A Tardy Mid-March Steelhead Report

Two weeks ago, Gordo and I floated the Salmon River with guide to the stars Row Jimmy, aka James Kirtland. Conditions weren’t great, nor were they dreadful, and that’s about as good as you can hope for in mid-March in upstate New York. That time of year can be a real mixed bag in terms of action: pre-spawn fish, spawning fish, largely indifferent fish, stale fish, fresh fish, cold or high water. You just never know what you’re going to get. We floated mid-river both days. Here’s what went down.

Monday: We started off below freezing, and we had to do the clearing-ice-from-the-guides dance until very late morning. Although Gordo and I fished hard and well, we had nothing to show for our efforts. The dam release was 1.2K, dropping to 900 at noon; the water was lightly stained and very cold at 34 degrees. Around noon we anchored in some fast, surging water, and I was stunned when my indicator dipped; this was the last place I expected to find fish. I never got a hookset, but it was definitely a bite. A few casts later I hooked up proper. So proper, in fact, that I was stunned when the steelhead came unbuttoned about 20 seconds into the fight. (Insert heavy sigh here.) A couple casts later, I was on again. We could tell it was a good fish because it ran upriver in a blazing 1.4K flow. But we realized something was amiss when the fish turned downstream and ran…and ran…and ran…I was far into my backing when I finally pointed my rod tip at the fish and terminated the connection. (Insert second heavy sigh here.) I reminded myself that the nice thing about multi-day steelheading trips is that there’s always tomorrow…

A low-res capture from video that shows — I think — the speed and chop and power of the current where I had those three touches. That was our action for entire day. We carpet bombed the bottom of several higher-percentage pools where Jim had been finding fish, but there was to be no love. I was exhausted and hungry; wings and pizza and Yeungling from Stefano’s took care of the latter, and a 9pm lights out the former.

Tuesday: “@#$% guides make you get up so &^%$ early.” Those were my words to Jim, uttered in mock disgust (but not inaccurate) as we sat in the boat in the dark and rain at 5:30am. Jim wanted us to lock down a prime spot, hence our early start time. Even though I’d already had my coffee, I felt like I could easily nod off. The fishing began as a duplicate of Monday: good drifts over worthy water, with nothing to show for it. Then, I had a strike. It was a big, chrome steelhead, but the take was 60 feet downstream of me. I set the hook as best I could, and began to clear my line in preparation for the battle. The thing about being tired and cold — 36 degrees and raining is, in my opinion, far more chilling that 20 and not raining — is that you might not have your A-game dexterity. The line fouled against my fingers, the fish surged, and then I was forlornly reeling in a limp line to check my hook point.

Our perseverance was rewarded at the next mark. Gordo landed one, then lost a beast of a steelhead inches short of the net when the leader snapped. So go the accidents of war when you’re steelheading.

Big fish + strong current = a good bend in the rod. Gordo was bummed that we didn’t get this one in the hoop, but he got his money’s worth with the fight. In another time and place, he’d have better luck. I’m so fortunate to be able to enjoy moments like this with my sons. Maybe the equation is: Fishing + your sons = treasure.

Then, it was my turn. I’d just finished giving myself a pep talk that went along the lines of: You’re a good angler. You’re fishing in a spot that holds steelhead. You’re fishing with a high-confidence pattern (Copperhead Stone). You can catch a steelhead. The very next cast was a hookup, and a few minutes later I was releasing her 50 yards downstream. Jim did a great job getting into a position where he could net her — they’d been fishing about 75 yards below me — and since all I need is one to make my happy, you can understand the smile on my face.

All I need is one steelhead. She’s a beauty, this one. Thus sated, we fished about one more hour, blanked, declared victory, and headed home.

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.

NY steelhead report March 16 & 17: Why I don’t go to casinos

It has nothing to do with the current public health crisis. It has nothing to do with planning (I go when I’m able to). It’s simply this: the days I go will be the wrong days. Period. Bad luck? We’re talking gargantuan, steaming piles of elephant dung luck. At least that’s the way it’s been the last few trips.

For ten minutes in early November, I was warm. (Yes, it was as cold as it looks.)

Seventeendegrees

To wit: last November. Good conditions. People are catching. I arrive the moment a major cold front comes through and witness the bite stop in its tracks. The next day, blank. And miserably cold. The next day, one steelhead. Even colder. Big picture: the cold front turns into a long-lasting pattern. It not only kills the bite but the entire migration. So when I go later in the month, I feel like king of the world when I manage one steelhead over two days.

Which brings us to my trip last week with Gordo.

What a shock! We started the trip as a high pressure cold front settled in. Ice in the guides until 1pm. We floated from Altmar to Pineville and saw five fish landed all day. (We had three of them.) I suppose that’s reason to smile. My steelhead came on an old Salmon River favorite, the Copperhead Stone.

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Day two: crik stompin’. The fish were there. They just didn’t want to eat. Not even egg sacks. Gordo and Jim each hooked and quickly dropped a few — that’s how subtle and non-committal the takes were. I managed one lonely domestic rainbow. Did I mention that it was cold and wet and miserable? (Sigh…) Big moment: this was Gordo’s first time in waders walking a stream. He did a tremendous job.

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Today we are thankful for right-of-ways.

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We finished up at a very mysterious deep hole with only room for one. So Gordo bounced his implements of destruction along the bottom of the maelstrom. Even though he’s using a spinning rod, the technique is very tight-line nymphing. Again, there were a few takes, but sadly no firm commitments.

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So, two cold days of terrible action. Or maybe this: I got to go steelheading with my son. I wasn’t working. I had my first cigars since Christmas. I landed a steelhead. We were outside and free and fishing.

Pretty lucky, Steve.

 

 

 

Some steelhead standards and a wee bit of junk

Regrettably, I’ve spent far too little time this fall at the steelhead bench. To be fair, part of that’s due to a well-stocked box. Here are a few old reliables, and some eggy/junky stuff the steelhead might like.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Fly tying video: the Copperhead Stone steelhead nymph

I have an emotional connection to this pattern — it’s the fly I used to land my first steelhead. It was given to me on the river with the guarantee that I would hook a steelhead. And so it came to pass. 

My First Steelhead

I kept that fly so I could duplicate it at home. The original had a black wool tag that extended a few turns below the tail; I have eliminated it, apparently with no ill effects.