It’s 6 A.M. when trucks and SUVS begin pulling into an empty parking lot in Girard, Pennsylvania, a town outside of Erie with about 3,000 people. The vehicles bear license plates from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
The group has come for steelhead, also known as rainbow trout.
As the group prepares to wade through the waters of Elk Creek, Patrick Robinson of Steelhead Alley Outfitters plans the day’s strategy.
“Steelhead Alley” is a strip of rivers and tributaries along Lake Erie, spanning Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Each state stocks the non-native fish in 14 creeks and rivers to promote recreational fishing.
Steelhead spend the summer in the lake before traveling back to cooler waters in the spring and fall to spawn.
“When you think about that fish and how far they traveled to get there, and you get the opportunity to catch that fish,” Robinson says. “It’s really a special thing.”
Robinson, part-time fishing guide and full-time preacher, started leading trips in 2007. He says most customers are from out of town and out of state.
Today’s trip includes Tim O’Neill of Delaware, who says, “We have a variety of freshwater fish: trout, small mouth bass. The one fish we don’t have are steelhead. We have to drive to find steelhead.”
O’Neill and his group are on a three-day excursion. They include a couple of friends from Dayton, Ohio, a father and son celebrating a birthday, and a group coordinated by O’Neill, who’s in the fly-fishing business himself.
“It’s just cool to catch really big, strong, angry fish in a little waterway like this,” says O’Neill.
Robinson says his business hosts a couple of hundred groups during the late fall and winter. The season itself is pretty unpredictable; it usually starts in October, but could end any time from December to April. It all depends on weather.
Robinson says the Great Lakes region is better to fish because he can guarantee a catch for his clients, even compared to the places where steelhead is native.
“You go to the Pacific Northwest and if you catch three fish in a week, it’s been a phenomenal trip,” says Robinson. “Guys up here get kind of spoiled, they’ll catch three to five fish in a day.”
Most of the research looking at the economic impact of steelhead alley is at least 10 years old, and it’s based on survey responses from anglers, asking how much they spend and how far they traveled. That research presents staggering numbers – by stocking steelhead, millions of dollars are coming back to each state.
It’s not just going to guide services like Steelhead Alley Outfitters or fishing retailers like Orvis . “Outside of just us, it impacts the hotels, restaurant industry, everything from that to gas stations along the river and lunch shops,” says Orvis regional manager Park Burson.
Ohio and Pennsylvania sell thousands of non-resident fishing licenses between October and November, and they still sell hundreds in December and January.
The activity is a welcome boost for small towns like Girard, where gas stations and restaurants prepare to serve a few extra customers -- all aiming to land a steelhead.
It also serves as an opportunity to get outside in the wintertime.
“For a lot of guys that can’t afford big expensive trips to go to exotic places, it offers them an opportunity to catch a good, large size game fish close to home at an affordable price,” says Dan Pribanic, owner of Chagrin River Outfitters in Ohio. “It offers them an introduction into the sport of fly fishing.”
Patrick Robinson says the “dance” between the angler and the fish makes everything worth it.
“Once you’ve hooked a fish doesn’t mean you’re going to land it -- when you hook that, it's literally hard to describe,” he says.
“The raw power you have on the end of your line – that’s the moment everybody waits for.”