Proven Tactics For Pennsylvania Spring Steelhead Fishing

Pennsylvania Spring Steelhead Fishing
A bright silver Pennsylvania steelhead caught in early spring.

Spring steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania starts with the melting of the rivers and with spring rains, and it continues until early May. Steelhead can be aggressive at times, and methods like float fishing, fly fishing, and lure fishing can be very productive for these spring steelhead.

When Is Pennsylvania Spring Steelhead Fishing?

Dalton with a huge Pennsylvania Spring Steelhead.
Some of the biggest steelhead of the year are caught in the spring as seen here by local PA guide Dalton from Goose’s Steelhead Fishing Guide Service.

One of the best times to hit the water for Pennsylvania steelhead in the spring is just after the ice clears out of the rivers. This usually occurs in late February and early March.

With spring comes warmer water temperatures, and some spring rains, which raise water levels, trigger big runs of steelhead, resulting in an abundance of steelhead for anglers.

In spring, you’ll be presented with two types of steelhead to catch. The first are steelhead finding their way back to the lake after spawning, known as “drop backs” or “drop downs”.

The second is the fresh steelhead starting their spring spawning migration. This steelhead “combo” obviously makes for a bountiful steelhead fishing experience if you know how to target these fish during different times of the spawning run.

There are actually three stages of the spring spawning runs, and as a guide, knowing what stage the fish are in and how to fish them effectively has meant a lot more steelhead in the net for my clients. I discuss this in my article Spring Steelhead Fishing: Great Lakes Tips And Tactics From The Guides

Spring Steelhead Fishing And Crowds

Pennsylvania steelhead guide Dalton with a late spring steelhead.
Pennsylvania steelhead guide Dalton with a late spring steelhead.

Spring fishing for Pennsylvania steelhead gives anglers great opportunities to catch a lot of steelhead, and some days, anglers will hook over 50 steelhead.

It is very common to find anglers itching to be out there on the water, especially after a long wait during winter, and combined with good numbers of spring steelhead, the rivers and creeks of the area. This means the rives can get very busy.

I’m often asked how to get away from the crowds, and in fact, I was just asked that question today by a good client. Here are my tips.

Fishing on weekends is going to be the most crowded time, so if you can fish mid-week, you may find stretches of river with few or no other anglers.

Even on weekends, I find most anglers will be on the water at first light but will head home around 11 am. Fishing from noon to 5 pm often has a lot less fishing pressure, and I have found that the early morning pressured steelhead will relax mid-day after everyone leaves, and they will start feeding again.

I have also used inflatable river boats to get to sections of the river that other anglers can.

This works best on bigger rivers and where it’s private land that other anglers can’t get to by foot.

Finding areas with a lot of forested access and walking a long way from the parking and access areas might also provide you with few anglers and less pressured steelhead.

Pennsylvania Spring Fishing Conditions

To successfully fish for Pennsylvania spring steelhead, you want to be mindful of the water conditions, which vary daily with temperature, precipitation, and snowmelt.

Steelhead fishing for Pennsylvania spring steelhead is good and begins from early March, but this is also when the rivers can be high and muddy.

I fish the rivers just as they start to clear enough for the steelhead to see the bait. Some rivers will clear faster, so if I get to one river and if it’s muddy, I will head to a smaller river that clears faster. River guides know the clearing rates of all the local rivers so they will fish each river according to the best conditions.

You can often find up-to-date and historic water levels for each PA stream on the website USGS RIVER FLOWS. I will discuss the PA Steelhead rivers below.

Early spring is characterized by slightly cooler temperatures, which, of course, are from snowmelt. The snowmelt can make the river very cold, and those cold water temps can make the steelhead less active. This is often why I recommend that anglers fish late in the morning and afternoon instead of early morning.

Rain triggers the first run of steelhead, and it also allows spawned out fish a fighting chance of returning to Lake Erie. During higher water, I have found it more productive to fish smaller spots and use larger and brighter baits.

During higher water, the steelhead are usually found in slower-moving waters along the banks and tail-outs of pools. In high water, they can be as aggressive as their fall counterparts but will only hit your bait if you fish in the right spot and if the water is clear enough that they can see it. 

As the weather and temperature warm in late March and early April, more steelhead runs will come. At the same time, some steelhead will already be approaching their spawning grounds, and during this time, you want to avoid targeting steelhead that are actively spawning.

This is for two reasons

  • 1. so you don’t ruin chances of more reproduction.
  • 2. so you don’t waste your time on fish that don’t eat and fight poorly

It drives me crazy watching anglers trying to catch steelhead on the spawning beds when I know I can catch ten times more steelhead in the pools above and below them. Fish in the pools eat, while fish on the spawning beds don’t eat. So even if you do hook one, the chances are you just snagged it.

The fish in the pool are also rested and fight way better than spawning fish.

The best steelhead to target are those on their way to the spawning grounds or the steelhead that have already spawned and are on their way back to Lake Erie. You will find these steelheads in fast-running pools and below spawning beds, and they will be hungry and very aggressive.

Ultimately, anglers who understand the changing water conditions associated with spring and how these silver bullets respond to the conditions can be sure of a successful steelhead fishing experience.

