Oswego County, New York, December 14-15, 2008
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Your line freezes to the rod guides and the reel has just stopped turning because it is now a block of ice. It's time for winter steelhead on the the Salmon River in upstate New York.

Snow was blowing through the air when we pulled into the parking lot in Pulaski late on a cold Friday night. The temperature was hovering around 14 degrees and a brisk breeze sucked all the warm air out of the car as we quickly unloaded our gear and headed for the hotel. We were meeting Salmon River guide Greg Liu around 7am and we wanted to grab some sleep.

The temperature was still in the low 20's when we stepped through the front door at Whitakers fly fishing shop the following morning. Greg was already there in his favorite chair and reports from the Douglaston Salmon Run, where we had planned to fish, indicated that conditions were too dangerous to allow anglers onto the water. Because of the cold weather slush had built up along the banks and along parts of the river. This makes wading treacherous and fishing almost impossible because your line and fly will just lay on top of the ice and never make it down to where steelhead were holding.
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After a quick breakfast Greg took us to the Trestle Pool. Other anglers were also fishing this area and several walked in ahead of us as we were gearing up. But as we were walking in we met two of them on the trail heading back to their cars. One had a frozen reel. The other mumbled something about being "too damn cold" and being better off "back home in front of the fire and the tv with a drink." Oh well. More fish for us.
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The snow was thick. Some spots were well over two feet. But I always let Greg and Jin walk in front of me so they pound down the snow for my short legs. But there was another problem to contend with that was a bit more serious than deep snow. My collapsable wading staff was frozen together. There must have been a bit of residual moisture left on the inside from our November trip and the sections were unable to extend to a usable length. Greg suggested dunking the staff in the river to melt the ice because the water was warmer than the ambient temperature. That trick worked and I was able to extend all sections of the wading staff, which quickly froze into a solid section again when I exposed it to the air. It remained that way for the remainder of our trip.
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We worked the Trestle Pool for a few hours as the day began to warm up then headed for the Douglaston Salmon Run which was now open to anglers. The sun had melted off most of the slush and it was safe to fish.
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Greg took us to a familiar spot on the river and we began working a few slots. Jin picked up a brown trout after a couple of casts then after moving upstream a bit he stuck a fat steelhead that was sitting in the softer water. It was a good fight and the fish he hoisted out of the net was a fat hen that measured out around 30-inches.
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I had my shots at fish but there were issues. I just couldn't get a solid hook set on some of the takes. Sometimes I had too much slack in the line because I was trying to extend the drift. Other times I wasn't paying attention to the strike indicator but was looking at the scenery around me, which was really spectacular when covered in fresh snow.
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Normally lunch is quickly gobbled down so we can continue to fish but Greg recently bought a compact isobutane-powered burner that delivers two cups of hot water in minutes. On our previous trip he we had hot noodles for lunch and after fishing for a few hours in cold water, it's a great way to warm up before begining the afternoon session. This time Jin brought along a burner and several large bowl of Korean spicy noodles. With two burners going we had enough boiling water in minutes for hot noodles, coffee and tea. Throw in roast beef, turkey, cheese, chips, chocolate and my wife's fudge brownies and it was a feast.
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It warmed up quite a bit the next day and we didn't have to layer up as much on the water. There were no slush issues on the river so the Douglaston was open for business in the morning. We started off the day by fishing at several known pools and runs along the river and in a repeat of the previous day, I had my shot at fish but was just plain slow in setting the hook or just not paying attention because I was busy trying to do something else that I shouldn't be doing while fishing for steelhead--like shooting pictures. The 12th law of fishing dictates that a fish will take the fly just as you're ready to trip the shutter. It's better to take the photo first THEN cast the line and watch the drift. It also will prevent you from almost dropping your camera into the Salmon River when you try to set the hook with your rod under your arm.
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Jin caught and landed another steelhead that was holding in softer water. It was a great fight with the hook barely holding onto the fish. He yielded the slot to me and I waded out with Greg for a shot.

I made a few drifts and missed one with a lousy hook set but after a few more casts and mends I had a fish on. Greg steered me towards shore as the fish ran downstream then reversed and began running upstream. Then it decided to stay in one spot for a bit then changed its mind again and took off downstream. With instructions from Greg the fish soon came to net.
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We fished several more spots in the afternoon but the action was slow so we decided to call it a day and spent some time swapping stories at Whitakers before hitting the road home.
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DIRECTIONS: From Virginia I just got on I-81 and it's a straight six hour drive north to Pulaski, which is about 30 minutes outside of Syracuse, NY.

EQUIPMENT: We used 7 and 8-weight fly and spey rods. Bootfoot waders with steel cleats and a wading staff are mandatory for navigating the Salmon River during the winter. Also thermal layers, gloves and a good, waterproof, breathable rain jacket.
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