Salmon River Report 11/25-26: None. One. Are we still having fun?

For a guy who never plays at casinos, I manage to do an awful lot of gambling. Like planning my Salmon River, Pulaski, steelhead trips months in advance. As with Vegas, the odds always favor the house. Sometimes you win. More often, you lose — and lose big. My trip earlier in November brought me the double whammy of a sub-par steelhead run and an Arctic cold front. I felt lucky to escape with my dignity and fingertips intact, and the two steelhead I landed were a trip-saving bonus.

Two weeks later, here I was again. (See “Go, Weather or Not” in my Great Lakes Steelhead piece for Field & Stream.) Make that we, as this was the annual father-son November steelhead trip — facing moderate flows (350cfs, 500cfs at Pineville) but the same paucity of fish. (2019 was, according to my records, tied for the second worst year in the last ten in numbers of fish landed.)

There’s not much to tell you about Monday. We floated the middle river, as always with steelhead guide extraordinaire Row Jimmy, aka James Kirtland, but the vast majority of steelhead that had been there the previous few days had skedaddled. Not a single touch for me in over eight hours of carpet bombing the river bottom. Cam managed one brown, and Jimmy rolled a steelhead that was quickly off. Here, Cam reflects upon the errors or our ways while considering the merit of Stefano’s garlic knots. 

CamMenu

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The command decision was made to float the upper river on Tuesday. We enjoyed a gentlemen’s start at the civilized hour of 7:15am. Here’s Cam wrangling the Pavati at the Altmar boat launch. The anglers we spoke to at the bottom of the LFZ reported a slow beginning to the day.

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So, let’s change that up. Since we needed to let some boats ahead of us fish through, we parked the boat and Jim (did I mention he’s a guide extraordinaire?) pointed to some likely holding water. A bit of a treacherous wade, but manageable, and it wasn’t too long before I was rewarded with a dipping indicator and a thrumming sensation at the end of my line. The fishing quote of the year goes to Cam, who said, “Well, Dad, now you won’t be grouchy for the rest of the day!”

DaySaver

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I’d like to tell you that my fish was the start of something big, but ’twas not to be. We endured hours of the same non-existent action. So when Cam scored this handsome steelhead around noon, we decided that on this day (50 degrees and partly sunny to boot!) we’d beaten the house.

CamSteel2019

 

 

Salmon River Steelhead Report 11/11-11/13: Mama Told Me (Not To Come)

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.

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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.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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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. 

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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.

Seventeendegrees

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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.

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Further implements of steelhead destruction

Or, an angler can hope. Either way, fly boxes must be replenished, here with an eclectic selection of attractors, eggy fare, classic soft hackles and gaudy streamers. A few hungry customers is all I ask.

The best flies for Great Lakes steelhead are the ones that get eaten. Surely a delectable morsel lies within this diverse menu.

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Steelheading: A Tragedy in Several Acts

“Steelheading: A tragedy in several acts” first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of The Drake. The photo here is different from what accompanied the piece in the magazine, and this is my original text, rated R for some adult language. What if The Bard wasn’t writing about Danish princes, Roman emperors, and star-crossed Italian lovers? Let the curtain rise on…

Steelheading: A Tragedy in Several Acts

If there is another angling endeavor that matches the rapturous highs and soul crushing lows of steelheading, I’ve yet to experience it. One day, you are the Most Exalted Ruler of the Kingdom of Chrome. The next, a lowly knave scraping in fishless dirt. That you willfully participate in this theater suggests that you are either a masochist, an addict, or at the very least, innately damaged. William Shakespeare understood. Even if he never wrote a scene about losing a fifteen-pounder fresh from the lake.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  Hamlet

It’s a river. Some days it is blown out. Some days it is perilously low. There are steelhead in the river. Some days they eat. Others, they do not. I’ve blanked on perfect days and hooked immodest numbers of fish in water the color of mocha java. The river doesn’t hate you. Nor do the steelhead or the weather. You have no control over any of it. Try to stay positive.

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“Sit you down, father; rest you.” King Lear

I took my nine year-old steelheading for the first time. In the days leading up to the trip, I hectored him: It’s not like when we go to Day Pond to catch bluegills. It took daddy forty hours of fishing to land his first steelhead. You will hook them, son, and you will lose them. A half-hour into the trip, Cam ties into a twelve-pound chromer and proceeds to land it. On four-pound test. He has zero experience with any fish that size, let alone an alcohol-fueled dragster of a fresh steelhead. On the outside, I’m cheering wildly. On the inside, I’m trying to calculate how many extra hours of yard work that little punk will be doing come spring.

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“But, soft! what light though yonder window breaks?”  Romeo And Juliet

For a dedicated steelheader, rising with the sun is sheer fantasy. If you’re fishing popular water, you’re up and out long before daybreak. You’re not the only one doing this. For proof, check the alarm clock in your room at the cabin next time you’re there. Bet it’s set for five a.m. – or earlier.

