Myself and my team of river guides discuss all the ins and outs of fall steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania that will help you catch more steelhead. We share the hot flies and baits, best tactics local steelhead guides use, and discuss things you need to know like timing the runs and adapting to river conditions, everything you need for fall steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania is here.
Fall steelhead in Pennsylvania starts as early as September and continues into December. During this time, the rivers can go from 60F to 35F, and that means anglers and guides will need to adapt to changing conditions, feeding behaviors, and holding spots if they want to maximize their success.
We will also all share 5 guide tips to get you into more Pennsylvania fall steelhead.
Fall Fishing Steelhead Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania is a great place for fall steelhead fishing for many reasons, which include huge numbers of steelhead that enter small to mid-sized rivers, and there are lots of rivers and places for anglers to fish them.
The major rivers in the state enjoy good runs of Pennsylvania steelhead thanks to very good steelhead stocking programs, which I’ve read can be over a million a year, but not only do PA rivers get returning steelhead from PA stocked fish, but also strays from neighboring NY and Ohio.
With such huge stockings, as the fall months signal the migration of steelhead from Lake Erie into the Pennsylvania tributaries for the purpose of spawning, the steelhead can enter rivers by the thousands and then be concentrated in pools and pockets, making them easy to catch.
Fall Pennsylvania steelhead are incredibly dynamic, capable of multiple cartwheel jumps and long drag-screaming runs.
This makes steelhead fishing the tributaries of Lake Erie in the fall for Pennsylvania steelhead an exciting experience for Pennsylvania steelhead anglers. Even anglers in and outside the state are always looking forward to fall steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania but this has its downside too.
This article is part of a series that starts with our article on Great Lakes Steelhead Fishing: Most Effective Guide Methods and Tips.
Crowds When Fall Fishing For Pennsylvania Steelhead
The downside to so many big steelhead entering the river in the fall, and them being pretty easy to catch at times, is that the rivers can get very busy with the banks lined up with anglers.
For some, with tons of sh for everyone, this is still fun fishing and like a big social event, and you can see anglers all around you catching lots of fish. But for others, this crowded fishing sucks.
My tip for crowds, weekends, and for bust times is to:
- Go for a long walk far from the access points and bridges to get away from the crowds. Sometimes I’ll walk 20 minute before I start to fish.
- Fish smaller, lesser-known, or less busy creeks.
- Fish pockets, riffles, rapids, and shallow runs, and avoid the pools. Remember steelhead are migratory so to get from one buy pool to another, they need to move through shallower areas, rapids, through rocks, and pockets. And often, if the pools are heavily pressured with anglers, steelhead will hold in tiny pockets that most anglers walk by. Sometimes I will only fish pockets, and I say, better to fish 30 pockets all by-myself and catch 5 fish than to stand shoulder to shoulder in a pool and catch a couple.
Early And Late Fall Steelhead Fishing Pennsylvania
Fall season usually occurs by Mid-September through December, with the shoreline temperatures of Lake Erie dropping to 68F and Pennsylvania steelhead start collecting around the mouths of the Pennsylvania tributaries.
Guide Tip: Local guides will tell you that even in late August, some steelhead will move to the mouth of the river or even into the lower river throughout the night and then move back out to the lake in the morning, giving some anglers opportunities to catch some early fall steelhead.
More and more steelhead will continue to do this into September and they will often stay in the river later in the morning if the river temps stay cold. This often occurs on the larger rivers, but some of the smaller creeks will have steelhead moving in close to show to and shore anglers have opportunities to catch them on baits and lures.
Typical of any fall season, the weather gradually gets cooler and it’s the big rains of early fall that start the runs of steelhead. A large cold rain in mid to late September can bring in some steelhead.
More rains in early to mid-October will bring in more fish and the peak time for Fall Fishing Steelhead Pennsylvania is late October to early December.
With the right techniques and tactics is certain to land a great steelhead catch with the right steelhead fishing techniques.
As these steelhead enter Pennsylvania tributaries, and even though they do not actively feed as they did in the depths of Lake Erie, they will grab a well presented bait or lures they come in contact with.
During the early fall and prime time, steelhead will move out of their way and hold in the faster-moving current areas of the tributaries, such as pocket water, chutes, heads of pools, and fast runs.
