Spring is one of the best times to get into Salmon River steelhead. The crowds have died back from their salmon run highs of the fall, and snow lines the banks of the New York tailwater feel like they have a little more breathing room. By this time of year, the fall run of steelhead have settled into their over-wintering holding spots, and the first spring running fish are starting to push in from Lake Ontario. when you combine these factors, you end up with a recipe for a bent rod and a screaming reel if you put in the hours and river miles. Check out these helpful tips, in partnership with Oswego County Tourism, to better your chance of Steelhead success this spring.
Make a Plan…
Personally, the planning stage of any fishing trip is usually my favorite. You get to pour over Google Maps, prep gear, and strategize with your fishing buddies over the phone while you tie up a few more squirmy worms that you’re sure to lose on the river bottom or to the jaws of a cartwheeling steelhead.
Generally, the best place to start your planning is by putting together a list of spots you want to hit. It doesn’t matter whether those are secret sneaky pockets or well-known public areas, you’ll want to have a good idea of where you want to go, or where you’ll bail to if another angler is standing in your favorite hole. After you’ve got a cheat sheet of Google Maps pins ready, you can get to the fun part of the planning, gathering your gear and flies.
…Then Explore, Explore, Explore
If you’ve been fishing for hours and notice that you’re near the end of your list of pre-planned spots, the best advice any accomplished Salmon River angler would give you is to just start walking down a section and read the water. Thanks to the river’s high fish density, you’ll likely find more than a handful of fish holding in pocket water, or tucked up against deadfalls and undercuts. All it takes to find these fish are a few casts in juicy-looking water and a little faith. Some of my favorite holes on the river have been discovered out of sheer boredom and a desire to walk around to warm up. You’ll be surprised what you can find with just a few hundred yards of walking away from the parking areas.
There’s More to the Salmon Than the Fly Zones
When newer Salmon River fly anglers start looking around for spots to fish, the seemingly obvious place to start would be the Upper and Lower Fly Zones. Now, don’t get us wrong, these zones can be a nice place to escape the more crowded all-tackle fishing areas. But there is so much more water than just these zones on the Salmon River. If you pull into either of the fly zones and see lots of cars, head to other zones and explore. You’ll often find areas with fewer anglers and less pressured fish eager to eat an egg or leech as they drift by in the current.
Fly Choice: Steak, Eggs, and Stones
Luckily the springtime creates a wealth of forage options for the river’s steelhead, which means you’ll have a wide range of flies to choose from when you’re trying to figure out what the fish want to eat that day. But Salmon River steelhead can be quick picky with their food, and sometimes seem to switch food and color preferences at a moment’s notice. My mantra on the water is simple, if I don’t feel a grab after a dozen or so solid drifts, I switch flies and keep doing so until my indicator drops under the waves with the pulse of a headshaking steelie on the end of my tippet.
Steelhead on the Salmon doesn’t require a lot of specialized equipment. All you’ll need to fish is a 9-foot 7-9WT rod & reel, a solid coldwater salmon/steelhead line, split shot, and a few 10lb leaders. Beyond that, you’ll just need to make sure you have all the layers you need to stay warm and dry, and a box full of flies.
Guide to Basic Salmon River Fly Rod & Reel Setups
Luckily, you only need one rod and reel setup to effectively fly fish the Salmon River. Most anglers prefer to fish either 9-foot 8WT or 9-foot 9WT rods. You generally want a heavier fly rod for the Salmon due to its higher flows and larger fish, but can still protect the lighter tippets you may need to fool steelhead.
The main things you’re looking for in a Salmon River steelhead reel are a large arbor, and a strong, sealed drag system. You want a large arbor so you can keep up with a speeding steelhead as it rips up and downstream once you’ve hooked it. The sealed drag is almost more important than the arbor size, as you need a reel that can handle below-freezing temperatures without seizing up.
As far as lines go, you’ll want to make sure you have a heavy, weight-forward line like Airflo’s SuperDri Bomber or Kelly Galloup Nymph/Indicator, to make turning over heavy rigs in fast currents easier.
Tips for Drop Back Steelhead
April usually brings with it some of the hottest steelhead fishing of the season. As the fish finish up spawning, they “drop back” to the body of water where they will spend the remainder of the year until they head back upstream in the fall/winter. These “drop-backs” are starving after their labor-intensive spawn, and get aggressive as they head downstream. This part of the steelhead cycle is prime time to swing up a hungry and aggressive tanker steelhead.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Great Lakes Steelhead run on the Salmon River, check out Oswego County Tourism’s helpful directory on their Website, HERE.