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“Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”  The Tempest

How agreeable it would be if everyone you met on the river were Roderick Haig-Brown incarnate. Many anglers are indeed pleasant and welcoming. Others, not so much. See if any of these characters sound familiar: The bozo who wades in so tight you could take his eye out with your rod tip. The jamoke who dashes into your spot as you battle a fish downstream, then glares at you for wanting your place back. The douche bag who keeps his line in the water while your fish roars past, oblivious to your screaming reel. The lout who drops drift boat anchor on the exact coordinates you’ve been casting to. Damn them, every last one.

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“Now is the winter of our discontent.”  King Richard III

If you’ve ever stood in a river in sub-freezing temperatures and swirling lake effect snow for three consecutive days without so much as a single fucking touch, well, you know from whence I speak.

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“Parting is such sweet sorrow.” Romeo and Juliet

There must be some mischievous spirit tasked with devising cruel and unusual ways of making you lose steelhead. How else to explain a 3x strong hook that snaps at the bend; a leader that tangles on a drift boat’s anchor rope; line that wraps around a reel handle mid-fight; a good Samaritan’s clumsy technique with a landing net? All resulting in lost fish. All in the space of two hours. I’m trying hard not to be bitter. Really, I am.

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“Things rank and gross in nature.”  Hamlet

You don’t ever get used to the pernicious stench of decaying salmon flesh. Or the realization that the squishy thing spewing unholy pinkish-gray plumes from under your boot is a rotting carcass.

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“Men at some time are masters of their fates.” Julius Caesar

You’ve been at this spot since before sunrise. You were rewarded with the prime lie, but there was no first-light bite, and now it’s close to nine a.m. Do you wait for steelhead to arrive? Or do you roll the dice and head elsewhere? Assuming the bite is on, how do you know if there will even be room to fish? Whatever you decide, know this: there is a strong probability that you will be wrong.

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“The deep of night has crept upon our talk, And nature must obey necessity.” Julius Caesar

I relish the bonhomie of the evening scotch-and-bull session as much as anyone. But I’m wiped out, guys, and I want to be fresh for tomorrow’s ass kicking. Good night.

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The nicest thing I can say about this particular day is that I got a decent photo.

Christmas 12:13

 

Ten Things Every Beginning Steelheader Should Know

“Ten Things Every Beginning Steelheader Should Know” first appeared in the October 2015 issue of Mid Atlantic Fly Fishing Guide. I had a lot of fun with this piece, as it mixes humor with practical advice. Even if you’re an old hand, you might find something useful here. Many thanks to MAFFG for allowing me to share it on currentseams.

So, you’ve decided that you’re going to take up fly fishing for steelhead. I don’t know whether to congratulate you or console you. No other form of fly fishing produces such soaring emotional highs or soul-crushing lows. But, the least I can do – as someone who was once in your bright-eyed position – is prepare you for what lies ahead.

Stop. Turn back now before it’s too late. Steelheading is an addiction. And once you’re hooked, dealers in the form of social media fishing reports, grip-and-grins, river conditions, dam release schedules (not to mention endless discussions about rods, reels, flies and gear) will have you at their command. “Obsession” is not too strong a word. Work, social, home life – will all suffer for the pursuit of fresh chrome. You think I’m writing this tongue-in-cheek. I am not.

Expect harsh weather. Great Lakes steelheading is largely a fall, winter, and early spring game. Be prepared for some of the most unforgiving conditions you’ve ever experienced: single digit (or lower) temperatures; lake effect snow; more lake effect snow; really, any and all forms of frozen precipitation. Truthfully, plain cold isn’t that bad. It’s the thirty-four-degrees-and-raining days that cut to the bone. Dressing like you’re going on an expedition to Everest is rarely a bad idea. Fleece is your friend. Think multiple, breathable layers. And those hand and toe warmers they sell in convenience stores? Buy many, many packs.

Prepare yourself for the demanding conditions of a big river. A skunking can be the least of your worries, as this sign along the banks of New York’s Salmon River warns.

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Find a tippet you can trust. The most obvious dichotomy in steelheading is that you’re using a light tippet to land a very big fish. So your tippet material must be small enough to remain unnoticed by the steelhead, and strong enough to withstand a heated battle. Here are two such materials: Drennan six-pound fluorocarbon and Maxima Chameleon six-pound nylon. Be ruthless about the condition of your tippets. Check them frequently for abrasions or wind knots. If you find problems, replace the tippet. You’ll be happy you did when you’re fighting that fifteen-pound hen fresh from the lake.

The flies are a little strange. You can catch steelhead with a tuft of Day-Glo yarn tied to a hook, or a few turns of Estaz wrapped around the shank. You may hesitate to call these things flies. Nonetheless, they work. Don’t be afraid to experiment with more traditional patterns and color palettes. Small, simple black stoneflies (like the 60-Second Redhead) and bead-head Pheasant Tail-types account for a significant number of my Great Lakes steelhead every season.

Fluorescent colors dominate a typical steelhead fly box. While egg patterns, gaudy bead heads and brightly accented stoneflies like these certainly catch fish, so do flies in muted, natural colors.

steelhead-flies

Life is not fair. Neither is steelheading. You can do everything right, from presentation to hook set to managing leaps to applying pressure, and still lose the fish. You can do all those things wrong and then land the fish. You can stand in a lineup while every angler above and below you hooks multiple fish and you blank. The spot where you caught a dozen one day is a barren steelhead wasteland the next. I gave up trying to figure it all out years ago.

