It’s that time of year again, the 10 WT heads back into its rod tube, and I start preparing myself and my gear to start chasing Great Lakes Steelhead on the Salmon River. The Salmon holds a very special place in my heart. Cool steelheading days with my college fishing buddies are the highlights of my late fall and winter fishing seasons. The 4-hour drives begin to fly by (with the help of a few fishing podcasts), as anticipation for what the season will hold builds. It’s go-time!
As the salmon begin to die off post-spawn, a changing of the guard occurs on the banks of the Salmon River. Gone are the fair-weather anglers looking for an easy day filled with King Salmon battles, and a different crowd enters the scene: the Steelheaders. As the days shorten, and the mercury drops, fewer and fewer anglers dip their toes into the Salmon, opening up tons of fishing opportunities for new and experienced steelhead anglers alike. Reservations at lodges, like Tailwater Lodge, are easier to come by, allowing you to pick and choose your steelhead weekends, making impromptu trips to the river a breeze. In this article, we’ll be covering how to best prepare your gear and your plans for the upcoming steelhead season!
Switching to the Steelheading Mindset
Steelhead fishing on the Salmon River looks a lot different than the “FISH ON! COMING DOWN!” chaos of the salmon run. The steelhead don’t arrive in massive waves like salmon and instead flow into the system over the course of months, as opposed to weeks. Although fewer in number, steelhead offer far more rewarding fly fishing experiences, in my opinion. They’re more selective and nuanced than the hormone-driven Kings, resulting in fewer, but exponentially more rewarding hook-ups, fights, and releases.
Fishing days become less about landing sheer numbers of fish, and more about spending time outside, and figuring out exactly what the steelhead in front of you want to eat. Selecting the right fly, amount of weight, and leader material, is imperative, but we’ll talk about that a little later.
As the season progresses and the fish fill into their overwintering hold waters, they’ll begin to become more selective. Gone are the glory days of Salmon season where you can see the holding fish, and confidently swing a fly through. Now you’ll have to work for your fish and figure out what they want to eat.
Preparing Your Fly Boxes
Although equally bright in color, steelhead diet and the flies they prefer look quite different from those you’d swing at a pod of King Salmon. For the most part, the flies are much smaller and imitate the natural food sources available to the steelhead. The game switches from trying to get a territorial eat to presenting a fly that steelhead would take for an easy snack. In the Salmon River, my box is usually filled with a mix of stoneflies, egg patterns, sucker spawns, leeches, and a few worm flies (just in case).
If you’re looking for tying inspiration or patterns to order, check out this blog post on our favorites!
Leaders & Tippet
Another massive difference between steelhead and salmon fishing on the Salmon River is the leader and tippet you’ll choose to use. Depending on flows and water clarity during the salmon run, you’ll typically find folks using anywhere from 15lb-8lb fluorocarbon for their tippet. But for steelhead, you’re going to want to go lighter, using anywhere from 10 lb in the early season and down to 4 lb in the winter once the fish have been in the system for a while and seen their fair share of flies and lures. As you head to the water, be sure to double-check your leader and make sure it’s within the New York State regulations.
My favorite leader set up is to buy a 7.5 ft 0x leader with a micro-barrel swivel tied to the tip. The swivel not only provides a breakpoint in your leader but will also prevent leader twist and your weight from slipping too close to your fly.
Rods & Reels
After spending all fall throwing heavy rigs and 10 WT fly lines for King Salmon, your joints will rejoice at the opportunity to fish with lighter rods and tackle. 8 weights and light spey and switch rods become the norm in the hands of fly anglers. We’ll leave the choice of rod up to you, but perhaps the most important pieces of your outfit will be your reel and line. Using a reel with a fully-sealed drag like the Ross Evolution R Salt or Abel SDS will ensure that even if your reel won’t freeze up if it gets wet while you’re fishing in below-freezing weather. With regard to your choice of fly lines, we recommend a heavy, weight-forward line with a long belly to make turning over heavy rigs a breeze.
Get Ready to Layer Up
As the warm temps of fall subside and the skies of November turn gloomy, having the proper gear, both fishing and layering, is absolutely imperative if you want to come tight to steelhead all fall and winter. Layers, layers, and more layers are the best way to make sure you stay warm and dry while you’re knee-deep in the Salmon. Wool base layers, a warm mid-layer under a down jacket is my go-to layering recipe, coupled of course with a heavy GoreTex jacket stuffed into my pack. This time of year, conditions can change in an instant, and being prepared for anything is the easiest way to maximize your time on the water.
For tips and a quick reference guide on chasing fish in Oswego County, NY, check out this phenomenal Steelheading guide!