Four Seasons of Steelhead
May 30, 2015
Lake Ontario's most famous fly-fishing tributary—the Salmon River—has been described simply using the movie title The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In large part, the "bad and the ugly" describes crowds and unsportsmanlike conduct, most notoriously during the height of the salmon season. The worst offense—snagging— was banned in the mid-1990s and is mostly a thing of the past. The "good" is as good as it's always been, maybe even better due to the addition of summer-run Skamania steelhead and Atlantic salmon, which makes the Salmon a complete year-round fishery. With 12 months of the year to chase steelhead, Atlantics, and migrating brown trout, it's easy to avoid the "ugly" Chinook salmon season of mid-September through October, and focus on the quieter winter and summer seasons to find sublime fishing on the beautiful riffles and pools of the Salmon River.
Every year around mid-October two great migrations take place. The first is the migration of fall/winter steelhead silently making their way up the Salmon River, as well as most other Lake Ontario tributaries, in search of salmon eggs left behind by thousands of spawning Chinook and coho salmon.
The second migration is not so silent. This is the fall/winter migration of fair-weather anglers as they hurriedly toss their rods, reels, and other fishing gear in the closet and noisily make their way to the kitchen in search of leftover turkey, beer, pretzels, and whatever else they can find to eat, as they get ready to take their places in front of the TV to spend the long cold days of winter. Luckily for the rest of us, these guys think the good fishing is over until spring, and they miss out on some of the best steelhead fishing Lake Ontario tributaries have to offer. If you want to heat up your winter and avoid most of the typical Salmon River crowds, winter steelheading is a great way to do it.
There is something special about cold air on your face, and the intense solitude of fishing during a gentle snow. And few things equal the enjoyment of sharing a hot cup of coffee or a nip from a flask, and the camaraderie of your fishing partners on a winter day. Catching a steelhead under these circumstances is icing on the cake.
By mid-November the crowds of salmon season are long gone, but some of the best fishing is yet to come. No one knows why, but many of the biggest steelhead of the year (15 to 20 pounds and larger) return to the Salmon under the cover of winter. Perhaps because of the relative lack of fishing pressure, these big fish are more aggressive than their earlier and later counterparts.
Of course, winter steelheading presents its own challenges. Avoiding hypothermia is one of them. There's also water freezing on your guides, and tying knots in 20-degree weather with a strong wind blowing lake-effect snow up the river. But with a potential 15-pound silver bullet on your next cast, it's all worth it, which is why hardcore winter anglers are affectionately referred to as "the frozen chosen."
Decades ago, cold weather was an almost insurmountable obstacle. But with wicking base layers, fleece and other lightweight insulation, and a proper understanding of layered clothing, winter fishing can be quite comfortable. Chemical heating packets for your feet, hands, and inside your jackets can keep you warm all day for just a few dollars. It still won't be warm and fuzzy, but definitely tolerable instead of impossible or unthinkable.
For steelhead anglers who have suffered through the brutal conditions of winter fishing in northern New York, spring can't come too early. April and May offer some of the North Country's best steelhead opportunities.
Steelhead are spring spawners. Their spawning urge, combined with rising water levels brought on by melting snow and spring rain, send these giant trout on their largest upstream migration of the year. There, they will join their comrades who migrated up the tributaries the previous fall and winter.
This extra water makes it possible for steelhead to venture into places they normally wouldn't be able to go, and warmer water temperatures can make the fish move aggressively toward the fly.
Ah, summer. Another time of the year when almost no one is thinking about steelhead fishing—but should be. Although the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) introduced Skamania-strain summer steelhead into the Salmon River in the 1990s, the chance of catching a summer steelhead was almost nil due to the normally low water levels during June, July, and August. That all changed when Niagara Mohawk (NIMO), the power company that produces hydroelectric power on the Salmon River and ultimately controls the water flow, had to reapply for a permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).
To make a long story (and battle) short, in order to obtain the FERC permit, NIMO had to agree to minimum water flows: January through April, 285 cubic feet per second (cfs); May through August, 185 cfs, and September through December, 335 cfs. NIMO also had to agree to five high-water events (750 cfs) each summer.
These minimum flow rates and high-water events benefit the Salmon River fishery (and anglers) in two primary ways. First, the minimum summer flow of 185 cfs is adequate to allow energetic Skamania to slowly work their way up the river, and they help improve the survival rates of river-spawned salmon and steelhead fry.
Also, the high-water events encourage summer-run steelies to leave the lake, and then shoot up the river with ease. For the 2011 through 2013 seasons, each high-water event is scheduled for two days. Any self-respecting steelhead can run the length of the river in that time, which helps spread the fish evenly along the 13 miles of fishable water. As the high water recedes to the minimum 185 cfs, the fish tend to drop back to the closest large deep pools. Planning a summer trip to coincide with high water and/or the days afterward greatly increases your chances of finding these magnificent fish.
As proof of just how well the fish can move upstream, Fran Verdoliva, DEC special programs coordinator, took me to the river a few days after an early July high-water event. From a high bank overlooking the Church Pool, in the lower fly-fishing-only area, we could see the first fresh arrivals of the year—several dozen 10- to 15-pound steelhead and about a dozen Atlantic salmon staged from the middle of the pool to the tail.
Fall-run steelhead are known for their aggressive, sometimes violent, takes. Winter steelhead aren't quite as accommodating. Often the take is almost imperceptible. The reason for the Jekyll & Hyde personality change is the declining water temperature: 40 degrees Fahrenheit seems to be a pivotal point between aggressive fall behavior and a more dormant winter reaction. Successful winter anglers need to change their tempo to keep pace with the fish.
