Steelhead begin their annual migration up tributaries of the great lakes in early October. These fish are in the river to eat, although sometimes the run can be slow and the number of fish in the fall can also be sporadic. If you’re looking to get into numbers of fish, aim to head over during the month of April. There will still be plenty of spawning fish which shouldn’t be targeted because disrupting these fish while they spawn can ruin their chances at reproducing. There’s also plenty of post spawn fish in the river. These post spawn fish are hungry, since they don’t eat much while they’re spawning and now they’re looking for anything and everything to eat. Beads and eggs patterns work tremendously well on these fish as 75% of a post spawn steelhead’s diet is going to consist of other steelhead eggs. The best way to get after these fish is by nymphing with a raven float. These floats will allow you to get into the strike zone much quicker and carry your drift for further distances and in turn help you get into more fish. One way to make this an even better experience is to fish it from a drift boat. It gives you great opportunities at less pressured fish away from the fisherman’s access points along the rivers. It also makes life a whole lost easier because sometimes in higher flows, wade fishing is impossible due to the lack of shoreline. Both fall and spring are awesome times to steelhead fish although they are a bit different. Fall you have less fish but because the water is a bit warmer, the fish that are there are going to have a little more spunk and energy. On the flip side of things, in the spring, there’s going to be a lot more fish, but because of the cooler water temps the fish may not fight quite as well as they do in the fall.
In the spring the because water temps are going to be much cooler, expect to see fish in slower moving water than in the fall. Focus on the deeper, slower moving runs on the rivers. You will see fish in the shallower gravel but these fish are going to be spawning and it’s better to avoid these fish completely. When you spot spawning steelhead on gravel focus on the deeper water back behind them. Frequently dropback/post spawn steelhead will stack up below spawning beds and gorge themselves on eggs that are dropped by the spawning fish upstream. Be sure to fish egg patterns or beads to these fish as that’s going to be what they’re keying in on. What can be a challenge sometimes in the spring is water levels. If the snow melts too quick off of tug hill the reservoir will need to release additional water into the Salmon river sometimes causing it to flood. Don’t worry, just because the main river is flooded doesn’t mean there aren’t fish to catch. You can do one of two things. You can hike into some of the back channels off the main river which are typically almost dry in lower flows but when the river comes up, fish will move into these channels to get out of the main river and current. You can have awesome days fishing these small braids or diversions off the river and hook fish all day long. The other thing you can do is fish the smaller tributaries. Popular tribs include Trout Brook, Orwell, and the Sandy Creeks. Because these are all smaller than the Salmon River, when they come up in water level they will still be much more fishable. When these water levels come up, tons of steelhead will pile into the stream giving you great opportunities at sight fishing to steelhead. As the water levels drop and become clear these fish will get very spooky and get much harder to catch. Eventually once the water level drops too much, the steelhead will return to the Salmon River or Lake Ontario. But by that point, if those streams are low and clear, the Salmon River will be in great shape.
As far as gear goes, we like to use 10′ 6 and 7wt rods. An important part of selecting a nymphing rod for these giants you want to be sure to avoid an extremely fast action rod. The down side to a rod that is purely tip flex is that it’s not going to absorb much of the shock from the jumps, runs and head shakes from the fight. Instead, that “shock” is going to go directly into the tippet of your leader putting more stress there. This is especially an issue when you are using lighter tippet materials. A rod thats a little more of a medium/medium-fast action rod such as a St. Croix Imperial (one of our favorites) will absorb more of the blow reducing broken tippet and pulled hooks. When it comes to selecting a reel you want to be sure you have a reel with a sealed drag system that can take a beating. A sealed drag is important at keeping grit and water from getting into the reel and seizing the reel up. We’re huge fans of 3-Tand TF70s and Lamson Litespeeds. Both of these reels are extremely light, feature completely sealed drags and hold adequate amounts of backing for steelhead. The 3-Tand TF70 is probably our favorite due to the cost, at only $209 that reel is an absolute steal! For indicator rigs, we hand tie our leaders with maxima material, a raven barrel swivel and 3x fluoro carbon tippet material. These leaders work perfectly for nymphing with Raven indicators. When selecting Raven Floats, be sure to have both 3.8 and 5.0 gram sizes for the Salmon River and other tribs. If the water is very low it may not be a bad idea to have a couple 2.2 gram floats as well.
Either way, these fish are one of the most exciting fish to catch on a fly in North America and are a species that everyone should give a try at some point. Just be careful, if you catch one, you’re going to be hooked forever. If steelhead fishing is something you’ve never given a try, or just want a guide to show you the ropes, give us a call and let us take you on a guided wade/float trip on the Salmon River or another Western NY tributary.