3 Flies for Early Season Pennsylvania Steelhead

3 Flies for Early Season Pennsylvania Steelhead

Steelhead season is fully upon us, and with each new rain and the shortening of days, the action is just going to get better! 

Steelhead in the Great Lakes are fairly simple fish, a stark contrast compared to their Pacific cousins.  Most of the fish spawn in spring but come into the tributaries in the fall to gorge on salmon eggs.  The kicker is that many streams don’t receive a run of salmon, leaving steelhead searching for something else to devour.  Arming yourself with the right flies during this early season is a key to success, and here are four great patterns that are sure to produce results! 


Even though many Great Lakes tribs don’t have a salmon run, the steelhead still instinctively key in on eggs.  It’s what’s “supposed” to be there, so they’ll feed heavily on them during the fall and winter months.  In fact, the same can be true throughout spring when suckers run in from the lake and do their own spawning ritual.  Orange is a fantastic color that always produces fish, especially during October and November. 

Stream conditions are typically low and clear, with the exception of the day or two after a big rain, and that means discreet flies are a must.  Another great egg pattern is the white sucker spawn, which achieves the egg imitation while not being overly flashy.  It’s also perfect for sight fishing with a pinch or two of split shot a foot above the fly.  When the water is clear, as it so often is, it’s possible to watch the fly bouncing on the bottom and actually see the fish inhale it as it drifts along!  It’s one of the most exciting ways to fish. 


Steelhead coming into the streams in September-November are full of fight and energy.  When they’re fresh from the lake they still key in on the forage fish that make up a bulk of their diet for the summer months.  That makes the Lake Erie Emerald Shiner a perfect pattern for aggressive fish that are willing to move several feet to chase down a streamer.

Caddis Nymphs

Many Great Lakes tributaries (especially those in Pennsylvania) are fairly devoid of bug life.  That leaves steelhead helplessly searching for a meal in a situation where there’s little to be had.  One of the few bugs to be present in many drainages is the caddis, making it a must-have for steelhead anglers.  The exact variation of caddis doesn’t matter as much, but orange, green, and purple are great choices and should all be carried in a variety of sizes. 

The yearly return of steelhead marks the start of some of the most exciting fishing of the entire year throughout the Great Lakes.  These fish can be tricky, however, and having the proper fly selection is the first step in achieving success.  There are few better choices than a variety of egg patterns, some caddis imitations, and a stream pattern that mimics the forage fish of the big lakes! 

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