Combat Fishing on the Salmon River

We pulled up to Tailwater Lodge on the Salmon River in Pulaski, New York at 3 o’clock in the afternoon after leaving Manhattan that morning. Team Amberjack was fed up with talking about fishing all day without actually doing any, so we decided to take a company trip upstate to chase some steelhead.

Between us, we had three 5wt trout rods, a single-handed 8wt, a switch 8wt, and two spey rods (10 & 12 wt). For steelhead, we opted for the two 8wts and the 10wt spey, which was definitely overkill but was probably better for steelhead than a trout rod would have been. The front desk at Tailwater pointed us in the direction Malinda’s Fly & Tackle Shop down the street.

We walked into Malinda’s and were met by a group of locals cracking jokes around a tying vise. Malinda was behind her counter, and set up a Skagit lines on the switch rod and the 10 wt spey. We took any of the flies that she recommended, ordered licenses over the phone, and jumped back in the car. I was in the front seat tying up some leaders when we got our first look at the river – and the people in it.

There is a bridge over the Salmon River in the center of Pulaski. The river bends on the North side of this bridge, and on the inside bank of that bend we got our first idea of what we were up against. 15 fishermen stood shoulder to shoulder, some swinging big streamers, others beads. Some guys had spinning rods and as far as I could tell were just snagging at the spawning salmon and the steelhead, which had come up from Lake Ontario to eat salmon eggs. Snagging was outlawed in 1995, but still occurs on the river. Seriously.

But let’s back up a second. Atlantic salmon were native to this river until 1872 when they were overfished and removed entirely from the ecosystem. Almost 100 years later, the Salmon River Fish Hatchery began stocking Chinook, Coho, steelhead, and some brown trout into the river. Now, the hatchery stocks 3.5 million fish in the Salmon River every year. The introduction of salmon and recreational angling brings an estimated $20 million a year to this region and is seemingly the economic focus for the entire town of Pulaski. Everybody in town is in some way connected to the money that the salmon bring upstream with them.

Back to the story. We drove a little further down the road to “avoid the crowds”. There was only an hour of daylight left to fish. We threw on our waders and set up the rods with some pretty steelhead flies. Some brief spey-casting lessons were done and we were on the river. The three of us spread out a respectable distance away from each other and began to fish. In the first 3 minutes, a salmon rolled about 10 feet in front of me. I was beyond excited now. This was my 13th day of salmon/steelhead fishing in 2015 and all I had to show for it was a 4-pound bull trout. That summer, I had been up to the Skeena in British Colombia and fished the Deschutes for a week in early August. I had hooked one Chinook in BC, but lost it while I was trying to tighten my drag. I was laughing to myself, thinking how ridiculous it would be to have unsuccessfully fished world-class destinations like the Skeena and the Deschutes, only to drive 4 hours north of my house to hook into either a salmon or a steelhead.

After snagging my line not in the tree on the bank, but actually on someone’s bobber rig that was already hanging 6 feet down from that tree, I decided I would try upstream a bit. I was fishing a point where the river split around an island and converged again, making a pool on one side with a fresh seam running down the middle of it. I cast into the pool again and again, leaning over my rod and picturing the streamer bouncing along the bottom. My faith in the fishing was fading with the daylight, until another salmon sailed out of the water and splashed down over my line. I convinced myself that I had touched him with my last cast, but pretty soon it was too dark to fish. We resolved to pack it in and head back to the lodge for an early wake up the next morning.

Alarms go off at 5:00 and we suit up quickly. Sunrise isn’t until 7 but the competition to get yourself in a good position is steep on the Salmon. We had a quick breakfast and pulled on some frozen wading boots that were accidentally forgotten in the car. The Tailwater Lodge has some “private” access points that you are a two-minute walk from the back door. The sun was peeking over the horizon as we approached the river. We could just make out the long shadow of a fisherman. And then another. And another. And then all we could see was fishermen. Boats were anchored every 30 yards or so, some bouncing egg sacs and others futilely casting beads or the odd streamer. The banks were lined with all sorts of fishermen, some plunking weighted hooks and others casting spey or Skagit lines.

