The pre-Thanksgiving Salmon River steelhead float trip is traditionally for myself and my middle son, Cam. But Cam was away at school. Gordo had school and hockey. Yup. Solo road trip! Coming off my Everglades experience, I was mentally prepared (but still dreading) the inclement weather I was sure to encounter. So, armed with my trusty Ken Abrames Salmo Sax #3, neoprene waders, and a pile of hand warmers, I headed northwest.
I’m not in the habit of counting fish. But steelhead, being what they are — well, they’re just different. Trying to catch them is also different. I’ve been through all this with you before: you can do everything right and drop the fish. You can do (most) everything wrong and land the fish. Life isn’t fair, and neither is steelheading. The conditions you’re fishing in can be demanding, if not downright brutal. So when you get a decent flow and warm sunshine and bluebird skies and, most of all, a little luck, you thank the steelhead gods very much and you certainly don’t question any of it. I’d been stuck on steelhead #97 since November — my March trip was a blank — so here I was a month later, hoping something good would happen.
Tuesday April 13. I got to the river around 3pm. My float trip was scheduled for the next day, but I figured I should take advantage of the opportunity to fish. I hit a popular mark on the lower end of the river, one I was familiar with. As I was walking down the path, I saw an angler playing a steelhead, so this gave me hope. That was short-lived. For the next two-and-one-half hours, a total of eight anglers on the run hooked zero fish. I had a touch at one point, but my hookset didn’t even produce a head shake. I decided to save my chips for the next day, so I left disappointed, but clinging to the hope that sooner or later my lousy luck had to change.
Wednesday April 14. At first I thought it was the bottom, but it didn’t quite figure. No head shake, and I came away with air, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it had to be a steelhead. A dozen casts later, indicator down, hook set, fish on. It was a nice-looking drop-back, holding in some faster water, and now ripping line off the reel. True to form, the fish stopped at the bottom of the pool. I regained line, then another run and some aerials, too. Line regained, process repeated, and now this fish is whipped. Reel cranking, cork upstream, rod bent, steelhead just about 20 feet from the boat, Jim with the net ready. Here comes number 98. Doink! There goes number 98. This is the type of loss that vexes me no end. I had a good hookset, and I played this fish no differently that the last 50 I’ve landed. A few four-letter words provided only a moderate salve to this grievous wound. Is this how today is going to be?
Mothers can’t help but worry, and so it was with mine when I told her I was going steelheading during the first real cold snap of the season. Turns out she was only partially right.
Nothing kills the steelhead bite with more indifferent cruelty than a cold front. The fishing had been pretty good the few days and hours before we arrived — lots of steelhead, particularly in the upper end of the river, and fair enough weather and flows. By the time we waded in, things were already going south. (The irony will not be lost on those who recognize the cold front as a wanderer originating from the north.)
This was my first non-solo steelhead trip (other than with my sons) in years, as I had the company of the illustrious Peter Jenkins, owner of the Saltwater Edge in Newport, RI. If Jenks looks cold, he probably is. I know I was. The thing about a boat in winter is that there’s a pernicious, unexpected kind of cold — you’re not able to walk around, and if it’s windy you’re exposed to the gusts as they whip off the water.
We hit the river with positive resolve at 2:30pm Monday, and although we gave it a good effort, no steelhead made it to the hoop. In fact, I didn’t have a single touch. Jenks had, at least, the excitement of a few takes. Timing is everything, though, and we clearly missed it (Sal from Legends on the Farmington was fishing across from us and reported many earlier fish to net from his group.)
Tuesday was float day with my friend James Kirtland of Row Jimmy Guide Service. There’s a technical description for the conditions we experienced — I think “shitty” is the term. We had snow and wind and cold, and let’s throw in a disaster bite for good measure. Jenks had a few touches, but no love on the hookups. My single take of the day produced a newly-minted coin of a skipper, and given the conditions, I took my 1-for-1 and ran with it.
So much depends upon a propane heater, glazed with snowflakes beside the white pizza box. (I love how often that poem lends itself to fishing situations.) Speaking of food, here’s a hot dining tip for those heading up to Pulaski: 11 North Bar & Grill. We visited on Taco Tuesday, and enjoyed three stuffed beefy tacos each for the grand total of $9. That’s not a misprint. Yummy wings, plus a good beer on tap list.
