Steelhead Fishing In PA: Best Tips And Tactics Of Guides

Local Pennsylvania steelhead guide fishing a Clay bank in the fall.
Local Pennsylvania steelhead guide fishing a Clay bank run in the fall. Check him out at Goose’s Steelhead Fishing Guide Service.

Thanks to extensive stocking efforts and good access, steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania is good for over six months of the year. Of course, knowing the best baits, effective lures, where to go, and the best methods that local river guides are using will make fishing even better.

It also helps to know when the steelhead are in the rivers in good numbers. I have local knowledge of all the best steelhead rivers and can tell you from first-hand experience that being on the river at the right time can make a huge difference.

Steelhead fishing in PA starts when the steelhead enter the rivers due to cooler nights and rains in October, and they can continue to enter rivers until late April.

Steelhead anglers use fly fishing, float fishing, or bottom bouncing methods, combined with spawn bags, beads, flies, and worms.

About Steelhead Fishing PA

This is Dalton with a Steelhead Alley steelhead.
For guided steelhead trips in the PA area, contact Dalton from Goose’s Steelhead Fishing Guide Service.

Where To Fish: Fishing for steelhead in PA, especially up the many steelhead tributaries and at river mouths along the Lake Erie shoreline can be exciting. There are many rivers east and west of Erie, Pennsylvania.

When To Fish: When the steelhead enter and leave the rivers is dependant on the weather and river conditions.

This steelhead migration occurs every year and can start as early as September if the conditions are good, but for most rivers, the largest migrations take place in late October to early December and then again in early March and April.

One of the keys to success is knowing what triggers the steelhead to enter the rivers so you can be there at the right time. Being on the river as the big runs come in is when anglers will have double-digit days. Rains, temperatures, and time of year are all factors I’ll discuss further.

Crowds: The eagerness to hook into a big 25-inch steelhead makes Pennsylvania a yearly fishing destination for anglers and tourists from various regions. This can mean that the rivers can be crowded at times, but the good thing is that there are lots of steelhead streams in the area, and lots of spots on most rivers to fish.  

PA Steelhead: The steelhead are stocked into the shallow rivers or stocked near the mouths of the rivers when they are young and about six inches. As they grow, the fingerling steelhead will eventually migrate into Lake Erie. Most steelheads return in the three to eight-pound size.

Which Rivers To Fish For Steelhead In Pennsylvania

An Angler Steelhead Fishing a PA Rivers

The Pennsylvania rivers and creeks flowing into Lake Erie are popular for their steelhead fishing.

Most PA steelhead rivers are narrow and short and considered small compared to some of the larger river systems found in New York or Michigan.

However, these smaller Pennsylvania rivers have a major advantage for anglers. At certain times of the year, thousands of steelhead cram into these small rivers, and the pools can be full of steelhead that are easy to catch.

This makes for some seriously exciting fishing.

Western PA Steelhead Streams: In Pennsylvania, the western creeks east are the ones west of Erie PA. They include Racoon Creek, Trout Run, Upper Conneaut Creek, Crooked Creek, Elk Creek, Walnut Creek, Cascade Creek, and Godfrey Run. 

Easter PA Steelhead Steelhead Creeks: Eastern tributaries of PA include Twenty Mile Creek, Four Mile Creek, Twelve Mile Creek, Seven Mile Creek, and Sixteen Mile Creek.

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

These creeks are discussed in more detail on my page, 13 Best PA Steelhead Rivers, or, if you are out of state and want information on other steelhead rivers, check out 61 Best Great Lakes Steelhead Rivers.

Seasons For PA Steelhead Fishing

As the trees start changing to fall colors in late September, the steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania is just around the corner.

Fall Steelhead Season In Pennsylvania

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

Some small runs of steelhead might enter the rivers following big rains and colder nights as early as late September.

Larger steelhead runs will usually occur after big rains in later October, and the largest migrations of steelhead usually take place in November.

Some steelhead will continue to enter the river in December if the conditions are suitable.

Most of these steelhead will wait and spawn in March and April. Some of these fall-run steelhead will drop back to the lake before the rivers freeze, while others will hold in the river until the spring.

This provides anglers with lots of opportunities for fall steelhead fishing In PA. Many anglers will also tell you that fall steelhead are the strongest and hardest fighting steelhead of the year.