Guide Tip: Follow The Fish
Astute anglers and local river guides will monitor the weather and get on the water just after the rains.
More importantly, river guides also know that as high water starts to drop and clear up “Prime conditions” will occur when the water develops a slightly opaque green tint to it and they will often know when and where these conditions are and will fish accordingly.
Steelhead are very catchable in this type of water green water because the steelhead will be able to see your offering just enough to bite, while still making them feel less vulnerable.
Bear in mind that these conditions, depending on the size of the tributary, usually won’t last more than 2-3 days, because the run-off rates of Erie tributaries is tremendously fast.
Guide Tip: During the first 12 to 24 hours after a rain, anglers should focus on the lower river or fish smaller creeks that clear faster. When those rivers become too clear, move to larger rivers that are just clearing or move further up the river and follow the fish.
This is one of the reasons guides will guide their clients on one river one day, and be on another river the next day. They know where the fish should be and they follow the fish or the conditions for the best fishing.
As fall progresses, stream temperatures will further drop, and you will notice more steelhead push further upstream with fewer fish in the lower river, especially if it hasn’t rained in a while.
In very cold fall conditions, the steelhead will move less and hold in the bigger and deeper pools until conditions are favorable for them to start moving again.
Steelhead runs tend to come to a halt when you start seeing ice along the rivers edges, and this is when they will begin to hold in very slow-moving current areas. This is basically when anglers want to start using winter steelhead tactics.
Best Methods For Fall Steelhead Fishing In Pennsylvania
There are a number of fishing methods anglers employ for fall Steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania.
While some of these methods and techniques may help you catch a few Pennsylvania steelhead, there are those that are well suited for landing more Pennsylvania Fall steelhead.
Float Fishing For Pennsylvania Fall Steelhead
Floating fishing is one of the most widely used steelhead fishing techniques in Pennsylvania because it’s very effective.
Float fishing is done using spinning reels or centerpin reels and long 9 to 13-foot rods, and a special bobber known as a float.
The float fishing technique can be used by both beginner and veteran steelheaders.
The concept behind float fishing is you are using a specialized river float attached to the fishing line, for the purpose of suspending your bait just off the bottom of the river, and allowing it to drift with the current.
Tips For More Steelhead When Float Fishing
These are the tips that I teach my clients during float fishing classes and on guide trips.
- Use the right type of float – See Best Floats For Float Fishing
- Have a proper leader setup – See 2 Best Float Fishing Leaders
- Know how to set your float depth, slow your drift, and present your bait effectively.
I have been float-fishing for many years and know for a fact that there are certain things anglers and guides do that will enable them to catch more steelhead when float fishing. Speed control is one of those things that are critical to success, yet most anglers don’t know how to do this well or even do it at all.
But there is more to float fishing than just speed control. I call them the 4 fundamentals of float fishing which I use when teaching my students how to float fish for steelhead. You can find these methods and tactics on my page Float Fishing For Steelhead – How River Guides Do It.
Fly Fishing For Pennsylvania Fall Steelhead
There is a reason why the majority of steelhead guides in Pennsylvania are fly fishing specialists and many only guide with fly rods. The fact is that fly fishing is very effective for fall fishing for steelhead in Pennsylvania since the rivers are perfectly suited for this method.
Fly fishing works well in deeper pools, fast runs, pocket water, and in rapids. The right fly fishing gear will also go a long way as will the right flies.
I, together with my team have put together a list of the entire essential fly fishing gear every angler needs for fly fishing on Pennsylvania tributaries. You can check them on my page Fly Fishing Gear: Everything You Need To Fly Fish.
Fly fishing for Pennsylvania fall steelhead can be done using a variety of methods depending on your preference. You have nymph fishing, euro nymphing, Spey fishing, and streamer fishing.
For more on how to fly-fish for Pennsylvania fall steelhead, you should check out my page on Fly Fishing For Steelhead: Great Lakes Style or Fly Fishing For Pennsylvania Steelhead: Best Methods & Flies
Guide Tips When Fall Steelhead Fishing in PA:
- Use subtle more natural patterns and colors in clear water, and brighter colors like chartreuse, red, and hot pink in dirtier water.
