Published Nov 16. 1997 - 26 years ago
Updated or edited Feb 12. 2019

New York Salmon fishing

Although there are a couple rivers in New York with the name "Salmon River", only one has an international reputation. That is the Salmon River that flows into Lake Ontaria near Pulaski, a small town along the lake's eastern shore.

Purple Butt

Purple Peril

Red Butt Bear

Indian summer

As summer draws to a close, transplanted Pacific salmon begin to stage at the mouth of the river waiting for cooler waters and shorter days to begin their annual spawning migration. Some will enter when rainfall raises the river's water levels, but the majority enter when the local power company (Niagara Mohawk) begins to release water from Redfield Reservoir, from which the lower Salmon River flows. After an initial release of water to jump start the spawning run, the power company "pulses" the flows every night in cooperation with the NY Department of Environmental Conservation in an attempt to both extend the duration of the run and make the fish populations in the river more consistent day to day.
The salmon are a mix of Chinook (King) and Coho (Silver), the same fish that draw fisherman by the droves to the rivers of Alaska. Chinook both outnumber and outweight the Coho in Lake Ontario and make up the majority of the Fall fishing opportunity. An average chinook salmon weighs in at a hefty 20 pounds or so. In simple terms, they are BIG fish, and there are lots of them.

And steelhead too

Along with the Pacific Salmon, the Salmon River enjoys good runs of Steelhead, another Pacific coast transplant, and brown trout. Both can ring up double digits on your scales. There are also smaller runs of Lake Trout, as well as a few Atlantic Salmon. In recent years, there are even signs that the experiments with Skamania, a strain of steelhead that migrate into the river during the summer, is starting to take hold.
Without question, the numbers, size, and variety of fish running in the river at any given time can rival the best waters found anywhere else in the world.

Everyone knows

The downside to the remarkable fishing opportunities is that everyone knows about it. It's not uncommon to have the good pools surrounded by 30-50 fisherman all day long with a steady stream of drift boats floating through. Each parking lot is filled to overflowing with cars from everywhere you can think of. The town is buzzing with activity, mostly centered around the fishing. For a small town like Pulaski, the salmon run is a BIG DEAL!
Mention the Salmon River to most fly fisherman and they wrinkle their nose and snort "Isn't that where they snag salmon?" Well, yes, it is. However, it is now illegal to snag salmon, and NY's government continues to refine it's laws and enforcement policies in an attempt to rid our waters of this practice. No longer do you have to be caught putting a foul hooked fish on a stringer to be fined. Now you can be ticketting for *attempting* to snag a fish, whether or not you actually hook one. Granted this legislation can only be as good as the enforcement backing it up, but it is an attempt to get the message out that snagging is not something to be tolerated.

Peak salmon season

Although I do occasionally fish the river during the summer for smallmouth bass and juvenile salmon, I don't start fishing with earnest until September, when the Chinook run is well underway. Most of my fishing is concentrated in the upper third of the river, where it's is smaller and more easily fished with fly tackle. During the peak salmon season which is roughly mid-September to mid-October, I fish exclusively in the two "Flyfishing Only" zones to avoid entanglements with anglers in the lower pools. These fish can take a lot of fly line and backing before they can be brought to shore (if they can be at all), and I've found that you have a better chance of getting room to battle a big fish when surrounded by fly anglers who are sympathetic to your predicament.

