Our Finest Winter Steelhead Rivers

Some of the best late-season steelhead fishing in the East takes place this month. New York's top rivers produce steady runs of trout in the 5-pound class, and the time to go is now! (Dec 2006)

No more "fish stories," please! The New York Department of Environmental Conservation now knows just how many steelhead New York anglers catch, give or take a couple of thousand, and where they catch them.

For several years, the state agency has had solid data about the silver bullet catch in Lake Erie tributaries, and recently compiled some reliable numbers for Lake Ontario feeder creeks. Between Labor Day weekend in 2005 and the end of April 2006, DEC technicians interviewed thousands of anglers along 28 streams, from Twelvemile Creek in western Niagara County to the Black River in Jefferson County.

State analysts estimated that during the eight-month period, anglers made over 226,000 trips and spent just over 1 million hours pursuing trout and salmon in Ontario tributaries.

They caught an estimated 86,913 steelhead, about 3,000 fewer than during a similar study conducted in 1984 -- and about 45,000 fewer than Lake Erie tributaries produced in a 2004-05 creel census.

New Yorkers catch more steelhead in Lake Erie feeders than in Lake Ontario spawning streams. State biologists have two explanations. First, stocked Ontario 'bows suffer heavy predation from chinook salmon, which are virtually absent from Lake Erie. Second, experts believe the spawning runs in our part of Erie's "Steelhead Alley" include many fish planted by neighboring Pennsylvania.

Any way you look at it, we have a total annual catch of better than 200,000 steelhead in New York's Great Lakes tributaries.

Depending on the weather, December can be a great month to sample the action. The only steelhead waters always fishable in December are the larger rivers with controlled releases from hydroelectric power stations, such as the Niagara, Oswego, Salmon and Black rivers. In the early part of the month, most other tributaries will be ice-free or nearly so. But once overnight readings fall consistently below freezing, small or slow-moving streams skim over. Longer warm spells or better yet, a drenching rain can signal several days of exciting fishing even in those creeks.

To avoid time-wasting trips to winter-locked waters, before heading out, contact local sources such as the DEC regional offices listed in this article,

The following steelhead streams beg to be visited this month when conditions are right:

CHAUTAUQUA COUNTY DUO

Overshadowed by larger streams, little Chautauqua Creek in and around Westfield and the even more intimate Canadaway (pronounced Can-a-da-WAY) Creek at Dunkirk are two top waters, with heavy runs of fish and relatively easy access and wading.

For the last several years, creel censuses conducted by the Department of Environmental Conservation's Lake Erie unit and Dunkirk sub-office have revealed that anglers on the two creeks routinely catch more than one steelhead per hour -- about 20 times the frequency on the nationally famous Salmon River.

In coming years, the phenomenal fishing in Chautauqua is likely to get even better, now that the DEC has implemented catch-and-release rules, adopted with strong support from DEC Region 9 steelheaders, for the 1.3-mile stretch between South Gale Street and the Westfield waterworks. That measure went into effect in October to let more fish complete their spawning runs.

Paul McKeown, the regional fisheries manager, believes Chautauqua and Canadaway creeks benefit from their proximity to Pennsylvania, which has high stocking quotas for its narrow slice of Lake Erie.

"They stock at a very high rate, and we're pretty sure our steelhead runs in those streams include quite a few fish which have wandered our way from Pennsylvania," he said.

Wherever they come from, the steelhead encountered in Chautauqua and Canadaway creeks typically average about 22 inches and weigh 4 or 5 pounds. But fish two or even three times that heavy are not uncommon.

Chautauqua Creek is about 30 feet wide where it passes under U.S. Route 5 in Westfield, which is in the southwest corner of the state in Chautauqua County. Below the bridge, it tumbles over a low waterfall before gliding on to the lake.

The mix of swift runs and slate-bottomed pools just upstream from the bridge are extremely popular with local anglers, but the DEC has acquired public-fishing rights on several other sections of the stream, too. Readers can get a map showing those access points from McKeown's office in Allegany at (716) 372-0645.

Route 5 also spans Canadaway Creek west of the village of Dunkirk, and fishermen are welcome to access the stream via Nature Conservancy-owned land, which abuts the creek above and below the bridge. The stream is 15 to 25 feet wide through most of this stretch, with some deep holding pools that are clear enough to reveal the presence of fresh-run fish.

