Salmon River steelhead report: Cruel to be kind

I do my best to understand, dear, but you still mystify — and I don’t think I’ll ever know why.

Why does a cold front always seem to come through on the day I booked months ago?

Why won’t the steelhead take the fly — any fly — on this particular day?

Why do steelhead glom onto only small black stones or only fluorescent orange eggs or…?

Why do I subject myself to this?

These are the questions I ponder at night over a glass of single malt. Finding the answers isn’t necessarily the goal — or even a realistic outcome. It’s just part of the Kabuki known as steelhead madness.

Monday: I call it “Salmon River Sunshine.” It refers to the snow, rain, sleet, and the more esoteric forms of lake-effect precipitation. Today it was white pellets and snow. It started around 7am — we’d launched at 6 — and it went full throttle pretty much all morning. The stuff stuck to the boat, our gear, hoods, gloves —  no horizontal surface was spared. Now, I’ve had plenty of good days fishing in crap weather, but this wasn’t one of them. Not a single touch the entire day. We were surely fishing over steelhead, because Cam hooked five, landing three. Okay, so he was using egg sacks. But shouldn’t I have gotten at least a courtesy tap?

I tend to view these situations as a half full/half empty dichotomy: I’m fishing well, my drifts are good, I’m alert and ready to set the hook, and I know there are steelhead below. But as much as I will it to be so, they just won’t take the fly. That’s more than a little frustrating when you’ve driven hours so you can shiver in your boots for the skunk while standing in five inches of slush in the bottom of a boat.

Of course, the salve for this day was how well Cam fished. (He hooked and landed more steelhead than any other angler we saw or spoke to.) Being a proud papa can do wonders for your spirits, so I went all in on that. And I reminded myself that in any multi-day trip, the fighting is in rounds.

When I sent this photo to my wife, her comment was, “Even the fish looks cold.” That’s our guide, James Kirtland of Row Jimmy Guide Service.  I’ve become a much better steelhead angler because of him. Highly recommended.

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~

Tuesday: Having blanked on two of my four steelhead days this fall, I was ready to negotiate an agreement using my fly fishing soul as collateral. I’m talking, of course, about trout beads. Yes, they are proven steelhead catchers. No, they are not flies. But it’s my trip and I can do whatever the hell I want. Purists among you will be pleased to know that I blanked for the two hours I used them. (I have to confess that I wasn’t all that upset about it, either.)

I’d had some success the previous week on a pattern called a Breaking Skein Glitter Fly. It’s basically a Crystal Meth with a pearl Krystal Flash tail and some white Estaz ribbed between the fluorescent orange braid loops. Wasn’t I the happiest angler on the river when my indicator went under and the line thrummed with energy?

After 11 consecutive hours of skunk, that’ll put a smile on your face. I had to earn this one. It was a fresh, energetic fish, and after a couple line burning runs it decided that the boat was a cut bank and parked underneath it. Picture me leaning over the bow, rod tip in the water, trying to coax it out. Seconds became years, but we finally had our grip and grin.

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~

This year’s fishing was different for me in that all my steelhead came on bright, flashy patterns. I spent many hours presenting small black stones (Redheads, Copperheads, etc.) and any number of natural-toned soft-hackles to no avail. They wanted the bling. (I did hook and drop a fish on a 60-Second Copperhead). By the time ice in the rod tips was no longer a factor, Cam had boated three, and I’d taken my second on the Breaking Skein Glitter Fly.

It’s a very, very, very good sign.

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~

It was now early afternoon and time was a thief. I’d gotten a bump on a hot orange Salmon River Rajah fished under an indicator, so I rolled the dice, ditched the yarn, and embarked on a little swinging adventure. I gave it the better part of an hour, but in the end I went back to the Breaking Skein well. My last steelhead ate the fly with fierce conviction, but I whiffed on the set. We got a good look at it when it boiled, and we ruefully concurred that it was the biggest fish of the day. Oh, the cruelty! I kept pounding the slot the fish had been holding in, and ten minutes later the steelhead gods showed their kindness as the fish struck and I buried the hook in the corner of its mouth. Like my first fish, this buck cartwheeled down the pool, then made a beeline for the security of under the boat. At double digit pounds, this steelhead needed some firm pressure to get him to relinquish his position. In the end, the hoop of the net encircled him, and smiles decorated every face.

On Tuesday, November 21st, 2017, the steelhead loved this fly. On Monday, November 20th, 2017, they ignored it. Don’t ask me why.

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~

Cam was high hook both days and for the trip, with seven total steelhead, three of them in some nasty, difficult conditions. Dad was three-for-five. But as I tell Cam, if I can land just one steelhead, that’s a good day.

Lee Wulff was right. As was Nick Lowe. (In the right measure.) 

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Salmon River steelhead report: a little boating, a little hiking, and (finally) some catching

Tuesday: The Salmon can be tough on the fly at 1,650cfs. Then again, I’ve had some of my best days in four-digit flows. With all that water, the fish would have been on the move, then doing their best sardine impression once they reached their wintering destinations in the pools above Pineville. What’s more, a drift boat would give me access to places no fly rod could reach.

You can maintain a positive outlook, plan for the best — or if you’re superstitious, make burnt offerings to the steelhead gods. But in the end, they are in control. And today their answer was no. We saw five steelhead hooked all day from Altmar to Pineville. Four of them came in a 15 minute window, and three of them on plugs. My day’s excitement came when I fouled one below Ellis Cove. I don’t think that fish stopped until it reached Port Ontario.

I fished hard and I fished well, which is all any angler can do. But the best thing I can say about the day was that I got to sleep in. Getting up at 4am for the skunk would have been mortally depressing.

