How to Catch Steelhead on the Salmon River

The Salmon River in Pulaski, New York has a world class fishery for East Coast steelhead.

Gary Edwards with his personal best steelhead, caught in the Douglaston Salmon Run section of the Salmon River in November 2013.

The Salmon River in Pulaski, New York is among the most famous and popular fishing destinations in the Northeast, right up there with Montauk and Cape Cod in terms of visiting anglers. Every year, beginning in September, fishermen flock to the Salmon River’s banks to meet the migration of king salmon entering the river for a one-way trip from Lake Ontario. The crowds during the September and October salmon season are infamous, but as temperatures drop and hunting season begins, the crowds, along with the number of surviving salmon, begin to dwindle. By November, it’s steelhead season, and fishermen scale down their gear and sharpen their tactics to target one of the most beautiful, hard-fighting, and challenging gamefish in the world. To help others enjoy this wintertime fishery, we’ve compiled some tips and techniques on how to catch steelhead on New York’s Salmon river.

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Marc W. steelhead
Marc W., from CT, landed this steelhead while fishing on The Salmon River with Chasin’ Tail Adventures.

Steelhead, like the king and coho salmon, aren’t native to the Great Lakes. They were introduced in the 1970s to provide fishing opportunities and help curb the invasive alewife population in Lake Ontario. East Coast anglers embraced the Northwest native fish, and in the decades since, the Great Lakes steelhead fishery has become an annual tradition for fishermen who want to keep their fishing fires burning even after the saltwater season putters out. And just like Montauk is the Surfcasting Capital of the World, the Salmon River is the Steelhead Capital of the East.

But fishing for steelhead is wildly different than fishing for striped bass, bluefish, and even for run-of-the-mill rainbow trout. While these fish are similar in size to schoolie, and even slot-size stripers, their diet, behavior, and riverine habitat require a completely unique approach.

When Do Steelhead Run the Salmon River?

Steelhead enter the salmon river as early as late September, but mostly arrive in November and December, with another wave entering the river in the late winter and early spring. The steelhead follow the spawning salmon into the river to take advantage of the easy feeding opportunity presented by the loose salmon eggs tumbling downstream. Many steelhead will remain in the river right through the winter until they spawn themselves in the early spring. This provides more than six months of steelhead fishing opportunities, though, most often the fishing peaks in the late fall. The advantage of winter fishing, however, is a less crowded river; so while the fish are less active, there’s more room to roam and hunt for active fish.

Read More: Winter Fishing for Steelhead

Rigging Up For Steelhead

Catching steelhead is all about the drift. In the Salmon River, steelhead rarely chase down their meal, and instead let the current bring it to them. Therefore, to fool a steelhead, you’ll need to present your bait, lure, or fly at a natural pace with the current. You’ll also need to keep your offering on the bottom. These fish move upstream with their bellies on the rocks, and as water temperatures drop, the distance a steelhead is willing to move for a meal shrinks.

Whether fishing with a fly rod or a spinning rod, you’ll need enough splitshot so that you periodically feel the weight ticking the bottom. Too much splitshot, however, and you’ll frequently snag up. Play with the weight until you find the right number and size of splitshot to give you the perfect drift.

James Miller steelhead
James Miller caught this steelhead on Salmon River. Photo courtesy of NY UP.

To help achieve a natural drift and keep the line off the water, steelhead fishermen prefer long limber spinning rods, 9 to 10 feet long, and small 3000-size spinning reels spooled with 8-pound-test monofilament. While almost all other fishing applications benefit from braid, steelhead fishing is best done with mono. The extra stretch offers a cushion against the jumps and acrobatics of a hooked steelhead, while also shedding water easier than braid, which is a major benefit when winter temperatures dip below freezing and ice in the guides becomes a concern.

Fly rods of 6- or 7-weight are most often employed, with floating lines being the standard, in order to avoid drag on the presentation. Some fishermen go as far as to fill their fly reels with monofilament, but take note that monofilament fly reels would not be eligible for use in the Salmon River’s fly-fishing-only sections.

Leaders of up to four feet may be used on the Salmon River, and most fishermen use the full length of 5-, 6-, or 8-pound fluorocarbon.

Salmon-egg-imitating beads
Salmon-egg-imitating beads in an array of colors are used to tempt steelhead that are hard-wired to eat fish eggs.

Steelhead Flies and Lures

Once you dial in the drift, you can consider fly selection. Guide Gary Edwards suggests changing flies often, every 15 minutes, to show the steelhead something new. Sometimes a drastic change in color will get an immediate response.