For assistance in finding accommodations in the Dunkirk-Westfield area, contact the Chautauqua County Visitors' Bureau at (716) 753-4304.

EIGHTEENMILE CREEK

Niagara County

New York steelheaders mine silver in two streams called Eighteenmile Creek. One is in Erie County, the other in Niagara County. The latter produced an amazing number of hookups during the most recent steelhead run, as evidenced by data gleaned from the DEC's survey of angler effort and success in Lake Ontario's spawning tributaries.

When technicians added up all the numbers, they were surprised to learn that the Eighteenmile Creek that flows into the lake at Olcott accounted for 28,603 of the 86,913 steelhead caught in 28 feeder streams from early September through April.

That's about one-third of the total catch, and about 40 percent more steelies than were attributed to the famed Salmon River! Perhaps anglers (and outdoors writers) should pay more attention to Eighteenmile Creek in the future.

Of the steelhead caught in the stream during the state survey period, only about 1,046 were creeled. It's likely that some of those fish were foul-hooked, but many more were simply put back by conservation-minded anglers. In any case, the prevalence of catch-and-release practices should assure good fishing on Eighteenmile for years to come.

Eighteenmile Creek is paralleled by state Route 78 from Burt to Olcott, where it glides between a pair of long piers and joins Lake Ontario. A high dam at Burt, about two m

iles upstream from the lake, blocks steelhead runs. Newcomers to the creek will find that a majority of the fishing activity occurs in two spots -- the deep pool at the base of the Burt dam and on the aforementioned piers. In between, a steelheader can usually get on the water without worrying about tangling lines with other fishermen.

For about a quarter of a mile below the dam pool, in a section known as "Fisherman's Park," the creek rushes and glides over a rocky bottom, carving shallow pools and runs that are well-suited for drifting flies or egg sacks. An old railroad trestle marks the end of the swift-water section. Below the trestle, the water is slow-moving, but deep enough to probe effectively with wet flies or single-hook spinners.

Niagara County Tourism at 1-800- 338-7890 will help traveling fishermen find suitable accommodations near Olcott, which can be reached by driving northeast on Route 18 from Niagara Falls or by taking Route 78 north from Lockport.

OSWEGO RIVER

Many of the Oswego River's fans were disappointed with the 2005-06 steelhead run, but the problem wasn't a lack of fish. Instead, it was prolonged high water that made steelies hard to hook and hold onto during much of the fall, winter and spring.

Under normal flow conditions, most of the mile or so of river between the Varick hydroelectric dam and Oswego Harbor can be fished with ease from the sidewalks in the West Side Linear Park or the East Side Linear Park.

Anglers with long-handled nets and other suitable tackle can drift bait, flies and lures through most spots in the 200- to 300-foot-wide river without getting their feet wet.

The good news is that the powerful runoff flows that made a natural drift problematic last time around, spared many steelhead that would have been caught. Anglers can reasonably expect that some of those fish will return to the river this winter, bigger and more ornery than ever.

December is the perfect time to try the urban fishing that the Oswego River typifies. The water usually flows at a moderate level following the October-November runs of chinook salmon and brown trout. Many steelhead move upstream to feed on the loose eggs that bounce and drift over the river's cobble-rock bottom.

Access to the Oswego couldn't be easier. To fish near the dam, simply park in the designated angler parking area adjacent to the post office and the Salmon Shop on Route 48. From there, anglers can walk down a flight of stairs to take up a position on the sidewalk, which is guarded by a wrought-iron fence. Don't forget to bring a telescoping net that will extend to 10 feet or so, since at normal flows, the river's surface is several feet below the sidewalk.

Downriver from the Utica Street bridge, anglers can utilize individual parking spots on either the west or east side of the river and then walk as far as they like to the Linear Park sidewalks. The areas around Coleman's restaurant on the west bank and the Best Western hotel directly opposite that establishment are especially popular with bank fishermen.

The DEC Region 7 fishing hotline at (607) 753-1551 usually includes an Oswego update, and the Oswego County tourism unit at (315) 349-8322 can provide visiting steelheaders with a useful brochure on local fishing, as well as a list of lodging alternatives in the city.

SALMON RIVER

Never has fishing so good been disclaimed by so many. Last winter, many anglers had the time of their lives hooking up with big steelies in the Salmon River between Pulaski and Altmar. But many old-timers continue to pine for the glory days of the late 1980s, when catch rates in the stream -- and Lake Ontario, as well -- peaked at levels that ultimately were unsustainable.

