Fishing the Salmon River for Steelhead
Why Brave the Elements?
When you consider that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation stocks more than 120,000 Chambers Creek-strain steelhead in the Salmon River system every year and the returning fish can weigh more than 10 pounds, you begin to understand the reason. If that’s not enough, the largest steelhead tend to enter the river in December. It’s not uncommon to hook fish that are 15-plus pounds. Of course, landing one is another story.
Since many anglers are also hunters, the opening of deer season in New York and the surrounding states draws anglers from the Salmon River into the woods, leaving the waters less crowded, and add in the appeal of fishing during a soft snowfall with a good friend and a thermos full of hot coffee. Of course, the appeal won’t last as long as the hot coffee if you’re not prepared with the right gear, beginning with warm clothing.
Dress for Success
Winter anglers visiting the Salmon River should be aware of the dress code. We’re not talking jacket and tie, but good layering and quality wading gear.
For the first layer, forget the waffle-weave long johns and go straight to the newest generation of fleece. Its lightweight warmth and comfort far exceed the bulk and sogginess of what was available in the past.
For the cold winter temperatures in northern New York, more layering is necessary. Look for a mid-weight micro-fleece and a heavier fleece garment. Top those off with a breathable waterproof shell. To touch on the technical, these under- and mid-layer garments are designed to trap your body heat while wicking moisture to the outside, away from the skin, to be evaporated. The under-garment material is designed to be comfortably worn directly on the skin. The mid-layer is knit more tightly to keep body heat in while the fibers still allow moisture to escape. Finally, the outer shell is designed to be lightweight and breathable while keeping rain and melting snow from dampening anything underneath.
Waders and Jackets
Until neoprene came on the scene about 20 years ago, winter wading was all but impossible. Sure, a few diehards gave valiant efforts for a short stint now and then; however, most of us were relegated to watching fishing shows on television, wishing for spring. Neoprene made it possible for us to get out there, but has its drawbacks too. The waders are heavy and bulky, and tend to feel soggy on the inside. They also take up a lot of space when traveling and storing.
Next came “breathable” waders. Not only do they keep you dry, they are lightweight and comfortable, and allow space to layer up and stay warm in cold water. Only one problem remained—how to keep the feet warm, since wading shoes don’t provide warmth.
Some manufacturers started making breathable waders with a heavy-duty, insulated boot-foot, the same type found on neoprene waders. The same advances can be found in the newer windproof/waterproof wading jackets. As important as it is to keep your legs and feet warm and dry, it is equally important to keep the rest of your body in the comfort zone—and still be able to accomplish casting. By employing the new undergarments, an appropriate next layer or two, an efficient wading jacket, and then topping off the ensemble with a warm cap, anglers can now be dressed for winter fishing success. The next challenge is finding the fish.
Fall-run steelhead are known for their aggressive, sometimes violent, takes, but winter steelhead aren’t quite as accommodating—often, the take is almost imperceptible. The reason for the personality change is the declining water temperature. Forty degrees (give or take a degree) seems to be a pivotal point between aggressive fall behavior and a more dormant winter reaction. Successful winter anglers should change their “tempos” to keep pace with the fish.
The colder water, which brings about this change in feeding habits, also changes where the fish lie. Steelhead move from fast riffles and runs to deeper, calm pools. The need for the move is obvious: like all cold-blooded creatures, a steelhead’s metabolism slows when the temperature drops. With the food source—the leftover eggs from spawning salmon—now in short supply, the fish can’t afford to waste the energy it takes to stay in fast-moving water. So, the aggressive fall steelhead that eagerly darted four to five feet to grab a passing morsel is now hesitant to move four or five inches. Thus, a successful winter steelhead angler is one who patiently and methodically covers the water. Something to keep in mind, though, is that any actively-feeding steelhead are found most often at the head and tail of a pool where the food is found. The deeper mid-section of the pool usually holds more dormant fish. Therefore, the best approach is to patiently and methodically cover the head and tail of a pool rather than spend time trying to dredge up a comatose steelhead from the bottom.
It can’t be over-stressed that patience is the major key to success. Winter steelheading has been defined as “hours of boredom punctuated by brief moments of extreme panic.” If you want to experience the panic, you must practice the patience.
The Salmon River has an abundance of deep pools that accommodate the needs of wintering steelhead. Starting at the lower end of the river and moving upstream, a few well-known pools include the Joss Hole, the Wall Hole, and the Little Black Hole within “the Douglaston Salmon Run.” Continuing upriver through the village of Pulaski is the Black Hole, followed by the Long Bridge Pool, the Short Bridge Pool (a.k.a. Town Hole), the 81 Hole, and the Paper Mill. In the section from the Paper Mill to the village of Pineville, popular spots include the Compactor, the Sportsman, and the Pineville Bridge pools. From Pineville to Altmar are the Hemlock, the Abandoned Trestle, Ellis Cove, and the Schoolhouse pools. These are a few highlights, but there are numerous other good pools that hold winter steelhead.
Of special interest to fly-fishers is the “flyfishing only/catch and release” area on the upper end of the Salmon River. It’s broken into two sections. The lower of the two starts at the upstream side of the Altmar Bridge and continues in that direction for a quarter of a mile to the obvious boundary marked by a cable across the river. The next mile of river is part of the hatchery system and is set aside for brooding fish. The upper fly-fishing-only area is closed from November 30 to April 1.
Now that you’re dressed for success and know where to find fish, arm yourself with the right equipment. A 9-foot, 6- or 7-weight is the preferred rod for winter steelheaders on the Salmon River. A medium-size reel with a smooth drag and enough capacity for 150 yards of backing is a must.
