Early birds get big fish (but no worms)

I admit it felt crazy getting up at midnight to drive through the night in order to be fishing at dawn on the Salmon River, a tributary of Lake Ontario in western New York. But the opportunity to catch Great Lakes steelhead will do that to a person. And besides, if it was crazy, I was not alone in my craziness.
By 1 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 15, eight Addison County fly-fishermen (many of whom are actively involved in the New Haven River Anglers Association or NHRAA) were caravanning in three pickups heading south out of Middlebury on Route 30. Armed with a freshly brewed stainless steel container of coffee, I was in the third vehicle with Randy Butler of New Haven. Randy’s son Wes (current secretary of the NHRAA) drove the second vehicle with passenger Jesse Hailer (the new NHRAA president). The pickup leading the expedition held Brian Cadoret (the previous NHRAA president) along with Sutton Doria, Dan McIntosh (co-proprietor of Middlebury’s Forth ’N Goal), and Arne McKinley.
At 6:30 a.m., the eight of us were putting on our waders and rigging our fly rods in the parking lot of Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop in Pulaski, N.Y. Shortly after dawn lightened up the river, we were wading through muck and brambles out toward two of the Salmon River’s noted holes on public access: Muskrat Hole and the Bovines.
The river was not as crowded during a weekday on the steelhead run as it was during the king salmon run of the previous month, but it was still “combat fishing.” Though our whole party was fly-fishing, this stretch of water allowed lures and live bait — which for most anglers mean not worms but salmon eggs. In the best places, about 15 yards of river on each side is the most distance one can expect to the next angler, and it is often less. And in lower stretches of river, every hour or so sees a drift boat floating past within a few yards. (In most places, the river is only 15 to 20 yards wide, and waist-deep; a drift boat seems to take up most of the river.) The legal fishing day begins 30 minutes before dawn. Many anglers are on shore staking out their claim an hour before that.
The advantage of fishing in a group of eight, however, is that we can spread out over a stretch of river and essentially claim the whole area, giving each other more space and respect than an unknown angler might give, but not so much room that a stranger will try to slip in between us. By midday, we had essentially taken over the Bovines, and frequently had Muskrat Hole to ourselves, as well.
On the first day, Sutton had the hot hand for steelies. He mastered a perfect drift through a stretch of water and seemed to hook as many as the rest of us put together. One of the things that makes such a trip worthwhile, however, is the phenomenal fight put on by steelhead. They are not only great leapers, but they can pull like an angry bull. Only a fraction of the fish we hooked were landed. Many Addison County flies ended up broken off in the jaws of fish as they took off down river, and many others ended up in overhanging trees where our rods sent them flying after being spit out by fish. Still, in addition to a few steelhead that made it into nets before being unhooked and released, Brian also landed a nice coho.
A large supply of pizza and wings replenished us that evening, and by 9 p.m., fatigue had set in. At 5 a.m. on Wednesday, most of us were down in the living room at the fishing lodge getting our free continental breakfast, putting on our waders, and preparing to hit the river again. The second day’s plan was to fish one of the fly-fishing-only catch-and-release stretches of river, known as the Lower Fly Zone, where we would not have to compete with drift boats or heavy spinning tackle. Well before dawn we were walking down to the water to stake out a claim. I was among the anglers who didn’t land any on the first day and I was very motivated to get my first Ontario steelhead.
As expect, several other anglers were already laying claim to the best spots. But Wes, Randy, Brian, Sutton and I still managed to grab a piece of shoreline with access to a nice run. Thirty minutes before dawn, our flies hit the water. King and coho salmon had mostly finished spawning, and so the river was full of salmon eggs and dead salmon. The steelhead were feasting on this easy protein. Wes, fishing in a swift section of current, managed to hook — and get the hook broken off by — several nice fish on flies imitating salmon eggs. Brian hooked — and lost after a good fight — a huge brown trout on a streamer fly imitating a hunk of flesh.
Following Brian’s lead, I tied on a flesh pattern. I promptly lost it in the mouth of a big fish. I tied on my only other flesh fly and lost it on a log on the very next cast. My next cast was too ambitious as I tried to drop a fly just below an overhanging branch. My fly ended up permanently decorating the tree. Three successive casts, and three flies gone, along with weights.
I went back to a small fly imitating a single egg, mostly white with a hint of blue, and cast it with some heavy weights right onto the edge of the swift current. To my dismay, this fly also got snagged on the bottom. I lifted my rod and tried to pull the fly loose. It didn’t budge.
Not wanting to lose another fly, I began to inch upstream to get a different angle, and I tugged again. All of a sudden, the bottom of the river exploded in a magnificent leap just a few feet in front of me, and it tore off down the river like a freight train stripping line off my reel with the sound we all wait for.
Thirty minutes later, arms exhausted, I was standing 50 yards downstream still attached to a 30-inch fish, with a bright steely-red jaw — one of the nicest fish to be taken that day. Wes netted the fish for me. Keeping it in the water, I gently removed the hook, lifted the fish for a photo, and then released it so that it could reproduce its genes.
Though I hooked and lost several fish over two days, I would land only one more steelhead that day before Randy and I hit the road in the early afternoon. (Others among the party would stay another day or two and land several more fish in the falling snow.) Though I had landed only two fish in a long day and a half fishing, those two were well worth the trip.
As I released the second one, the stranger on the shoreline who had arrived at least an hour before dawn to stake out his claim explained the significance of those steelhead.
“Catch your first steelhead,” he said, “and you immediately start trying to catch your second. Catch your second and you start looking for local real estate.”
I haven’t started looking to buy land in Pulaski. But I am thinking about my next trip.

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