“Alright shit” someone said, “let’s walk down the bank a ways and see if we can find some good water”. We had been walking a few minutes before we had to cross a small tributary only a few inches deep. I jumped in first (still trying to thaw a boot) and was immediately startled by the splashing I caused around me. I had unknowingly stumbled over 10 or so spawned out salmon, some on their last breath.

It was pretty cool and kind of humbling to see them like that. Salmon have probably the most epic life cycle of any living thing on Earth. They had come all that way from Lake Ontario just to spawn and now they were going to die, surrounded by fallen comrades in a small tributary in upstate New York.

National Geographic moment in the bag, we crossed the tributary and headed into the river. It was a little less crowded now, and we set up in semi-promising pool and started fishing. It was nice. It really was. The Salmon River gets a bad rap for being so crowded (as it probably should), but it was a Tuesday and we were standing in a river, snow gently falling, and the vague promise of steelhead in our future. We worked our way down the pool and started into the next one, which had been occupied by a driftboat that had pulled up anchor. I was lowest in our pool, and as the guide deployed his oars he said to me in a thick Irish accent “fish from that rock to that rock”, pointing to a 40 yard stretch that looked extremely promising. “Good water” he said.

Alright, good enough for me, so I started at the top and started swinging a chartreuse streamer through the pool over and over again, taking a few steps every third cast or so. The inevitable driftboat passed over our new pool every 10 minutes or so, clanking oars and gently apologizing. Every boat that passed had a new story to tell and a new fly to promote.

“Chartreuse eggs!”

“We had 2! Purple beads!”

Match the hatch right? I wasn’t about to tie a bead on quite yet (it’s just not a fly), so I kept swinging my pretty steelhead fly.

By the way, something no one tells you about the Salmon River is that there’s a serious smell to it. We were there in late November. Salmon and steelhead were still coming up the river, but some of the salmon had come, spawned, and died. They were lining the banks and the shallows, being picked over by the seagulls. It’s not uncommon to trip over one, all covered in white fungus now, and really spook yourself as it turns over to stare you down with hollow eye sockets.

The pool we were in couldn’t accommodate the three of us at once, so we took turns sitting against a fallen tree, sipping Miller Lite and rolling cigarettes with numb fingers.

And most of the morning passed that way – slowly working up and down the pool, working out the occasional snag, watching the drift boats catch an occasional trout on eggs. We were just joking around and laughing, and really starting to realize what fly-fishing the Salmon River is all about.

We went in for a quick lunch and then moved above the hatchery to the Upper Fly Zone. In my opinion, this is the best place to fish. It’s a fly fishing only area set in a somehow much more picturesque river basin.

Everybody knows that if you want to catch a steelhead, you have to put in the time. I was quietly on my 13th day of steelheading without catching one, and starting to wonder about my own sanity and career choices. If anyone has put in the time, surely it’s me right? The one benefit of having a streak as serious as mine is an incredibly jaded lack of optimism, which starts to fade around day 4 or 5 without catching a fish.

We found the somewhat legendary Paradise Pool unoccupied, although probably fished out by the time we reached it at 4 o’clock that afternoon. Undeterred, we swung and swung our flies until sunset, and then promptly headed to the bar.

Between drinks at the Altmar Hotel, we made ambitious plans for a ridiculously early wake up, followed by some hardcore fishing until we had to leave at 2 that afternoon.

This following day on the water ultimately proved unsuccessful, meaning I have now logged 14 days on some of the world’s most iconic rivers without hooking into a single steelhead. Still better than Canal Street though.

To learn how to properly fish the Salmon River, check out our interview with the Spey Doctor himself,Walt Geryk.

Story sound all too familiar? Check out this video about Bad Luck and Fishing

Cover picture by Perfect Fly Store. Story originally published January 4, 2016