Early-Spring Steelhead on the Salmon River

Wade the still-icy pools of New York's Salmon River to intercept steelhead on their journey to spawn upstream.

I had been fishing from sunrise to sunset for 3 days straight. My legs were numb, and if the water weren’t so clear that I could look down and see them on the gravel bottom of the river, I would have told you I didn’t have any feet. There was ice in the guides of my fly rod and icicles hanging from my nose. The temperature had dropped and it was snowing. I was shivering and my hands were cold, even in my wool gloves. The handwarmers had cooled off and were now just small, hard beanbags taking up space in my pockets. I would have been pretty miserable if I hadn’t had a big early-spring steelhead on the end of my line.

I had moved up and down the river the last few hours, jockeying around other fishermen and trying to get to a good spot. Finally, I got my chance in the deep, slow pool just upstream of the bridge in the lower fly-fishing section of New York’s Salmon River. My friend Shreve was just across the river in a spot where we had seen fish caught the day before, though in those same three days of hard fishing, we had not had a single hit. I had cycled through different tactics and flies and now, at the end of the trip, reverted back to the old standby, a black Wooly Bugger, thrown into the current and followed through the drift on a semi-tight line. Several casts later, partway through the drift, my line just stopped. At the risk of sounding cliché, it felt like I was stuck on the bottom. However, when the tail of a steelhead the size of a small broom waved through the slick water at the surface of the pool, I knew that wasn’t the case.

early-spring steelhead
Hours of wading in frigid water are the cost of admission for catching steelhead. (Photo courtesy of Liam O’Neill)

I always thought I would make a good steelhead fisherman. I had heard it involved fishing for many hours at a time without catching anything. I thought, heck, I do that all the time. No problem. But, even being a hunter and fisherman from the Northeast who’s used to enduring the cold, my perseverance was going to be put to the test.

The Salmon River and Pulaski, New York, are known throughout the Northeast as a fishing mecca for migrating salmon, brown trout, and steelhead. Some argue that the stocked fishery doesn’t compare to the wild migratory steelhead on the West Coast. That may be, and I am not qualified to judge, but the possibility of catching a 10-pound trout on my fly rod was pretty enticing, no matter where it came from so I had to try it. I read books, watched videos, and talked to people who had been there. There was no shortage of information, but a key piece of advice that stuck out was “Go simple. It’s not usually the fly.” Plus, I had a few things going for me, the most important of which was beginner’s luck.

March Steelhead Fishing on the Salmon River

In the Salmon River, steelhead spawn from mid-March to early April, although some fish remain in the river until May. As steelhead prepare to spawn, they can be especially picky, but a little local knowledge goes a long way.  I caught up with Mike Ariola of Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop in Pulaski on what to expect when fishing the Salmon River in the early spring.

What are Steelhead doing in March?

According to Mike, March is the month of opportunity. By the middle of the month, there are fresh fish heading in from Lake Ontario to join all the fish that wintered over in the river, meaning that there will be big numbers of fish in the system. As the spawning season progresses, mild weather creates greater feeding opportunities and steelhead let their guard down to feed before their return to open water.

Where to find Early-Spring Steelhead

In March, steelhead settle into the deeper pools of the Salmon River, where they stage to feed on loose eggs (from suckers and their fellow steelhead), terrestrial insects, and small baitfish that drift downstream in the current.

Steelhead spawn in shallower runs with gravel bottoms. For that reason, some anglers avoid fishing these areas to allow the fish to reproduce. However, spawning steelhead are often easily spotted and pressured by other anglers, making them less inclined to bite. According to Mike, the upper stretches of the river near Altmar tend to fish better in March due to more stable, cleaner water conditions.

Flies for March

early-spring steelhead flies

Egg patterns and stonefly nymphs are often the top producers for Salmon River steelhead in March. Nymphs especially excel when steelhead are laid up in those deeper pools. Worm patterns, sucker spawn, and even Wooly Buggers can produce as well.


When water levels increase in mid-March due to melting snow and ice, steelhead that spent the winter in Lake Ontario receive the cue that it’s time to spawn, and they join fish that have been in the river since fall. If waters rise too high, however, it can be difficult for anglers to fish effectively and safely from the bank.

According to Mike, ideal water conditions for steelhead are when flow levels fall around 500 to 750 cubic feet per second, but seasoned Salmon River steelheaders fish in flows up to 1,000 cubic feet per second from the bank and a bit higher than that from a drift boat.

Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop
3750 NY-13, Pulaski, NY

The steelhead begin to arrive late in the fall, usually sometime in November after the salmon run ends. High water from a heavy rain usually triggers the fish to enter the river, where they spend the winter.  It’s possible to fish for them by carefully dead-drifting nymphs and egg patterns in deeper, slower water. In the spring, more fish enter the river, and spawning takes place upstream around the upper fly-fishing-only area, which is closed to fishing until April 1. After the spawn, the fish make their way back downstream to Lake Ontario. 

early-spring steelhead
A darker coloration, such as on this early-spring steelhead, indicates that the fish has been in the river a while. (Photo by Liam O’Neill)

Aside from the fish, the most notable factor in fishing the Salmon River is the crowds. Big fish and an easy drive from several major cities make “beating the crowds” a significant part of planning a trip. We went earlier in the spring and worked in a few weekdays off to try and avoid some of the pressure. The few months before the trip, my computer password at work was “Chromer4me.” My hopes were high.