We performed seemingly never-ending eyelet triage as the mercury never made it out of the 20s for the entire trip. Stuff like Loon Outdoors Stanley’s Ice-Off Paste works…for part of an hour, then it’s back to ice patrol.
And then, there was Wednesday. On the river early: 17 degrees. Off the water at 3pm: 19 degrees. Hookups up and down the line were few and far between, with landings even scarcer. And it was just plain suck-the-warmth-out-of-you cold. So when my indicator dipped, I was happy that I got a good, hard, downstream hookset. That’s breath coming out of my mouth, not cigar smoke. Please also appreciate the lake effect snow shower, and Jenks’ fine photography.
I fouled one more, lost another to a tippet failure (had to have been nicked), and had a couple of bumps that never resulted in a tight line. But any day you can land a steelhead is a good day. And from the look on the angler’s face, regardless of the weather, that is the way to have fun, son.
“The Steel Deal — How to catch Great Lakes Steelhead in the Fall” first appeared in the Oct/Nov 2018 issue of Field & Stream. It’s a great introductory primer for Great Lakes steelhead fly fishing anglers, and even veteran chrome hounds will find some valuable nuggets. Written, of course, by yours truly, with insights from legendary Great Lakes steelhead guide Matt Supinski. In case you missed it, the link to the article is up top. And here’s a bonus link to the 60-Second Redhead, one of my favorite steelhead patterns.
Subfreezing temperatures? Stinging sleet? Frozen fingers? Suck it up, baby, and go steelheading! Here’s Number Two Son Cameron and my favorite Salmon River guide Jim Kirtland enjoying a little “Salmon River sunshine.” Is it all worth it? Just look at those smiles.
Gordo and I tried to go steelheading this spring. Really, we did. We got deluged out in April, so we re-booked for May…and got deluged out again. After running at a nominal 500cfs, Brookfield jacked the Salmon River flow up to 1.2K 48 hours before our date, effectively creating a steelhead superhighway to the lake. And just for good measure, they bumped it up to 1.7K while we slept, giving us an off-color 2.2K below Pineville. Mother Nature felt left out, so she decided to make it rain.
(Insert heavy sigh here)
So we took our lumps like men and went to plan C: try for smallmouth and pike on the lower end of the Little Salmon River. I’d never fished it, and we were so close to the lake you could see it clearly from our take out point. The pike were a no-show, but some slabby smallies saved the trip for us.
What’s a steelhead run to Pulaski without a little snow? So what if it’s freakin’ May…
Gordo got the first fish of the day, smallie that could have been measured in pounds rather than inches (19 if you’re keeping score). The kid’s a trouper, never complains even if it’s cold and wet and utterly miserable (and the steelhead trip has been ruined…again). If this is our lemonade, we’ll take it with a smile. And a shout out to Row Jimmy, our steadfast guide who’s always positive and is a man with a plan.
Dad didn’t do too poorly, either. The takes were more like stoppages than savage tugs — think, “Oops, I’ve snagged bottom.” Then the bottom pulls back. I missed one strike before I realized what it was. Once advised, I carried on with great success.
You’ve heard me tell that my mother used to say that life isn’t fair.
I hated hearing that, but over the years I’ve grudgingly accepted it. I know she had my best interests in mind. But if she really wanted to help me, she would have added, “And steelheading is even more unfair.”
Cam and I fished the Salmon River last week. We had cold, warm, ice, snow, and sunshine. We had 350cfs and 750cfs. We had fish on and fish off. And we had the cruel fickleness of the beast and the sport.
Day One. After a slow start, Cam gets into a slob of Lake Ontario’s finest. He went three for three. This is his first of the morning.
It was Jim’s birthday, and since we were both taking a break we insisted that he fish and catch a celebratory steelhead. This guy’s good. Here’s proof.
A different perspective on the grip-and-grin. We kept all the fish in the net in the water until it was time for a quick photo op.
