Steelheading After the Gates Close

A 10 pound steelie caught on a red streamer in the rapids below the bride in Altmar, NY

While some salmon with one fin in the grave remain in Oswego County’s streams, and small pods of fresh-run kings–and a smattering of browns–will run periodically through mid-November, the main focus of most anglers is steelhead. And they haven’t been disappointed; last weekend, chromers stormed into the Salmon River in massive quantities, and most bee-lined for the upper river.

Water temperatures are perfect for the species and the fish are in top physical shape. Combined, these two factors make for the hottest angling of the year.

As I write this on Wednesday, October 28, 2009, the rain is coming down in torrents of Biblical proportions. This’ll cool the water even more and raise its level enough to entice additional steelhead into the caressing currents. What’s more, they’ll be joined by large numbers of laggard kings who, for reasons ranging from being late bloomers to instinctually challenged, wait until now to make their run.

In addition, skinny creeks should be at optimum levels for the next couple of days.

Back to the Salmon River

The Salmon River hatchery has already filled its egg quota and closed its gates. Now the salmon are forced to spawn naturally anywhere they can. As a result, the stream’s floor is littered with caviar.

Bear in mind that the nearer a king comes to spawning, the more territorial and aggressive it gets, lashing out at anything in its way. The next week or two should prove to be the best time of the year for nailing a trophy on a properly presented streamer, egg cluster, or lure.

On the other hand, steelhead are in the river for one reason only: to feast on the salmon eggs. Winter’s just around the corner and the fish are pigging out to put on as much weight as they can before the cold makes food scarce.

So don’t go looking for them in the pools. Instead, concentrate on the rapids, pockets, fast channels, and the heads and tails of holes. You see, that’s where the eggs that are swept out of the redds by constantly shifting currents come to the fish. All a steelie has to do is sit in the backwash created by cross currents, a boulder or other structure and wait for the food to come to it.

Egg sacs, available at all local bait shops, are traditional favorites. Single plastic eggs and scented worms like Berkley Trout Worms, work well, too.

However, right now is one of the best times to get trophy steel on a fly. Last weekend I watched a fellow run streamers through the rapids and score big time. The fish in the pocket he was casting to were hitting everything he threw at them, including a red fly he designed on a whim and never had any luck with before.

Luck like his doesn’t last, and his ran out an hour later when the pod of fish seemed to cross the river. On the other side, they were still hitting but the anglers were using egg patterns.

Justin, over at Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop (315-298-6357), says the most productive egg patterns are tiny glow bugs and estaz flies.

While purists rely on feel to know when a steelie hits, the action in the fast water can happen so quickly, that if you’re not highly experienced, the fish will hit and drop the fly before you can react. A good way to get the edge is to attach an indicator four to eight feet above the fly, watching it for sudden stops…and setting the hook.

This seven pounder was taken just upstream of the schoolhouse Pool on an egg sac.