Our Man In Canada
February 9th, 2004

Lake Erie Streams
By Scott E. Smith

Since the 1930s Lake Erie has been thorough a multitude of changes. The lake suffered through progressive water quality deterioration up until the 1970s when a multi-national agreement was signed to reduce phosphate levels in Lake Erie. The lake's indigenous population of lake trout and whitefish, and introduced salmonids, had been all but decimated by enormous algae blooms that robbed the lake of oxygen. Within ten years of this agreement the lake responded remarkably, becoming renowned as a walleye and perch hot-bed. Just as this great fishery began perking along nicely the invasion of zebra mussels in the late 80s began. This invasion changed the mesotrophic and even eutrophic water conditions to a clear-water, nutrient-poor situation that resembled the open waters of Lake Superior. At present visibility in Lake Erie approaches thirty-five feet in some areas. Quite a change from the three-foot visibility conditions during the height of the algae bloom, in the 1970s. However nature always seems to adapt, providing good with bad. This clear-water condition now prevalent in the lake, is very desirable for the steelhead population although its not so good for the walleye. Charter boat companies that a few years ago targeted large walleyes are now hooking up routinely with jazzed steelhead in the open waters of Lake Erie. Because of varying depth ranges in the lake, warm water species and salmonids are seeking out their own niche within this body of water. These factors, combined with the improvements in water quality and spawning habitat within the catchment tributaries of the Grand River and Big Creek, coalesce nicely resulting in a blossoming steelhead fishery. Each year better returns and additional angling opportunities are appearing in these tributary systems. One can only hope that this trend continues.

Most steelhead and salmon found in Ontario's Lake Erie tributaries were originally stocked in U.S. waters (thanks guys!). With the exception of the Grand River, the best return of salmonids of salmonids occurs in the streams of Norfolks sand plain in the Long Point Bay area. This large sand plain, in places one-hundred feet deep, acts as a filter system for cool ground water, which in turn makes area tributaries ideal spawning habitat. The streams in the area are sandy, clear and cool, and under favourable conditions fish well for steelhead, salmon and migratory browns.

Lake Erie steelhead average between four and seven pounds when sexually mature, with a number of fish between nice and twelve pounds. Few steelhead exceed this mark, however recently specimens in the fifteen- to twenty-pound class have been reported. Biologists hypothesize that this may be attributed to increasingly favourable forage condition in the lake (steelhead feed primarily by sight), or the recent introduction of Little Manistee strain steelhead in Ohio (thanks once again). Recently a twenty-six pound behemoth was boated off the mouth of Big Otter Creek by a down-rigging angler.

The prognosis for the steelhead fishery, specifically in the Big Creek and Grand River drainage, is good, and may rival the best fisheries in Ontario in coming years.

Timing for Lake Erie steelhead is similar to most Southern Ontario spring and fall timings. On most streams summer steelhead are as likely as finding a nugget of gold, but on Young Creek, a small, tightly treed, tributary in the Long Point Bay drainage, stray Skamania-strain steelhead surprise unsuspecting brown-trout anglers in July and August each year.

Migratory brown trout in the streams of the Norfolk sand plain are a lot more common than many people realize. These secretive wild browns, reminiscent of sleek-bodied Scottish sea trout, migrate up several area tributaries during the summer months, and in the case of Big Creek, travel 50 kilometers to their headwater spawning grounds. These browns average five pounds, but many exceed ten, and are likely descendants of the original provincial brown-trout stocking program initiated in 1913. This wild and unique heritage makes it all the more critical to release these handsome fish when caught.

Only a marginal number of Pacific salmon are still stocked in Lake Erie. Most of the runs in Ontario streams are remnant wild populations, providing a decent, fishable number of Chinook and Coho salmon in some Long Point Bay tributaries in the fall. ~ Scott E. Smith

Continued next time.

Credits: From Ontario, Blue-Ribbon Fly Fishing Guide, published by Frank Amato Publications. We appreciate use permission.

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