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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About that steelhead report from last November…

Yeah, I know. It’s early March. Maybe I was subconsciously trying to forget the worst November since I started this madness. To tell the story in numbers: 5 days, 3 fish. And I felt like I was doing well. Day 1: one touch, one fish landed. Day 2: one touch, one fish landed. Day 3: 0-for-3, including a foul that I broke off. Back up for more abuse two weeks later. Day 4: 0-for-2, including another foul I disengaged. Day 5: one touch, one landed. Here are a few photos to keep you entertained.

I go on a tying binge the few weeks before a trip. Here’s my stash for the second one. You’ll recognize the usual suspects, but I added a few new (for me) patterns into the rotation, including a Montana Stone variant and Barber’s Chartreuse Head Stone.

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 Semi-chrome from day two, my favorite fish from both trips. After blanking the entire morning, I hiked out to find some solitude, and hopefully some action. I came upon several steelhead holding in smaller water, but they had no interest in what I was selling. Not too far away was a location that I’d had success in before, albeit in much higher water. I channeled my inner ninja and crept up on the hole. Third cast. 60 Second Redhead. Life was good.

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A variant of Jimmy Hunnicutt’s Blood on the Waters. This may seem like far too noble a fly to fish under an indicator, but I loved its energy, and I needed a little magic. I’d like to tell you that the fly produced on this occasion, but alas, it is resting comfortably somewhere on the bottom of the Wire Hole as you read this.

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Can you tell who was catching the most fish? Cam was my fishing buddy for the last two days. We both blanked on the first one, but that night, Cam announced that he had a good feeling about tomorrow. What prescience! He landed four fish that second day. And now he’s a real steelheader, having lost his first steelhead (after going 5-for-5 over his previous three trips). 

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November 2013 Steelhead: Fishing with Robert Zimmerman

Day One: Stuck inside of Altmar with the Pineville blues again.

Right from the start, I knew this trip was going to be a bust.

The river was pumping at 2000cfs. That’s high by anyone’s standards, and at that level vast stretches would be transformed into featureless aqua super highways. The weather was supposed to be bad. But the kicker was Bob and Bill. They had just returned from four days on the Salmon. Zero steelhead landed. Days between strikes.

There is a technical term for all this. “Sucks,” I think.

Then, there was last season. Six days of fishing from November through January. Only two steelhead to hand. Two days without a single touch. Yes, it would be fair to say that I was not stoked about this trip. But you don’t know if you don’t go. Maybe by some incongruous twist, my luck would change.

Five hours in, there was no sign that it would. We had left Connecticut before sunup and were on the water by 10am. A motion was made to focus on one of the Salmon’s diversions – small streams under normal conditions, but at 2K proper rivers. Jon was into steelhead right away, tussling with three in the first hour. Tommy and Todd decided to seek their fortunes downstream. I settled in on a 200-foot section that had a corner bend, riffles, and a mysterious dark hole. But nothing. It’s terrible when you’re wishing you were back home on the first day.

“Dang. I knew this was a stupid place to build a nest.”

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Finally, at 3pm, I hooked up. Not a steelhead, but a king salmon. I figured this would be me versus dead meat, but the fish treated me to some whale-like surface rolls and an earnest attempt at going airborne. With precious little action coming my way, I really wanted to land him. Fellow flyaddict Gary, who was downstream from me, went above and beyond trying to help me get it to shore. After a long walk, he and Jon were able to corral it. It wasn’t very attractive, and it was foul-hooked, but at least a skunk of some sorts was off.

I had one more take about an hour later. A steelhead, eight or nine pounds, fresh from the lake. As it performed its initial cartwheel, Gary wished aloud, “Stay on.” Seconds later, it was off. The new normal.

It was beginning to look like a long four days.

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Day Two: They’ll stone you when you’re floating in a boat.

I hemmed and hawed about floating the river solo. Before we left home, I had called Jim Kirtland (aka Row Jimmy, an excellent guide, and a fun person to spend a day with) to see if he had any open dates, and as luck would have it, he had a cancellation on Sunday. The rest of my group decided to wade, so I’d be going it alone. If I were lucky, I would not only catch steelhead, but also  gather intel on where they were hiding out.

We launched just before 7am. If you’ve never been, the Altmar boat launch is the upstate New York version of Burning Man. Instead of a towering tinder structure in human form, there’s the monolithic cement bridge. Replacing semi-nude hippy art chicks in furry leggings are porcine middle-aged men with near-ZZ Top facial hair, mad bomber hats, and camo hunting bibs. Not a fair trade, I’ll grant you. But it is an experience. Crowded. Chaotic. Carnival-like.