Sometimes steelheading makes no sense. On this warm late November day, the river was high from snowmelt, the color of chocolate milk, with visibility of less than a foot – and we still had a tremendous day of fishing.

Steel Cam and Me

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Be prepared to put in your time. It took me forty hours of fishing to land my first steelhead. (It took my nine year-old son only thirty minutes. That was three years ago, and I’m still bitter about it. See “Life isn’t fair” above.) Experience will be your greatest teacher. Pay attention to factors like water temperature and water levels. For example, if the river is low, I know to head for what I call the hot water – snotty whitewater riffles and pockets. Learn where steelhead hang out in the cold winter months. Watch how other people fish. Note the methods of successful anglers. Most of all, get out and fish. You can’t catch steelhead from behind a desk.

Go find the fish. Don’t get lulled into thinking that because steelhead are migratory, they could show up at your feet any minute now. I’ve spent far too many hours – if not days – waiting for something to happen that never did. If you’ve blanketed a run with presentations and have come up empty, move. The fish that want to eat are somewhere else. And it is often true that where there is one hungry steelhead, there are many others.

Tom’s 60 Second Redhead, so named because it only takes a minute to tie. In this version, the abdomen is black Krystal Dub; the head red Ice Dub. This simple pattern excels in rivers with little black stonefly populations.

60Second RedHead

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Hook set is everything. I suspect that more steelhead are lost to poor hook sets and dull hook points than any other factors. Most of the steelhead I lose come unhinged in the first few seconds of the fight. Get in the habit of checking your hook points early and often. If they aren’t sticky sharp, replace them. If you’re presenting under an indicator, watch it like a hawk. Look for a reason to set the hook on every drift. Set hard with a downstream sweep. Get tight to that fish fast, and set the hook again. Then, hang on. This is where the fun begins.

Don’t let them breathe. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of a steelhead being in charge of any fight (though it’s true to some extent). Still, don’t let the fish intimidate you. Once your steelhead realizes that it’s hooked, it will want to run. Let it. It may want to leap and cartwheel. Enjoy the spectacle. But when it stops its histrionics, point the cork of your rod handle upstream, and crank that reel fast and hard. The fish stopped running because it’s exhausted. Don’t let it catch its breath. With a good hook set and a reliable tippet, you can put far more pressure on a fish than you think. Let the fish run again if it wants. Same drill: don’t let him breathe. Find that perfect equilibrium on your drag that makes the steelhead work hard for every foot of line without popping the tippet. Your goal is to land the fish as expeditiously as possible. The longer you play a steelhead, the more things can happen – and most of them are bad.

5mm neoprene insulated boot foot waders. In my opinion, this is the single greatest development in fly fishing for winter steelhead in the last 50 years.

Why we steelhead. Brilliant chrome from Lake Ontario, taken in two feet of whitewater during low flows on a black and purple North Country Spider Egg.

Fresh Chrome, November 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First steelhead of 2016 — and Gordon’s first ever

Why wait till November when you can have steelhead April? And so it was that Gordon and I found ourselves drifting under the Altmar bridge at 7:15am Thursday morning under the skilled oarsmanship of my favorite SR guide, James Kirtland, AKA Row Jimmy.

So. If you remember, the fall 2015 steelhead run was — ahem — disappointing. This spring’s run has been its reflection. Still, one can’t complain with full sun, temperatures rising into the high 50s, a couple cigars, your youngest son’s steelhead baptism, and no clients calling or chores to be done. I’d never been steelheading in the spring. (It’s quite civilized compared to the fall.) Now, all we needed was the banishment of the dreaded skunk.

Dad kicks things off with a still winter-dark buck. Got him in some fast water on a horrible double egg pattern I tied up. If you look closely, you’ll see why I nicknamed him “Uncle Milty.”

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I took his little brother about 50 yards down river. Shortly after that I dropped a good fish moments after hook set. I don’t know what happened there, as I was quick on the draw and had a sticky sharp hook. Such is the game. Next, it was Gordon’s turn.

Gordo’s a true DIYer. He cast, managed the drift, set the hook, and fought the steelhead all by himself. We’ll call this the action shot.

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Jim is an exceptional guide. Tremendous knowledge of the river, always with the positive waves, and some serious netting skills. And let’s not forget he’s a good teacher, seen here congratulating his star pupil moments after the battle won.

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Proud papa. You think?

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I had one more fish on between Pineville and 2A, but I forgot I had ratcheted my drag down to an unforgiving level to free a snag. Rats! The fish ran, and  let’s just say there was not a favorable result for me when the line came tight. Little things, Steven. Little things.

The day in numbers: 750cfs above Pineville, 1,200 below (and with some color). Water temp 42. Final boat tally, 3-for-5 (I’d sign for that any day). Gordo 1-for-1. i

Taken as a whole? Most definitely a 10.