July 6, 2022

Understanding and Reading Current for Steelhead on Lake Erie Tributaries


One of the hardest parts about catching Lake Erie steelhead, other than getting them to bite, is finding the fish. Many anglers fish for hours and hours without even actually casting to a fish, simply because they think every little hole has fish in it. Somedays it feels like that’s the case but most of the season that could not be farther from the truth. These fish use different types of water during different water conditions, weather conditions, times of the season, and even during the day. An advanced angler can decipher within 5 or 10 minutes whether or not a pool is going to be productive or not. This can vary depending on the water conditions but it is important to be able to cover water fast and efficiently until you are able to locate an active pod of fish. This article will hopefully help to better inform the reader on how to identify the most productive water before ever even making a cast.

Understanding Current

The most common mistake that i see anglers make is fishing water for hours upon hours that I might give half a dozen casts and move on, or even not at all. So, learning how to understand the way current works is an amazing tool to drastically increasing the amount of fish you put your lures in front of. Whenever the idea of current gets brought up, it seems like people scoff at the idea and simply reply with something along the lines of “yeah I get it, it flows one way and the fish face into the current.” To that I say, that idea could not be further from the truth. Yes, it is true that water does essentially flow one way and the fish move up it. You are not generally fishing for the fish when they are moving though. Most of the moving fish do is when there is higher water levels or at night when they are safer from predators. We will cover fish movement more in depth in a later section though.

So how does current really work? The truth is it aries for almost every inch of the water you look at . Some of the basic ideas however are that the current is fastest at the surface. This is due to the lack of friction to other objects. This means that the current is the slowest on the bottom of the water column. This is where the fish will be for the majority of the time. This is the place where they can use the least amount of energy to hold their position. Now this is not always true. In larger holes where the water is slower moving, or if the water levels are lower, then they have the ability to suspend while still using very little energy. It can be hard to tell exactly where the fish are at in the water column unless the water is clear.

So, now that we understand the general idea of where the current is the strongest and weakest, we need to talk about how it works when it comes to objects in the water. The first big idea that I see a lot of people miss is the idea that there is only an eddy behind objects. An eddy being a pocket of water that is slower moving due to some object forcing the current to go around it. There is also an eddy in front of objects as well. The water that is being forced around whatever object is in the water, is also being slowed down as it is forced into the object. This creates a pillow of water in front of these objects.

The second idea I want to get out of your head is that fish only face upstream. I cannot count how many fish I have caught that were facing me as I was working upstream. Fish face into the current, so when current gets swirled, they may be facing downstream but they are still facing into the current. The current will get pushed around objects along the bank, or even in deeper pools, and it creates a circular motion in the water. This circular motion creates current that goes the opposite way of the rest of the river, only in small areas, but this allows fish to face the opposite way. This also happens in deeper pools where there are many different currents pushing water in all different directions. So, it is important to look at objects floating in the water to see the direction they are getting pushed. This will help you gauge how you want your lure to move to make it look more natural. As the current is moving toward Lake Erie it comes across many obstacles, everything from logs and trees to the smallest grains of sand. All of these objects sift and redirect the current. It is important to take a moment to analyze how the current is moving around these objects before you try and present your lure to these fish. For these fish have one job on their way to spawn, and that is to eat and survive. On this journey they will see millions of objects float past their faces. So, they have a relatively good idea of what things should be doing in the current.

Reading Current

So, after you understand how current works, it’s important to learn how to “read” the water. From my personal experience most people that steelhead fish have a lot to learn when it comes understanding the most productive water in a stretch of river. I’ve seen it time and time again where people walk past the best water and then I can walk right up and start putting up numbers. There are many things to look at when you are reading water but the biggest one is current breaks. Fish are always going to relate to breaks in the current because this allows them to rest and use less energy. These current breaks can be rocks, logs, other physical objects, or just where different currents meet and move in the river channel. The smaller the river, the smaller the current breaks will be and the less of them there will be. Visa versa the larger the river the harder it gets to read water because there is more space and current breaks for fish to utilize. The other important factors that people often overlook are depth and cover. These two factors are the next too big categories I look at when I am looking over water.

It can be something as subtle as a slight depression in a large flat peice of water that can hold a few more fish that haven’t been hit by people. Whenever I am walking through a flat, I am looking for subtle details that can hide fish. Whether that is a small cluster of rocks that make it hard to see the bottom, or a color change in the bottom that make it hard to tell if there is a fish there or not. This along with depth changes are huge when it comes to locating fish in pressured fisheries such as what we have here in Erie, PA. Basically, if I can’t see to say whether or not there is a fish there then I am going to at least make a few drifts. I also focus on bottom content. Fish like to rest on gravel because it provides more friction from the current, making it easier to hold on these spots. It also helps to camouflage them even more. These fish can sense when they are more or less visible and will get pushed by people into these harder to see areas much like deer during rifle season. So, I always make sure to give these areas a few good drifts as I walk by because most often these fish haven’t seen a bait in a while and will willingly eat readily.

It could also be a small brush pile on the bank of the creek in shallow water that will hold a few fish that haven’t been pressured. I try to put my flies anywhere I can in these brush piles, at the expense of losing my flies, to try and fool a fish into eating. yeah, I might lose all the fish I hook but if I don’t hook them I’ll never have a chance to land them. These small bush piles and isolated pieces of wood can be huge as far as finding unpressured fish. I will always up my line size an typically switch what I am using to something bigger such as a larger streamer pattern to pull these fish out of hiding. Most times I hook these fish I end up running into the water and having to duck my rod under limbs to get my line unhooked but that makes a better story anyway. It is for this reason I start my casts further away from the brush pile and slowly make closer and closer casts to see how willing the fish are to coming out before I go knocking right on the front door.