~

Wednesday: A-creeking I did go. I was on the water by 7am, my optimism unswayed by two discouraged anglers heading to their truck. They had been there since first light without a touch. I blanked as well, and then for good measure hiked a quarter mile downstream to blank again. I drove to Creek B and never got close to the water. A guide was making his way across a field with two weary clients in tow. The walk of shame is highly distinguishable from the march of victory, and I knew what their answer was before I asked the question. In fact, the guide reported, there were pinners using egg sacks who blanked. With a sigh I headed back to the Salmon.

This was supposed to be a picture of a steelhead. But since there were no willing subjects, I had to settle for an early morning still life.

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I gave two runs in the middle river an hour. It was still morning, so I headed for the LFZ lot in Altmar. I had enough wanderlust left in me to make the ridiculous decision to walk to the UFZ. It’s a proper haul by itself, never mind in 5mm boot foots. I hadn’t fished the top end of the UFZ in years, and while it was pleasant enough getting reacquainted, it was far too much work for the consolation prize of a single YOY steelhead.

I made it back to the truck by 4pm. I’d always avoided the LFZ — crowds are generally not my thing — but with the specter of another lousy trip ominously stalking me, I headed in. And that simple choice made all the difference.

Starting the transition from chrome to dark horse.

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~

Thursday: There are two things I’ll get up early for, and steelhead is one of them. I was awake without the alarm at 4:44am, first vehicle in the lot, and on the water before false dawn. I met up with UpCountry Sportfishing’s Torrey Collins and some of his friends, and everyone got into steelhead. Great bunch of guys to fish with. The sharing energy extended beyond hookups, from rotating the line to netting fish to passing out victory cigars.

My last fish of the day was a memorable one. I was telling Torrey about the fly I was using, the Salmon River Rajah, when I got snagged on the bottom. (I’d found the inspiration for it, The Rajah, in a book called Fly Patterns of Alaska. I didn’t like a lot of the materials the pattern called for, so I switched them out for ones that I thought moved and breathed and gave the fly an entirely different energy.) Two roll casts failed to free the fly, so I waded upstream and pulled until it came loose. As I was stripping the fly in to check the hook point, whack! Steelhead on. And soon, landed.

Grinning like a ‘possum eating a sweet potato. I caught my first steelhead in 2009, and while I don’t generally count fish, steelhead are different. I’ve been keeping track over the years, feast or famine, and this is the 75th steelhead I’ve landed.

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~

Steelhead can’t think, but if they could, that buck might have decided, “I want that!” Change bucktail to soft hackle fibers, tinsel to holographic braid, chenille to Estaz, and polar bear to Arctic fox, and you’ve got a Salmon River Rajah. More than once I’ve seen a steelhead go out of its way to eat this fly.

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I went to Pulaski and all I got was this lousy snow storm

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.

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~

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.”

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Shakespearean Steelhead in the Fall 2015 Issue of The Drake

A little angst and black humor, something any steelheader can relate to. It’s called “Steelheading: A Tragedy in Several Acts,” and you can read it in the current issue of The Drake. It makes the supposition that Shakespeare may not have really been writing about Danish princes, Roman emperors, and star-crossed Italian lovers….

Did Shakespeare chase chrome? Let’s find out.

Drake Cover Fall 2015

Salmon River Steelhead 11/24/14: Fishing With Joe Friday

Where: We floated from Altmar to 2A

Duration of trip: About eight hours and thirty minutes

Number of spots we fished: Two

Water level and color when we started: 475cfs and clear

Water level below Orwell and Trout Brooks: 800cfs and rising, color somewhere between tea and chocolate milk with a splash of leaves

Weather: Cloudy and cool to sunny and in the 60s(!). Two brief showers. Windy.

Number of steelhead we hooked: 12, plus one foul we broke off (got the fly back)

Number of steelhead we landed: 9

Number of times I handed the fly rod off to Cam after hook set: 3

Number of steelhead Cam landed: 3, including one hyperactive jumper

Cam’s first steelhead landed on a fly rod. He’s a natural.

Steel Cam 11-24-214

Number of steelhead Cam has played on a fly rod before this year: Zero

Cam’s batting average in his three-year steelhead career: 1.000 (Five for five. Proud papa.)

Kind of flies I caught them on upriver in the clear water: small stones and soft-hackled nymphs, size 10 and 12

Pattern I caught them on in the dirty swill water: size 8 Bead Head Lifter, Pink/Chartreuse and Blue/Chartreuse

Downriver, I figured I’d need a hi-vis pattern to get the fish’s attention. I hemmed and hawed, considered an Egg-Sucking Leech or other streamer, then tried an Estaz Egg/San Juan Worm pattern. No. Tied on the Bead Head Lifter, got the answer I was looking for, and kept it on for the rest of the afternoon.

BH LIfter

Number of steelhead I thought we’d catch in the dirty swill water: Zero

Number of steelhead we caught: 6

Ugh. Miles of dirty water. Scores of beleaguered anglers lining the shores. At least they could have gotten into their trucks and driven upriver. But we were bound by the confines of the boat, gravity, and what nature had thrown at us. As the saying goes, you don’t know if you don’t go. Six steelhead landed is a damn good afternoon, any day. In swollen mucky runoff, it’s lottery lucky. Wow. We’ll take it.

Steel Cam and Me

Guide rating: Highest marks. Jim Kirtland has what you’d call deep domain knowledge of the Salmon. His netting skills are exceptional. Very recommended.

Number of steelhead we landed on our two previous floats with Jim: 3 (I guess we were due.)

Number of steelhead I landed in 2012: 1 (sometimes the bear eats you).

Number of steelhead I’ve landed in the last 13 months: 41 (sometimes you eat the bear).

On a scale of 1-10, energy I felt from being out on the river on a spring-like November day with my son catching steelhead: C’mon.