Chautauqua Creek Steelhead

By Joel Seachrist,  August 2010

They were worth the wait.

Wisps of mist rose from the clear green water of the creek in the early morning chill. Dark forms of fish flitted through the deeper pools from time to time, but none would take the flies we offered them expectantly for nearly an hour. And then the sun rose above the treeline.

I had scouted the creek the previous afternoon and caught four fish within a half hour’s time. The water was slightly high from a steady drizzle that had fallen earlier in the week, but it looked like conditions would be ideal by the next day. On a whim I called my father-in-law, who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and suggested that if he made the six-hour trip to Westfield, I would guarantee he’d catch at least five fish or I’d pick up his travel tab. He was packed and on the road within two hours.

Chautauqua Creek begins in Sherman, New York and winds its way for about 15 miles through a deep gorge until emptying into Lake Erie. It runs through the heart of the Village of Westfield and the corridor it forms there was the industrial center of the early settlement. Only after electricity became widely available did manufactories begin to build elsewhere in town. Some moss-covered stone foundations, today hidden by overgrowth are the only visible signs of that industrial past. Even within village boundaries there are spots of the creek so isolated they feel like remote wilderness, broken only by frequent echoes of train whistles that carry up the gorge.

During a dry summer the creek is reduced to little more than a trickle in comparison to the torrents common during the rest of the year. The creek is home to a variety of rainbow trout known commonly as steelhead, and the best time to catch them is in the Fall and Winter months, during those times when the creek level drops and the water clears, and then again in the Spring after the thaw.

Juvenile steelhead move from the tributaries where they are spawned or stocked into large lakes or oceans. After a couple of years of gorging in those food-rich environments, they return to the tributaries to spawn over the Fall and Winter and then drop back to the lake to feed again the next Spring. They can repeat this cycle several times, growing bigger and stronger each year. The typical adult ranges in size from 5-10 pounds and 20-30 inches. Some get much bigger.

Chautauqua County is rife with fishing options in all seasons. Chautauqua Lake supports walleye, trophy muskellunge, and bass. Lake Erie boasts excellent walleye, perch, and small-mouth bass fishing. Ice fishermen brave both lakes once they freeze. They all have their own allure, but for me no quarry matches the adrenaline rush brought on by the Steelhead.

A fresh steelhead is a tremendous fighter when hooked. Give him enough water and you’ll see an acrobatic display of jumps, runs, and twists as he tries to shake off the hook. A rookie often finds his “screaming reel” stripped to the backing line before he comes down from the rush of having hooked a fish and recovers his bearings enough to try to gain control. That’s often too late.

New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio all stock steelhead in their Lake Erie tributaries and Westfield lies roughly in the middle of the stretch between Cleveland and Buffalo that has been dubbed “Steelhead Alley” for all of the tributaries there that hold steelhead. Some of the larger rivers in the Alley include the Chagrin River in Ohio, Elk and Walnut Creeks in Pennsylvania, and the Cattaraugus River in New York. Chautauqua Creek can’t match these rivers in size, but it does boast the highest catch rate for steelhead of any New York river, according to a recent study.

Steelheading is habit-forming. Last year I fished with a middle-aged friend who had not held a fishing rod of any kind since the age of twelve. We had to fish earlier in the morning than ideal and only had a couple of hours, but we still had some opportunities. He started tentatively but warmed to the idea after realizing a steelhead had taken his fly for just a few seconds. Like a typical rookie he didn’t sense the strike fast enough to set the hook. That brief instant was enough to pique his interest, though, and all doubt vanished as he watched a veteran fisherman haul in a dime-bright female from the opposite bank. As we walked out his comment was that the next time we fished we had to pack in some food and stay until he caught one. That’s a common sentiment. Just a taste of success will have you hooked.

Only 5 miles of the creek are open to steelhead now, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and others are designing a fish passage to open up the remaining 10 miles of stream to migrating steelhead. This added spawning habitat should improve natural reproduction rates. Construction is expected to start in 2008.

The steelhead addiction drives enthusiasts to extraordinary lengths to get to Steelhead Alley during the season. Out-of-state license plates are a common sight in creek parking areas. Last Fall I walked out from my favorite spot and found three other cars parked by the road that obviously belonged to fishermen. One plate was from Virginia, one from the Ohio, and the last from Maine. Another time I met a man on the creek who flies in from Colorado every year just to fish the Lake Erie tributaries. They’re worth the trip.

That’s what my father-in-law found. Stirred to action by the warmth of the sun, the steelhead began to take our flies and we soon landed one after another. My father-in-law stopped counting the number of fish he caught and released after reaching ten or eleven. It was a serendipitous timing of opportunity and conditions. He had a great time on the creek and I saved some gas money.

Joel Seachrist and his wife, Shannon, moved to Westfield in 1999. He practices law when not fishing.