Another important aspect of being proficient at reading water is being able to put a pattern together. By putting patterns together, I mean recognizing when you start to catch multiple fish out of the same type of water/cover/depth etc. This can make eliminating water so much easier. If I know that every time I fish a certain type of water depth, or find out where the fish are wanting to position in a hole, then I can just skip everything else and fish the most productive water. One of the best tools the I have found for helping me to understand patterns is the Anglr Bullseye. This small device allows you to mark waypoints at the click of a button and it will show you the conditions from that day at the time you marked that waypoint. This can help you see what baits worked in what conditions and help you to remember where you caught your fish and when. You can also add what you caught the fish on and more with this clever little device. I clip mine right onto my hat and then keep the app running on my phone while I fish. It’s about finding what works for you to help have better days on the water.

Steelhead Movements

It’s no mistake that everyone has a pretty good idea of when the steelhead are going to be running into the tributaries. Thanks to social media, it is now easier than ever to figure it out if you are unsure where and when to go. However, there is a lot more to the steelhead run than people think. Being able to understand when and how fish move can be the difference in a bad and unforgettable day on the water. It all goes back to understanding where the fish are going to want to be during what conditions. Yes, they go from the lake to about as far up the tributaries as they can go. This is not a straight journey though. So, understanding when they move and where they hold can dramatically increase your success on the water.

High vs Low Water

It’s not hard to figure out where fish like to hold when the water level is low and clear. They like to hold in the deeper holes where they get pushed from the fishing pressure. The depth these holes have give them security and safety from predators. It is difficult for these fish to move around when the levels are low. So, when the water begins to rise is when these fish begin to move upstream. Generally, as the water is rising it gets dirty so you can no longer see where the fish are. This is where you have to rely on your instincts and ability to read water to guide you to the fish. One of my favorite places to fish when the water is higher is the riffle directly above larger holes. The fish that were once in the large holes are now focused on going upstream and leave those holes. Most people forget this and continue to fish in these larger holes, leaving the smaller sections above them relatively untouched. It gets harder for fish to see in the deeper water when it is cloudy, because of the lack of light penetration. They see the best in the shallower water. So, I target these shallow riffles because it acts as a funnel for the fish in the holes below. Once they get into these riffles, they can now see better which makes them easier to catch. Along with these other benefits I also continually get new fish funneling into these areas.

Most people have no idea where these fish like to position. So, when they can’t see them they have no idea what to do. This is where targeting these smaller funnel points can create more opportunities to put fish in the net. So, I keep saying funnel but what is it? A funnel is a pinch point that brings all of the fish to a certain point that they have to go through. This can be a bend in the river that pushes all the water through one tight chute or something like a waterfall that corrals the fish into a small pool. taking this idea and using it on a smaller scale to where you can recognize these areas is what separates most of the anglers. So, you need to be able to recognize when the fish are moving versus when the fish are holding. This can help you eliminate water much quicker and help you put your lures in front of more fish.

Fall vs Winter vs Spring

Most people seem to think steelhead act the same throughout the entire season as they do when they first enter the stream. This is simply not true. The longer the fish are in the stream the more they are depleting their energy stores, with no help from all the angling pressure. So, in the fall these fish will be the most energetic they will be throughout the season. This means they will hold in less predictable water, meaning you will find more fish holding in heavier current because they can afford to. They are so pumped up to get up the stream and spawn, and with having not seen the amount of angling pressure they will eventually see, that they make rookie mistakes. They will hold in easily visible areas, due to the lack of knowledge of the predators like raccoons and people, and will be easier to spot.

As the season goes on, these fish will become more seasoned and more educated as to where people can and can’t see them and the areas they need to position in to save as much energy as possible. This is where they start positioning in eddies, current seams, brush piles and pools more. They are becoming more predictable in the areas that they are going to sit in, making eliminating water much easier. They are starting to catch onto what the forage base is in the river system, eggs, emerald shiners, black stoneflies, etc., and are utilizing these forage foods more. They are also becoming more skittish and used to people trying to catch them. This is when they start to find the areas that people can’t see them as well, or they have enough room that they can easily move to avoid people.

In the spring, the fish that are still in the rivers are completely exhausted. Mostly all of them have spawned and have been likely caught many, many times. They have battles the current for months now and have been running on much less food than they were used to out in the lake. They have also been rubbing against rocks constantly as they spawned and traveled up the stream. This leads to open wounds that often get infected and also deplete their energy even more. Needless to say, these fish are near death and do not produce much of a fight. That being said, there will still be fresh fish down toward the mouth of the streams, so that can always be an option. However, the fish upstream are holding in the areas that have the least amount of current possible. These fish are trying everything possible to conserve energy so the pools are an excellent bet this time of year.


To wrap this all up, it’s all about understanding what the fish want to do and when. If you can start to think more like a steelhead it can drastically increase your chances of having incredible days on the water. You simply need to adjust and constantly be thinking critically about what the fish are doing. Use your knowledge and fish catches and sightings to help you put a pattern together on where these fish are positions. Hopefully this helped you understand a little more on what steelhead do and when. Goodluck on the water this season and stay safe!

Jon Dietz

Corry, Pennsylvania A member of the United States Youth Fly Fishing Team at a young age, Jon has always been a member of the angling community. Jon currently competes in multiple divisions of tournament bass fishing including the Bassmaster Open as a Co-angler.

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