Fear No Steelhead

How to beat the crowds on the Salmon River and patterns that will work wherever you fish for steelhead.

[by Vince Wilcox]

ANGLING FOR STEELHEAD IN ONE OF MANY GREAT LAKES TRIBUTARIES is often called combat fishing. While there are times when the rivers seem full of anglers, many fly fishermen visit these waters time and again. The Salmon River, which runs through Pulaski, New York, is one of the most popular destinations. If you still haven’t made the trip, let me introduce you to this river and give you some tips and flies that will help you catch “silver chrome.”

Fly Fishing Only

There are two special-regulation, catch-and-release, fly fishing–only areas on the Salmon River. The lower fly fishing–only zone begins above the Route 52 bridge in Altmar, New York; it is open from September 15 to May 15. The upper fly fishing–only zone is off Route 22 above the Salmon River hatchery, and is open April 1 to November 30.

Mart’s Big Eye—Natural

Hook: Daiichi 2421, size 8.
Thread: Tan UTC 140.
Eyes: Extra-large brass bead chain.
Abdomen: Pearl holographic tinsel.
Legs: Tan speckled Centipede Legs.
Thorax: Rusty gold Ice Dub or golden yellow Jorgensen’s SLF Dubbing.
Collar: Oversized soft hackle or schlappen.

The river offers opportunities to fish for two strains of steelhead: the Washington and the Skamania strains. Beginning as early as September, steelhead, coho salmon, chinook salmon, and brown trout beginning running up nearly all the tributaries of Lake Ontario; the biggest difference is in the numbers of fish and durations of the spawning runs. The Washington, or winter-run fish, stay in the river until spring; summer-run Skamania steelhead begin entering the river around June and remain until the following spring. Many anglers catch what we call “dark horses,” steelhead that are not chrome in color but are rather dark; these are not fresh-run fish, but have been in the river for a longer period of time.

The timing of spawning runs depends upon the specific strain of fish and water flow. Water flow varies from stream to stream, but depending upon precipitation, generally ranges from 200 to 1,000 cubic feet per second. There is no magic formula for timing the runs, but increased flows are a sure trigger for fish to enter the tributaries.

What Flies to Use

Now that the fish have arrived, your next step is to figure out where they are and what flies to use. I could talk about all the various egg and bead patterns that are consistent producers, but I want to focus on the other types of flies that catch fish. I use a variety of dry flies, nymphs, and streamers.

Paulson’s Titanic

Hook: Lightning Strike NH9, size 8.
Thread: Black 6/0 (140 denier).
Tail: White calftail.
Abdomen: 2-millimeter-thick tan foam under the hackle.
Hackle: Grizzly and brown.
Wings: White calftail.
Underbody: 2-millimeter-thick tan foam.

Fishing dry flies for steelhead requires a Zen-like state of mind and a tad more patience. It can be a long day or even several days without landing a fish on a dry fly, but it is still one of my favorite ways to fish. The biggest problem is maintaining focus after hours of no action. Bob Quigley was not only a great individual, but one of the foremost fly designers in the Northwest, as well. Bob’s Dragon Gurgler is one of my favorite flies to slide, skitter, twitch, and swing for steelhead. I have received giant boils and vicious strikes in the middle of winter on this pattern. The ability to float throughout the drift and create a wake when swung across the current are the keys to a good steelhead dry fly; the Dragon Gurgler does both with ease.

Targeting the Skamania strain in late summer and early fall is your best chance to catch steelhead on a dry fly. I generally fish with a little heavier and slightly shorter leader when using dry flies. My leader is nine feet long with two feet of size 3X fluorocarbon for a tippet. Use a lighter leader and you will break off on most strikes; use a heavier leader and you won’t fool so many fish. Look for steelhead in various types of water: riffles, pockets, and the seams along deeper runs. Cover all the water with your fly; heck, half the fun is pulling a waking fly across the entire current.

I spend at least half my time fishing nymphs for steelhead, so I’ll show you several of my favorite patterns that have proved themselves from coast to coast. The Simple Stone and Mart’s Big Eyes are my go-to nymphs. I have a handful of other nymphs that I like to fish—Superman, Justin Karnop’s Keystone, Carrot Top, Cookie Monster, and Lady Finger—but I generally start and finish my day with either the Simple Stone or Mart’s Big Eyes.

Even though the Salmon River is a popular destination, you can still enjoy good fishing. Visit the fly fishing–only areas and carry the right flies.

I get the nymph down fast and bounce it along the bottom so I can feel the fly tick the rocks as it drifts in the current. In order to get the correct drift and feel the bottom, I will generally use a nine-foot-long leader with three to four feet of 8-pound-test Maxima for the tippet, and I position split shot…(continued on page 2)

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