A win­tery quest for steel­head trout

The Hamburg Area Item - - Sports - By Tom Ta­tum

For out­doorsy types like us, this frigid win­ter blast that’s ush­ered in the new year might sug­gest it’s time to go ice fish­ing. That may def­i­nitely be a cold weather an­gling op­tion. But win­tery fish­er­men might also con­sider an­other op­tion: a quest for win­ter steel­head trout on the trib­u­taries of Lake Erie ( de­spite the re­cent record snow­fall) or, as I re­cently dis­cov­ered, the Salmon River in New York state...

... the win­ter morn­ing broke blus­tery and cold, marked by in­ter­mit­tent snow squalls kick­ing up the Salmon River surf. But the wind, waves, and weather weren’t go­ing to stop me from keep­ing my date with win­ter steel­head along with fish­ing buddy and fel­low outdoors writer Doyle Di­etz. We re­ported to the Salmon River’s Alt­mar launch well be­fore dawn where we met up with drift boat guide Josh Day. Di­etz and I had ini­tially joined Day back in April when I caught my first- ever le­gal steel­head, a 25- incher, un­der warm sunny skies, and although Di­etz got skunked that time, we en­joyed a great trip.

But to­day’s chilly ad­ven­ture would be quite dif­fer­ent, not only in terms of the weather but also in fish­ing tech­nique. Back in April we had spent the en­tire voy­age cast­ing rigs con­sist­ing of a small­ish num­ber 8 hook dan­gling an inch or so be­neath a cus­tom trout bead ( a lit­tle white plas­tic ball that re­sem­bles a salmon egg) all strung a few feet be­low a bob­ber.

How­ever, this time around we would spend our time back­trolling Hot­shot div­ing lures in a broad ar­ray of col­ors. Day’s tackle box boasted a huge va­ri­ety of these lures col­lected over the past de- cades. “They stopped mak­ing these lures back in the 1990s,” Day ad­vised, “but they work great on steel­head. Some­thing about the vi­bra­tions they emit en­cour­age the fish to bite.”

In­ci­den­tally, as I noted when I chron­i­cled our trip last spring, steel­head are es­sen­tially an anadro­mous strain of rain­bow trout, mean­ing that they spend most of their lives in the ocean or the Great Lakes and re­turn to trib­u­tary streams to spawn. New York’s Salmon River is a steel­head spawn­ing river for fish that spend most of their lives in Lake On­tario.

To say that Day knows his stuff when it comes to fish­ing the Salmon River doesn’t do him jus­tice. He and his Wack’em Guide Ser­vice has been hard at it for the past ten years, so when it comes to catch­ing fish here, the man has earned him­self a doc­tor­ate de­gree in the sub­ject. As noted, this morn­ing we are back­trolling Hot­shot lures, specif­i­cally let­ting out 37 feet of 12 pound test line from our Shi­mano line- counter reels mounted on 8 and 1/2 foot rods. Day’s at­ten­tion to such minute de­tails con­firms he has this steel­head thing down to a fine science

We be­gin our drift at the Alt­mar Launch at 6: 45 that morn­ing, a voy­age punc­tu­ated by freez­ing tem­per­a­tures and bonechilling snow squalls. Shortly af­ter launch­ing, Day drops an­chor, wait­ing for first light as snowy winds pound the air. These are hardly the same cozy, shirt­sleeve con­di­tions we en­joyed back in the spring. As day­light over­comes dark­ness, Day cau­tiously be­gins his nav­i­ga­tion of the river. De­spite the ad­verse weather con­di­tions, we are not alone. In fact, count­less wader- clad steel­head devo­tees, most with fly­rods in hand and un­de­terred by the nasty weather, line the banks on both sides of the river as Day threads a path among them. It’s a del­i­cate, diplo­matic dance, made more chal­leng­ing by un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally shal­low water. Day po­litely re­quests per­mis­sion to nav­i­gate through a gaunt­let of lines cast by the le­gion of wad­ing an­glers. His diplo­macy car­ries the day. “You have to be thought­ful and con­sid­er­ate of the other fish­er­men,” he em­pha­sizes, “oth­er­wise you’ll have problems later.”

But this trip, weather notwith­stand­ing, will be prob­lem free. It’s just 7: 30 a. m. while we’re back­trolling through a sec­tion known as The Lower Wire Hole, about 12 miles up­stream from Lake On­tario, when a hefty steel­head slams my gold Hot­shot lure. Day coaches me as I play the fish. It makes a few im­pres­sive runs be­fore I can coax it to Day’s net.

“It’s a chrome!” Day ex­claims, scoop­ing the fish from the icy waters, “a beau­ti­ful fish!” Day at­tributes the bril­liant chrome col­oration of the steel­head to the fact that it has just re­cently be­gun its jour­ney up­stream from Lake On­tario. The longer a fish swims up the river, the more the chrome color fades. My fish stretches to 30 inches and will weigh in at over ten pounds, just my se­cond ca­reer steel­head and my best ever. Since the limit on steel­head is one per day per an­gler, I’ve scored my limit, so now it’s Di­etz’s turn.

An hour later an­other steel­head smacks a pink Hot­shot in a sec­tion called The Bovine. Di­etz reels it to the boat and, af­ter a wor­thy bat­tle, Day scoops it into the boat. It’s not quite as large or col­or­ful as mine, but it’s still a very re­spectable, le­gal fish. We slip it into the cooler, ac­knowl­edg­ing that we’ve both filled our steel­head lim­its for the day within the first two hours. By the same to­ken, we could con­tinue to fish and release any other steel­heads we might catch. “So what do you guys want to do?” asks Day as the mer­cury plum­mets, the snow swirls, and bit­ing winds pick up.

Di­etz shiv­ers, squints, and stud­ies the river where a flotilla of other drift boats tra­verse the waters and a squadron of an­glers wade the frosty shore­line -- none of them hav­ing near the suc­cess we’ve al­ready en­joyed. Di­etz tosses Day a jovial look. “We’ve got our lim­its so what do we want to do now?,” he muses. “Tell you what -- we want to treat you to break­fast. Thanks for a great day of fish­ing!” Di­etz has made a most ju­di­cious choice and our voy­age soon ends when we dis­em­bark at the Pineville Ramp some six miles down­river from our Alt­mar launch and head into town for a hearty break­fast.

I hope to re­turn to Pu­laski again some­day soon, maybe even get a chance to watch Day work his drift boat magic on salmon. You’ll never find a more ded­i­cated guide, nor one who’s so ar­dently bound to this river by the un­fail­ing com­pass of his heart.

WA CK’ EM GUIDE SER­VICE»

For more about Josh Day’s guide ser­vice, go to www.whack­emguideser­vice.com, call 484- 239- 9399, or email him at wack­emguide@hot­mail.com.

IF YOUGO » Pu­laski is about 250 miles ( an easy five hour drive) mostly north on Route 81, from here. Upon ar­riv­ing in town, Di­etz and I stopped at Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop to pur­chase our New York non- res­i­dent fish­ing li­censes ($ 50 for year­long, $ 10 for one day) then stayed the night prior to our morn­ing’s fish­ing ad­ven­ture at the “At the Tres­tle Pool Lodge” in Alt­mar, N. Y. It’s a very clean, quaint, and cozy bed and break­fast type op­er­a­tion. Call 315- 298- 1115 for info or to make reser­va­tions. New York’s sea­son on steel­head runs year- round.

Win­ter steel­head trout dis­played by Ta­tum ( right) and fish­ing part­ner Doyle Di­etz.

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