Fishing for steelhead in Pennsylvania can be summed up in two words - exciting and frustrating. It's one of the most unique fishery I've ever fished. When I first fished in Pennsylvania, I thought it was amusing watching anglers tightly clustered around the small pools. The water was clear and I could see a pod of steelhead swimming around. It reminded me of the trout pool at the sportsmen's show back home when I was a kid and many of us hoped that we hook one of those fish, but it would never happen because the fish had no interest what so ever.
When I moved to Ohio in 1998, I stuck to fishing the Chagrin and Grand rivers as I lived in Lake county. I was still on the learning curve as I spent countless hours learning both rivers. After a couple of years, I moved to the western suburbs of Cleveland and it was the Rocky and Vermilion rivers. I content with fishing those streams, but when ever they blew out, I was basically stuck at home, patiently waiting for the water to recede.
During that time, I meet people and talked about the fishing. The word Pennsylvania came up a lot and I heard a lot of glowing and not so glowing reports of the fishery across the state line. My curiosity got the better of me and one of the first things I did was I got John Nagy's book Steelhead Guide - Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead. Nagy is a guide from Pennsylvania and a lot of the book is devoted to his state's streams. The book was pretty well straight forward and I came to the conclusion that even an idiot could have a great day on their streams. I booked off some time and downloaded some maps and made the drive to the Elk. I heard several people tell me that a campground named Folly's End was a great place to start, plus it had a fly shop on the grounds. I stopped a tackle shop called Poor Richards and talked to the owner gleaning anything that would give me the upper hand. I purchased a three day licence since I was staying in town for 3 days. I checked in a hotel off of I-90 and charted out my plan of action.
When I arrived the next morning, I found the creek was small. It reminded me of the small brook trout creeks I use to fish north of Sudbury when I was younger. The only difference was instead of muskeg, granite and alders. There was mud, shale and maples. The creek was on the verge of clearing as the shallow section had a slightly chalky tint and the deeper water had a very greenish color. I remember reading in the book, the green color was from the suspended clay particles in the water. That also meant whenever the water was considered green it was prime and that's where the fish usually hold. I consider myself to a have a great eye when it comes to reading water. The first spot was a riffle that spilled into a section that ran along a small shale wall. Off the seam was about 15yds of dark green water that provided cover for steelhead.
I tied on a #12 white sucker spawn and casted out along a seam. I mended the line and watched the indicator bob along the current - nothing. I made some adjustments and casted out again a little farther and watched the indicator stop dead in its tracks. I quickly set the hook and felt the rod throb - my first PA steelhead. It wasn't large maybe a couple of pounds. I continued to work the creek downstream catching fish in nearly every spot and after my first day, I caught 20 fish. I wondered if the water was higher and more turbid and fishing sacs, I probably would of done better. The next two days it got progressively more difficult was the stream gradually turned crystal clear. I didn't even need glasses as I could see the cuts and ledges in the shale stream bottom. Deep water was virtually non existent and I could see fish hugging the bottom trying their best to blend in. The number of fish caught dropped and I had to use very small patterns and light leaders. It was stealth fishing at it's worst. For the record, I hate fishing low and clear unless it's for carp.
Many of my fellow steelheaders have varying opinions of fishing in Pennsylvania. Their creeks hold numbers bordering on the fish in a barrel category. It can be so easy that a first time angler with no prior experience can catch a decent number of fish especially when conditions are prime. Those few outings during prime condition can inflate the head of the newbie steelheader. Then a reality check smacks them upside the head the next outing when conditions are low and clear and the newbie goes home empty handed. That's how Pennsylvania's streams generally run - gin clear and low. In some cases, there is no where for fish to hide. I've seen 30 to 50 fish just hold off the bottom and virtually ignore every offering thrown to them. It's tough to go from a lot of fish to very little, because the fish can see you and in most cases they're not interested because they been harassed within an inch of their lives.