Chuck and duck

When I first started fishing the river, I spent all my time using a setup commonly referred to as "Chuck and Duck". The combination of a long leader, a heavy weight (slinky), and a thin running line are used to propell the fly toward the target. It's not flyfishing in the true sense, but it is extremely effective at probing deep pools for fish that hug the bottom, as salmon often do. In fact, I've found that the "chuck n duck" method with fly tackle is more effective than using spinning tackle because the cast can be placed more precisely and the drift can be controlled much better. Not only is it an effective fishing tactic, it's also the best way to fish in a crowd when you don't have room to cast or work a drift, but still want to use flies and fly tackle. Although it's not my favorite way to fish, I have no qualms about rigging up a slinky when the conditions are not suited to other types of fishing.
The past few seasons I've been moving more and more in the direction of traditional fly tackle. A floating or sink tip line, little or no weight on the leader, traditional wet flies and nymphs, and real honest-to-goodness fly casting. I can't say that this is more effective that chuck-n-duck, but I do enjoy the act of
casting a line and leader uninhibited by lead shot. The trick is to find spots where fish will hold where you can reach them with traditional techniques. Often these spots are are the heads or tails of the deeper pools. Even the pocket water between the pools has a couple secret spots that will hold a fish or two. If you want to hook fish with floating line techniques, you have to leave the crowds, the pools, and the concentrated fish and seak out those little niches. It's a risk, because you're leaving the relative security of the big pools where you know there are fish, but the rewards can be substantial.


I might as well admit right now that fly tying is as much a part of my salmon and steelhead fishing experience as the actual on-stream fishing. The majority of the flies in my fly box are there not because I have a particular faith in them as effective fishing flies, but rather because I find them fun to tie and pleasing to my eye. A fly box filled with classic steelhead or salmon flies is a visual delight, and I don't think I would enjoy the fishing as much without them. A large portion of my off-season tying time is spent exploring west coast steelhead patterns and atlantic salmon flies, choosing patterns and styles that I think might be effective on Salmon River fish.
Given that, there are a couple stand-out patterns that have earned a permanent place in my fly box because they have proven themselves as effective fishing flies. They are:

Orange Fatal Attraction

Black and Orange Fatal Attraction

Hook: Up-eye salmon hook
(the fly depicted is an early "experiment" tied on a larger Mustad 3906)
Thread: Black
Tail: Gold Flashabou
Body: Gold Diamondbraid
Hackle: Black (soft)
Underwing: Gold Krsytal Flash
Wing: Orange Bucktail
Topping: Pearl Krystal Flash and Peacock Herl

Fatal Attraction

The black and orange version of this fly has been a terrific fly for Chinook Salmon. I've been using dyed black pheasant rump feathers for the hackle lately, as finding a soft hen hackle long enough to reach the point of larger hooks is not an easy task. This has become my #1 fall season fly.

Polar Shrimp

This is an egg-like pattern that really isn't an egg pattern. If you cheat with proportions a bit, you get a nice round body that suggests an egg, with a white wing and red hackle that are very attractive to fish. A great fly. I keep a good supply of these on hand. This one can be fished on the swing or dead drifted along the bottom.

Polar Shrimp

Polar Shrimp

Hook: Up-eye salmon hook
Thread: Black
Tail: Red Hackle Fibers
Body: Fl. Orange Chenille
Throat: Red Hackle
Wing: White Calftail

Converted to Speys

Other than that, I try to carry a variety of patterns in different styles, sizes, and colors to give me plenty of options to try when things aren't going as well as I would hope. Lately I've been adding several spey-style flies to my fly box. Some classic Atlantic Salmon patterns tied in the true spey style with bronze mallard wings, as well as "steelhead spey" flies tied in the tradition of Syd Glasso with hackle point wings. My theory is that the fish holding in pools see hundreds of egg patterns and nymphs drifted by them all day long. Maybe a spey-style fly, with it's long flowing hackles, will trigger a strike from a fish that's ignoring all the conventional flies. Many of the classic hairwing flies can be converted into a "spey style" by careful substitution of materials. Flies like the Black Bear Red Butt, Green Butt Skunk, and Purple Peril are good examples of color schemes that can be duplicated in a spey style resulting in a fly that is both fishable and aesthetically pleasing.

Black Bear Red Butt

This one is good when you want to fish something dark, but still want a hot spot of color to attract their attention. When do you want to fish something dark? Why, when the bright flies don't draw strikes, of course. Actually, the dark day/dark fly, bright day/bright fly is a good rule of thumb.
Borrowing from the techniques of the west coat steelheaders, I lay down a foundation of silver mylar tinsel and then use a flourescent flat waxed nylon thread to create the butt. It works out quite well.

Green Butt Skunk

This is a classic steelhead fly. I wouldn't feel right unless I had a few of them with me in various sizes and styles.

