Bitter grounds

I guess it's almost steelhead time
Digging out a new pattern on the Salmon River (photo: Chad Shmukler).
Digging out a new pattern on the Salmon River (photo: Chad Shmukler).

While there are still a couple of good weeks of fall trout fishing remaining, dates are being bandied about for steelhead trips to Lake Ontario. It's hard for me to consider these trips when the weather occasionally makes sunny spurts into the 70s and fall foliage is rocking. I'm terribly behind on visits to the Housatonic and there are plenty of local trout streams that are finally in shape after a long summer. Yet, I still find my mind wandering north.

The Salmon River in Pulaski, NY is my Steelhead stream of choice. I've fished others in the region but my limited knowledge of the Salmon exceeds many-fold my knowledge of the others so that, and habit, make the Salmon my usual destination.

By the time I get up to the Salmon River it's after the prime. Part of that is my fault. I'm not what one would call “hard core” so I start my planning much too late to secure lodgings during the sweet spot of the season. By the time I can clear a few days on my calendar and rooms become available I'm fishing at the tail; some would consider it offseason. Of course that affords me the opportunity to enjoy real Steelhead weather; single digit temps and double digit snowfall are not uncommon.

One of my cold weather fishing traditions is a stream-side break for a hot cup of coffee. While some bring a thermos, I prefer to bring a Jetboil and make a fresh pot several times a day. Steelhead fishing generally provides long periods of tedious casting and while I'm all for putting my time in on the water, I have my limits. So, I step to dry land, boil water and make the finest coffee available for miles. Most of my fishing companions don't complain though I do get disdainful looks from some.

I've been fishing for Steelhead for three years and haven't caught a fish since that first year. Sure, I've hooked a few chromers as well as the odd leftover salmon but nothing has made it's way to hand. That doesn't stop me from spending an inordinate amount of time tying unproven flies and stocking a box that will likely be well provisioned for years after my demise.

One of the reasons I don't catch many steelhead is because I'm not very good at it. I generally am doing a perverted version of euro-nymphing (ok, I'm chucking and ducking half a pound of split shot) which is not my preferred method for catching any sort of swimming creature. My technique is awful and I find it desperately tedious. Setting the hook on rock after rock distracts my mind so that by the time I've set the hook for the five hundredth time I'm getting lazy. And that's usually the time that the hook tugs back.

Four out of five times I get a head shake and that's it. The odd moment when I see the lightning quick zip of the line as it rooster tails upstream I manage to do something wrong. Not enough pressure. Too much pressure. Busted off on log. Busted off on a boulder. Slip and fall on rocks. Wade too deep. Tangle with another angler. Trip in deep snow. I've managed to lose fish utilizing all the usual methods and some new ones. I try to be zen about the whole thing but gnawing deep down is the desire to tail another explosive slab of life clawed from frigid northern waters. The feeling is particularly poignant when others are have a good go of it.

I'm eyeing a trip in early December. I suppose I should check for hotel reservations at some point, tie some more flies and get a fresh fuel canister for the Jetboil. I don't expect much from the angling but at least the coffee will be good and hot. Someday I'm sure I'll catch another Steelhead but don't be surprised if I'm flipping you the bird as you catch yours and I stand fishless. It's not you, it's me.