Fishing Pittsburgh's Steelhead Alley

Land a 24-inch steelhead trout in a Lake Erie tributary.

If you want to land a steelhead trout with your fly line, no need to head to the Pacific. A successful stocking program means that you can have a perfect day of fly fishing due north of Pittsburgh in one of the 14 Lake Erie tributaries along what’s known as Steelhead Alley.

Steelhead, or steelhead trout, are a migratory species of rainbow trout that are native to the Pacific. Born in freshwater rivers, these fish live their adult lives in saltwater, and then return to their birthplace to spawn the next generation. Introduced to the Great Lakes more than 100 years ago, a three-state (Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York) stocking program has had great success since the ’90s using strains developed regionally. Today, it’s responsible for upwards of 2 million steelhead along the southeastern basin of Lake Erie, where the water is deeper and cooler. The fish are stocked in tributaries, swim out to the lake where they grow rapidly, and then return in “runs” two to three years later to spawn (they can spawn multiple times). An average steelhead will weigh 5 to 7 pounds and be 24 to 26 inches long. And they are fighters—these are the type of fish that will make you glad you purchased the proper fly rod and reel plus polarized sunglasses

The run can begin in late September to October, but kicks off in earnest in November and December, then again when the fish return to the lake in March and April. Bounded by high shale bluffs and featuring a gentle gradient, the Steelhead Alley rivers and creeks can be fished all winter, dependent on weather (i.e., ice). Select your flies based on how the water looks, though woolly bugger streamers, egg patterns and nymphs are, generally, the most productive. Reach out to Public Lands staff before your trip to find out where the steelhead are located and what they’re biting. If you’re new to the sport, or even just new to Steelhead Alley, go with a local outfitter for your first trip.

Most fly fishers catch and release along Steelhead Alley. What’s important is how you handle the fish when catching and releasing so they will survive. Keeping an occasional trout makes for a good camp meal; the harvest limit is two per day, at least 12 inches long. Anglers come from many states and even other countries to fish these waters, which are the ancestral homelands of the Erie/Eriehronon/Cat people. Consider yourself lucky if you’re within a short driving distance—yes, the secret is out. Stream etiquette is important; don’t crowd your fellow anglers. 

Fly fisherman in waders

Recommended Rivers

Elk Creek, Pennsylvania 

The shale-bottomed Elk Creek is one of the most popular steelhead fisheries in Pennsylvania, and for good reason: It’s stocked with both steelhead and brown trout, it’s a relatively quick shot north of Pittsburgh on Interstate 79, and it has plenty of access points. Be sure to download the FishBoatPA app to make sure you are not trespassing on private property. Folly’s End Campground is one of several nearby campgrounds (located along Elk Creek and featuring an on-site tackle shop).

Grand River, Ohio 

Much like Elk Creek, Ohio’s Grand River is another popular steelhead fishery for many of the same reasons: stocked with a good “return” population of steelhead, not too far from Pittsburgh, and plenty of fishing access points. A state-designated wild and scenic river, some 50 miles of the Grand’s 103 miles are fishable—so, too, are some of its tributaries like Mill Creek. Check out the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ fishing access map for details. Lake Metroparks has both cabins and camping nearby.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.