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.

Top 5 Steelhead Nymphs for Salmon River, Pulaski

The best steelhead nymphs are the ones in which you have the most confidence. After all, “best” isn’t measurable. But if you buy into the old saw that the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it, I’d like to offer up five steelhead nymphs that have proven their worthiness on New York’s Salmon River.

So, what qualifies a steelhead fly as a nymph? For the purposes of this list, I’ve kept it to flies that are size 8 or smaller; flies that feature predominantly muted colors (hot spots, contrast points, and bead heads are allowed); and flies whose basic construct is at least 50% actual invertebrate driven. So, no bigger stoneflies here. No Steelhead Hammer types. And no black-light poster colors. Here we go, in no particular order. As a bonus, some of the patterns have links to my tying video.

Soft-Hackled Bead Head Pheasant Tail. I was pleased no end to discover that Salmon River steelhead would eat this rather muted pattern. I’ve done really well with this fly in winter.

60-Second Redhead. The beauty of this fly isn’t that if you lose one to the bottom gods, you’re not depressed because they’re so fast and easy to tie. It’s that this fly, which would never catch your eye in a retail bin, is like candy to steelhead when they’re eating bugs.

60-Second Copperhead. After pounding up so many steelhead on the redhead, I wondered if they’d like a version with a copper Ice Dub head. A wise old Salmon River veteran once told me, “It’s hard to go wrong on this river with black and copper.” He was mighty right.

Copperhead Stone. I landed my first steelhead on this fly, and years later, it still works. I remember one morning in the Lower Fly Zone when I was handing them out to everyone who wanted to know, “What fly are you using?”

Spider. Another ridiculously simple tie (notice a pattern here?): size 12 hook, black Krystal Flash tail, black Estaz body, copper (the original calls for olive or pearl) braid flashback. Designed by Clyde Murray for Erie fish, the Salmon River steelhead like it just fine.

My top five steelhead nymphs for the Salmon River in Pulaski, NY, are all very simple ties. Note that they all have some kind of contrast, flash, or hot spot. These are all high-confidence patterns for me, all proven producers, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of them when you suspect the steelhead are eating nymphs.

Ontario Tribs Steelhead 11/6-11/8: Back in the New York Groove

There’s something about steelheading that’s — I don’t know — sad. I’ve written about its emotional rollercoaster, and how when you’re down the track seems like an endless journey into melancholy. The highest percentage play on these tribs, a presentation along the bottom, makes me weary by tedious repetition. Let’s not even mention the weather, which can turn a suck day into shit faster than you can tighten the strings on the hood of your rain jacket.

But when the bite is on and weather is tolerable and the people are pleasant and — this is not insignificant — your luck is good, it’s about as much fun as you can have while wearing rubber pants.

A little crick stompin’ on day one. Up at 4:20am, spot secured by 5:10, waiting for first light. Any day I can land one steelhead is a good day. Skunk off early is even better. Bright, beautiful chrome that shone even in the rain.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

We bounced around from pool to pool. I had to work my butt off for this steelhead. It was a very difficult presentation for a lefty, and in an hour maybe I got maybe a dozen quality drifts. One of them was good enough to fool this sparsely spotted fish.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

Loved the last spot on day one. Best steelhead of the day, and one of the better ones of the trip. I got into some double-digit pounders, and the word was that there was a good mix of bigger fish this year. I hooked this one about a rod’s length away from me, and had to chase her downriver once she left the pool.

UJP

~

Why we keep coming back — and why we gird our loins for days like day two: not a freaking touch. Most miserable moment: last two hours, guy below me hooks four. Guy above me hooks three. I snagged the bottom. A lot. Little did I know, tomorrow was going to be great.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

Day three: there’ll be no birthday skunk! A splendid buck, just beginning to color up. I shared the water with several other anglers who couldn’t have been nicer. Thank you, gentlemen. Not the world’s best picture, but you get a good sense of the size of the fish.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

My father always said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” When you’ve got the hot steelhead hand, you recognize the manifest truth of his words.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

If you ever figure out steelhead fly selection, please let me know. I fished this same spot — and some others nearby — last year with little copperhead black stones, and nothing. They were all over the bling. This year, if it was small and black and had a copper head, they wanted it with a sense of urgency. What a strange game we play.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

To be read in your best baseball announcer impersonation voice: “Fouled off. Just got a piece of it.” Upon rig retrieval, it was easy to see why I dropped the fish at hookset. On this day I hooked nine and landed six, which doesn’t suck for a batting average. I lost one on a terrible initial hookset, and no idea what happened with the third.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

~

The last fish of a memorable day. It was the 91st steelhead I’ve landed. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Of steelhead and stoneflies

Steelhead Stones

Front cork: 60 Second Redheads and 60 Second Copperheads.

Rear left cork: Copperhead Stones and BHSHPTs

Rear right cork: North Country Steelhead Spiders (purple and black), Spider (originated by Clyde Murray) variant

Mindset: Fresh chrome. Uncorked.

Not a bad way to begin a steelhead trip

Just got back from three days on the Salmon River. This fall’s steelhead fishing has been very spotty, so wasn’t I more than pleased to land this magnificent chrome hen a few hours into the trip. Full report to come.

“Do I look fat in this picture?” Yes, dear, you do, and bless every single one of your powerful pounds. She took me into into backing in just a few seconds.

Big Steel 11:14

P.S. Inquiring minds will want to know, “what fly?” Size 10 60-Second Copperhead.

The 60 Second Redhead

It’s easy to tie. It’s a fast tie. It catches steelhead. ‘Nuff said.

I found this fly a while back on Randy Jones’ Yankee Angler site and was intrigued by its simplicity. The fly got its name (Randy calls it “Tom’s 60 Second Red Head,” Tom being Tom Wilson) because you can supposedly crank them out at the rate of 60 per hour. I’m no speed tyer, but I can get pretty close to a minute on this one if I hustle. Part stone fly/nymph/larva buggy bug, part egg, the pattern certainly lends itself to all kinds of color variations.

The 60 Second Redhead

Image

Hook: 2x strong scud/shrimp, sz 10-12
Thread: Red
Body: Black Krystal Dub
Head: Red Ice Dub

I tied up a bunch of these, and they sat in my box until one fine Saturday afternoon. On my very first cast with the 60 Second Redhead, I hooked a steelhead. That was years ago, and this fly is now a core pattern in my steelhead box.

Tying notes: The original recipe calls for medium red copper wire as the tying “thread.” This adds a tad more weight to the fly. I find the medium diameter difficult to work with, so I use small red copper wire when I’m not using thread. High-tack wax like Loon’s Swax ensures the dubbing sticks to the wire. The original also calls for a complex mixture of furs and flash: for the body, a mix of beaver, angora goat, and black flash. Since speed is in its name, I figured why not just be done with it and use black Krystal dub? Ditto the head, where the original calls for beaver, angora goat, and red flash. Buy a pack of red Ice Dub and you’re cooking with gas. Last year, I met Randy on the Salmon River at the Pineville Boat launch. We had a detailed conversation about the Red Head. I thanked him for introducing me to this fly, and told him it was now an old standby. Randy said to make sure not to tie it with a thick profile, but added if you’re catching fish on it, you’re doing something right. Wise words. What you see here is my standard issue tie.

Also, play around with other colors and materials. Here is the 60 Second Copperhead:

Image

Hook: 2x strong scud/shrimp, sz 10-12
Thread: Red
Body: Black angora goat
Head: Metallic copper Ice Dub

~

60-Second Copperhead Rogues’ Gallery:

Chrome hen, Salmon River, 11/9/14

Big Steel 11:14