Matt Dickerson: Late fall fishing for steelhead and salmon
Every fall in Vermont, about the time that the open trout season sputters to its conclusion on Halloween, and area streams and rivers really start running cold, another fishing season is just beginning.
One of the famous game fish in the world is the Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), a close cousin of the brown trout (Salmo trutta). In their most famous form, the Atlantic salmon is an anadromous fish. It begins life in a freshwater stream, heads out to the Atlantic Ocean for two years, and then returns to its natal stream to spawn and begin a new generation. Unlike the five native species of Pacific salmon found in North America, which all die when they spawn, Atlantic salmon can survive spawning and return to the ocean to grow bigger and spawn a second time — and on rare occasions a third time. Since they aren’t in the process of dying when they swim up into freshwater, they continue to eat during their spawning runs and can put up a tremendous fight if hooked. Unfortunately, though Atlantic salmon used to run up the Connecticut River and all the way into the White River two centuries ago — along with countless other rivers from New York up through Maine and eastern Canada — they have been extirpated from most of New England, largely as a result of dam building and loss of habitat on spawning streams.
In addition to this endangered anadromous strain, however, thanks to their ability to adapt to freshwater, some Atlantic salmon became landlocked millennia ago, getting trapped in lakes as a result of natural barriers created by glaciers. These “landlocked salmon” are native in several New England lakes and have also been stocked in many more, where they take on what is known as an adfluvial life cycle: beginning life in a river of stream, and then swimming down to a big lake (rather than the ocean) for their adult life.
Across the continent, something similar has happened to the steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), which is an anadromous strain of rainbow trout, and genetically in the same species. Though they are native to the Pacific and are related to Pacific salmon in evolutionary history, and more closely related to salmon than to rainbow trout in habits and life history, steelhead can also survive their spawning journey from saltwater to freshwater. In some rivers they remain for weeks or months feeding before and after spawning, especially where there is an abundant supply of easy food like salmon eggs.
Steelhead, which typically run anywhere from six to 20 pounds depending on the river, are notoriously hard-fighting. Though steelhead trout don’t have a native landlocked variety — except for their rainbow trout cousins — because of their ability to adapt to freshwater they have also been stocked in many freshwater lakes, most notably the Great Lakes, where they have established very successful wild populations in addition to hatchery-supported ones.
And Vermont has both of these fish. Abundant hatchery-supported populations of both steelhead and landlocked Atlantic salmon can be found in Lake Champlain. A few other large and mid-sized lakes in Vermont also boast populations of one or the other. And here is the thing: about the time that the leaves have come down off the trees, and white dust becomes to appear on the tops of the peaks, the driving, irresistible desire of these fish to reproduce their genes is going to send them up some tributary to spawn. Landlocked salmon typically run from late October into December. Though the rivers on the New York side of the Lake Champlain are slightly better suited to them, they can be found in places like the Salmon Hole on the Winooski River below the hydro station between Winooski and downtown Burlington.
Steelhead tend to come a little later, and can stay up in rivers and streams right up into March. It often takes a good winter rain to raise water levels enough to lure them in. While many avid Vermont steelheader anglers make regular drives across the Adirondacks to the Lake Ontario tributaries to chase their quarry — and yes, hooking up with even a single steelhead can make the 10-hours of round trip driving worthwhile — there are smaller runs of these fish on both sides of Lake Champlain (including in Lewis Creek) as well as up in the Northeast Kingdom in Lake Memphramagog.
Of course, river fishing for steelhead and landlocked salmon is winter fishing in Vermont. Wet wading in sandals and shorts isn’t really an option. Even fishing caps are usually out. Steelhead gear is wool hat, fleece gloves, and heavy liners. The good news is that you don’t have to share the river with casual anglers. And if you do hook-up, it’s a memorable experience.