By now, you’re asking, “But Steve — where’s your fish?” Ahem. I pounded the same water as Cam all morning on day one and not. A. Touch. Steelheading isn’t fair, remember? On the way downriver, I fouled one first cast in a deep hole. Farther down, I went one-for-two in another deep pool while Cam blanked. Are we seeing a pattern here? This is Cam’s last fish of day one. I dropped my first fair-hooked fish to an incredibly bad set. The second was camera shy, but was about the size of this one and polished metal bright. One steelhead to boat makes it good day.
Oh, the injustice of Day Two! This tank of a buck is the only fish we boated. Now, anyone who’s steelheaded for years can tell you that fish are often lost to operator error. They’ll also tell you that you can do everything right and still lose the fish. Friends, I’m here to testify (with Jim and Cam as my witnesses) that I had four indicators go under, and I was dead-balls-on every hookset. Fast, sweeping downstream, hard — sticky sharp hooks — and every fish came unbuttoned. Three right after set, and one that I managed to keep on for a couple runs. You can do what you can do, and beyond that it’s up to the steelhead gods. Repeat after me: Steelheading isn’t fair!
My status as a fly fishing personality gets me all kinds of cool perks. Like walking into Stefano’s and telling the hostess, no, we don’t want that table in the blinding sunlight, we want that one over there in the shade. Turns out we were seated next to some fellow Nutmeggers who recognized me, and we got to talking. They’d been up for several days and, like everyone else, were finding the fishing challenging. But on that day they’d discovered a whole bunch of steelhead that were willing to jump on. Hold that thought for a moment.
It was below freezing when we launched from Pineville. We focused on high percentage holding water, but the height of the river (1.65K dam release, 2K at Pineville) and its temperature (42 degrees) meant that the drop backs really hadn’t started dropping back in earnest. I found this natural work of art during a little shore leave.
Look what Gordo found! At least the skunk was off for him.
The river looks totally different at 2K. Here Gordo takes us through Upper Sportsman’s. Talk about winning the weather lottery! We fished hard, but by 11:30 we realized that the numbers weren’t on our side. So we decided to trailer the boat and focus on some recently acquired intel (thanks, guys!)
We made the right call. Third cast, I was on. Small fish, but now the skunk was wholly vanquished. A half-hour later, I was working upstream, picking pockets, when I tied into a nice post-spawn buck. He gave me a few firm head shakes and surface boils, and made one impressive run toward the lake. Problem: no landing net, no good LZ, Jim and Gordon upstream out of assist range. Solution: improvise. I got him into a relatively shallow micro-eddy, gently corralled him between my legs and the bank, then lifted his head out of the water for a quick selfie.
And if you want proof that steelheading isn’t fair, they started dropping the flows the day we left. Jim tells me the fishing has been great the last two days.
(Insert sighs and grumbling here.)
I don’t know about the rest of you dads, but it annoys the hell out of me when I try to give my boys a life lesson and life teaches them the exact opposite.
That’s what happened last year when I took Cameron steelheading for the first time. I grimly outlined the 40 hours it took me to land my first steelhead; explained that you can do everything right playing the fish and still lose him; how the lake effect weather is dicey at best. So what happens? We get 50 degrees in late November, bluebird skies, and the kid hooks and lands a 10-pound chromer in the first 30 minutes of the trip.
But not this year. I told him that on this trip, we’d find out if he was cut out to be a steelheader. A cold front was blowing in as we drove up. We awoke to a couple inches of fresh powder and the mercury in the teens. This was going to be a baptism in ice.
What’s more, these sudden temperature changes – especially downward – are usually bad for business. Sure enough, what had been a consistent bite over the previous week was almost nonexistent. Five hours after floating under the Altmar Bridge, we still hadn’t had a single take. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Or giving the fish a choice. I had been carpet-bombing the bottom with everything from egg flies to nymphs. Cam was throwing an egg sack under a float. The steelhead weren’t having any of it.
But, I kept telling Cam that he had to be ready, because the next cast could be the one that you get a strike. And you’ll hate yourself if you miss it.
I was getting enough false positives to keep me focused, but even those became adventures in bad luck. As we floated between holes, my indicator disappeared. I set the hook on the bottom, pulled, and then watched as my rig sailed over my head – into the only tree for 200 feet. It got worse. Drift boats are like trains; they take a while to stop. As Jim furiously back rowed, my line stretched tight, and the top section of my rod came loose. Now it was sliding along the no man’s land between the rest of my rod and the tree. If the leader or line snapped, it would be gone. Fortunately, I am over six feet tall. By standing on one of the boat’s benches, I was able to just reach the leader with an outstretched arm and a hunting knife. Tip was reunited with rod, much to its owner’s relief.
