On the eastern shore of Lake Ontario in upstate New York, in and around Pulaski, the rainbows run the rivers after years in the lake. They start around late November and run all winter late into April. My wife and I have fished it for 30 years, catching rainbows to 16 pounds and having seen them taken by others as large as 20. It’s dream trout fishing in a long and reliable season. However, it has its issues.
There is a brief salmon run in the fall where fish as big as your leg do a spawning run. Crowds gather at well-known pools to catch them. They quarrel over access as well as spots and occasionally even engage in fist fights. It’s not really fishing, and that fall salmon run is well known as “combat fishing.” Go hunting to stay away from it because you shouldn’t want that. It is the steelhead that take baits and lures after the salmon run has passed. You’ll want to experience that, and it lasts for approximately six months. The price is that it is cold.
Having fished since I could walk, I have done all kinds of fishing and hunting. Nothing I have experienced in the woods and waters of the Northeast even comes close to the weather conditions you can face in this area. The worst morning I ever had the temperature fell to -35 degrees giving healthy anglers heart angina with lines freezing to the guides. Everyone had to quit fishing. On the other hand, there are days when the temperature is above freezing and miles of river hold fish in every pool. It can really get good. My wife and I had three weeks every season when we could go – Christmas, late February, and late April and we always got fish. It was sissy fishing late April what with no ice, birds chirping, and not a flake of snow. Nice.
The Eastern Shore’s downwind location makes it vulnerable to cold air blowing across Lake Ontario. In warmer winters that air picks up moisture from the lake and deposits it on the downwind land in the form of snow. Really cold weather causes the lake to freeze over, preventing the rise of moisture. The colder the weather, the more ice forms, the less snow develops. It’s kind of a nutty situation.
The one thing that defeats most anglers is dealing with the cold. The body of knowledge utilized in keeping warm is highly specialized. Oversize waders that will accommodate felt liners; neoprene waders, chemical warmers, down long johns, wool layers, hot coffee, and even warm-ups at your vehicle are all needed to make it work. Even then you will be cold.
Salmon River Follies
Way up river in Altmar there are reservoirs where water is periodically released. There is a phone number you can call to find out if and when releases will be made. I have never called because anglers in the river pools always include someone who called and can tell you. If there is a release, you can stay ahead of the rise in river level by driving down stream. I don’t like getting caught by a rise in water level because it can be very dangerous. The time I was a victim of this rise and resultant increase in flow I was nearly killed. I was fighting a decent steelie, it taking line and me following downstream. I was so distracted by the situation that I never noticed the release had arrived. Before I knew it, the current had taken me over and I had lost control, me floating helplessly downstream. One of the guys in the pool, a New York City former marine who was taller and stronger than I, came out and grabbed me by the collar and dragged me to shore. I owe him my life and, as a former sailor, I will never utter another marine joke as long as I live.
It’s a long season spanning from early December until late April. As I said earlier, we have gone there for years during school vacations – Christmas, late February, and late April – and only had one bad week that was colder than I’ve ever seen. There were mornings when you were relieving yourself your body fluid froze before it hit the ground. We still loved it. Late season, usually April, we always enjoyed the local small “cricks” as the cocktail waitresses and dinner servers call them. Be nice to those girls if you want to fish in the right places. The ladies have a lot of angler exposure and know as much as the local guides about what is happening and where. I learned about what they knew quite by accident when lamenting a slow trip. Having heard my complaining about poor results, one of our waitresses whispered in my ear while putting a frothy tall one down on our table. “Fish the cricks,” she said.
The charm of these smaller rivers is way less demanding, safer and very different than the Salmon River in Pulaski. The steelhead are just as big, crowds are greatly reduced, no doubt tired of a winter of productive catching. While small stream fishing you can site fish with polarized sunglasses and actually see steelies holding in the current of the creeks. In places where you can’t see, undercut banks that have been continually scoured by river currents, it is a certainty hidden fish are basking in the protection of overhead cover; fish where you can’t see.
The later in the season, the hungrier these migratory rainbows can be. Once finished with the spawning, they eat like hungry bears coming out of the den. Spawn sacks, fish eggs, party marshmallows, power bait, even night crawlers, turn them on. It gets really easy. Your challenge is to get a natural drift that passes them at nose level; it’s a feel thing accomplished with the right amount of split shot. Change if you are not catching or imitate someone who is. It’s not rocket science. Timed perfectly it’s over just around turkey hunting season.