New York's Top December Steelhead Rivers

Dress right, go light and join in on New York's famed steelheading action this month. High catch rates and fish over 10 pounds are the rule, and the time to go is now! (December 2005)

Photo by Mike Gnatkowski

Unless you're still working on this winter's venison supply, there's no excuse for not scheduling a trip to your favorite Lake Ontario steelhead tributary between now and Christmas.

The tributaries that flow into Lake Erie and Lake Ontario offer some of the finest steelhead angling in the world, featuring fish that average 5 and often weigh more than 20 pounds; and right now may be the best time of the year to put one of those shimmering beauties on your hook.

Steelhead begin nosing into Great Lakes feeder streams in late September and October to feed on eggs tumbling from the redds made by spawning Pacific salmon and brown trout. As the weeks pass, more rainbows are propelled upriver by their own reproductive urges. By mid-December, early-arriving steelhead will have settled into deep pools for the winter, but each downpour and pulse of runoff signals a fresh run of chrome comets.

New York has dozens of steelhead waters, but some are definitely more productive than others as winter approaches and the angler's year draws to a close.

Working from west to east on the map, here's a rundown of several of our very best December steelhead streams.

CHAUTAUQUA CREEK

What stream has New York's highest catch rate for steelhead? If you guessed Chautauqua Creek, you must be one of the locals, for most Buffalo-area anglers who drive south in search of steelhead action end their trip at Cattaraugus Creek.

Chautauqua Creek, in fact, produces 1.2 steelhead per hour of fishing effort, according to a study of Lake Erie tributaries that was conducted in 2003-2004. The second-fastest fishing occurred at nearby Canadaway Creek, where the catch rate was 1.1 steelies per hour of trying. Cattaraugus Creek finished seventh on the list, with a catch rate of 0.4 steelies caught per hour of angler effort.

All of these catch rates are excellent, in terms of steelhead fisheries. By comparison, on the famed Salmon River, anglers catch an average of about one steelie every 20 hours!

The numbers don't tell the whole story, of course. Despite the scant attention it gets in sporting publications, Chautauqua Creek has a strong following among anglers in New York's southwest corner, and it is heavily pressured on autumn weekends. Further, it is prone to early ice-ups, and anglers who visit it on the first week of December may or may not find it fishable when they return a week or two later.

Having said that, readers in western New York would be wise to call the DEC's Region 9 office, (716) 372-0645, before making their weekend steelhead plans. If the year ends with mild temperatures and soaking rains instead of snow and ice, Chautauqua Creek will be worth fishing right through Christmas for fresh-run steelhead that average about 4 or 5 pounds.

Chautauqua flows through the village of Westfield before slipping under U.S. Route 5 and emptying into Lake Erie. The crystalline ledge pools immediately up and downstream from Route 5 are by far the most heavily fished parts of the stream because they are marked "public fishing" on both banks. However, the lower five miles of the creek are accessible to spawning fish, and the anglers who obtain permission to wet a line on private property or who check out the PFR sections between Westfield and Volusia will be glad they did so. The Region 9 office mentioned above has a map showing the location of public fishing rights on Chautauqua Creek. It can also be downloaded from the DEC Web site,

www.dec.state.ny.us.

CATTARAUGUS CREEK

Cattaraugus Creek's popularity with flyfishermen is one reason why its catch rate doesn't match that of Chautauqua Creek's. Neophyte fly-rodders have a long learning curve and even the experts tend to lose a significant percentage of the steelhead they hook. Yet no excuses are necessary, for the angler who hits the Cat when fish are plentiful and in the mood to tango stands a very good chance of landing a dozen or more chrome-sided 'bows in a single day. And what's wrong with a catch rate of 0.4 steelhead per hour, anyway? That's four for every 10 hours on the water.

Cattaraugus Creek winds westward for more than 35 miles below the Springville dam, tracing the border between Erie and Cattaraugus counties in the process, before it joins Lake Erie at Sunset Bay in Irving. Most of the creek is 50 to 80 feet across, and the back-cast room is one reason it's so loved by fly-fishers. Another plus, from the long-rodder's vantage point, is the predominantly gravel and ledge-rock bottom, which facilitates long fly drifts and minimizes snags and time spent re-tying leaders. The relatively easy wading deserves a thumbs-up, too. And did I mention the fish?

