Elk Creek is a 30-mile long stream in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania. This tributary to Lake Erie is best known for its steelhead fishing. Elk Creek is the largest of the streams in “Steelhead Alley.” It is stocked with brown trout and lake run rainbow trout. Each fall there is a run of fish from the lake into Lake Erie that draws in anglers from all around.
Elk Creek rises near the small village of Sibleyville. It flows north through Erie County before eventually emptying into Lake Erie in Erie Bluffs State Park. Along the way the stream is fed by several smaller tributaries. The most notable are Brandy Run and Elk Creek Park Run. Both of these tributaries support wild reproducing populations of trout.
I caught this steelhead in Elk Creek
Like most streams in the area, Elk Creek has a shale bottom. While this can make for interesting pools and tricky wading at times, it also gives the stream the look of a glacial stream. Elk Creek can be downright beautiful in the right light.
That doesn’t mean the stream is without issues. It is impacted by things like runoff and dumping. It also passes under several roads and active railroads. So it’s not exactly located in a wilderness setting. Still this is a nice stream that flows near a fairly large population center.
Fish species in Elk Creek
As mentioned earlier, steelhead are the target species for most people who fish Elk Creek. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, with the assistance of cooperators like 3CU, stocks Elk Creek with a large number of smolts each spring. The idea is that these fish will “imprint” on Elk Creek. After migrating to Lake Erie in April, the fish can then return to Elk Creek on spawning runs two years later. Of course a lot of the smolts do not make it back. However many fish do, and they average between 5 and 10 pounds when they show up.
Brown trout are also stocked in Elk Creek twice each spring. These fish are planted at a larger size than the smolts. They make up a put-and-take fishery in April and May. Fish that survive that can, and sometimes do, migrate to the lake. Some of these brown trout return to Elk Creek in the fall. They aren’t as common as the steelhead. Though they are usually just as big.
This fish was fresh from the lake
Beyond the steelhead and brown trout, Elk Creek also supports a lot of native fish. These species don’t get as much attention, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fun to catch. Lake trout, smallmouth bass, white suckers, and redhorse can be found in the stream in the spring and summer. In the deeper section around the mouth, some large channel catfish and longnose gar can also be found. Unfortunately, the native Lake Trout are pretty rare to see in Elk Creek.
Many other fish also call Elk Creek home. Some of those fish include the rainbow darter, emerald shiner, stonecat and round goby. The smaller fish are easier to find as you head upstream. Though there are definitely micro fish from the top of Elk Creek to the mouth. Salmon used to be stocked here years ago. Occasionally one will show up in Elk Creek, but it is not common.
Fishing in Elk Creek
Access has always been a somewhat contentious issue on the Lake Erie tributaries in Pennsylvania. Steelhead fishing is very popular and it draws a number of people to the area. At the same time, most of the land in the area is privately owned. In Pennsylvania people can own streambeds too. So some landowners have posted entire sections of Elk Creek. If you see a yellow posted sign or a purple paint square, that means the landowner prohibits people from fishing there.
That said, there is a good amount of public access on Elk Creek. It is a combination of public land and private land that is open to fishing by owner permission. A fishing easement map created by the Fish Commission is probably the best resource for finding sections open to fishing. A phone app like On X that shows land ownership can also help. Beware of posters, purple paint, and no parking signs. These things are usually enforced in this neck of the woods.
A nice Elk Creek redhorse
For the most part, Elk Creek is a somewhat shallow and clear flowing stream for most of the year. There are definitely some deeper holes. The main holes in places like the mouth rarely change. However some of the smaller holes can change from one season to the next due to flooding. During low water periods you need a stealthy approach and lighter presentations to catch fish.
Steelhead can start running into the creek as early as September 1 and stay in the stream until the end of April. Yet the largest numbers of fish are in the stream from November to March. It all depends on the weather. Steelhead typically run during rain, when the water level rises and gives them more room to maneuver. Once the fish are in the stream they will spread out. Actively running and spawning fish can found in all sorts of places. Resting and spawned out fish are more commonly found in the deepest holes. During the coldest months of winter, most steelhead will be found in slow moving water.
Elk Creek fishing gear and tactics
I’ve fished Elk Creek many times over the years. I usually catch fish. My favorite setup here is a 10′ long medium-light spinnning rod rigged with 6 pound test line. I use this to drift small jigs in the 1/32 to 1/64 size range under floats. Sometimes I’ll use a jig fly and other times I’ll use a soft plastic like a pink trout worm on a jig head. This accounts for most of the steelhead I catch here. Though other things certainly work. In high off-color water I’d be more likely to throw a lure with flash and vibration like a Swiss Swing on the same setup. In extremely low and clear water I will sometimes use a 4 pound test leader and a jig as small as 1/100 ounce.
