While most of our local fisheries here in Maine have either closed or slowed down for winter things are just heating up in upstate NY for lake run steelhead and brown trout.
From late October through mid may steelhead and brown trout migrate from Lake Ontario into the tributaries that feed the lake. The infamous salmon run that occurs in September and goes through mid October is what attracts the first push of steelhead into the rivers. In October and November the steelhead are primarily in the rivers to feed, specifically on the eggs of the salmon that spawn in September and October. Brown trout are fall spawners so their motivation to move in to the rivers stems for the same reason as the salmon: spawning. However brown trout will gladly pick away at eggs and nymphs on their way up stream and can provide good opportunity throughout the winter months as many will hold in the rivers after they spawn as well. Steelhead will constantly enter river systems throughout the winter months often using bumps in water flow to move upstream. When they first enter they are dime bright silver fish that fight comparably to our landlocked salmon here in Maine. Expect long runs and jumps. Once the fish have been in the river for a while they tend to color up and become a little lethargic behaving more like your average resident rainbow trout. Steelhead will hold in rivers and feed all winter long. Late winter and early spring signals steelhead spawning time. At this point the fish in spawn will be mostly colored up and in skinny water sitting on or near their redds. It is always best to leave spawning fish alone but once steelhead finish their spawn, unlike salmon, they drop back into the lake and feed voraciously on their way out. This time of year is your best bet to catch steelhead while swinging flies or stripping large streamers. Early spring brown trout fishing can also be spectacular.
Most tributaries that feed into Lake Ontario will hold steelhead and or brown trout at some point in the year. The Salmon River located in Pulaski NY is a good place to start as it will reliably hold steelhead and brown trout throughout the winter no matter what the flows are. Many other smaller tributaries are flow dependent. Ideal flows for someone venturing out for the first time on the Salmon River would be 335cfs-750cfs. Above 1000cfs wading becomes difficult. The salmon river is very easy to navigate as many of the pools are named and easily accessed. The lower fly zone is a fly fishing only section of the river and almost always holds fish but is often crowded. Upper fly zone is the only other FFO water but is seasonal and closed for much of the winter so be sure to check the regulations. If the crowds are not your thing the Douglaston Salmon Run is a pay to fish section that includes the first 3 miles of river. The freshest fish are always caught here and in the winter crowds are very manageable as they have a cap on number of anglers per day. Full day and half day passes are available for purchase. The middle section of the salmon river is also good for finding solitude. Many of the sections near parking lots between Town pool and Pineville will have people fishing them but if you're willing to take a short walk away from the parking lots there is often plenty of space to be had.
Rod and line setup: For single handed rods 7wt and 8 wt in a 9ft to 10ft length paired with a floating line is recommended for fishing with an indicator. Shorter 2 handed rods (13' and under) paired with a skagit line system and a variety of balanced sink tips is recommended for swinging flies. Make sure your reel has a good drag and some solid stopping power. 2x tippet is recommended.
The two most effective ways of catching fish are fishing under an indicator and swinging flies. Bottom bouncing is also a popular technique though it is not one I would recommend as it is a good way to loose your whole fly box in a day and also results in many foul hooked fish due to the amount of weight required. Fishing flies under an indicator is by far the most productive way to catch the lake run fish on a fly rod. Egg patterns and nymphs dead drifted past steelhead are irresistible to them. Swinging flies, though usually not as productive, can still produce good numbers of fish. For those die hard swingers fall and spring are recommended times because the fish are usually more active and willing to move to grab a fly.
Note: While nymphing, or fishing flies under an indicator, only one fly is allowed to be used at a time. No dropper rigs are allowed on the Salmon River or surrounding tributaries. Always check regulations before venturing out.
In the fall it's all about the egg patterns. With salmon just finishing their spawn it is what the steelhead key in on the most. Egg patterns are deadly during the entire time steelhead are in the rivers but in the fall it's hard to throw anything else because they catch so many fish. Glo-bugs, blood dots, sucker spawn, and estaz egg patterns will all produce very well. During the winter months it's good to throw a variety of nymphs in with your egg patterns. Copper Johns, caddis larvae, and various stonefly patterns will all produce fish through the winter and spring months. Wooly buggers are a great versatile flies that can either be swung or fished under an indicator. Smaller buggers (size 10-12) work well in the dead of winter whereas the bigger flies (up to size 4) will produce more results in the spring and fall. If you want to catch fish on the bigger swung flies such as intruders, buggers, or zonkers, the spring is the time to do so.
Dress warm! Especially during the deep winter layer up and dress appropriately. Leave your cotton at home. It's no fun to hike through a couple feet of snow to your spot and have your sweat freeze up 15 minutes after you start fishing. Spikes on your wading boots are a must. Do not cross the river unless you know the right lane to take.
https://whitakers.com (local tackle shop and fishing lodge with reliable report on website)
Photos + Words By: Joe Webster
Joe Webster is a local angler to Maine waters but also spends a lot of time in New York chasing fish around the Great Lake's waters late in the season. Joe is kind enough here to share his knowledge on this subject