And of course, there is the jamoke factor, to which I contributed mightily. We had just passed under the bridge, and I put my second backcast over another angler’s line. To deflect my embarrassment, I announced to him that I was, in fact, a douche bag. And, if he ran into my friends later on the river, he should tell them what I douche bag I was. He laughed it off good-naturedly, and there were no further casting incidents. But the fishing was slow. One dropped steelhead in the first two hours.

We slipped down into some very promising water that I’d never fished before and anchored center stream. Egg patterns were getting me nowhere. So I announced that I was going to try little black stones. Every once in a while, you make an adjustment upon which the entire day turns. On my first cast, the bright yellow yarn indicator suddenly disappeared. I raised the rod tip and was greeted by a substantial pull at the other end. I lost the fish, but this was encouraging. Another take soon followed, and I began hooking steelhead in earnest. Whether it was a Copperhead Stone or a 60 Second Redhead or any of the many stonefly variants I tie, there was something going on down below hatch-wise that had the steelhead acting like winos at a Night Train open house. It certainly wasn’t the anecdotal fish on every cast, but it was as close to hooking an unreasonable number of steelhead in a brief period as I’ve ever experienced.

So much depends on a little black stonefly, nestled inside a steelhead’s mouth. The flies I was fishing were all tied on 2x strong, 2x short size 10 scud hooks. As Jim says, it’s hard to go wrong with black and copper on this river.

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The bite was so good that I hardly even noticed the wind-whipped downpour that parked over us for nearly an hour. All the while I kept telling Jim, “We’re staying here a little bit longer.” Damn right we are. In the midst of this embarrassment of riches, though, I began to feel self-conscious. What if Jon, Todd, and Tommy weren’t having any luck?

After two hours and close to fifteen steelhead, it was time to move on. We ran into the guys about a thousand yards downstream. Not to worry. They had found their own little paradise and were into a bounty of chrome, many of their steelhead in double-digit pounds. When Jim and I pulled out in Pineville, I shelved the idea of hiking over to meet them. I sat in the cabin at Fox Hollow and let the day’s events wash over me. A truly sensational steelhead buzz is hard to come by. I was going to savor this one, ably assisted by Mr. Adams and Mr. Fuente.

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Day Three: You want hard-boiled eggs.

I’ve known about trout beads for many years and I always poo-pooed them. But the winds of change were swirling. I told Jim yesterday that I’d even use that fluorocarbon tippet of his (Drennan 6-pound. I still hate knotting fluoro, but I’ll be damned if that stuff wasn’t so impressive at holding big fish that I went right out and bought a spool). So today, with vast reserves of steelhead currency safely banked, I decided to see what this bead thing was all about.

We were now a party of three. Todd and Jon decided to focus their efforts on a riffle downstream where Jim and I had observed scores of steelhead the day before. I was captivated by a lovely little pool upstream, and set up shop there. It wasn’t long before the indicator dipped, and my rod thrummed with energy. It was a steelhead – a small one, freshly minted, highly spirited. Since I was playing around with new things, I thought I should hand-strip a steelhead in for the first time. A substantial pod of skippers was passing through, so I got to do it again and again. They were all sub 16-inch fish, but perfect in their own guileless way. Some of them even displayed the fading parr marks. Original artwork suitable for framing.

Meanwhile, Todd and Jon had been waging war with some significantly bigger fish. They were fifty yards downstream, and I could hear their cackles over the chatter of the river and see the deep bends in their rods. I considered joining them, but I figured with steelhead, what is downstream must soon come up. Besides, this pool was my idea of perfection. It had a clearly defined center seam that held fish along its entire length. There was enough bottom structure to entice the steelhead to pause on their journey, but not enough to cause repeated snags. The current moved at casual walking pace, making line management a breeze. (I was focused on improving my line management on  this trip. Less slack line on the water meant a better hook set, and a better hook set meant less heartbreak.) And because I had it all to myself, I could work the pool at my leisure. Surely the moment I vacated it, someone would materialize out of the woods to claim the prize. I would be a fool to leave it now.

Why beads work. The shores of the pool were littered with naturals. Inquiring minds will want to know, so here it is: 8mm Glow Roe by Troutbeads. I know, I know, it’s not fly fishing. But it sure is fun.Image

Bigger fish started to move through, and they found my peach-hued plastic spheres to their liking. I could do no wrong. Even when I fair hooked a king salmon – certainly a late traveler, as he had a translucent tail and not a suggestion of rot on his body – he was landed despite the fact that I was using six-pound for tippet. (Not to be ignored was some brilliant net work from Jon. Using a landing net without a handle, both he and Todd had perfected their technique, and I am grateful to them for helping me bring so many good steelhead to hand.)

Not bad for 6-pound tippet. I’ve never seen a king in this good condition this far into the season. Note that his head is bigger than mine — not an easy feat any time of year. 

