Quest for Winter Rainbows – Salmon and Oswego Rivers Sparkle with Steelhead This Time of Year

The Salmon and Oswego rivers and Lake Ontario’s many tributary streams produce runs of steelhead in Oswego County all through the winter months. (Photo by Capt. Richard Miick.)
The Salmon and Oswego rivers and Lake Ontario’s many tributary streams produce runs of steelhead in Oswego County all through the winter months. (Photo by Capt. Richard Miick.)

By Spider Rybaak

OSWEGO COUNTY, NY — February finds a lot of New Yorkers complaining about the weather. They’re sick of snow banks lining sidewalks and streets, dirty slush soiling their shoes, pant legs and cars in streaks of mud and salt. But there’s a lot of color around if you know where to look for it, and the best place to catch a rainbow right now is Oswego County’s Lake Ontario tributaries.

Not the meteorological phenomenon with pots of gold at the ends; but rainbow trout, specifically, steelhead, the species’ ocean-run form.

Typically ranging from three to 15 pounds, 20-pounders are relatively common and trophies tipping the scales at over 25 pounds are possible. Sporting speckled green backs and sides of proof silver streaked in pink stripes, these streamlined beauties can make a 100-yard dash in seconds flat, explode through the surface like a rogue cruise missile, and snap the line before you have time to set your feet for battle. Sleek, powerful, blessed with extraordinary stamina and beauty, chromers rank as the most popular species swimming through the imaginations of Great Lakes salmonid enthusiasts.

Native to the West Coast, steelhead were introduced into the Great Lakes in the second half of the 20th century. Like Pacific salmon, they’re anadromous, living the greater part of their lives in the ocean (Lake Ontario is our substitute), and returning to natal streams in the spring to spawn. Unlike salmon, they recover from the ordeal and reproduce several times (anglers call returning fish “dropbacks”).

Steelhead are the classiest, most opportunistic members of the family. While all salmonids like  salmon and trout eggs, chromers actually run the Oswego and Salmon rivers (Lake Ontario’s second largest tributary and the most popular salmonid stream on the East Coast, respectively) in the fall, right alongside spawning salmon and brown trout, just to get their caviar.

Many leave after their fill, and return to the safe, deep waters of Lake Ontario.
Some stay and spend the winter. They’re joined throughout the cold months by fresh runs of steelies.

Like all of creation, steelhead are creatures of comfort. They’re drawn into the streams by warmer temperatures. Bright, sunny days warm the shallow rapids a couple degrees, sending an inviting plume deep into the lake—the bigger the stream, the stronger its influence. Likewise, run-off generated by thaws is muddied, its darker water attracts the sun’s radiant power. Finally, all streams are warmed a skosh by springs bubbling from the relatively warm earth.

Winter weary steelies cruising out in the lake follow the heat. Once in the river, they find the pickings good. Indeed, a rolling buffet of salmon and trout eggs, swept out of autumn’s spawning beds by endlessly shifting currents, is constantly available. All a chromer has to do is face upstream and pick off the food as it passes by.

Surprisingly, steelhead aren’t all that hard to catch. Anglers armed with some fishing experience, good spinning tackle, a float and egg sacs have a reasonably good chance of nailing a wall hanger. Other baits that work well include Berkley BowerBait 3-inch Trout Worms, streamers, glow bugs, nymphs and even nightcrawlers. If you like tossing lures, tiny Mepps spinners and Rapalas will do.

Still, a professional guide can make the difference between your trip ending in disappointment or with a trophy. Most have the specialized equipment needed to float a whitewater river (you’re always on top of fish in a drift boat). In addition, they’re fluent in all the newest techniques like center-pinning, a highly productive method of float fishing that’s taking steelheading by storm, as well as old standbys like fly-fishing.

Oswego County Tourism’s Fishing and Hunting Guide (800-248-4FUN; has a complete list of highly skilled professionals capable of leading you to the trophy of a lifetime. If you’d rather do it yourself, the guide contains a wealth of information designed to get your feet wet, everything from instructions on popular techniques to maps showing the pools and public access sites on the Salmon River, and the locations of productive skinny creeks like Grindstone, Trout and Orwell Brooks, Little Sandy and Lindsey Creeks, and the Little Salmon River.

Spider Rybaak is an award-winning outdoor writer who has been published in more than 20 periodicals. He is the author of “Fishing Eastern New York” and “Fishing Western New York” guide books that cover 429 streams and lakes in New York State. Contact him at [email protected] Check out his blog at