- When fishing clear water or pressured fish, go with small flies like 6mm and 7mm egg patterns,or size 12 to 14 nymphs.
- In dirty water, go with huge eggs patterns the size of a nickel or quarter, and use giant dark nymphs up to 1.5 inches.
- Pink and red plastic steelhead worms can be deadly effective in all types of water conditions but in clear water don’t forget to try natural colored plastic worms or live garden worms. FYI, plastic steelhead worms have accounted for more steelhead in the net for my clients than any other more popular baits.
- Local guides will also use 1 to 3-inch streamers dead drifted or twitched through the spot. Flies like the white zonker can be very hot at times.
Drift Fishing For Pennsylvania Fall Steelhead
Drift fishing is a great method on faster bigger sections of the river and is a method for catching fall steelhead in Pennsylvania that has been around for a long time.
The Drift Fishing Method: Basically, drift fishing means you tie a snap swivel to your mainline, attach a small weight to the snap, and tie a short 1 to 2 foot leader with your bait at the bottom. Cast it and allow the setup and bait to bounce along the bottom of the water.
I like drift fish for Pennsylvania fall steelhead because it is effective at getting your bait to the river’s bottom. You should adjust your weight according to the velocity and depth of the flow.
I discuss the best drift fishing tactics, baits, setups and hooks, and the best types of water suitable for drift fishing on my page Drift Fishing for Steelhead.
Bottom Bouncing For Fall PA Steelhead
Bottom bouncing is a very effective way of fall steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania, and although it’s similar to drift fishing, I prefer it on most Pennsylvania rivers.
Bottom bouncing is much better on smaller and shallower rivers which are common in PA. It’s also one of the best methods when fishing pocket water or when the steelhead are holding in shallow water that is too shallow for float fishing.
I use a method called advanced Bottom Bouncing where the weights are at the bottom for the leader, and the use of a colored line known as a Sighter is placed 4 to 7 feet up the line.
With this method and the proper setup, you can keep your bait drifting naturally and just off the bottom for most or all of the drift.
If this method is something you are interested in, check my page Bottom Bouncing: Traditional and Modern Methods.
Best Baits And Flies For Fall Steelhead Fishing In PA
When it comes to fishing for Pennsylvania fall steelhead, baits are everything.
When the bait is the right bait, you will catch a lot more steelhead but because the rivers in the fall are often lower and clearer than in the spring, there are baits, sizes, and colors that will work better in the fall.
Guide Tips On Baits For Fall PA Steelhead
- When fishing the lower river where it’s bigger, the steelhead will be more aggressive, and therefore minnow-type baits and flies like the white zonker and white wooly buggers, or worms, can be as effective or better than eggs-type baits.
- When the fish have been in the river for a while or if fishing farther up the river, smaller more natural baits like single eggs, small spawn sacs, or small flies can be good choices.
- Rotate baits. What this means is to try a bait and if it doesn’t work try different sizes, different colors, and different baits before you move to the next spot.
Flies can be one of the most effective baits and you can use them with all methods, not just fly fishing, you can check out some of the most effective flies that guides have used on my page: 13 Best Flies For Steelhead – An Expert Guides Advice.
Best PA Rivers For Fall Steelhead Fishing
This is a tough one because while a very popular river might not be a fishing well, a smaller river can be great. This has to do with water flows, water temps, and water clarity.
However, some of the more popular rivers include Racoon Creek, Trout Run, Upper Conneaut Creek, Crooked Creek, Elk Creek, Walnut Creek, Cascade Creek, and Godfrey Run, Twenty Mile Creek, Four Mile Creek, Twelve Mile Creek, Seven Mile Creek, and Sixteen Mile Creek.
For more info on these rivers see my page Best Steelhead Rivers In PA
Don’t forget that it’s not a far drive from Ohio and New York Steelhead rivers which could be fishing better. The area from Western NY to Ohio is known as Steelhead Alley. Check out Steelhead Alley: Fishing Tips and Rivers
7 Guide Tips For Fall Steelhead Fishing Pennsylvania
Follow the steelhead – Fish the lower river early in the season or just after rains, and fish further up the river later in the season or many days after the rains. Also jump rivers to rivers and try to hit them just as they clear, this can be done on the same day or day after day.