The biggest complaint about Pennsylvania are the crowds and during the peak of the season it can be elbows and assholes. As with a lot of fish so comes a lot of anglers. They are all after the same thing and when conditions are low and clear or the weather warmer, sit back with a bag of popcorn and watch show down at the stop sign hole on the lower Walnut. The Nut as it known to locals has the dubious distinction of being the armpit of steelheading on the Alley. It's the worst of the worst and you'll see the book of good manners floating downstream littered with hooks in it. It's not for the faint of heart or for the person with a short fuse. I fished it once many years ago when the Elk was still too high and I was waiting for the creek to drop. The creek itself was high and off color, but fishable. I started at the famous stop sign hole - the baptism by fire for the new steelheader. If you can survive the stop sign hole then you can pretty well fish anywhere. I managed to find a spot and I surprised that everybody worked well together. Like a well oiled machine, we casted at the same time, nobody crossed line and when ever a fish was on the line everybody pulled their lines out. I was very impressed and we were hitting fish at a good rate. That's until some moron walks in and starts a clusterfuck. The happy faces quickly turn to scowls. There were numerous times I wanted to bust the two guys on either side of me upside the head because they gave me a lot of grief. That was the ugly side of PA steelheading that I wanted nothing to do with it. It turned out to be the only time I've fished the Walnut and I never been back since. Over the years I fished Pennsylvania, but I never made it a major destination. By then, I was so familiar with the Ohio streams. The only time I would fish it was when our streams were blown or in early fall. But it was hard to resist not going back.
Then one day in late November of 2007 is a day I'll never forget. It was a Wednesday during my vacation week as all of the streams in Ohio were blown out. Not wanting to waste an entire week of sitting around, I had to find some water. According to the flow gauge, the Elk was still considered high. Since my options were limited, I had really no choice but to cross the border. Tuesday night, I probably tied over 100 sacs and crammed them into 3 containers. I drove early Wednesday morning and stopped at a tackle shop to purchase my licence. I waited in line and overheard the clerk telling some people that the Walnut was a better bet as the Elk was still too high. I left the store with a smirk and drove to the mid section of the creek.
The creek was running off color with a decent flow. There wasn't a car in the lot and it was the week of deer hunting season. It was a cold morning and the water temperature was hovering the upper 30s. It was barely first light and the first spot I fished was a small pool that eventually flatten out. The hole wasn't that large maybe 2o to 30 feet in length. I had my centerpin and uncured King salmon eggs. I started drifting along the seam and quickly got into fish. It wasn't an hour and I was all ready into double digits. I had this feeling I was going to have an amazing day. I was familiar with this section as I knew where all of the ledges and cuts were. Everything was in my favor - fresh aggressive fish that were unpressured, dirty water, excellent flow and not a soul in sight. In one pool, for every drift I caught one fish and I could called and made bets when the float went under. It was literally shooting fish a barrel. It wasn't even noon and I knew I was close to 40 fish. It made sense as I caught about 10 fish in the 4 spots I fished and I wasn't near the section that usually holds the mother load of fish. I eventually made it down there and the creek ran along a large towering section of cliffs. There were multiple ledges and pools that spanned nearly 200yds. It was the same results more fish as I couldn't contain my laughter. It was so mind boggling that I couldn't comprehend the number of fish stacked in the pools. None of my friends would believe me, they would call bullshit and demand proof on film.
I finally reach the last spot, a long shallow pool that was considered a go to spot. I was down to two dozen sacs and by then I lost count. I figured I was close to 50 fish and I was determined to see how many more I could catch before dark. I remember hearing tales of people fishing in groups hitting the 100 mark under favorable conditions. I thought guys were pulling my leg, 100 fish in a small creek that is fished intensively from September to April - no way. I caught more fish and I was finally out of sacs. I looked at the time and it was 3:30, far too early to head home. Luckily, I brought my flies along as the creek over the day started to drop and clear. I started to use egg pattern such as sucker spawn, clown eggs, estaz eggs and blood dots. I would soak whatever juices were left at the bottom of the containers. I started to head back and the number of fish caught dropped. By the time I returned to the lot it was getting dark and I lost count, but it was a lot of fish, more then I've ever caught. It was a day that I'll never forget because I might never have a day like that again. It turned out that the season of 2007 - 2008 was one of the best runs the Alley's had ever seen. After a day like that, I could torn up my Ohio licence and made the trip out every weekend, but I knew conditions like I had today were very rare - everything fell into place. To fish the Elk without people trying to crowd you out is unheard of. Within a couple of days the creek would be low and clear, the fish easily spooked and shy and the anglers numerous.
Pennsylvania is perfect for the angler who rarely gets the chance to go out and wants to get into big numbers of fish. With personal commitments and work, I've purchased an annual licence. It makes sense because it was another card in the deck and this season with all of the rain, Pennsylvania saved a lot of weekends that would of been spent at home. It's a destination that the Great Lakes steelheader should experience. Over the years, I've seen a lot of plates from Michigan, Ontario, New York and even Wisconsin. It's a very unique fishery and your elbow and shoulder will get a workout.