Meantime, Cam was patiently earning his winter steelhead stripes. Five hours is a long time to go without a strike for a grown man, let alone a ten year-old. If he was discouraged, he wasn’t showing it. Jim (Kirtland, our guide, of Row Jimmy Guide Service fame. This was the third time I’ve floated with Jim. Highly recommended. Nice guy, knowledgeable, and if you have a child you want to introduce to steelheading, he’s terrific with kids) made the observation that Cam was now a member-in-good-standing of the Frozen Chosen.
The indicator went under, and this time the bottom thrummed with energy. Fish on. I could tell it was a good one by the fact that the steelhead did not surface. His first run was deep and upstream. I have a love-hate relationship with upstream runs. They’re good because they force the fish to burn a tremendous amount of oxygen. Bad because those big steelhead turn on a dime and shoot back downstream faster than you think any fish has a right to. Meanwhile, you’re flailing away at your reel or the slack, trying to regain line and keep that precious hook set. But this was a most obliging creature. Once he turned, he came back slowly and wallowed deep, even with the boat. I didn’t want to give him the opportunity to breathe, so I pressed him. Now I could see him a few feet below the surface. Fresh chrome. Double-digit pounds.
At the midpoint of the fight, steelhead can loll you into a false sense of security. You just need to remind yourself that the fish has probably got a few more good runs in him. And off he went, bulling his way downstream. While I admired his power, something didn’t feel quite right. Simultaneously, I realized the fish must be fouled. As he rolled near the far shore, I called out to another angler to confirm my suspicions. He did. Reluctantly, I pointed the rod at the fish and snapped the tippet.
My adventure seemed to energize Cam, who had been warming himself by the heater. (Wonderful thing, propane heaters in drift boats. Best invention in steelheading since 5mm neoprene integrated boot foot waders.) Five minutes later, he was on. This was another good fish, one that doggedly refused to come to net. Every time Cam got him close, the steelhead found a reserve of energy and bolted. I finally picked Cam up by the waist and moved him to the center of the boat so Jim could get a better angle from the bow. Steelhead netted. A long, lean dark horse of a buck.
What a miserably cold ten year-old looks like after sitting in a boat for seven hours without a strike. All it takes is one fish. Well done, Cam. Your father couldn’t be prouder.
Cam was now two-for-two in his steelheading career. We took some photos of him brandishing his prize, grinning, as Ridley says in The Right Stuff, “like a possum eating a sweet potato.” Any father-son steelheading trip where the son hooks and lands is, by any definition, a good one. Smiles populated the boat.
But the sun was getting perilously close to the treetops, and we hadn’t even made Ellis Cove. So in the interest of time and fishing, we decided to fish western style, until we reached Pineville. I was surprised how empty the riverbanks were; we only saw three other people. The fishing mirrored the scarcity of anglers; whatever was swimming under the boat wasn’t eating.
On top of that, I had been shivering in my waders for a few hours now. Desperate for a tactile advantage on any potential hookset, I had made the decision to spend large chunks of the day gloveless, an unheard of practice for me in cold weather. Any useful feeling I had in my fingertips had long since vanished. When I lost my rig at the tailout of the Hemlocks, I declared my day over.
Seconds later, I thought the better of it. What if the next run held that hungry fish? With shaking fingertips, I clumsily lashed some tippet material to the swivel and forced on a pink Steelhead Hammer. If I was going down, I was going to go down fishing.
As we drifted through the Refrigerator, I made a cast downstream toward the head of the pool. The indicator disappeared. The bottom was moving. Upstream. It was another chrome fish, not as big as the one Cam hooked, but this beggar was not going to unconditionally declare for choosing. A few cartwheels and frantic bursts later, the fish was ready to come to net. I gave my salvation a faux peck on the snout and released it into the snow-capped shallows.
This is my “Look, I pulled a steelhead out of my butt in the last five minutes of the trip” face.
“Dad,” Cameron said on the ride home, “you were really happy after you caught that fish.”
I was, too.