Great Lakes Steelhead Magic

“Hey Julia, I’ll be at your house at 4:30am to pick you up!”

 Julia: “Dude, are you serious?”

3:30 a.m. wake up calls come fast, especially the day after Halloween. Julia explained to me that she had other plans the night before and wanted to stay out late. I promised her she could sleep on the car ride and that it would be totally worth waking up early and being the first on the water to possibly catch her first lake run steelhead.

The Pennsylvania steelhead streams are notoriously busy during the fall season, so getting to your spot early can greatly improve your odds for the day.

I managed to convince Julia to come, and we made it to our destination by 6 a.m. While she did start the morning off by throwing up in the bushes, she was a trooper after that. Puke and rally! That’s a good omen, right?

We met up with Josh Trammell – a guide for Steelhead Alley Outfitters and Naknek River Camp in King Salmon, AK – at Elk Creek in Pennsylvania. Elk Creek is a 30 mile tributary of Lake Erie in Erie County, Pennsylvania. The creek is part of the Lake Erie Watershed. Elk Creek is a particularly popular spot, as it is well stocked with brown trout and steelhead by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.

We tugged on our waders over our cold gear and put on our wading boots, got our fishing bags packed up, made sure we had some pocket beers and it was game on. We trudged through the creek in the dark with our headlamps and phone lights lighting our way to find that perfect spot. When we got to a spot that looked like it would hold steelhead, Josh helped us rig up our rods in the dark while waiting until some light trickled into the creek to start fishing. 

Last year was Julia’s first season steelheading, and she didn’t have much luck. The first year fishing for lake run steelhead can be quite the learning curve. This year she was determined for things to be different. Keeping a positive attitude, learning as much as possible from Josh, and not worrying too much about hooking and landing one were all important elements; the defeated and frustrated demeanor that crept up on her and overtook her last year evolved into a confident and optimistic disposition.

It just so happened that she was the first one to land a steelhead that day – a young chromed out male, who put up one heck of a battle. After that, the air around us was electric and intoxicating, energy-filled us (it was definitely the energy; definitely not the beer).

Julia and I took turns in different holes while Josh, a big smile stretching across his face, netted our fish. Conditions were absolutely perfect, and we definitely didn’t mind the steady rain while each wearing our favorite jackets: Orvis Ultralight Wading Jacket (Jessica) and Simms ProDry Jacket (Josh). 

The best moment was when Julia landed the biggest fish of the day. She recalls the experience: “I finally had the opportunity as a novice angler to put everything I had learned together and brought in the fish I had been dreaming about for years. I nearly cried when we netted him, and I couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day. I had been waiting for my first special fish for so long and I’ll never forget the way that steelhead made me feel”.

The rods we used during this trip were 10ft 7wt rods for nymphing and streamer fishing. You could also use a 9ft 8wt if you want more backbone to your rod. Julia used Josh’s G Loomis IMX-Pro 10ft 7wt with a Hatch 7 plus Gen 2 Finatic Reel, and I used the Orvis Helios 10ft 7wt with the Orvis Mirage Reel. The leader was 9ft 0x-2x; tippet 1x-3x. The water in Elk is usually clear, so using a lighter leader/tippet will help you hook into more fish.

The flies we used were sucker spawns (size 12 and 14), nuke eggs (size 12 and 14), Hare’s Ear Nymphs (size 10-16), Black Stonefly Nymphs (size 10-16), Pheasant Tail Nymphs (size 10-16), Crystal Buggers (size 6-8), Egg Sucking Leech (size 6-8), Zonkers (Size 6-8), Caddis Larva (size 12-14), and trout beads steelhead selection (various sizes) – all of which are great for lake run steelhead. For hooks, we used Daichi #1640 size 8. 

We also used indicators. Josh personally likes the Airlock Biodegradable strike indicators. You can also use Orvis CorQ’s strike indicators, which are biodegradable, or Raven Float, which was specifically developed for river Steelhead and Salmon fishing.

You’ll also want to make sure you have plenty of BB split shots which makes your fly pattern sink faster into the strike zone. Micro swivels are also great to use. Tapered leaders are expensive, extend the life of your leader by tying a micro swivel at the end of your leader and connect your tippet to the other side. If you break off, the tippet will fail well before the micro swivel, saving the life of your leader. Micro swivels also help prevent line twist when throwing streamers and other large flies.

It was truly a magical day of catching lake run steelhead, drinking beers, ambling down the lush Pennsylvania creek, swapping stories, enjoying the beauty around us and the company of friends. This day will definitely be kept in the memory bank. 

Thanks to Josh Trammell and Steelhead Alley Outfitters for one of the best-guided trips!

If you are interested here is a list of the gear used on this trip.

Josh Trammell’s Steelhead Outfit

Rod/Reel

Waders/Gear

Fly Box/Bead Box/Leader/Tippet

Jessica Suvak-Tran’s Steelhead Outfit

Rod/Reel

Waders/Gear

Julias Steelhead Outfit

Waders/Gear

Article and photos from Jessica Suvak-Tran, give her a follow at @jessicasuvaktran. Additional photos from Julia Westermann.

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