The yearling steelhead follow the river to Lake Erie where they spend their first couple summers in the lake. As autumn arrives, the fish move back to the river’s mouth and begin their run back upstream to attempt to spawn. The rivers are not conducive for natural steelhead reproduction, hence the need for annual stocking. When the fish do return to their home rivers in the fall, they remain there until spring when the waters begin to warm and the cool water of the lake becomes a necessity for survival.

While the steelhead are in the rivers, they spend most of their time hovering near the bottom of deeper holes and runs. It’s an exciting sight to see one of these silver bullets (weighing an average of six pounds and measuring 2 feet in length), slithering its way upstream through shallow riffles before reaching the next hole or stopping on a gravel bar to spawn. The early months of November and December are the most productive months of the early steelhead season, but if winter sets down on northeastern Ohio hard, the rivers will ice up and keep most anglers at bay. March and April turn out to be the most successful time to catch Ohio steelies.

The Rivers
The five primary rivers are the Conneaut Creek, Chagrin, Grand, Rocky, and the Vermilion.

Conneaut Creek comes from miles within Pennsylvania and meanders into Lake Erie at the northeastern corner of Ohio. It is a designated “Scenic River” by the state of Ohio, so not only is the fishing good, the surroundings is a treat as well. Five miles south of the river’s mouth at Lake Erie is Lakeville Park offering access.

The author and a healthy Ohio steelhead.

The Chagrin River winds through neighborhoods and commercial areas, but is still a worthy river. Several parks provide ample access for wading such as Chagrin River Park located off of Reeves Road and within sight of OH 2. The banks of the Chagrin are one extreme to another; a common characteristic of Ohio’s steelhead rivers. Steep, shale cliffs partnered with wooded flat banks flank the rivers with some open banks throughout the parks.

The Grand River is the most popular because of the abundance of access to the 100 river miles. The Grand also receives the most fingerlings during stocking — a little over 100,000. Indian Point Park on Seely Road, three miles east of Painsville, offers access to a mix of pools and riffle runs.

The Rocky and Vermilion rivers are both easily accessed (public parks) and waded. Both rivers are on the west side of Cleveland, and although possibly the least fished, can be the most productive. Maps of these rivers and public access points are available at www.dnr.state.oh.us .

Bringing An Ohio Steelhead To Hand
Because of the amazing power steelhead hold, an 8-weight rod and a matching weight-forward 8-weight fly line is a must. Some avid steelheaders tie their own leaders, but a tapered, 3X leader right out of the package works well.

“A key to successful catches of steelhead, is leader length,” said Josh McQueen of North Fork Outfitters (740-501-7171).

A steelhead will not go out of its way to take your fly, so it’s important to float the fly in front of the fish, so a 7-foot leader controls the fly better. Add a strike indicator to the leader at one and a half times the depth of the water being fished. Eighteen inches from the fly, add a split shot to keep the fly down, and don’t hesitate to add a second sinker 6 inches above the first for more control. Several wet flies attract steelhead, but the most productive is a chartreuse glo egg with a red spot. Drift the fuzzy egg along the bottom of pools and runs the same as you would a nymph. When the indicator pauses, lift your rod and hang on — you are about to be taken for an Ohio steelhead ride!

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