Steelhead Fishing PA

Steelhead Fishing PA

Thanks to extensive stocking efforts, steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania can be fantastic. Knowing the best baits, lures, or the best methods that local river guides are using will make steelhead fishing in PA even better. We discuss all this and more.

Steelhead fishing PA starts as the steelhead enter the rivers as the weather cools in late September or early October and can continue until late April. Anglers should use fly fishing, float fishing, or bottom bouncing methods combined with good spawn bags, flies, and worms.

About Steelhead Fishing PA

Fishing for steelhead in PA, especially around up the tributaries and at mouth of the rivers at Lake Erie can be exciting.

One of the keys to success is to know what triggers the steelhead to enter the rivers so you can be there at the right time. These are the days when large numbers of steelhead are moving into the river.

The eagerness to hook into enormous 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 rivers and lots of areas on most rivers to fish.  

The steelhead are stocked into the shallow rivers or stocked near the mouths of the rivers when they are young. As they grow, the fingerling steelhead will eventually migrate into lakeErie.

Then the mature steelhead will follow their mental imprint using the scent of the creeks back to the points they were stocked and further up the rivers to the best spawning grounds.

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

Most steelhead, even the ones that enter the rivers in September, will spawn in March and April.

This means that there is usually steelhead in most Pennsylvania rivers from September to almost May, and that provides good steelhead fishing in PA for about 8 months.

This article shares various tips on what you should know before going fishing during various periods of the year and water conditions. 

Different Rivers for Steelhead Fishing 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 considers small in comparison to some of the larger river systems found in New York State, or Michigan State.

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.

In Pennsylvania, the western creeks serving Lake Erie include Racoon Creek, Trout Run, Upper Conneaut Creek, Crooked Creek, Elk Creek, Walnut Creek, Cascade Creek, and Godfrey Run. 

Eastern tributaries of PA include Twenty Mile Creek, Four Mile Creek, Twelve Mile Creek, Seven Mile Creek, and Sixteen Mile Creek.

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

Seasons For Steelhead Fishing PA

An Angler Steelhead Fishing PA Rivers in winter

As the trees prepare to shed leaves in the fall, as the leaves turn red, orange, and eventually yellow, anglers will start getting ready for some of the best steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania.

Known for their extraordinary fighting zeal, early fall steelhead will start their migrations up the tributaries of Lake Erie in Pennsylvania in the fall and this is what most anglers consider the start of steelhead season.

Fall Steelhead Season In Pennsylvania

Steelhead Fishing NY in the fall
Fall steelhead fishing can be great and can provide anglers with some great scenery.

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 condition 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 fish=ghting 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 or Fall Steelhead Fishing: Proven Guide Tips And Tactics.

Winter Steelhead Fishing Pennsylvania

An Angler Steelhead Fishing PA Rivers in winter

Winter steelhead fishing in Pennsylvania 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. For more information, check out these pages

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 get back 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 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.

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 your 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 3 primary ways to fly fish for steelhead in Pennsylvania. Nymph fishing with an indicator, Euro Nymphing, and 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 detail on the best flies, best fly fishing methods, and leader setups, check out Fly Fishing For Steelhead page.

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.

Bottom Bouncing

Bottom bouncing is similar to drifting drift fishing, but bottom bounce 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.

Traditional bottom bouncing and advanced bottom bouncing methods can be found on my page Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish.

Best Baits For Steelhead Fishing PA 

Steelhead fishing in PA can be challenging at times or fast and furious with lots of aggressive steelhead biting everything you throw at them.

On the days when the fishing is challenging, it really helps to be using the right baits, and the right sizes and colors.

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.

Spawn, Roe, Fish Eggs

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

Some river guides say that Steelhead have an instinct to kill other fish’s eggs, but I think from the time steelhead are big enough to fit fish eggs in their mouths they recognize them as a good food source.

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.

Anglers use fish eggs tied in a colored mesh sac to hold them together to catch steelhead. Most guides and anglers agree that fish eggs are among the best baits for steelhead and even inexperienced anglers have a good chance of catching steelhead with eggs. 

Using free-drifting roe under a float or when bottom bouncing attracts the attention of steelhead more easily than any other types of bait due to the size and colors available.

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 means soft or hard beads.

These manufactured artificial eggs have gained a lot of popularity among some anglers seeking to attract steelhead’s attention.

Some artificial fish eggs are soft and some are even scented; hence steelhead will not let go when they bite them. 

Further, anglers can add scent to the artificial eggs to make them more realistic to the steelhead. 

Some fishermen soak the artificial eggs in liquid krill to add scent. The eggs are durable and do not get destroyed by the steelhead bites. Anglers can use artificial egg baits for long periods without purchasing new ones. 

Steelhead Worms

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

Steelhead worms are artificial worms manufactured 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 anglers choose pink-colored worms due to their visual attraction effectiveness. Bright colors like pink catch fish’s attention and lure them to bite the worms. 

Other bright colors like purple, orange, white, chartreuse, and red 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

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

Trout beads come in different sizes and colors and they also come in soft beads and hard beads.

However, it is essential to choose eye-catching color based on the current conditions.

When using hard beads, ensure that you do not hesitate to set the hook because they will quickly spit out a hard bead.

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 Steelhead Fishing PA

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 Pennsylvania Steelhead: What The Guides Use.

Lure Fishing For Pennsylvania Steelhead

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.

When I’m lure fishing or teaching anglers how to lure fish for steelhead I start at the top of the pool, cast across the river at a slightly downriver angle, and retrieve in a way that will entice the most steelhead.

The retrieve will vary depending on the activity level of the steelhead, the depth and speed of the current, and the lure itself.

Using lures like spoons, spinners, jigs, and plugs like the Qwickfish or Flatfish are good for Pennsylvania steelhead. 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.

What You Should Also Know About Steelhead Fishing In Pennsylvania

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.  

Fishing reports both on the internet, and through local tackle stores offer essential information such as fish availability, how recent weather has affected river conditions, as well as which baits have been producing for anglers. You can use this information to plan for your next steelhead fishing trips. 

Steelhead Fishing PA Q&A

If you have a question, comment, or some tips and tricks about steelhead fishing PA, just let us and our readers know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,

Graham

Author

  • Graham - River Guide / Instructor

    I am a full-time river fishing guide with over 20 years of guiding experience and I run one of the top river guide services with a team of great river guides. I have guided about 3000 anglers and this website is a compilation of the tips and methods that I teach my clients and other guides. Check the About Us page in the bottom menu for more about me and our river guide contributors.

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