If the Cat has any shortcomings, they would have to be the stream's tendency to stay roiled for days or even weeks after a major rain storm and the fact that a long segment of it flows through the Seneca Nation reservation at Gowanda. Neither problem is more than an annoyance. When the creek is muddy, simply use larger or all-black flies or leave the fly rod home and opt for a scented salmon-egg spawn sac tied up in mesh of a fluorescent orange or red hue. As for the reservation issue, it's not really an issue at all. Non-Indians need a written permit to fish within the Seneca Nation, but the required document is readily available for a modest fee at any Seneca-owned gas station or convenience store. Alternately, there's plenty of good steelheading water off the reservation, either on the south bank of the river between its mouth and U.S. Route 5, or near bridge crossings between the east end of the reservation and Springville.

In particular, try your luck in the scenic Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area, just east of Gowanda. Access there is via the Valentine Flats and Forty Road parking lots. You can find them on a DEC Region 9 map of Zoar Valley. When you request your copy, ask also for the brochure on fishing Cattaraugus Creek.

NIAGARA RIVER

Talk about clichés, the "Mighty Niagara" has been a tired phrase for more than a century, but how else does one pay proper tribute to such an awesome piece of water? The Niagara merits awe on two levels: first, as a force of nature that is not to be trifled with, and second, as one of the great trophy trout and salmon fisheries in the world.

In truth, the Niagara is at its best for steelhead in January and February, but early birds who get out before New Year's Day can have their share of fun, too, by dunking eggs or trolling with plugs in a seawo

rthy vessel or casting from the American side of the river. Regardless of tactics, use extreme caution to avoid slipping into the maelstrom that's only a rod's length away. I spell "Niagara" "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," for it funnels 1.3 million gallons of water a minute into Lake Ontario, and that water is traveling along at 25 miles per hour much of the time after it tumbles over the falls.

The Niagara differs from other New York steelhead waters in several other ways. Obviously, it is a huge stream, and it can't be fished as one would probe Chautauqua Creek or the Salmon River. Plan to use an ounce of weight, sometimes more, to get an egg sac or a boat-trailing plug to where the fish are hiding. Big baits are in order, too. Niagara guides disdain the pinky nail-size egg clusters favored on smaller streams. Instead, they like golf ball-size chunks of eggs, skein attached. Rather than tie those globs of eggs in neat mesh sacks, the Niagara baits are hooked, re-hooked and served up as is, with the possible addition of a small piece of fluorescent yarn.

Boating anglers can access the lower Niagara from the docks at Water Street in Lewiston, off Route 18F in Niagara County. If you've never been there, head right across river to fish the pockets and "drifts" on the Canadian side. Of course, you'll need to buy a Canadian license, first.

Shore-fishing is limited in the lower Niagara, but local experts show visitors the way by focusing their efforts at the Devil's Hole and Whirlpool state parks, where steep walking paths lead down to the river, and in the much flatter and easily walked Lewiston Art Park at the end of South Fourth Street.

Niagara County's tourism office, (800) 338-7890, is geared up to help anglers and has a very useful map-brochure on fishing in and around the river.

GENESEE RIVER

Eric Pachilis of Liverpool lives about 30 minutes south of the Salmon River, but his favorite steelhead stream is an hour and a half to the west, in the heart of downtown Rochester. He loves the Genesee River for its subtle urban beauty and especially for its dependable runs of big, hard-fighting fish. Instead of the quarter-size egg sacs favored by most Genny locals, Pachilis often casts gold or silver spoons with single, Siwash-style hooks. He says steelies of 8 to 10 pounds are the rule on the river, although 'bows twice that size are caught every winter.

The Genesee flows sluggishly from Mt. Morris north to Rochester, but in the city the river tumbles over a couple of scenic waterfalls and bounces through a rocky gorge and some lovely pocket water before making its final, flat-water glide into Lake Ontario. Steelhead stack up below the lower falls and in the swift runs and deep pools just downstream. Weather permitting, anglers also catch many bright fish by casting from the piers on either side of the river mouth.

Be forewarned that the gorge section of the Genesee has some treacherous wading. Wear cleated or felt-soled waders, carry a staff for extra stability and use common sense going from one spot to another. Use extra caution when climbing in and out of the gorge.

