Finally, after so many disappointing outings, I hooked and landed my 100th steelhead. Not the prettiest fish given the time of year, but beautiful and perfect in his own way. It was an eventful day — full report to come next week. In the meantime, here’s a picture worth a hundred words.
Number Three Son Gordo and I fished the Salmon River for two days last week and it was a slow bite. Conditions were about a s good as you could expect for this time of year: 875cfs at the Pineville gauge and clear water. Monday was in the teens to start and it never got above freezing. Tuesday was another frosty launch, but we were in the mid thirties by noon. This was a float trip with my guide friend James Kirtland, aka Row Jimmy. We did the mid-river run (Pineville to 2A) both days. I was happy with this as every boat we spoke to coming down from Altmar described crowded shore and drift conditions with a nearly non-existent bite. So if the fishing’s going to be slow, I’d rather be mostly alone.
Monday. The plan was to cherry-picked marks that had recently produced. The first was a blank. The second provided a classic “Life isn’t fair. Neither is steelheading.” moment. I had drifted through a patch a half dozen times in the previous hour and the indicator had gone under every time due to a shallow. On the seventh time it was a fish, and I nonchalanted the hook set. Fish on, briefly, then off. Operator error.
Tuesday. We expected this to be a better day, since the temperature would be rising and we now knew where there were pods of fish. As it so often happens, just when you think you’ve figured it out, nature smacks you upside the head. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Move the boat. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Finally, I hook into a good-sized dark horse buck, somewhere in between the size of the two fish pictured above. He realizes he’s hooked, runs, and leaps. I regain line. He runs again, and leaps two more times. But I can feel that that was his last big run. I’m not letting him breathe, cranking that reel handle. This will be steelhead number 98. And then, he’s gone. I look at Jim. Jim looks at me. We both opine that this was simply a case of bad luck: fast hookset, hard hookset, well-played. What else can you do? And that, ladies and gents, was our only touch of the day. It really is a cruel sport sometimes.
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!
The plot is simple enough: drive five hours. Sleep for four-and-a-half. Up at 4:30am, on the river by 5am, fishing at 5:30am. Hard stop of noon. Drive home six hours (traffic and construction accounting for the added time). Collapse on couch.
Madness, you say? Perhaps. But this is, as Guinevere sang in Camelot, the month “when everyone throws self-restraint away.” There is something quite liberating about shedding your fleece and breathable jacket — not to mention responsibility — then standing in a river in the sunshine in your shirt sleeves catching steelhead.
I had this pool to myself for a couple hours. It produced a nice drop-back, already shedding its winter color for brushed aluminum flanks, and two skippers. The skippers were fun, taken during a caddis hatch on a mended wet fly swing with a Partridge & Orange soft hackle. The fish were slashing at emergers in the slack water along the far bank. There was a big steelhead doing likewise in the tailout, but I couldn’t get him to take. Now that would have been something to write about.
A rusting skeleton that served a more dignified purpose in a previous life. I still can’t believe I was catching steelhead in the middle of May. What a contrast to the skunk and freezing rain of the April trip.
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.)
The trip started poorly. Whiteout conditions in the Berkshires followed by heavy lake-effect snow near Syracuse turned a five hour drive into six and a half. They had been forecasting 3-8″ of snow showers and 20 mph winds — not exactly the model of fishing-friendly weather — but we had reservations and deposits and the will to see things through. By the time we (this was my annual late November trip with #2 son) woke up Monday morning, we realized this was going to be far worse than your standard-issue Salmon River Sunshine. Winds of 20-30mph with gusts up to 50. Snow that covered the rear bumper of the Jeep (the Syracuse area received up to 30″). No shovel or plow in our near future. We stomped on the snow to flatten it, and we made it to the Byrne Dairy OK, but when our guide’s truck and trailer had to be towed out of a drift, the bummer decision was made: no fishing today.
And that’s how Cam and I spent most of last Monday afternoon watching the Science Channel in the Pulaski Super 8.
You often hear exaggerated claims of precipitation falling sideways. But we can attest that it does really happen. This was one badass storm.
We made a brilliant plan to fish the creeks on Tuesday. So brilliant that I was already counting our fish on the drive north. Water levels had been up for two days, and those two days were dark and perfect for legions of steelhead to have safely made their way upstream. I’ll cut to the chase and tell you we blanked. We fished long, hard, and thoroughly at multiple fishy spots, but as far as any of us could tell, the closest steelhead were still somewhere in Lake Ontario. The only angler we could find who had any fish to hand was AJ Berry, who took several domestic rainbows on egg sacks. (I mention AJ’s name because he was incredibly generous in sharing water with us.)
I realize that steelheading is not fair. But I would be lying to you if I said this trip didn’t sting more than a little.
The salve for that sting is that we went winter steelheading. We had an adventure. There is honor in attempting something difficult — and whether we succeeded or failed is really a matter of your point-of-view.
The day after the big one. If it looks nippy, it was. Iced guides were a constant hassle, and residual winds made casting an adventure. Highest marks to Cam, who didn’t complain once during two days of truly challenging circumstances. Asked to sum up the trip, Cam said: “It was cold. It snowed. We tried to fish. The fish didn’t help.”
…my spies tell me it’s good news/not-so-good news. The good: after a couple very down years, the 2016 salmon run has been strong. Here’s a quote from a local guide: “I thought that it would be a good run this year but it has far exceeded expectations.” More good: the watershed received several inches of much needed rain last week. The river jacked up to 2K; current level at Pineville is just over 700cfs. Everyone’s different, but I like higher water for this fishery. A strong salmon run means more eggs and rotting carcasses in the system, so right now is a good time to be tying up some egg and flesh patterns (and of course your favorite nymphs).
Now to the not-so-good: where are the steelhead? Those of us who remember the cruel disaster than was last year’s “run” are eager to return to the halcyon days of prodigious numbers of pre-spawn chrome. So far, that has not happened. Hopefully the next few weeks will see a big push of fish. Otherwise, we may be in for another long, cold, lonely winter.
Come back, baby!
Just got back from four days on the Salmon River in New York, and I’m here to tell you, friends, that the fishing was off the charts. After a painfully slow 2012-13 season, the steelhead gods saw fit to shine their benevolent light upon me. (The entire group — there were four of us — got into an embarrassment of steelhead riches.) Still basking in the glory of over 50 steelhead hooked, and nearly half of them landed. Here’s a short film that my friend and co-conspirator Todd Kuhrt put together. Eventually I’ll write up a proper story, but until then, enjoy this little gem.
Baby, I’m howling’ for you indeed.