A wintery quest for steelhead trout
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 email@example.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.