From the time the steelhead first enter the Salmon River in October, to the time they leave in May, eggs are at the top of their list of preferred foods. It’s the eggs of the salmon that draw the steelhead in, and the eggs of the brown trout that sustain them through the late fall and early winter. Come spring, the steelhead will eat the eggs of rough fish like suckers, and even gobble down the eggs of their own kind. While aquatic insects like stonefly larvae inevitably end up on the steelhead menu as well, for the lower portions of the river, veteran Salmon River guide Gary Edwards suggests sticking to eggs.

Popular steelhead egg imitations include generic egg flies, beads, estaz eggs, but worm imitations and Woolly Buggers can work as well. Colors tend toward the brighter side with pinks, yellows, oranges, and variations of those being the most popular. As a general rule, anglers like brighter colors earlier in the fall, and more muted colors in the winter.

How to Catch Steelhead

Jay S. and Chrissy S. steelhead
Steelhead caught by Jay S. and Chrissy S., from Vero Beach, FL.

The odds are definitely not in the angler’s favor when it comes to landing steelhead. These souped-up rainbow trout fight like the devil, leaping, spinning and doing everything possible to free themselves of the hook. Failing that, a hooked steelhead will simply turn and run, putting the current to its back and firing up the afterburners for a big run downstream, forcing the fisherman to follow.

Further complicating things are the light leaders needed to get the steelhead to bite in the first place. Steelhead have sharp eyesight, and in areas with heavy fishing pressure, like Pulaski, they often avoid a fly tied to a 10- to 12-pound-test leader. As a result, 6- and 8-pound-test are usually employed, with some fishermen scaling down to 4-pound-test when the fish get especially picky. Since the average Salmon River steelhead weighs 5 pounds and fights like he’s 10 pounds, broken leaders are a common cause of the “fish off” call.

Often, steelhead bites come in twos or threes, as if some silent signal passes between the fish that it’s time to chew. I’ve seen it plenty of times when a pool, lined by anglers having no luck, suddenly comes alive with bent rods and thrashing steel.

Landing a steelhead is all about angles. You have to be ready to move once you hook the fish. Do your best to keep parallel to the fish and not let it move too far from your position. The more line out, the greater the likelihood of a pulled hook or broken leader. It’s also important to use low rod angles to steer the steelhead away from cover. Changing the rod angle can also help pull the fish out of the fast water, where it will be easier to control. Once the fish is under control, the net man can move downstream of the angler and seal the deal.

Salmon River

Where to Fish on the Salmon River

As a popular fishing destination, the Salmon River access is well maintained, and fishermen can reach productive areas throughout the river’s 13 some miles of fishable steelhead water.

Steelhead tend to congregate in the “Upper River” in deeper holes in the town of Altmar, and around well-known places like the Upper and Lower Fly Zone, Trestle Pool, and Pineville. This also concentrates the anglers. Fishermen will to walk farther along the Salmon River’s streamside trails will find a number of productive pools where steelhead stage on their migration upriver. The Douglaston Salmon Run sits on the lowest 2.5 miles of the Salmon River. Steelhead moving through the run are fresh from Lake Ontario, meaning they have not yet run the gauntlet of flies, lures and baits waiting in the public sections of the river. This makes them a bit more receptive to anglers’ presentations. Fish in the DSR are on the move, rarely holding for very long, as they do in some of the deeper holes upriver. Nevertheless, when the run is on, anglers will have frequent shots as schools of fish enter the river.

Where to Stay at the Salmon River

Visiting anglers have a lot of lodging options to choose from at the Salmon River from the luxury Tailwater Lodge to smaller room rentals offered by some of the tackle shops like Whitakers.

Salmon River Bait and Tackle Shops

The area surrounding the Salmon River might have the highest tackle shop per square mile density of anywhere else in the Northeast. Shops include:

Fat Nancy’s
Whitaker’s Sport Shop
All Seasons Sport Shop
Pineville Sporting Supply
Malinda’s Fly Shop

Related Content

5 Steps to Catch More Steelhead

Winter Steelhead Fishing on the Salmon River

WATCH: Centerpin Fishing for Steelhead in Upstate New York

2 on “How to Catch Steelhead on the Salmon River

  1. Jack Rosenswie

    I agree, you should include both Sonny’s and Woody’s of Port Ontario, NY. Both great tackle stores!

    Jack Rosenswie/President

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