On a trip to fish the Pennsylvania tributaries of Lake Erie last fall, I stopped to take a look at the Trout Run nursery waters as I occasionally do. At the time, fish were being collected by employees of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC), as seen in this video:
Trout Run is a tiny stream that flows into Lake Erie in the Village of Avonia. The PFBC and sportman’s groups stock immature steelhead into this stream and others like it each year.
Steelhead are sea run rainbow trout. Native steelhead spend a part of the year in the Pacific Ocean before making annual spawning runs into the freshwater rivers and streams of their birth. The fish traverse miles of water to find the right place to nest.
Lake Erie is not an ocean, but it is a very large body of water. And while not traveling nearly as far as their stream-born counterparts in other parts of the world, the fish that enter the Lake Erie tributaries from the lake each year also run some distance. In Trout Run, fish are able to move no more than a few meters before reaching a human-made impasse aimed at holding them in place.
Steelhead were introduced into Lake Erie. The lake’s tributaries and water conditions in Pennsylvania are not suitable for steelhead reproduction. The fish are not aware of that fact. They run the streams each year out of instinct and biological desire to continue the species. They load up with eggs and go through their spawning rituals, but unlike in the cold tributaries on the Ontario side of the lake, here nothing comes of it. In order to maintain fish populations and returns, human intervention is required.
Each fall and winter, the low clear waters of Trout Run run black with the bodies of large steelhead and the occasional brown trout. Many are collected to be used in the breeding program that allows for the annual stocking of millions steelhead.
Thus the cycle continues.
Steelhead in the fish’s native range make spawning runs at various times of the year, depending on location and conditions. The fish have evolved over time to start their journey at the right moment, in order to reach their breeding grounds in optimal conditions. They are imprinted at birth to return to the same rivers and streams they originated in.
Most Lake Erie steelhead enter tributary streams in the fall. While they can drop back to the lake at any time, many stay in the tributaries until the following spring – assuming of course they survive the onslaught of fishers that are after them. Some return to the streams they were stocked in at a young age, but others wind up elsewhere. Fish stocked in Trout Run may later end up in Canada, and vice versa.
Thousands of people flock to the Lake Eric tributaries each year in pursuit of steelhead. The area is known as “Steelhead Alley” for the vast amount of fish it holds during the spawning season. Trout Run is closed to fishing, but there are miles of access available on other, larger tributaries.
The constant influx of anglers means money for area hotels, restaurants, bait shops and the like. In addition, the anglers purchase licenses and stamps that fund the steelhead stocking program.