Purple Peril

I also like to have a few purple flies in my box. As many other anglers have found, salmon and steelhead can be very color sensitive. It's nice to have a few flies in different colors in your box. Purple is not one to be overlooked.

Wets and eggs
As you can tell, I like wet flies with a mixture of colors in the pattern. I think that's important, as you're never quite sure which color will attract a fish's attention on any given day. If you have a fly with a few colors in it's makeup, you have a better chance of catching the fish's eye then a fly made up of a single color scheme.
I do use egg patterns and nymphs when I've exhausted myself fishing wet flies. My favorite egg pattern is an Estaz Egg, which is nothing more than a length of estaz (or cactus chenille) wound on a wet fly hook with a tail of flourescent antron yarn. Another good egg pattern is a Babine Special, which, while still an egg patterns, is quite dressy.

Estaz eggs

Estaz Eggs

Hook: Standard wet fly hook
Thread: 6/0, color to match antron yarn tail
Tail: Flourescent Antron Yarn
Body: Estaz, various colors

Simple nymphs

I also carry an assortment of nymphs, concentrating on generic nymphs like a hare's ear or a black stonefly. The real key to eggs and nymphs is to keep the flies very simple as *MANY* are lost to snags when you're fishing. A friend of mine has terrific luck with a fly that has a tail of krystal flash, an abdomen of sparkle chenille, and a thorax/head of estaz. Simple, yet he's hooked a good number of fish with this fly. Another simple pattern has a tail of woodduck fibers, an abdomen of floss, a thorax of sparkle dubbing palmered with a hen hackle, and a wingcase of ringneck pheasant tail fibers. That's about as complex as I care to make my steelhead nymhs. You should be able to pop any steelhead nymph or egg pattern off your vise like popcorn. You'll fish them better that way, because you're not afraid to lose them.

No pool hop

The fishing is a bit different than my normal stream fishing. When I fish a trout stream, I like to be constantly on the move, fishing fresh water with each cast. When I fish the Salmon River, I do just the opposite. I tend to anchor myself in one area and fish it thoroughly. More than likely, I'll be the guy the furthest downstream along the shore, as that will give me the most room to swing a fly without worrying about interfering with anyone downstream from me. Elbow room is important.
Some guys "pool hop", fishing one pool for a short while and then speeding away in their cars to the next pool if the action isn't what they expect. I rarely do that. When I go with friends, we try to get information ahead of time from the local shops and then fish a specific area for a few hours, moving only if we need a change of scenery. Typically we fish one area in the morning and then a different area after a lunch break.

Few pools

Both my friends and I agree that the best way to learn the river is to pick a few pools that are good fish holders and fish them regularly. With 14 miles of river to fish, it would take years to know it all. We've encountered some pools that have us baffled, but there are a few that we've figured out fairly well. We've even found a couple secret spots that aren't heavily fished. Bouncing around the river all day burns a lot of gas and you spend most of your time in the car instead of in the water. The only time I want to spend in the car is getting to the river and going home. The rest of the day I want to spend on the river fishing.
In certain light conditions, some pools open up so that you can see everything that's happening under the water. This is especially true at some of the pools where there is a bridge crossing. I took advantage of this a few times last year as I laid down my rod and watched the pool while others were fishing. Two things I observed have made a difference in my approach to the river:
- Most people work the same drift over and over again.
- Most people are standing on top of the fish.
So what have I changed?
For one thing, I make a conscious effort to vary my presentations to the fish. I don't want to get into a mechanical rut of making the same cast time and time again. I try to get each cast to drift in a slightly different manner, to cover as much water as I can from my position. Sometimes a few inches *can* make a difference. Even though I can spend considerable time fishing a single pool, I try to change positions within that pool as much as the angling pressure will allow. Some of these pools are quite big and have numerous holding areas, so it pays to try fishing from all sorts of spots along both shores when possible. If you find a good spot and hook a couple fish, move over and give someone else a chance. Set an example and show people what rotating a pool is all about. Also, I'm more prone to step back and fish the edges of the pools more than I was used to. Sometimes that involves staying on shore and casting. Sometimes just getting your boots wet. Just because we have chest waders doesn't mean we need to wade chest deep to catch fish. The fish aren't *always* on the far shore. Fishing to different lies is also critically important during times of high water when the edges are the prime lies and the heart of the pool is often devoid of fish. That's when the angler who is accustomed to fishing near shore has the advantage.