Tread lightly: When fishing the super clear rivers of Pennsylvania approach the pool from the bottom and move slowly, so you don’t spook the fish. If you can stay out of the river that is often best.
Start Small and Rotate Baits: The bait you used yesterday, might not be the bait you should use today. And a bait that worked in one pool might not work in the next.. Chucking a large bait into a small pool full of nervous steelhead can shut them down.
Therefore, in small pools, I will often start with and small and less intrusive baits and then go up a size or two if it doesn’t work. Guides will rotate through their baits daily to figure out what baits, colors, or sizes are best based on the daily, or sometimes hourly conditions.
Don’t Leave Fish For Fish: I am known for this, I will stay in the same spot for hours if I know the fish are there or if I know I’m in a good spot and that the fish are just not biting anywhere.
I know guys will say move from spot to spot, but my opinion is that if the spot you are in has fish, but the fish aren’t biting, then they aren’t biting anywhere. This rule applies unless I or my clients have done something dumb like spooked all the fish.
I would often prefer to move into a pool quietly, let the fish settle down after my entry into the pool, work the pool slowly, and rotate through all my baits and methods to figure out how to get the fish in the pool to eat.
Jumping from pool to pool with the same bait and the same methods that didn’t work in the last pools is often a mistake many anglers make.
Once I have figures out what will make them bite, and I’ve fished the crap out that pool, only then will I move to the next pool.
Often I will see anglers fish the spots below me, then walk past me and jump from pool to pool until they are out of sight. They return an hour or two later, and I’m still standing in the same spot, rarely and almost never have I heard them say they caught more fish.
Almost always, I will catch far more fish than they will, and often I don’t even need to ask them how many fish they caught because I know if they were catching lots of fish, they’d be staying put in that spot.
Be Patient: Sometimes steelhead will spook as you enter a spot or as another angler leaves, but, if you stand quietly and don’t move around, after a while, which could be 10 to 30 minutes, those spooked steelhead might start feeding again.
Know Your Target
When it comes to fall fishing, the conditions change drastically from the beginning of the fall to the end of the fall.
I know that early run steelhead in September, October, and early November move fast, hold in different spots, and will hold for less time in a spot than steelhead in late November and December.
I also know that they will eat at different times of the day and they will prefer and eat different baits, or prefer different sizes or colors throughout the fall.
Knowing these things keeps us guides putting fishing in the net for our clients more consistently.
Adjust To Temperatures
I don’t know how many times I’ve shown up to the river and said to my clients that they won’t bite until X-time, or they will stop biting around X-time, and I have been right most of the time!
I know this because in the fall, I’m on the water guiding for steelhead sometimes 40+ days straight and from September to late December, and I’ve done this for over 15 years, and therefore I get to see how the fish react to certain conditions everyday.
On mild nights the fish will often be active early in the day, so be there early and if it’s a bright sunny day the chances are the will stop feeding by noon.
On cold nights when the water temps drop a lot and quickly, the fish will be lethargic and inactive, they do not like fast-dropping water temps, and it either takes waiting until they acclimatize to stable water temps or a slight water temperature increase before hey become active again.
Therefore, waiting for 2 to 3 hours after sunrise for the sun to warm up the river 1 or 2 degrees is best, and on some days this means they will be active at 10 am, instead of 7 am.
I don’t know how many times I’ve shown up to the river between 10 am and 11 am and all the guys are leaving saying the fishing is crap, and then I go catch a ton of steelhead between 11 am and 2 pm, and I’m there by myself.
Guys, early morning is not always best!
Guide Tip: Fishing in such rarely if ever is productive. Slush usually occurs as water temperature plummets and gets near freezing. Slush also prevents you from getting good drifts as your float, indicator, and bait can get stuck or pulled around by clumps of slush.
If, however, you notice the slush becoming less and less, it’s a good indication the water temps are getting warmer, which could in turn cause the steelhead to become more active. Slush often occurs in late December, but I’ve seen severe cold snaps as early as late November cause slush too.
Fall Steelhead Fishing In Pennsylvania Q&A
That wraps it for this article, but if you have any questions, comments, or tips on fall steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania, let me know in the comments sections below.
Graham and the Trout and Steelhead Team