Today's Sportsman: Angling for steelhead on the Salmon River

Outdoor writer Dan Neuland landed a pair of steelhead trout while fly fishing recently at the Douglaston Salmon Run on the Salmon River in Pulaski, New York.

The Salmon River in Pulaski, New York, is the premier winter destination for anglers that are in pursuit of the elusive steelhead trout. Fishermen from all parts of the eastern U.S. and as far west as Colorado travel to New York to swing a fly or drift a bead in the current of the Salmon River using fly casting, spinning and centerpin gear in hopes of catching a chrome steelie.

Steelhead are migratory rainbow trout that are spawned in tributaries of large bodies of water such as the Pacific Ocean or the Great Lakes. The strains found today in the Great Lakes were originally stocked from steelhead eggs taken from Washington state. There are two distinct strains of steelhead in the Salmon River. The Washington strain is a winter run fish (mid-September through late-April), and the Skamania are a summer run strain that enter tributary rivers in May.

Steelhead are one of the most highly prized cold-water species of fish by both fly and spin anglers. They are a truly beautiful fish. The females have small heads and long, sleek bodies that are steely-blue in appearance with chrome sides. The males have stout bodies and become deeply colored with dark green backs and rose-colored gill plates and sides. The most impressive features of these fish is their size, averaging 4 to 10 pounds, and their spectacular torpedo like runs that make landing one the real challenge.

STEELHEADING
IN DECEMBER

In preparation for my recent steelhead outing on the Salmon, I spent many nights tying a variety of egg and nymph fly patterns. I also tied plenty of egg-sucking leeches, my favorite streamer pattern for steelies.

Steelhead enter tributary rivers from Lake Ontario in early fall and eat the eggs of the spawning salmon. Like salmon, steelhead enter the rivers to spawn but unlike salmon that die after spawning, steelhead can return year after year.

In early December, I drove to Pulaski for a weekend of steelheading on the Salmon River with three fly anglers from the Potomac Valley Fly Fishers Club. We secured lodging for two nights at one of the lodges owned by the Douglaston Salmon Run. The DSR is located on the lower two miles of the river and is privately owned. A limited number of fishermen are allowed each day, and the winter daily rate to fish the DSR is $50 per rod.

For me, this was very much an exploratory trip where I explored new sections of the river in an attempt to learn as much as I could about winter tactics for steelies. On the day we arrived, we fished a public section of the upper river near the town of Altmar. I moved downstream at first, looking for runs that would hold steelhead. Steelies prefer runs with a moderate to fast flow and depths of 3 to 4 feet.

When I found a likely spot for steelhead, I tried drifting an egg pattern or swinging a streamer through the run using my 10-foot, 7-weight fly rod. I did hook one fish that afternoon just before dark. The fish took an egg pattern and made such a fast initial run that I had little time to react, and my 2X tippet snapped in an instant.

RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME

The next day we fished the DSR. I began at the upper section and attempted to work my way downstream. Unfortunately, it became clear that anglers who occupied the best runs most likely arrived at their favorite spots long before first light. I tried fishing the transitional waters between the staging holes with no luck. It wasn’t until lunchtime that we moved to the lower section of the DSR. I was pleasantly surprised not to find this area crowded with fishermen. In fact, I couldn’t see another angler when we arrived.

I began casting and swinging the egg-sucking leech fly on a 1X tippet through a wide shallow run when a steelhead whacked my fly. This time the tippet held, and I was able to bring the bright hen to the net, took a few photos and released the beautiful fish. A short time later on the lower end of the same run, I swung the same streamer into a small and deep hole along the bank. This time it was a male steelhead that attacked my streamer. This fish fought hard but was also netted, photographed and released.

I believe the warmer afternoon water temperatures influenced my luck. I also happened to be in the right place at the right time. Soon after I fished through that section many more anglers arrived. The following day we fished until noon in a new public section of the river. Not one of us hooked a fish that morning. We had to travel back to Maryland that day so, unfortunately, we did not get to fish in the afternoon when I believed we had the best chance of hooking up.

Overall, the fishing was somewhat frustrating for most of my crew. Although we were all fly fishing, it was interesting to note that most of the anglers on the river were using spin gear and drifting egg sacks or beads. On the other hand, it was an extremely pleasant trip due to the mild temperatures with highs in the upper 40s and the water temperatures in the high 30s. The DSR lodging was a big plus, both comfortable and convenient, and we enjoyed great food on the trip.

Steelhead fishing can be very challenging, and without a doubt the most experienced anglers enjoyed the most success. It may take several more trips before I become adequately knowledgeable about the Salmon River steelhead and where the best spots are to catch them. With that in mind, I am already planning my next steelhead trip in the spring.

Contact Dan Neuland at danneuland@verizon.net.

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