STONE-COLD AWE­SOME

CHAS­ING STEEL­HEAD, BROWNS AND LAKE TROUT IN FROZEN WEST­ERN NEW YORK

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS -

Two bud­dies make a se­ries of pil­grim­ages to frozen west­ern New York for steel­head, browns and lake trout, an ex­er­cise that is not for the eas­ily dis­cour­aged. By JOHN JINISHIAN

I awoke in a stu­por, ex­hausted, alarm blar­ing at 3:30 a.m. My body on au­topi­lot, I no­ticed the light coat­ing of snow on the truck be­fore pil­ing my gear inside. I sat along­side Brian Mal­choff. Our si­lence was com­fort­able, the kind we’ve shared on many oc­ca­sions dur­ing our sum­mers guid­ing to­gether in Alaska.

We drove west­ward, with cold weather and a clear win­ter sky greet­ing us. We were not here to be warm or com­fort­able; we were go­ing to fish the Ni­a­gara River near Lewis­ton, one of the most dy­namic fish­eries in west­ern New York for steel­head.

Brian and I checked our egos at the car as we slipped into our waders and boots, still wet from the day prior. The steep hike into the 300-foot canyon on slip­pery shale meant that a mo­ment’s lapse could spell trou­ble. My legs and back still tight, we de­scended with rods in hand into the dark­ness to claim a drift with the al­lure of pro­duc­tiv­ity. We gazed at the Canadian bor­der across the mas­sive Ni­a­gara River as the sun be­gan to il­lu­mi­nate the fierce cur­rents around us. Deep wa­ter was just inches off the shore­line, and steep, jagged cliffs lined the canyon. We started to fish at day­break. Af­ter sev­eral hours work­ing the drift, my in­di­ca­tor bobbed down, and I jerked my rod to dig the hook in. Frozen fly line ripped through my fin­gers.

The fish rock­eted through the wa­ter be­fore ex­plod­ing from be­neath the sur­face in a spir­ited leap. The di­rec­tional changes and speed of th­ese fish never cease to amaze me. I held my rod an­gle low. Brian waited pa­tiently for a shot and put the 5-pound chrome foot­ball in the net. I drew from my flask at 9 a.m. with a feel­ing of ac­com­plish­ment.

Brian was fish­ing down­stream with a cen­ter pin rod that, when fished ef­fi­ciently, can de­liver a drag-free drift for dozens of feet. His orange float shot down, and the line came tight as his rod dou­bled over. He was roped to a fish that might as well have been a bull­dog re­fus­ing to re­lin­quish charge. A big slab of orange and yel­low flashed as he worked the fish to the sur­face. Up­welling cur­rent re­vealed a 15-pound lake trout that I strug­gled to fit into the net. Sev­eral more im­pres­sive fish that morn­ing wore out his arm.

We scram­bled up­stream through the steep rock faces to an­other spot. He made one drift, and his float dis­ap­peared; he reared back hard and set the hook. A bright flash erupted sky­ward right in front of us. Ten pounds of chrome beauty shot 3 feet ver­ti­cally and spit the jig back at Brian. The fight was over just as quickly as it had be­gun.

You’d think we’d have been up­set, but we both knew this was part of the deal. When fish­ing for steel­head, a good hook-set doesn’t dic­tate a fish to hand. The term coined to de­scribe steel­head, “fish of a thou­sand casts,” is not a fa­ble. Whirlpool cur­rents and hard-fight­ing, ac­ro­batic fish de­mand re­spect. Adapted to their en­vi­ron­ment, they use the ir­reg­u­lar flows and jagged rocks be­low to their ad­van­tage.

Their pull fu­els our ad­dic­tion. When you hook your first steel­head, you may not land the fish, but you’ll never be the same.

The One

Steel­head sea­son drives an­glers to what many peo­ple might con­sider a state of tem­po­rary in­san­ity. Brian and I met in north­ern Con­necti­cut on a Satur­day in Novem­ber, around 11 p.m. in a dark com­muter lot. We set out to drive five hours through the night to the Salmon River in New York and fish un­til 4 p.m. be­fore re­turn­ing. We called trips of this na­ture “sui­cide mis­sions” for their sheer ab­sence of logic.