When it comes to fly fishing in Elk Creek, I like a 10 foot long 6 or 7 weight rod. This allows me to use light line, get a drag free drift, and fight the steelhead. Steelhead are known for their fighting ability. It is one of the reasons so many people fish for them. These fish can be highly pressured though. Especially in the more popular and easier to access holes. Using a light fluorocarbon leader and smaller flies can help. Glo eggs, blood dots, and stonefly patterns are old standbys here. So is the psycho prince nymph. If you can use clear Euro nymphing line it can help.
This steelhead took a small jig
This is not a place where you will be back casting with a dry fly. The name of the game in Elk Creek is “chuck and duck.” You fish a fly under an indicator on a line that is heavily weighted to get down quick for short drifts. Since I can accomplish the same thing with a long spinning rod with less effort, I usually prefer to do that when fishing here.
Centerpin fishing can also be very effective on Elk Creek. The same lures work as you are still drifting under a float. The main issues with centerpin fishing in Elk Creek is finding room. You don’t want to be going for 100 yard long hero drifts in a hole that other people are also fishing.
Of course steelhead aren’t the only fish you find here. I’ve caught a few nice brown trout on jigs. Smallmouth bass can be caught from the mouth all the way upstream to Interstate 79. I’ve seen some really chunky smallies down toward the mouth. Suckers and redhorse can be found throughout the bottom half of the stream in the spring. Catfish can be found in and around the mouth in the spring too. I’ve caught some very large suckers here in the spring on a mix of nymph flies and live bait. Occasionally I’ll catch a smallmouth or catfish when going for a sucker too.
Elk Creek fishing regulations
Elk Creek falls under Lake Erie and Tributary Stream Regulations. To fish here, you need a PA fishing license, a trout stamp, and a Lake Erie stamp. You can also get a combination stamp that includes both the Erie and trout stamps.
Two sections of Elk Creek are classified as Stocked Trout Streams. That means these sections are closed to fishing from late February until the opening day of trout season in April. The first section starts 200 meters upstream of the Interstate 79 bridge and stretches to a point 500 meters below the State Route 98 bridge. The second Stocked Trout Stream section begins 500 meters upstream of Halls Run and ends at the mouth.
Outside of the Stocked Trout portion of the stream, Elk Creek is open to fishing year round. Fishing in the entirety of the creek can be done with traditional angling methods using bait, lures, and flies.
The gauge on Brandy Run gives an indication of the flow on Elk Creek
Anglers are permitted to keep five brown or brook trout that measure at least nine inches during regular trout season. This changes from the day after Labor Day until the Friday before the opening day of the regular trout season. Then the limit is 3 brown or brook trout of at least 15 inches. From 8:00 am on the opening day or trout season until the Friday before the opening day of the next trout season, three rainbow trout (steelhead) of fifteen inches or more can be kept each day.
The limit on fish like catfish and suckers is a combined total of 50 per day. There is no minimum size on these fish. Keep in mind there is a consumption advisory in effect for Lake Erie fish. The PA Department of Environmental Protection says you shouldn’t eat more than 1 meal of Lake Erie trout, bass or catfish per month.
To the best of my knowledge, this is accurate as of the time of writing. Of course regulations are subject to change. For current regulations be sure to check the Pennsylvania Fish Commission website.
Elk Creek fishing at a glance
- Fish species present: Rainbow trout (steelhead), brown trout, smallmouth bass, lake trout, longnose gar, white sucker, redhorse, channel catfish, rainbow darter, emerald shiner, round goby.
- Closest tackle shops: Poor Richard’s, Fisherman’s Haven, Tudor Hook-N-Nook, Fish USA.
- Recommend spin fishing tackle: Long medium light rod, 4-8lb fluorocarbon line.
- Recommend fly fishing tackle: Long 6-7 weight rod, WF floating line or Euro nymphing line, 3x-5x fluorocarbon tippet.
- Recommend bait/lures: Custom trout worm, Swiss Swing, Jiggy Stone, VooDoo Marabou Jig, VooDoo Steelhead Jig.
- Recommend flies: Glo egg size 12-14, blood dot size 12-14, psycho prince size 12-14, San Juan Worm size 10, sucker spawn size 12-14, wired stonefly nymph size 10-14
- Nearby hotels: Four Creeks Bed & Breakfast, Maple Motel, SpringHill Squites by Marriot Erie.