June 25, 2007

Float Fishing for Ohio Steelhead


Some people have asked me “Why do you prefer to float fishing?” I replied that its the most simple and effective way to fish for steelhead. The reasons being is the bait or fly reacts in a natural way, you can cover more water and watching the float going under was exciting.


With the exception of the Cattaraugus Creek and the Grand River, most the Erie’s streams are small and shallow. They normally run low and clear, after receiving rain or snow melt. All of the streams run over shale bedrock, with a lesser mix of gravel, sand and mud areas. Flows during normal conditions consist of shallow runs, riffles, pools and pocket water. Pools of great length and depth are rare, with existing pools averaging depths 2 to 4 feet deep. During normal conditions the water is much slower than the typical streams found up north and out west. Because of the low and clear water conditions, many anglers have become accustomed to long rods, light lines and small presentations.

The average Lake Erie steelheader uses rods ranging from 10’6 all the way up to 15’6” long. The reason for using such long rods is line control as it helps keep as much line off the water. The less line on the water, the less drag there is. Longer rods also allow the angler to use lighter lines since the streams generally run low and clear. Many people often refer to them as “noodle” rods, because of their very flexible nature. The reason for using them is that long flexible rods can absorb a lot of energy. The true noodle rod blank has a soft, slow action. The entire rod bends from tip to the butt. This allows an angler to play a large fish on very light line. I’ve used a noodle rod in the past and I never liked the action as I found it too soft.  I prefer moderate action rods and these rods usually flex about 75% of the way below the rod tip. They have a stiffer midsection for hard hook sets and allowed me to muscle in fish quicker. This is the reason why I recommend these rods for the beginner. Some of the better rods on the market for steelhead are St Croix, Fenwick, Raven, Frontier and G Loomis. Both Frontier and G Loomis can be expensive. The top end rods can be over $500.00 and are marketed for the hardcore steelheader. Fenwick, St Croix and Raven are less expensive and are great for the beginner. They are good quality rods and they back up their products with an excellent warranty.

The majority of float fishermen use a spinning reel. However, the centerpin has started to catch on as a more effective method for catching steelhead. Spinning reels are relatively cheap compared to a centerpin. You can purchase a decent spinning reel for about $40.00. On the other hand, centerpin reels are still expensive. But, there are several entry level models available for about $120.00. Both Raven and Okuma make great entry level reels. For the serious float fishermen, nothing beats a centerpin. The biggest advantage it has over a spinning reel is its ability to free spool. By free spooling, the line comes off the reel effortlessly. This allows the angler to better control the float and presentation. Also the line is taut and the result is very quick hook sets. Its a difficult reel to master, but once learned you'll never go back to a spinning reel. 

Line selection is very important when certain conditions come into play such as water clarity and time of year. When using a float set-up, the line is broken down into 3 segments - mainline, leader and tippet. For the mainline, I like to use a strong thin monofilament. Over the years, I have used a variety of lines and one my favorites is Sunline’s Siglon F. What makes this line unique is its ability to float on the surface as the line’s chemical composition resists water absorption. By floating on the water it reduces drag on the float. For the mainline, I would suggest line about 12# test. The next segment is the leader. This is where the float and shots are attached to. The best knot to attach the leader to the mainline is the triple surgeon’s knot. I find the surgeon knot is much stronger then the blood knot. The leader should be about 6’ long and it should be a lighter test than the mainline. I prefer a leader that is about 8# test as its strong enough to handle a large fish. As for what’s the best line for a leader? I would suggest a line that is limp in cold water and is abrasion resistant. A line I like to use is Maxima’s Ultragreen and Perfexion. They come in small spools that easily fit into a vest. The final segment is the tippet. The tippet is attached to the leader by a micro swivel. Swivels are very useful as they prevent the line from twisting and if you get snagged only the tippet is lost. I like to tippets made for fly fishing and one my favorite tippet material is Orvis’s Super Strong. All I use are 3X and 4X tippets, 5X is far too weak and 2X is too thick and stiff. There is the debate whether to use fluorocarbon when water conditions are low and clear. If your leader’s shots are placed properly, the fish should see the presentation first. I’ve tried both fluorocarbon and mono and I’ve found no advantage in the number of fish caught.

When it comes to floats, they range in sizes and shapes to choose from. There are thin floats, fat floats, floats made from plastic and others from wood. I don’t carry a wide variety of floats and I pretty well only use two types of floats. One is for fast water and the other for slower flows. My favorite floats are the ones made by Raven. Raven floats are made from wood and all of them have the same stem size. This is very useful when it comes to changing floats. With other types of floats, anglers have to cut the line in order to change float caps. My favorite Raven floats are the SS, FM and SM models. When I’m fishing faster water, I like to use a float that is top heavy. My favorite float for this type of water is the Raven FM. These floats are often referred to as inverted tear drop float. The heavier top helps eliminate the wobbling and the currents are less likely to pull it under. In slower flows, I use a thinner float. Thinner floats have less resistance, therefore they drift more efficiently. Since Lake Erie’s streams are small and shallow, I like to use the smallest float possible. The reason for using the smallest float is that light takes are more noticeable. When I’m fishing I like to carry about 6 floats with me. For the tubing, all Raven floats use the 3/32" silicone tubing on the top and 1/16" tubing on the bottom. If your knots are good you can go weeks on end without losing a float, but accident do happens.