Falls steelhead have different migration, holding, and feeding behaviors which is related to cooling water temperatures and water clarity. Anglers that know how to fish the steelhead in each stage of their migration will do a lot better.

For more information on fall fishing, see my page Fall Steelhead Fishing In Pennsylvania.

Winter Steelhead Fishing Pennsylvania

Dalton Goose with a nice Pennsylvania winter steelhead
Dalton Goose with a nice Pennsylvania winter steelhead

Winter steelhead fishing can actually be very good just prior to the river freezing solid or just as the rivers becomes ice-free.

Winter fishing starts in mid-December and ends around early March.

Some years the river will even be ice-free most of the time. Winter steelhead fishing often means no crowds, even solitude is possible on many PA rivers drung January and February.

It can also mean lots of steelhead all to yourself. Most anglers do not fish winter steelhead simply because they can’t catch them at this time or it’s just too cold on their hands and feet.

As a guide, I fish for steelhead through the winter months and have found methods and patterns to catch winter steelhead consistently. I have also found ways to stay warm, dry, and comfortable even on the coldest days so if this interests you check out my tips and tactics for winter steelhead fishing in PA.

Spring Steelhead Fishing In Pennsylvania

Drift Fishing For Steelhead

Most steelhead trout will enter the rivers in the spring just as the ice disappears and they return to their big waters in late March and April.

When steelhead fishing PA in the spring, timing is an important factor. 

Anglers need to have the right timing of planning their trip depending on the periods of rain and elevated and dropping water levels. Rains and elevated river levels trigger the runs, and the steelhead fishing activity.

You also want to time things, so you don’t show up to the river too soon after a rain when it’s muddy and unfishable.

Fishing in the spring is often best 2 to 3 days after a rain, however, each river clears and drops at different levels, so if one of the bigger rivers is still high and muddy, a smaller creak close by can be perfect and fishing well.

Spring steelhead fishing has 3 stages, and knowing each stage and how to fish them can help you catch more steelhead. I discuss this and spring steelhead fishing on my page Pennsylvania Spring Steelhead Fishing: Proven Guide Methods And Tips.

Best Methods of Catching Steelhead in PA

There are many methods used to catch Pennsylvania’s big steelhead. Some are better than others, and the ones that are used by local river guides are the ones you should consider using.

An angler holding a nice steelhead caught float fishing
An angler holding a nice steelhead caught while float fishing. Float fishing is one of the most effective methods for steelhead in rivers.

Float Fishing

Drifting your bait below a float is often one of the easiest and most productive ways for anglers to catch steelhead.

This method is called float fishing, and many anglers use Float fishing in Pennsylvania to catch steelhead.

I discuss this method in great detail and how to do it well on my page Float Fishing: Most Effective Float Fishing Methods and Baits River Guides Use

The best anglers and guides know that the float does more than just suspend your bait and let you know when a fish is biting.

I always suggest using floats that are actually designed for steelhead fishing to ensure you are fishing properly. Some floats just work better than others for various reasons. These will be the same type of floats the guides use and are the ones you should also use.

Setting your float to about 1.2 and 1.5 times the river’s depth and then fishing it well will be most effective.

This fishing tactic works best for both flies and bait. Anglers can use a float for fishing in both fast-moving water and slow-moving pools.

Fly Fishing

An angler fly fishing nymphs in shallow water

Fly fishing is a very popular and very effective method for catching steelhead in PA streams.

In fact, most PA Steelhead guides are exclusively fly fishing. I think that says something about the effectiveness of fly fishing for PA steelhead!

When fly fishing, there are three primary ways to fly fish for steelhead in Pennsylvania. Nymph fishing with an indicator, Euro Nymphing, streamer fishing or swinging flies. Some anglers will also target steelhead with streamers.

Nymph fishing with indicators is the most common method but anglers proficient at Euro Nymphing for steelhead will do much better in the shallower pocket waters found on most PA steelhead rivers.

In slower deeper pools, indicator fishing can be excellent. For more details on the best flies, best fly fishing methods, and leader setups, check out Fly Fishing For Steelhead In Pennsylvania

Swinging: Spey Fishing

More and more anglers and guides are starting to swing flies with small spey rods or switch rods.

