Labor Day weekend, when hurricane-remnant rains pushed tributary water into Lake Erie and dropped the near-shore water temperature, several overeager steelhead mistook the anomaly for an invitation to run.
One fly fisherman caught seven silver bullets in the channel at Walnut Creek Access Area in Erie County, Pa. The next day, more were taken a third of a mile upstream at the Manchester hole.
The steelhead were wrong. It is not yet time for spawning runs — most of the anadromous fish are still running deep and occasionally caught with walleye. But fishing guide Karl Weixlmann said the steelheads’ miscalculation may portend things to come.
“I think everything is going to happen early this year,” he said.
A freelance writer and author of “Great Lakes Steelhead, Salmon and Trout,” Weixlmann contributed to last year’s “Keystone Fly Fishing: The Ultimate Guide to Pennsylvania’s Best Waters.” A proponent of pre-run surf zone fishing, Weixlmann (facebook.com/flyfisheriekarl) said the environmental signs suggest the fish may return to home waters sooner rather than later.
“We had a lot of rain in the spring, but not a lot of rain in the summer. We’ve had a real dry summer but not the normal heat wave. We’ve had cooler temperatures earlier,” Weixlmann said. “I’m not fishing (for steelhead) yet, it’s too early. But I’m going to start tying flies.”
The National Weather Service has marked the water temperature off the city of Erie at slightly below the 70 degree September average. The lower mean water temperature, Weixlmann suggested, provides a head-start for the annual autumn cool-down.
Generally, the first anxious steelhead get a whiff of their home waters and begin tentative runs by late October. But near the end of September, when the water drops to 66 to 68 degrees, the fish start staging off tributary mouths. That’s exactly where Weixlmann wants them, and this month he thinks they may arrive earlier than usual.
“They swim in wide (ovals) off the mouths, sometimes coming closer — as close as the breakers — testing for the right conditions to move upstream,” he said.
Weixlmann finds points where the circling steelhead come within casting range of shore. Wading into the surf not more than waist deep, his go-to fly is as simple to tie as is to fish.
Karl’s Little Precious, as he calls his pattern, is tied on a No. 8-10 heavy wire streamer hook. After three wraps of lead around the shank, he ties on an underwing with a white Finn raccoon Zonker strip and mirage Flashabou (sometimes he ties in white Marabou before the raccoon fur). The overwing is olive Finn raccoon and Flashabou. He wraps a narrow throat of thread and ties it off.
“I don’t tie anything down the shank at all,” he said. “It’s more like a jig. Simpler is better. You can substitute whatever flash you have, and the fur — raccoon has more movement in the water like a Bucktail, but you can use something else.”
When fishing snag-prone streams and sometimes the beaches Weixlmann uses an adaptation, Little Precious Upside Down. Tied on the same hook but facing upward in the vise Clouser Minnow style, he skips the lead wrap and adds weighted silver hourglass dumbbell eyes.
Weixlmann casts to where shallow water turns a darker green as it drops into 6- to 8-foot troughs. He lets the Little Precious sink for several seconds, then strips it in, jerking the rod tip upward to give the fly a jigging motion.
“Sometimes off the beaches I love fishing Little Precious under an indicator,” he said. “With the fish coming in and out in a circular manner, it keeps the fly in the strike zone.”
Fly fishing the surf zone is impractical when waves are 4-feet or taller, when a stiff northwest wind collapses casts and when a blown out creek creates a mud band that can stretch hundreds of yards into the lake. Wind direction is vital, and the right spot isn’t necessarily at the tributary mouths. Winds from the west blow the scent to the east side of the mouth. An easterly wind blows the scent to the west of the mouth. Stiff winds can push the scent as far as a half mile.