Colder water also changes where the fish hold. When temperatures drop below 40 degrees, steelhead move from the fast riffles and runs into the deep, calm pools. Like all cold-blooded creatures, their metabolism slows when the temperature drops. With leftover eggs from spawning salmon in short supply in the riffles, the fish can't afford to waste the energy it takes to stay there, and the aggressive fall steelhead that darted 4 to 5 feet to grab a passing morsel are now hesitant to move 4 or 5 inches.
That means successful winter steelhead anglers must patiently and methodically cover the water. The most active steelhead are often at the heads and tails of pools. The deeper midsection of the pool usually holds more dormant fish. Therefore, the best approach is to pepper the best areas, and not waste time trying to dredge a comatose steelhead from the bottom of a deep, slow pool.
A few well-known pools with productive tops and bottoms include the Joss Hole, Wall Hole, and Little Black Hole (all located within Douglaston Salmon Run). Continuing upriver through the village of Pulaski is the Black Hole, followed by the Long Bridge Pool, the Short Bridge Pool (a.k.a. Town Hole), the 81 Hole, and the Paper Mill. In the section from the Paper Mill to the village of Pineville, popular spots include the Compactor, the Sportsman, and the Pineville Bridge pools. From Pineville to Altmar are Hemlock, Abandoned Trestle, Ellis Cove, and Schoolhouse pools. These are a few highlights, but there are numerous other good pools that hold winter steelhead. All the tackle shops in town have maps showing the locations of these spots.
Of special interest to fly fishers are the fly-fishing-only areas at the upper end of the Salmon River. The lower of the two starts at the Altmar Bridge and continues upstream for a quarter mile to the obvious boundary marked by a cable across the river. The next half mile of river is part of the hatchery system and is closed. The upper fly-fishing-only area is marked by a cable on both the upper and lower boundaries, sectioning off almost a mile of river. Detailed maps of these and other public fishing areas are available online at dec.ny.gov.
Gearing Up for Winter
A 9- or 10-foot, 5- to 7-weight is my preferred rod on the Salmon River, although two-handed rods and swinging flies are becoming more popular all the time, especially for winter steelhead.
For my winter setup, I use a thin-diameter floating running line instead of a regular tapered fly line. The thinner line carries less water and helps keep the guides from freezing as quickly. The thin line cuts through the water better, and with split-shot allows me to get to the bottom quickly without overloading the rod.
I don't use an indicator to suspend my flies. I use a thin line and add enough weight to my tippet to feel the split-shot tap along the bottom during the drift. Getting stuck occasionally is a sure sign I have enough weight. To keep from losing too many flies, leave the tag end of a blood knot or surgeon's knot, and connect the split-shot to the tag end. When the weight gets snagged you'll lose only the split-shot, not the flies.
Salmon River winter steelhead tend to be line-shy, making it necessary to use lightweight 4- to 6-pound-test fluorocarbon tippet. In high, murky water you can use heavier material.
When it comes to flies there is an endless list of favorites. A few tried and true patterns include #10-16 Glo-Bugs, Hamon Eggs, Pheasant Tails, Prince Nymphs, Sno-Flies, and Estaz eggs.
Method to the Madness
Steelhead have excellent peripheral vision. It's important to approach a hole cautiously from the downstream side, fishing the water closest to you first. Each successive cast should be a few inches farther than the one before to cover all the water.
Cast quartering upstream and retrieve as little line as possible, allowing the fly to drift close to the bottom, and work its way downstream until the line comes tight. Don't stop the fly short of a full drift through the run or pool.
On really cold days it is just a matter of time before ice forms on the rod guides. To help minimize this problem, carry a can of Pam Cooking Spray, and regularly apply it to each guide. The thin coating of vegetable oil makes it difficult for the ice to stick, and is safe for the environment and the equipment.
When ice does form on the rod, hold the frozen section under the water and wiggle it back and forth for a few seconds. Remove it from the water and give it a few quick taps to break away the softened ice.
Winter fishing offers its own unique brand of rewards, but they do come with risks. In the summer it can be funny to watch your fishing partner float his hat. During winter, that same spill can be life threatening. Always wear a wading belt and never fish alone.
A wading staff and metal cleats on your boots are important winter safety gear. Tungsten-carbide studs on rubber soles provide the best traction in the winter. Felt soles work fine on your first step into the water but they subsequently bond with snow and ice when you move to the next fishing spot, putting you on ice skates wherever you step.
Last but certainly not least, a personal floatation device (PFD) is a good idea. The inconspicuous CO2-activated type works well and doesn't get in the way while fishing. In the event you take a big plunge, you will be pleased with your investment.
Another worthwhile purchase are hand warmers, the ones that look like tea bags. Place the small ones on the backs of your hands under a pair of fingerless gloves and use the larger variety to warm up your feet between your socks and your wader booties.
To some, the idea of trudging through snowbanks and icy water in search of fish, however large, defies logic. Maybe that's true. After all, I haven't heard many conversations among steelheaders about the sagacity and wisdom involved in our sport. It's probably because we are too busy enjoying the snow, sleet, and gorgeous chrome steelhead to sit around and analyze it.
Gary Edwards has been a guide on the Salmon River for 31 years. He also conducts on-the-water workshops and speaks at retail stores, Trout Unlimited chapters, and consumer sports shows.