Oswego County, New York, December 16-18, 2011
The sun was beginning to set on a day that was so cold the tip-top and rod guides would freeze shut if you stripped in too much wet line. The angler was standing on a rock, tight-lining the soft water, when the Steelhead struck his fly.

The fish felt the prick of the sharp Gamakatsu Size 8 2X heavy nymph hook and rocketed to the surface, somersaulted, and took off down stream. The angler recovered from the initial surprise of the sudden tug as the reel's drag hummed a sweet burring sound. Line, then backing, disappeared into the Salmon River. 
"Where's the drag knob?" the angler asked his guide. The water was running high and the fish was hot. He wanted to slow it down before it wrapped the leader around a sunken tree branch or snapped the tippet on a sharp rock. 

"There isn't any," said the guide. "It's a click-pawl reel. Don't worry about it. You have enough drag. Pay attention to the fish." 

The angler knew he had to get shallow quick to follow the fish because the thigh-deep water was moving too fast to safely move downstream. With both hands on the 13-foot 7 weight Sage spey rod, he quickly turned right and stepped off the rock. Unfortunately the tip of his aluminum three-section Simms wading staff, which was clipped to his waist and swinging in the current, wedged itself between boulders on the river bottom and as the angler stepped down quickly off his rock the blunt handle was shoved deeply into his left testicle. 

After gritting his teeth, blinking away tears, huffing, puffing and walking bow-legged downstream, a dime-bright Steelhead was brought to net. The angler appreciated the fish because he knew he had just paid a painful price for it. 


I came up to fish for steelhead at the Douglaston Salmon Run in Pulaski, NY, with Jin and guide Greg Liu. Fish had been moving upstream for the past several weeks and we hoped to intercept a few of them over the next couple days of fishing. 
The weather and water flow was a mixed bag of conditions. We had really high wind gusts bother us on one day, some snow and clear skies the next followed by a miserable day of frigid conditions and high water flow. But anytime you fish in the winter, especially on the Salmon River, you take your chances with the weather and water. It's just the weird bag of conditions caused by Lake Ontario's micro-climate. You can cry all you want about how unfair it is but it's usually better to expend that energy concentrating on your presentation and fishing hard. 
I bagged a fish quickly. At least it was quick by my standards. Usually Jin has a 3-0 lead on me before I get a nibble. However once you get that first fish, it's like a great weight is lifted off your shoulders. The pressure is off, a door in your brain opens and you have a whole new fishing perspective. But it also helps a lot to have a guide like Greg telling you what sections of the river to fish or which flies are the ones to use in specific situations or to correct your presentation for a better dead drift. 
You can never underestimate the importance of dead drifting the fly. Drag is your enemy, especially when you're working with complicated currents and seams caused by the way water flows around and through obstructions in the river. Winter steelhead are also notoriously locked-jawed in the winter and if your fly is not absolutely up-and-down with your tippet and leader forget about them eating it. Greg stood nearby and watched me fish an area before stepping up, asking for the rod. 
"It's important to mend the line before it gets past you, so everything is set up before you hit the spot you want to fish," said Greg. "You're also too far out. The fish are in the deeper section--around here." He pointed to a spot about 14 feet out from the bank. With only a few feet of fly line hanging from the tip of the rod, he flicked it out to demonstrate how to anchor the line and set up a dead drift. 
"Pick the line up and mend it behind the indicator before it goes past you at 12 o'clock," he said. "That sets up your fly for dead-drift before it hits the slot." The line had moved about five feet when the indicator went down and we saw a flash of silver. He quickly handed me the rod. 

"It looks like a big one. Don't let it get around the corner or we're in trouble," Greg warned as he began to unsling his net. The corner was 100 yards away and the water out there was way too fast and deep to follow the fish. 

The steelhead put up a great fight as we slowly moved downstream. The corner was getting closer. Greg told me to get nasty with the fish so I cranked down on it and soon it was in the net. A nicely colored hen. 
On another section of the river Greg had Jin fishing a short section of quiet water which looked to be, at most, about 20 feet long and about three feet wide. It was sandwiched between two fast currents so you had to get right up on it and keep a tight line on your fly. I moved upstream to one of my favorite spots where I had already hooked a few fish. 

Within 30 minutes Jin stuck five steelhead and landed two. The jumps were spectacular. Standing on my rock, I saw a huge fish cartwheel out of the water and take off downstream. I had one tentative take, but it seemed like all the action was downstream from me. 
Our last day was probably our toughest. The temperature dropped to 11 degrees and for some reason the folks that control the dam decided to bump the water flow from 335 cfs to a whopping 1,800 cfs. So we had high water and low temperatures and it made fishing pretty tough. If you pulled wet fly line in and out of your rod the tip-top and guides would freeze shut. The toothpick pegging the indicator on the line would freeze inside the indicator and if you wanted to move it up or down your leader you had to thaw it out first. And the fish gods help you if you accidently dunked your reel in the water because the spool would instantly freeze to the frame. We fished hard but the steelhead just weren't interested and we didn't have many options because the high water made crossing the river a dangerous problem. We met other anglers on the river, other crazy folk willing to stand in frigid conditions and icy cold water. One of them told Jin, after taking a long look up and down the river, "I don't think we're going to catch anything today." 
However Jin saved what was turning out to be a possible fishless day. Late in the afternoon he found the only steelhead on the entire Douglaston Salmon Run that was willing to eat a fly. After a short fight it was in the net. Not a large fish by Salmon River standards but it was a fish. And by this time, as the sun was dipping below the trees, we were sufficiently beat down and chilled that we called it a day and started our journey home. 
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. But watch out when you enter the Onondaga Nation territory, or Iroquois Confederacy. State police are thick in this area and are gunning for anyone going a wee bit too fast to reach steelhead waters in Pulaski. 

EQUIPMENT: We used 7 and 8-weight switch and spey rods with floating lines. Breathable waders with rubber soled boots studded with steel cleats, polarized glasses and a wading staff are mandatory for navigating the Salmon River. Also thermal layers, gloves and a good, waterproof, breathable rain jacket and cap.