A (very late) Late November Steelhead Report

I fished the Salmon River in upstate NY on November 21-22 and I’m just writing about it today. Sloth? A little. Busy? Yessir. Late? Most definitely. So let’s get to it.

The drive up was a challenge; it was clear sailing from Connecticut until the Rome area, and then it was heavy lake-effect snow the rest of the way. (This was that system than buried Buffalo.) The roads weren’t plowed, and I passed numerous vehicles stranded in ditches. That’ll get you to slow down and pay attention.

Monday the 21st was a challenging day. We launched out of Altmar — I was floating with guide to the stars Row Jimmy — and although we found a pool with fish, the action wasn’t exactly red hot. We moved from one side of the pool to the other, and over the course of five hours we saw a dozen fish hooked, but only one landed. (I was responsible for three of the hookups and no landings.) Our best guess was that the takes were of a more subtle nature, and it didn’t help that I wasn’t on top of my game. None of the fish I touched were on for more than a few seconds; that tells me either a bad hook set or a very light take, or maybe both. Either way, you’ve got to be hard and fast and sure on your hook sets and I was certainly not.

James Kirtland is one of those guides who can tie knots quickly and efficiently and have you back in the water in no time flat. He’s also the kind of guide who will tell you when you’re doing something wrong, and offer suggestions to correct the issue. We all put our waders on one leg at a time, and I’m no different. Jim noticed that because I was using two hands to manage the line during the fly’s trip through the strike zone, I was losing precious micro-seconds on my hook sets. With one hand, excess slack eliminated, and the fly line gripped firmly against the cork, I could drill the hook point home with far greater efficiency. This is just one of the many things I’ve learned from Jim over the years, and it proved to be a difference maker on Tuesday.

We arrived at the Altmar boat launch Tuesday morning only to discover that I’d left my rod on top on my truck in Pineville. By the time we got back — whew, rod recovered! — we were late enough to not be able to get where we wanted to fish. That turned out to be a good thing, as Jim’s fellow guides reported the previous days’ pool was empty. (The river had come down to 500cfs from 750, and we figured the fish realized they had no depth of flow and skedaddled overnight.) So we set up shop in some fast water and spent the entire day in a few slots that took up no more than 50 yards of river. Right away we were into steelhead; I dropped the first, landed the second, and the third came off just as we were readying the net. But I was right on my hook sets, and it felt good even though the batting average was below .500.

Here’s the slick run we hit first. I’m always amazed at how many steelhead can fit into one little slot.
We moved downstream and systematically carpet bombed a swift, churning run. After a morning egg bite, the steelhead got into my collection of small stoneflies: 60 Second Redheads, 60 Second Copperheads, and Copperhead Stones. I hooked 4 fish from late morning to early afternoon; this was the only one I landed. One came off right away. The second was a double-digit pound chrome beast that made a beeline for the Lake; I was into my backing so fast that I had no choice but to try and crank the handle. Doink! Broken off. It’s hard to get upset about episodes like that; when you’re in a boat, you can either lift anchor and follow the fish, or stay put and take your chances. You can’t undo the first option, so you accept a possible poor outcome and move on. The third one I dropped surprised me; I nailed him with my hook set, battled him hard and well, and then for no apparent reason, ploink! Sigh. Still, after Monday’s disappointment, two in the hoop felt like a bounty.

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