We ar­rived at the river un­der dark­ness to find that other fa­nat­ics had beaten us to our fa­vorite spot. We set­tled for an­other that we deemed ad­e­quate within the hordes of ea­ger an­glers. Brian me­thod­i­cally made casts, quar­ter­ing down­stream with his switch rod. I in­di­ca­tor-fished with a bright nymph. We worked hard, cov­er­ing ev­ery con­ceiv­able drift, but the morn­ing pro­vided no fish to hand.

For Brian and me, and the other die-hards we fish with, the fun is in the Zen that the hunt pro­vides. Fish­ing this way may seem crazy if you’ve never done it, but mak­ing the per­fect drift or swing pro­vides a sat­is­fac­tion that is hard to achieve else­where. It feels like solv­ing an in­tri­cate puzzle. When you hit it right and a fish eats, the feel­ing is as­ton­ish­ing.

We moved constantly, look­ing for any open spot and fish­ing it hard. The lull of fish plagued us through the morn­ing and into the af­ter­noon. We picked apart the wa­ter, as if sift­ing for a co­op­er­a­tive fish. I roll-casted a pink sucker spawn pat­tern to­ward the far bank above a ris­ing fish that caught my at­ten­tion. My line came tight, and the wa­ter erupted. My drag sang, and the fish tor­pe­doed down­stream. My feet longed for grip; I felt just on the edge of con­trol of both my foot­ing and the fish. I shuf­fled down­stream as the fish made a se­ries of pow­er­ful head shakes. I was able to glide the steel­head into shal­low wa­ter as Brian sprinted down­stream and slid the head of the 10-pound buck un­der the net.

That was the day: 10 hours of driv­ing traded for 10 hours of fish­ing and one fish. And that one fish was all it took to make it worth­while.

Per­sonal Best

In early De­cem­ber, the car ther­mome­ter read 22 de­grees. Brian and I hiked down to a small Lake On­tario trib­u­tary in the dark. Our head­lamps pointed out frozen boot marks in sheets of ice. Brian took the lead on the Oak Or­chard, a river that I’d never fished. The trail dipped into wa­ter of un­known depth and ob­struc­tion, then con­tin­ued up to the bank above. I stayed close as snow fell gen­tly.

You have to put your time in on the wa­ter to un­der­stand the dy­nam­ics of each fish­ery, but the com­mu­nity of an­glers in com­mon pur­suit can help. We hunt and ex­plore to­gether as friends, learn­ing ev­ery mo­ment along the way.

The brown trout run had been strong in the Great Lakes, so in ad­di­tion to tar­get­ing steel­head, we sought a shot at big lake-run browns. We weaved through the woods for 20 min­utes in dark­ness be­fore Brian came to a halt, sig­ni­fy­ing that we had reached our spot. He poured hot cof­fee from the ther­mos, and the steam pro­vided a mo­ment of refuge from the cold.

The sky got lighter, and the river’s tan­nic con­tours be­came vis­i­ble. We drifted bright-yel­low beads to stand out against the dark wa­ter.

My ex­pec­ta­tions were hum­ble as we searched for a sin­gle op­por­tu­nity. We en­dured a morn­ing of frigid wa­ter, and tried to keep mov­ing, to keep the blood cir­cu­lat­ing. I watched my in­di­ca­tor on drift af­ter drift, oc­ca­sion­ally get­ting hung up on the bot­tom and re­ceiv­ing false hopes. In late morn­ing, my in­di­ca­tor bobbed, and I set the hook. A blaze of yel­low gy­rated and peeled line out of my hands across the stream. The pull was steady and strong as I tried to work the fish be­neath the over­hang­ing trees. Brian sprang to the ready.

As he net­ted the fish, I knew it was a per­sonal best: 24 inches. That brown will stick with me. It was a good trip. Brian landed a 29-inch fish, too.

You al­ways re­mem­ber the fish you lose bet­ter than the ones you land. Win­ter fish­ing the Great Lakes trib­u­taries is not for the weak or eas­ily dis­cour­aged. Those of us who en­joy it are crazy in our own way, but even on the days when we’re sit­ting in the cold dark­ness alone, the sound of the flow­ing river is there to keep us com­pany.

The cold, fast-flow­ing Ni­a­gara River.

Who minds a lit­tle ice, snow and frozen fly line rip­ping through your fin­gers when the fish­ing is hot?

“We en­dured a morn­ing of frigid wa­ter and tried to keep mov­ing, to keep the blood cir­cu­lat­ing.”

One fish can make it all worth­while. The au­thor (be­low) cra­dles his best brown on a chilly morn­ing.

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