Steelhead show makes Fairview's Trout Run must-see
November 07. 2008
Chris Sigmund / Erie Times-News
There's a waiting line of thousands, queued side-by-side like anxious kids trying to score tickets to a Miley Cyrus concert.
At Trout Run in Fairview Township, however, the massed steelhead are the show.
The big trout are an annual phenomenon throughout the fall and winter on the Lake Erie tributaries as they migrate inland to spawn. And at the fishing-protected nursery waters of Trout Run, the run draws a steady stream of curious visitors who look on in wonder at nature in action.
Steelhead -- some as long as 3 feet -- fight their way out of the lake and into the small stream mouth, through a long pool and up a short natural cascade. The dorsal fins and backs of the swarming fish are easily visible from a distance.
About 100 yards inland comes the first ladder step, a barrier about 15 inches high leading into a concrete pen sealed at the south end by a 3-foot weir, or gate. When the weir is in place, the creek becomes nearly impassable, but the steelhead haven't been told; they thrill spectators with their determined attempts to get to the creek's next level. Some manage to flop around the sides of the shallow, rushing waters before launching themselves into the air, and a few actually make it over the obstacle.
It's a show that never gets old for the thousands of people who take it in each year.
"I love nature, and this always amazes me, so I took my buddy here to see it,'' said Rich Whipple of Chippewa, Beaver County.
"I've never seen anything like this before,'' Whipple's friend Jason Wade said.
Whipple said Trout Run has a hypnotic effect.
"I took my daughter here last year when she was 7, and she watched for three hours hoping to see a fish make it up to the next level,'' he said. "We saw two steelhead make it.''
But, by design, the majority of steelhead that enter the small stream at the foot of Avonia Road go no farther.
The Trout Run nursery area, like Godfrey Run just to the west, serves as a collection area for the agencies that make the steelhead fishery possible. The spawning streams are not conducive to reproduction, so the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and cooperative organizations such as 3-C-U Trout Association, Pennsylvania Steelhead Association and Northwest Pennsylvania Sportsmen Coalition help matters along.
The groups help the Fish and Boat Commission stock 1.15 million steelhead fingerling each year, putting in place the quarry that drives local and visiting anglers to spend as much as $10 million annually.
On Wednesday at 9 a.m., the first of at least seven brood collections this winter will take place at Trout Run. Thursday at the Fairview State Fish Hatchery off Route 5, eggs carefully stripped from hens, or females, will be fertilized with milt taken from the bucks. Netted, spawned-out fish will be released into area tributaries.
Spawning date at the Fairview hatchery is Nov. 25, and fertilized eggs will later be transported to the Linesville and Tionesta hatcheries to be nurtured. In the spring, smolt will be released into tributaries they'll then consider their home waters and return to as adults -- some to be netted as part of the brood collection process.
The entire process is funded by fishing license purchases.
When collection is complete, the Trout Run weir is opened and fish move upstream. Many running steelhead will survive the winter inland, especially on larger streams such as Walnut Creek and Elk Creek, then return to the lake in the spring.
"On those streams, there are no barriers like on Trout Run, where the second ladder is nearly three feet and impossible to jump unless the creek is very high,'' said commission fisheries biologist Chuck Murray, who is based at the Fairview hatchery. "Fish can migrate several miles, like on Conneaut Creek in Ohio, where they travel up to 70 miles into Crawford County. But that's nothing, since the native species on the West Coast go up to a thousand miles to spawn.''
A thousand miles or 1,000 yards, the migration draws people who usually see such exhibits only on the National Geographic Channel.
On a particularly cold and windy fall morning, with waves battering the shoreline, a group of Romanian natives who now live in Canada braved the weather to watch the activity.
"This is unbelievable. I've seen nothing like this,'' said Lucua Todos, of Mississauga, Ontario. Her mother, Viorica Pascalau, who does not speak English, was visibly excited.
Florian Surghe of Toronto, a frequent angler on the Erie tributaries, has his own ideas about the stream and the fish in it.
"This is nice, but the fish are stressed,'' Surghe said. "Just look. Their gills are on top of the water, and that stresses them out. They should dig this deeper, so they're not on top of the water. The steelhead are still feeding, unlike the salmon, whose digestive system shuts down when they go to spawn, and then they die. There's not enough water here. They dug a hole deeper at the Manchester Hole, on Walnut Creek. They should do that here.''
Joe Foltyn of Erie, who is a winter steelhead guide, finds serenity at Trout Run.
"I take my 11-year-old son here, and I tell my mother, 'I'm going out for therapy.' This is therapy,'' Foltyn said.
Therapeutic, or simply fascinating, Murray said Trout Run compares to another regional fish attraction.
"It's like the Linesville Spillway at Lake Pymatuning, where the people feed the carp with bread, and the ducks can actually walk on top of the fish,'' Murray said. "Only that's an area set up for display. It's not like that at Trout Run. Still, it's very interesting seeing nature in action.''
The Fish and Boat Commission spent $200,000 in 2006 to acquire 3.5 acres at Trout Run, and a dedicated parking area has been created. Murray said plans now are under way to enhance the viewing area to the east side of Avonia Road.
"Trout Run is a special attraction, and the new area would have a rail, maybe a bridge, and a much safer way to look at the fish,'' Murray said. "There used to be a bridge over the stream before, but that wore down badly. You see a lot of rocks and breakdowns now.''
In the meantime, catch the steelhead show. It's free outdoor entertainment, and the long-running event can last until April.
Steelhead show makes Fairview's Trout Run must-see
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