When it comes to choosing the right line, forget everything you learned about matching it to the rod. The preferred line is floating running line, for two reasons. First, the thinner line carries less water on the retrieve, which helps keep the guides from freezing as quickly. Second, because the fish are feeding on or near the bottom, you’ll need to add some type of weight to get the fly down as quickly as possible. If an angler uses a 6-weight rod and 6-weight line with added split shot, the rod is overloaded and becomes difficult to cast. However, adding weight to the running line does not overload the rod.
A common mistake of novice winter anglers is to use a sinking line, but it doesn’t work as well as a floating running line. Keep in mind that winter steelhead are slow on the take, so the fly should be presented more slowly than the natural flow of the river. As soon as a sinking line hits the water, it starts to sink, leaving an angler at the mercy of the current. Using a floating running line with a long leader and split shot, the angler can mend the line on the surface, effectively slowing down the presentation to the fish underneath.
The amount of weight to use depends on the speed and depth of the water. A good rule of thumb is to use enough to feel it tap the bottom several times each drift. (Getting stuck occasionally is a sure sign that enough weight is being used.) The Salmon River has a very rocky bottom, so to keep from losing too many flies, leave the tag end of the blood or surgeon’s knot when adding tippet and connect the split shot to the tag.
Winter steelhead tend to be line-shy, making it necessary to use a relatively light tippet—4- to 6-pound-test fluorocarbon. When it comes to flies, there is a seemingly endless list of favorites. A few tried-and-true patterns include Glo-Bugs and Hamon Eggs in a variety of colors, as well as pheasant tail, hare’s ear, and prince nymphs. Sizes range from 12 to 18. Other popular patterns include Sno-flies and Estaz eggs.
A Method to the Madness
Tips and Techniques Success requires matching knowledge and tech nique with a few tips. Like all river fish, steelhead face upstream and have good peripheral vision. It’s important to approach a hole cautiously from the downstream side, fishing the water closest to you first. Since the fish aren’t willing to move more than a few inches, it is important to thoroughly cover each area before moving on. It is also a good idea to change flies and rework the same area. A strike indicator is a great tool for effectively covering the water and increasing the odds of detecting the light take of a winter steelhead. When in doubt, set the hook.
Each successive cast should be presented about six inches farther than the one before. The goal is not to throw and retrieve the fly as usual, so an effective drift means that the angler retrieves as little line as possible while allowing the fly to drift along close to the bottom, working its way downstream until the rod is nearly parallel to the shoreline. In other words, don’t stop the fly short of a full drift through the run or pool. Slowly lift the fly out of the water, and in one smooth motion, cast the fly again, presenting it slightly upstream and a few inches farther away than the last cast.
On really cold days it is just a matter of time before ice starts to form on the rod guides. To help minimize this problem, carry a small can of Pam cooking spray, regularly and liberally applying it to each guide. The thin coating of vegetable oil makes it difficult for ice to form and is safe for both the environment and the equipment.
When ice does form on the rod, hold the frozen section under the water and wiggle it back and forth for a few seconds. Remove it from the water and give it a few quick taps to dislodge the softened ice.
Winter fishing offers its own unique brand of rewards, but they do come with risks. When fishing in mild weather, a simple mistake can be funny. Have you ever watched your fishing partner take a header into his or her favorite hole? During winter fishing, that same spill can be life-threatening. Always wear a wading belt. Always.
Hypothermia is an insidious enemy. If you do get wet, it is very difficult for your body to keep up with its demand for heat. It is also important to note that hypothermia can set in even without getting wet, and it is often hard to discern the condition in yourself. This brings up another winter safety tip—never fish alone. Not only is it enjoyable to fish with a partner, it is also much safer.
A wading staff and metal cleats on your waders are very important winter safety gear. A staff can help keep your balance, ward off a piece of ice that may come floating by, or be used as a rescue pole. Cleats are worth their weight in gold when it comes to winter fishing. Anglers who rely on felt soles for better traction on slippery rocks have learned the hard way that felt can work against you in the winter. Felt works fine on your first step into the water, but subsequently, tends to freeze quickly as you move to the next fishing spot. You will soon find yourself with two pieces of ice welded to the bottom of your waders—not a good thing. Cleats are the way to go.
Last but certainly not least, a personal flotation device is a good idea. The inconspicuous CO2-activated type works well and won’t get in the way while fishing. In the event you take a big plunge, you will be very happy for the investment.
Another worthwhile purchase is hand warmers, the ones that look like tea bags. Place the small ones on the back of your hands under a pair of fingerless gloves and use the larger variety to warm up the small of your back or belly, making sure you don’t place them directly on the skin.
To some, the idea of trudging through snow banks and icy water in search of a fish, however large, defies logic. Maybe that’s true. After all, I haven’t heard many conversations among steelheaders about the sagacity and wisdom involved in the sport. Probably because they are too busy enjoying the experience to analyze it.
3 on “Fishing the Salmon River for Steelhead”
Great article, learned a lot and answered all my questions about planning my first Salmon river November / December steelhead trip. Great job.
Just got back from a weekend group outing with our TU chapter.
Already looking at a return in early December… can’t wait!
Mike…extremely well written. I have been fishing the river for 10 years now and wish i had this article available at the start. Although chasing steelhead can be “a sport if a thousand casts” the excitement rivals that of tarpon fishing when you hook up. This article is worth its weight in gold and chrome!!
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