The first morning found me brushing snow off the truck and scraping the windshield while the heater ran full blast. It was the first time I had been fly fishing in cold conditions. I was tired from the long drive from Vermont the day before and hadn’t slept well due to noises coming through the thin walls of the cheapest hotel room I could find. There are multiple large state-fishing-access areas along State Route 13 between Pulaski and Altmar. As Shreve and I cruised along the river in the pre-dawn darkness on our first morning, all the lots were empty. I was puzzled, expecting to see the mobs of people I had heard about. I was encouraged, but a little worried at the same time. Was I doing something wrong? Where was everybody?

My questions evaporated like mist off the river when we pulled into the lot of the lower fly-fishing section in Altmar. Even though we arrived before dawn, there were no parking spaces left, and I just barely managed to slide the truck into a gap at the edge of the trees. We were there to fish so got right to it, rigging up and heading off to try and find a piece of water, though it wasn’t easy. The best water already had several fishermen claiming their positions.

Steelhead spawn in shallower runs with gravel bottoms. For that reason, some anglers avoid fishing these areas to allow the fish to reproduce. (Photo by Mike Kohler)

We spent the next few days exploring, and it was a lot of fun. Even though it was crowded, the easy access and trails along the water allowed us to walk a long way to find our own hole. We tried areas near the empty parking lots, but we saw most of the fish activity upstream around the other fishermen, so that’s where we spent most of our time. We had some pleasant conditions during the day, and while we didn’t hook any early-spring steelhead, we saw others do so and witnessed the impressive display of a hooked steelhead jumping well above the water. I did land a small brown trout while swinging a fly just upstream of a large tree lying in the water, and it encouraged me to think that there might be some other, bigger fish holding in the prime lie, but I never saw another fish there. There were other places where there were fish, though. An overgrown rainbow trout rolled calmly at the surface only a rod’s length away a few times, providing hope and motivation to keep casting.

On our last morning, we knew we needed to be on the river earlier. Shreve is a good sport, never says no to any of my suggestions, and fishes for endless hours in sometimes brutal conditions without complaint. We have fished together in almost unbearable cold, as well as times it was so hot that my fly line melted in the sun.

We strung up our rods and pulled on our cold waders in the dark near the river. We were able to get into some of the good water we’d seen occupied by other anglers the day before and felt good about our chances; however, as the sun came up, it seemed to get colder. It felt like mid-winter, with a cold wind tearing through the bare tree branches high on a bluff over the river. I was dressed correctly to tough it out, though, and diligently drifted my fly (a nymph under an indicator) repeatedly through a prime section of water. I was interrupted only by the fly line of a fisherman upstream as it was pulled past me by a big fish he had hooked.

early-spring steelhead
In March, steelhead settle into the deeper pools of the Salmon River, where they stage to feed on loose eggs (from suckers and their fellow steelhead), terrestrial insects, and small baitfish that drift downstream in the current. (Photo by Mike Kohler)

I was again encouraged that fish were here, but as I tried to warm my hands, I thought maybe I should have made my password “Chromer4mePLEASEGOD!” It then turned even colder and started to snow. As it came down heavy and was blowing sideways, I finally felt I had to give up my spot and move or risk freezing in place in the river. As I moved, my feet felt like blocks of wood.

I made my way past Shreve, who hadn’t had any action either. Working back around to the parking area, I stayed out of the water and tried to warm up a little. It seemed like there were fewer cars, and I wondered if the turn in the weather had driven a lot of folks away. As I watched others fish, I soon realized that nobody was in the pool by the bridge anymore. I grabbed my rod and waded back into the icy water, eager to fish what looked like the best spot in the stretch. It was deeper water than I had been fishing, with some swirling currents that made a true dead-drift tricky, which is why I reverted to a simple, weighted Wooly Bugger on a tight line. 

The early-spring steelhead thrashing at the surface drew looks from other anglers nearby, and for a moment, I was in the spotlight. The fish was strong despite the cold water, and every time I got it into the shallows, it made another surge into the current. I eventually got it into my hands and was amazed by its girth. Until then, the biggest rainbow I had caught was probably about an 18-inch stocked fish that had managed to somehow survive a whole year in the stream. I was blessed to have an angler nearby who was excited to snap a few pictures for me before I released the fish back into the pool.

early-spring steelhead
“When water levels increase in mid-March due to melting snow and ice, steelhead that spent the winter in Lake Ontario receive the cue that it’s time to spawn, and they join fish that have been in the river since fall.”

Floating on cloud nine, no longer feeling the cold, I waded back to the same spot and threw the same fly into the gray, swirling water. After the last few days fishing for so many hours with no bites, I was shocked when a few casts later, I hooked another fish from the same spot! It was a twin of the first, and while it was a heavy, strong fish, this one seemed to come to hand just a little easier. I felt lucky to finally land a few of these fish after spending so long trying. Shreve was directly across the stream now, and we exchanged an enthusiastic fist pump in the air. He made his way across the bridge to my side while I tried to get my line back in order and my rod free of the ice encasing the guides. We tried to keep fishing, but Shreve found his reel was frozen solid and would not turn. It seemed to have gotten even colder and was very windy—the temperature must have been in the teens. When I left the water, my waders froze solid and I couldn’t bend my legs, leaving me waddling up the shoreline like I had 2x4s strapped to my thighs.

After climbing out of our gear and collapsing the cold, wet mess just enough to shove it into the backseat, we sat in the truck with the heater blasting and sipped the remnants of lukewarm coffee from the Thermos. I was amazed that after three days of fishing, I had hooked my early-spring steelhead in the last 15 minutes of the trip.

Putting in the time and not giving up are important factors in all types of fishing, but perhaps even more so in the world of steelhead. If you just keep fishing, stay positive and enjoy the process, there is always the chance that the very next cast could have you hooked up to the biggest trout of your life.

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