The safest place to access the prime stretch of the river is via a trail off Seth Green Drive, on the east side of the river south of the Route 104 bridge. You'll see a sign at the head of the trail, courtesy of New York State Electric & Gas Corporation, which has a facility on Seth Green Drive.

By no means should you be tempted to try the broken-up trail on the opposite side of the river in Maplewood Park. Called the "Goat Trail" by locals, it's extremely dangerous, and posted to boot. Yet daredevils tempt fate on the steep path every year.

SALMON RIVER

A writer can get away with leaving one or another of New York's good steelhead streams out of a roundup such as this one -- there's always next year -- but conscience won't permit the exclusion of the Salmon River, even though the quality of its sport has fluctuated considerably during recent winters. The Salmon River was where Eastern steelheading first gained national attention in the early 1980s, and anglers from Maine to Virginia fondly think of it as their home water. Adding to the Salmon's fame and growing sense of tradition is the fact that most of its major pools are named and identified with parking-area signs. When Salmon River veterans bump into each other in distant parts of the country, they can compare notes about fish caught or lost at "the Schoolhouse" or the "Black Hole," instead of groping for explanations of past experiences. That bond makes New York steelhead anglers potentially a strong force for conservation, and in fact, it was Salmon River fishermen who spearheaded the move to slash the daily Ontario tributary limit on steelhead from three to just one a day a couple of years ago.

The lower limit seems to have improved fishing slightly on the river already, and not merely by recycling the occasional trout that would otherwise have been filleted. Many anglers have been prompted by the one-fish rule to take the next step and become catch-and-release steelheaders. That spirit bodes well for the river's future.

Meanwhile, if catch rates on the Salmon aren't what they were in the river's late 1980s hey-day, the total catch, numbering several thousand fish per annum, remains impressive. There is no better place in the East to catch a 20-pounder, and few rivers are more picturesque, either.

Salmon River flows are governed by agreements among the DEC, federal regulatory agencies and Branscan Corporation, the company that operates the hydroelectric generating reservoirs on the river upstream from Altmar. In December, flows of 350 to 750 cubic feet per second are common, and either wading or drift-boating is practical at such levels. If air temperatures are extremely cold and flows are on the low side, slush ice may form in the river from Pulaski (exit 36 off Interstate 81) as far upstream as Pineville, but even during sub-freezing weather the water from there up through Altmar should be slush-free and fishable.

Although steelhead may be scattered throughout the river in December, the largest concentrations of fish will usually be in the Schoolhouse Pool and the flies-only section in Altmar or, if a fresh run is underway, at the Douglaston Salmon Run in Pulaski. The latter is a privately held section of the river that charges a daily rod fee (last winter's price was $20) for access from a Lake Street parking lot. It has some of the prettiest pools on the river and is well worth the money. The Douglaston fishing hot line, (315) 298-3531, offers a free, reliable report on the previous day's action.

No matter which of the above streams you fish this month, your odds for success will improve dramatically if you use light tackle. Not too light, however. Many steelheaders needlessly handicap themselves by pairing noodle rods or wispy fly rods with leader tippets that have a rated breaking strength of 4 pounds or less. When the user of such fine tackle connects with a fresh-run steelie, the fish either takes him to the cleaners in a hurry or is played so gingerly that it succumbs to exhaustion after it finally breaks free.

Instead of using ultralight terminal tackle to fool pressured, wary rainbows, why not match your pet noodle or fly rod w

ith a 6- or even 8-pound tippet made from fluorocarbon? Because fluorocarbon absorbs light, rather than reflecting it, there is no glare and when immersed in water is essentially invisible. Friends of mine who fish the extraordinarily crowded lower fly-fishing section on the Salmon River two or three times a week during the winter never go lighter than 8-pound fluorocarbon, yet often catch more steelhead than all of their pool-mates, combined.

Even more than sensible tippets, anglers who frequent New York's Great Lakes tributaries in the winter months need clothing that will keep them warm and dry. Without proper dress, you'll spend more time on the bank, recovering circulation in numb toes, than you will drifting your fly or bait through the strike zone. Neoprene waders with boot feet are an ideal choice for the steelheader, but stocking-foot waders are OK, too, as long as they are sufficiently loose fitting to allow you to wiggle your toes inside a pair of heavy socks. Above your feet, the rule is the same as your mother enforced when you were a child. Namely, dress in insulating layers, starting with a quality set of synthetic underwear and ending with a roomy, wind-breaking jacket.

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