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As I reached the quarter-century mark of steelhead hooked, the enormity of the day began to sink in. If there is such a thing as good steelhead karma, it was truly directed at me. The bitter memories of last year’s fishless outings and numb fingers  seemed impossible now to recall, let alone understand. And that’s when I decided to swing.

You hear stories of people who do nothing but swing flies for steelhead. They are content to go days without a strike if it means the opportunity to hook a single fish with this purest of methods. I admire their conviction; clearly their spiritual resolve is stronger than mine.  Armed with the confidence of a constant stream of fresh steelhead, I pulled from my box a streamer I had tied specifically for this trip: the Grapefruithead Leech. It’s basically an oversized egg-sucking leech with a contrasting head of fuchsia and chartreuse. On it went, and off I went to the other side of the pool where the fast water met the edge of the sod bank.

The take was not what I expected. I was hoping for an earth-shattering kaboom. But instead it was a dull thud, albeit a sizeable one. “Are you in?” asked Jon from the opposite bank? “Yes!” I shouted back, and we were off to the races. The steelhead quickly found the riffles below me, and so began an extended dance of silver, spray, and prayer. At one point I thought the fish was foul hooked; but as she move into more clement waters, I could see that the leader had wrapped around one of her pectoral fins during one of her flurries of leaping madness. The tippet came free with the sound of a plucked guitar string, and I was afraid I would lose her. In the fading light, I directed her between two downed trees along the bank hundreds of feet below where I had hooked her.

She sped off before I could take her picture, kissing my face with a spray of water.

~

Day Four: I didn’t feel so cold then.

The bargaining phase works in reverse. That is, you can have beyond-wildest-dreams fortune, and negotiate downward: “I’ve caught far more steelhead in the last two days than I have in the last two years. So if you make the fishing lousy today, I won’t mind.” Lousy fishing seemed inevitable. Even reasonable, given the cold front and snow showers that were supposed to come through today.

Not a chance. On my first cast I hooked a sixteen-inch steelhead that made a laborious tour of the run, complete with several aerials, taking far more time than any sixteen-inch fish had a right to before coming to hand. A creature of routine and habit, I was back in the same pool, with Todd and Jon once again downstream. Within the first hour, I had landed three, the last two about eight pounds each, gleaming with the metallic brilliance of Lake Ontario. Without a landing posse, I had to steer both fish away from the swift water at the tailout and beach them in the shallows. But steelhead of eight pounds or less are usually manageable, even if they are obstreperous. Besides, I was fishing with newfound confidence, and I did not fear losing them.

Three steelhead were enough for me on beads, and I happily returned to the fly. My fourth came on a Copperhead Stone, neatly planted in ivory mouth. I stalked that fish with the utmost care after I noticed him porpoise in some glassy water near the head of the pool. My presentation was upstream, as delicate as I would have made it to a trout sipping spinners. I felt great satisfaction when I hooked and landed that fish.

But, the nature of steelheading is that you will lose fish. As skilled an angler as you may be, it only takes a little bad decision-making or a little bad luck. I managed both with my largest steelhead of the trip. A buck with shoulders, well into double-digit pounds took my purple Steelhead Hammer. Down the run he went, tail-dancing and cavitating before sulking on the bottom. I had re-learned from Jim the concept of not letting the fish breathe: that is, after an exhausting run, the steelhead will pause to regroup. The angler should not. This is the time to press the fish; kick him when he’s down; take unfair advantage of his oxygen deficit. I began to reel, the butt of my rod pointed upstream, a deep flex in the blank.

This merely annoyed the fish. Big steelhead aren’t like their smaller brethren. You simply cannot dictate terms to them. At least not early in the fight. He burst upstream with an almost otherworldly power, over the riffles at the head and into the pool above. This was worrisome, but I was still confident I’d land him. I had a good initial hookset, and I had hit the fish again when he was down below me. I’d be holding this one in my hands soon.

And just like that, things went south. Downstream came the fish, barreling over the riffles and streaking past me with frightening speed. To keep tight to him, I had to decide instantly: strip the line or crank the reel like a maniac. I have done both and landed fish. Today I chose wrong. As I frantically reeled, the tip of the rod wobbled like an antenna in a windstorm. I was so focused on the fish, I didn’t notice the line curling around the tip of the rod. I came tight to the steelhead. Too late, I saw the imminent danger. He ran farther downstream. The coiled line tightened around the rod. Tippet strained. In an instant, he was gone.

I stood in the river, alone and fishless.

The cold front arrived around noon, bringing lake effect snow. I could still see steelhead coming through the run, but the bite was over. And at three o’clock, we decided, so was our trip.

The obligatory grip-and-grin. This was our trip in microcosm: plentiful fresh fish. Lots of smiles.

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Two. For Two.

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.

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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. 

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“Dad,” Cameron said on the ride home, “you were really happy after you caught that fish.”

I was, too.