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