No line cannons

Equipment is what you would expect for this kind of fishing. If you're going to target chinook salmon, a strong 9' 9wt rod would be a good choice. If you're like me and hope to hook some of the other species as well as salmon, a good compromise rod is an 8wt. Neither should be "line cannons", as long casts really aren't necessary. What should be your primary concern is the strength of these rods, as you're going to put them to the test should you hook up with a fresh fish. The stronger the rod, the quicker you can bring the fish to shore for a quick and safe release. Reels should have a smooth drag and the ability to hold a couple hundred yards of backing. Not all the fish will take you into your backing, but the few that do will make you appreciate the fact that you have a bit of luxury as far as line capacity.
One critical piece of equipment to bring with you is a hook hone, as you'll often snag your fly on the bottom rocks. Since heavy tippets are the norm for big salmon, it's likely that you'll be able to pull the fly free from the rocks. ALWAYS check the hook point after every snag.
Salmon fishing on the Salmon River isn't for everyone. It is not the river to go to if solitude is what you are after, and tempers have been known to flare from time to time. However, I'm of the opinion that the more sportsmen who stop avoiding the river and start fishing it, the better off it will be. Lead by example is a good motto. I do my best to respect the river, the fish, and my fellow anglers around me. If we all did that, then the ugly history of this great river would be just that - history. Only then will this world class fishery get the respect it deserves.


Black Bear Red Butt

Hook: Up-eye Salmon Hook
Thread: Black
Tag: Flat Silver Mylar Tinsel
Butt: Fl. Red Flat Waxed Nylon Thread
Body: Black Wool, Synthetic Yarn, of Floss
Hackle: Black Hen
Wing: Fine black bear hair or dyed black squirrel tail

Green Butt Skunk

Hook: Up-eye Salmon Hook
Thread: Black
Tag: Oval Silver Tinsel
Tail: Red Hackle Fibers
Butt: Chartreuse Stretch Floss
Body: Black Dubbing, wool, synthetic yarn, or chenille
Rib: Oval Silver Tinsel
Hackle: Black Hen
Wing: White Calftail, bucktail, or arctic fox tail
Sides: Jungle Cock (optional)

Purple Peril

Hook: Up-eye Salmon Hook
Thread: Black
Tag: Oval Silver Tinsel
Tail: Purple Hackle FIbers
Body: Purple Dubbing, synthetic yarn, floss, or chenille
Rib: Oval Silver Tinsel
Hackle: Purple
Wing: Red Squirrel Tail or natural brown bucktail
Sides: Jungle Cock (optional)

Babine Special

Hook: 1xl Wet Fly Hook (or up-eye salmon hook)
Thread: 6/0, color to match chenille body
Tail: White hackle fibers (sparse)
Body: Two clumps of chenille "balls"
Mid Hackle: Color to match chenille, wound between chenille clumps
Hackle: White, collared, at the hook eye

Hare's Ear

Hook: Your favorite nymph hook
Thread: Brown
Tail: Brown Partridge
Body: Hare's Ear Dubbing
Rib: Gold Wire or Oval Tinsel
Hackle: Brown Partridge

Soft Hackle Stonefly

Hook: Your favorite nymph hook
Thread: Black
Tail: Black Hen Hackle
Body: Black Yarn
Rib: Silver Wire or oval silver tinsel
Hackle: Black hen, tied full


N.Y. Salmon River...

There is a huge hole in the ground behind the Salmon River Fish Hatchery in Altmar. After salmon are stripped of spawn and dispatched they are thrown in the hole and buried. The salmon carcasses cannot be transported because they are classified as toxic waste. Have fun, but don't take them home to eat.


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