In those bygone times, catches of 10 or more silver bullets a day were routine occurrences for guided anglers. But during the '90s, runs of steelhead declined dramatically for reasons state biologists are not altogether sure of even today.

Stocking reductions, necessary to ease pressure on the lake's forage base, probably had some impact. But it's more likely that recruitment of young steelies fell off as predation on them by king salmon and lake trout increased. In any event, fishing in the Salmon River for steelhead was never as bad as some grumblers claimed, and over the last couple of years, it has definitely gained momentum.

According to a Lake Ontario tributary creel survey conducted by the DEC, Salmon River anglers caught an estimated 20,705 steelhead from early September 2005 through April 2005.

Local guide Randy Jones rates December and April as the best months of the year to fish for Salmon River steelies. April, he notes, gives anglers a crack at actively spawning fish, "drop-backs" that have completed their propagation chores and fresh-run trout that are still en route to their egg-laying spots.

In contrast, December offers up steelies that are either bright as newly minted dimes or just starting to put on their dark winter colors after spending a couple of weeks in deep pools.

At either stage, these pre-New Year's fish feed dependably on drifting salmon eggs and a variety of aquatic nymphs and larvae.

The Salmon River is easily reached by taking Interstate 81 north from Syracuse or south from Watertown to Pulaski off Exit 36. From the highway ramp, turn west to go into the village, or head east on Route 13 toward Pineville and Altmar. Along that highway, you'll see several angler parking areas with maps showing the way to named river pools.

The most consistent December fishing is in Altmar at the Schoolhouse Pool and in the fly-fishing-only section above the Route 48 bridge. All of the pools in the river hold at least a few steelhead at this time of the year.

Contact the Oswego County tourism unit listed above for information about accommodations around Pulaski. For updates on river flows and fishing conditions, it's hard to top the daily hotline report put out by the Douglaston Salmon Run, the pay-to- fish section of the river between Pulaski and Port Ontario. The phone number there is (315) 298-3531. A Douglaston report of fresh-run steelhead on one day signals good fishing upriver the next morning, or the one after that.

BLACK RIVER

Some traveling anglers cross it off their agenda because it flows into the northeast corner of Lake Ontario. But the Black River isn't really as far off the beaten path as a quick glance at the state map might suggest. Located a mere 70 miles north of Syracuse, it flows through the heart of the city of Watertown, just a couple of casts from the state office building that houses the DEC's Region 6 staff.

Several years back, that regional fisheries crew started a trend by imposing a one-steelhead-per-day creel limit on the Black and all other Jefferson County tributaries of Lake Ontario. Today, all of the lake's feeder streams are subject to the one-a-day rule, and as a result of catch-and-release recycling, steelhead catch

rates are nudging upward.

During the recent survey period, DEC Region 6 technicians Aaron Gordon and Jessica Hart found that anglers pulled 5,005 steelhead from the Black River and creeled just 43 fish.

The Black River gets a significant infusion of stocked fish annually from the state hatchery in Altmar. On average, about 75,000 young steelhead are released in or near the river. Some of these little ones grow up to be monsters. Though the average Black River steelie is a 5-pounder, lake-run fish three or even four times that size swim upstream annually.

Unfortunately, long stretches of the Black are inaccessible to anglers because of the fluctuating releases of water from the local hydroturbines, rugged canyon terrain, or both.

White-water rafters get more use out of certain stretches of the river than anglers do. Yet there are three good public-access options.

Starting downstream and working east, take note of the Dexter dam, the Glen Park dam and Van Duzee Street in downtown Watertown.

The water below the Dexter dam, off Route 180 in the Jefferson County village of Dexter, is a staging area for steelhead just beginning their run from Black River Bay. It's a good bank-fishing spot.

Upriver, the Glen Park power station, off West Main Street on the outskirts of Watertown, has a long, deep pool that lends itself to bobber-fishing.

By far the best water in the river for steelheading, is below the bridge at Van Duzee Street, where the rocky bottom is pockmarked with flat pools and slick runs. Readers can check on current conditions, and get more specific directions if needed, by calling the DEC's Region 6 office at (315) 785-2261.

For help in finding motels, restaurants and other amenities in the Watertown area, call the 1000 Islands Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-8-ISLAND.

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