Best Methods for Spring Fishing Pennsylvania Steelhead

There are a lot of steelhead fishing methods that will work for spring steelhead. Most of these methods will work for Spring Fishing Pennsylvania Steelhead. The following are a few of the most effective methods.

Spin Fishing For Pennsylvania Steelhead

Spin fishing is another steelhead fishing method I love to use, and it is very effective when it comes to landing Pennsylvania spring steelhead. This technique generally involves using a smooth drag reel to cast lures or float fish with bait.

In shallow water or when steelhead are in pockets and very fast water I prefer a method known as bottom bouncing.

To better understand the spin fishing methods used by anglers and guides, check out my page on Spin Fishing For Steelhead.

Spin fishing with lures is also effective, and I will discuss this further below.

When spin fishing, you want to ensure that your spinning reels hold a lot of line and that they have a good drag since Pennsylvania spring steelhead can be very aggressive and they can make long fast runs.

You can check out my list of best spin reels on my page, 4 Best Spinning Reels For Float Fishing.

Centerpin Fishing For Pennsylvania Steelhead

Centerpin fishing is another steelhead fishing method I like to use when fishing and guiding. Similar to their spin counterparts, this fishing method involves using a braided or mono line with a round reel known as a centerpin and a float to present your bait.

Unlike the spinning reels, most centerpin reels do not have a drag and are generally large in size.

Anglers who know how to do this method well will often catch the most fish, especially in larger pools and bigger rivers. In my opinion, Centerpin fishing is often the most effective way to catch Pennsylvania spring steelhead.

For advice on the best centerpin reels, you should see my page on 5 Best Centerpin reels

Centerpins are one of my favorites because of their ability to free spool, which in turn allows for a better, longer natural presentation. Every astute angler knows that the better your presentation, the greater your steelhead catch.

If you want to learn more about how centerpin fishing can help you catch more Pennsylvania spring steelhead, you can check out my page on Centerpin Fishing for Steelhead.

Fly Fishing For Pennsylvania Steelhead

Although other methods are popular, there is a reason that most Pennsylvania river guides and I prefer to fly fish for steelhead.

Fly fishing is one of the most popular steelhead fishing methods in Pennsylvania.

I have used this fishing technique to catch thousands of steelhead and salmon over the last 30 years and can tell you that steelhead will rarely and hardly pass by an opportunity to take a well-presented fly.

Some of the best fly fishing methods for Steelhead in Pennsylvania include nymph fishing, Euro nymphing, streamer fishing, and even spey fishing on the bigger rivers. 

To achieve a successful fly fishing adventure, no matter your preferred method, you need the right flies, and you must present them naturally to the fish.

Some of the flies I recommend are colored egg patterns, worm patterns, stonefly nymphs, and pheasant nymphs. I discuss more on these flies on my page, 21 Best Pennsylvania Steelhead Flies.

If you want to learn more about how fly fishing can help you land more Pennsylvania steelhead or steelhead anywhere around the Great Lakes region, check out my page on Great Lakes Fly Fishing For Steelhead.

Best Baits and Lures for Fall Steelhead Fishing Pennsylvania

I have often been asked by my guide clients and students what the best baits for steelhead are. My response has always been that there is no “one” bait that is best. Which steelhead bait works best will depend on a number of factors, such as the water flow, water clarity, and the activity levels of the steelhead.

Having only a couple of different baits in your vest is a big mistake. I always have five or six different baits of various sizes and colors, and I rotate the baits to figure out what the steelhead wants that day.

I always recommend bait options such as roe, flies, beads, and worms, but there are more baits you should have. For more on the best baits that other guides and I use, check out my page on Best Steelhead Bait.

Lure Fishing For Pennsylvania Spring Steelhead

For those interested in lure fishing, there are many options for Pennsylvania spring steelhead. All steelhead rivers and creeks in Pennsylvania are suitable for casting lures.

Certain steelhead lures will work better than others under different spring conditions. Ultimately, you want to make your choice around options such as spinners, plugs like Kwikfish and Flatfish, and the good old spoon.

The size and color of your lure will also go a long way to determining its effectiveness. I personally like to go for gold, silver, orange, white, and black, and I will rotate colors to figure out what works best that day.

I also change up my retrieve and use a systematic approach to covering the water more effectively. I discuss this and more on lures and how to use them in the most effective way on my page Best Lures For Steelhead – A Pro Guides Recommendations

Pennsylvania Steelhead Rivers

Last but not least is the topic of steelhead rivers and creeks in Pennsylvania.

The steelhead rivers and creeks of Pennsylvania are in the middle of what is known as Steelhead Alley and all rivers and creeks that flow into Lake Erie along the Pennsylvania shoreline will get runs of steelhead.

Smaller creeks might see a few stragglers enter the river every spring, while the bigger rivers and creeks, like 20 Mile Creek, will see thousands of steelhead entering the river, providing great steelhead fishing.

Some of the best Pennsylvania spring steelhead rivers include Elk Creek, Walnut Creek, 16 Mile Creek, and 20 Mile Creek. For other rivers, check out my page, Pennsylvania Steelhead Rivers.

For more detailed information on the best steelhead rivers in PA, check out my page, Must Fish PA Steelhead Rivers.

Tight Lines,


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