Split shots are what make your presentation look natural to a fish. On the water surface the current might look fast, but on the bottom it’s much slower. This is due to objects on the stream bottom such as rocks, structures and logs. As the water hits these objects it slows the current down. This is why steelhead prefer to hold on the bottom. When placing shots on a leader, the heaviest shots should be placed on the top and progressively use smaller ones as you go down the leader. I usually never place a shot on the tippet, but there has been debate whether it effects the presentation. The reason for this is as I mentioned before the current is slower on the bottom. By doing so, the fish will see the presentation first and it looks more natural as there is no drag. For the majority of fishing, I like to space my shots evenly along the leader. But, some water conditions call for different shot patterns. When the water is fast and shallow, I’ll stack most of the shots high up and leave one or two at the bottom. For deep very slow pools, I’ll taper my shots. As I go down the leader, I’ll space the shots wider.

Over the years, I have tried different type of hooks. A good hook for steelhead should be made from high carbon steel. This gives the hook more strength as I’ve seen large steelhead completely bend or break a cheap hook. One my favorite hooks are Kamasan hooks. They are on the more expensive side, but they are incredibly strong and stay sharp longer. I carry two types of hooks – one for eggs and the other for shiners and plastics.
Float fishing is a great alternative to those who hate the complexity of fly fishing. I find it to be one of the most productive ways to fish for steelhead.

June 12, 2007

Steelhead Alley

Nearly 40 years ago, Lake Erie was once declared dead by environmentalists and scientists. Only after the Cuyahoga River caught on the fire, the federal government step in get the lake cleaned up. Ever since the Clean Water Act was enacted, Lake Erie has recovered into one the finest fishing destinations in North America. Lake 


One of those destinations is Steelhead Alley. The “Alley” is referred to the southern shore of Lake Erie. It extends from western Cleveland to Buffalo. In recent years, it has received media attention and glowing reports from die-hard steelheaders.

This fishery is unique in the fact that Lake Erie is the most heavily stocked Great Lake in regards to steelhead. Erie’s streams boast more steelhead per mile than any other watershed in the lower 48 states and Alaska included. The reason for the high numbers of fish is the aggressive stocking programs done by the three states. Both Pennsylvania and New York stock a fall run fish and Ohio stocks a spring run.

Streams along steelhead alley can range in size from New York’s mighty Cattaraugus Creek and Ohio’s Grand River to the many small creeks in Pennsylvania. On average most of steelhead alley’s streams are generally small. All of the tributaries run over shale and are usually shallow and slow flowing. Nearly all of the streams have little or no groundwater sources and rely on runoff from rain and snow melt.

The surrounding terrain and access greatly varies along steelhead alley. Some terrain is very remote such as Pennsylvania’s Twenty-Mile Creek. Other streams such as Ohio’s Rocky and Chagrin Rivers both flow through suburban areas of Greater Cleveland. Ohio’s Grand River flows through a mixture of remote gorges, forests and suburban locations.

Steelhead alley is comprised of three states – Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. One state that is very popular is Pennsylvania. The big advantage that Pennsylvania has over both Ohio and New York is the number of fish stocked. Over the past decade, the state has led the way in number of fish stocked. Pennsylvania stocks a fall run strain. Annually, the state stocks nearly over a million smolts and fingerlings. Personally, I think it’s excessive as most of their streams are so small and shallow. When the conditions are right, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. There have been times when I’ve hooked well into 40 to 50 fish. For the angler with little time and looking for a quick fix, Pennsylvania is the place. Due to the high number of fish, there is the high number of anglers. Even during the weekday, the rivers are packed with people and finding solitude is next to impossible. This is the result of most of the streams run through private property and every year more and more land is posted. The end result is more anglers are crammed into the remaining pockets of public waters. Since I hate fishing around people, I haven’t been back to Pennsylvania since 2001 and I don’t plan on going back anytime soon.

The state slogan for Ohio is “the heart of it all” and Ohio is right in the heart of steelhead alley. Most steelheaders will agree that Ohio is considered to be one of the better states to fish. The big advantage that Ohio has over the other states is public access. The majority of stocked streams run through many sections of metro and county parks. The main branch of the Rocky River runs completely through one of Cleveland’s metro park. That gives the angler almost 13 miles of river to fish. The other rivers such as the Grand, Chagrin and Vermilion have sections of county parks within their boundaries. The only stream that is completely private is the Conneaut Creek. Ohio stocks the Little Manistee strain and they run during the spring. Unlike Pennsylvania, most anglers will have to walk and find fish. Yanking out fish after fish out of a small pool is out of the question in Ohio. Most anglers will be lucky to catch to 10 fish in one day. If you’re willing to go the extra mile, you’ll often find yourself fishing in peace and quiet.

As for New York, I haven’t fished any of the streams. This is probably due to the fact that I’m to spoiled living here in Ohio. I have heard glowing reports of the Catt from several friends who have fished it. I keep telling myself that one day I’ll make the trip there.
This unique fishery has received national attention in several fishing magazines and outdoor shows. I’m blessed that I moved to place that has such a wonderful fishery. If you’re planning to make a trip to one of the Great Lakes, give steelhead alley a try and you won’t be disappointed.