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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.