This is a method best reserved for the bigger Pennsylvania rivers. When swinging flies, anglers cast straight out across the river while letting their presentation swing across below them.

However, this method can be challenging because most PA rivers are too small or too crowded to swing flies effectively.

For more on Spey fishing, check out: Spey Fishing For Great Lakes Steelhead

Bottom Bouncing

Bottom bouncing is similar to drifting drift fishing, but bottom bouncing is more effective in the smaller shallower waters often found in Pennsylvania.

Bottom bouncing can often be the most effective method and can be more effective than float fishing when the steelhead are in shallow riffles, runs, and pocket water.

Best Baits For PA Steelhead

There are plenty of choices for you to choose from when it comes to baits. Notably, some baits may be more effective than others, so make your choices right. You need the best baits when fishing a challenging fish like steelhead.

See Best Baits For PA Steelhead

Spawn, Roe, Fish Eggs

Different types of spawn net
Different types of spawn net give your eggs a different look.

I use fish eggs tied in a colored mesh sac to hold them together and to put them on the hook. Most guides and anglers agree that fish eggs are among the best baits for steelhead. 

Fish eggs can be salmon eggs, trout eggs, or sucker eggs, and they are known as roe, spawn, spawn bags, spawn sacs, or roe bags.

There are many ways to cure, present, and hook up your eggs and there are things that guides do to make using eggs more effective, I discuss all this and more in my article Spawn Bags – Guide Secrets For More Trout And Steelhead.    

Artificial Eggs

Egg Imitations are Great Trout Baits
Egg imitations are great baits for trout and steelhead without the mess of reel eggs.

Some anglers don’t like using reel fish eggs so they opt for the alternative of using artificial fish eggs.

Artificial eggs can mean plastic single eggs, plastic egg clusters that are meant to look like a spawn sac, or it can mean soft or hard beads.

Steelhead Worms

Pink Worms For Steelhead
The bubblegum pink worm is likely the best color for large steelhead trout.

Steelhead worms are artificial worms made to attract steelhead, and they are often my favorite and most effective bait for steelhead.

Over the last 20 years, I have convinced many of my guide clients of their effectiveness.

Most days I choose pink-colored worms due to their visual attraction effectiveness but red and brwon can also be very good.

Other bright colors like purple, orange, white, and chartreuse, can also be effective. The most important aspect is that you choose a color that the steelhead want based on their feeding behavior and water conditions.

For more on how to fish them effectively, how to rig them, and the best steelhead worms, check out Fishing With Worms For Trout and Steelhead: 10 Guide Tips.

Trout Beads

My favorite hard plastic trout beads beside real salmon eggs.
My favorite hard plastic trout beads beside real salmon eggs.

Trout beads are another great option for anglers to use as bait. For best results, put the beads slightly above the hook.

Honesty, fishing with beads can be as effective as fishing with real eggs if you rig them up and fish them properly. I discuss this at Fishing With Beads: 5 Guide Tips For More Fish.

Other Great Baits For Pennsylvania Steelhead Fishing

Minnows, minnow imitations, grubs, leeches, skein, and flies are some of the other great baits that can be used for fishing steelhead in Pennsylvania. Check out my list of the best ones at Best Baits For PA Steelhead: What The Guides Use.

Lure Fishing For Pennsylvania Steelhead

Eli from SBS Outdoor Action with a nice steelhead caught on a lure
Eli from SBS Outdoor Action with a nice steelhead caught on a lure

Lure fishing can be a great way to fish for steelhead in PA. Anglers can cast lures almost anywhere in the rivers, and with the right lures and the right methods, lure fishing can be very exciting and effective.

Using lures like spoons, spinners, jigs, and plugs like the Qwickfish or Flatfish are good for Pennsylvania steelhead in deeper slower spots. Just make sure you have a variety of colors and sizes.

Some lures will work better for steelhead under certain conditions. I discuss this and how to effectively catch more steelhead in my article Tactics For Lure Fishing For Steelhead or 4 Best Lures For Steelhead: A Pro Guides Recommendations.

License and Regulations

Steelhead Fishing PA

Anglers should have a valid Pennsylvania fishing license and a trout stamp to engage in steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania. There are other validations and regulations you may need to know, and you can find all of these at the many local fishing stores near Erie, Pennsylvania.

Tight Lines,


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