New York's Finest Winter Steelhead Streams

For some of the best winter steelhead fishing in the East, here's where to go. Bring your long-handled net because you're going to need it! (December 2008)

A fisheries biologist doesn't necessarily need reams of scientific data or a stack of grip-and-grin snapshots from happy license-buyers to know that his plan for a popular river or lake is coming together.

Take Dan Bishop and Oswego County's Salmon River, for example. From last November through April, Bishop didn't get nearly as many telephone calls as usual from the stream's cadre of hard-core steelhead anglers.

"I could tell that fishing for steelhead was great," said the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's Region 7 fisheries manager. "The big indication was the lack of complaints -- and the small number of comments in general."

Bishop's field crew didn't conduct a tributary creel census during the 2007-08 steelhead run. But he already had heaps of statistics compiled from interviews with thousands of anglers during several previous seasons on the Salmon River, Oswego River and other spawning streams.

They will serve as a base for comparisons when future steelhead studies are carried out.

Meanwhile, anglers sturdy enough to don thermal underwear, extra socks and insulated waders can look forward to fine winter steelhead fishing from now through next April. Major tributaries of both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario figure to be in top shape and able to produce many big, powerful rainbows through the coming winter and spring.

Finger Lakes rainbows -- kissing cousins of the Great Lakes steelies -- are also thriving and should provide additional opportunities for trophy trout hunters during the month of December.

The Salmon River may be the most famous of them all and receives a lot of deserved ink. But New York has several other great streams worthy of serious attention from anglers during the next few weeks.

Here's a review of several hotspots, beginning with a scenic fishing hole. On its way to Lake Erie, it's shared by Erie, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties as well as the Seneca Indian Reservation. (Continued)

CATTARAUGUS CREEK
When it's right, "the Cat" is arguably the best steelhead stream in New York, with about 50 miles of accessible pools and riffles between its mouth at Sunset Bay up to an impassable dam at Springville. About half of that mileage flows through the Seneca Indian Nation Reservation. Non-native anglers must obtain a tribal license to fish. Seneca Mart convenience stores have the necessary permits. Rates vary from year to year.

As you negotiate the slick bedrock bottoms of the creek's deep pools, wear felt-soled waders and carry a wading staff for support.

And if you're a flyfisherman, be sure to bring a variety of colorful streamer patterns. The Cat's medium-speed currents lend themselves to a traditional down-and-across steelhead swing, though indicator-nymphing can also be very effective.

Route 438 parallels the creek through the reservation, while side roads off Route 39 offer easy access in and below Springville.

To reach Cattaraugus Creek from the Buffalo area, take U.S. Route 20 along the Erie shore to Sunset Bay. Or take Route 219 south to Springville.

The Cattaraugus County Tourism office is a good source of information on motels, restaurants and other amenities. Call (716) 938-9111.

NIAGARA RIVER
Below its famous waterfalls, the mighty Niagara and its strong currents are best tackled from a comfortable seat in a seaworthy boat.

I'd strongly recommend hiring an experienced river guide when you make your first visit.

Niagara County's tourism office can supply a list of licensed charter outfits specializing in down-river outings. Call 1-800-338-7890.

Whether you fish in a guide's boat or from shore, you'll need gear that's drastically different from those items you'd use on other New York steelhead waters. Figure on using magnum-sized egg sacks about the size of a golf ball. Get them down in the deep churning runs with the help of pencil-lead sinkers weighing 1.5 or even 2 full ounces.

If you're a confirmed bank fisherman, you have a good chance of connecting with a Niagara steelie at the casting platform adjacent to the New York Power Authority hydroelectric plant off the Robert Moses Parkway, or at the bottom of steep, icy trails in the Whirlpool and Devil's Hole state parks, or at the Water Street dock in Lewiston off Route 18F. Don't forget to bring a long-handled net!

Boating anglers on the Niagara will need a Canadian fishing license, since many of the most productive drifts are on the far side of the mid-river border.

CATHARINE CREEK
The big, silvery trout that spawn in Great Lakes tributaries and those that mate and lay their eggs in the gravel-bottomed riffles of the Finger Lakes' feeder creeks are the same species -- Oncorhynchus mykiss. Many anglers distinguish between the two by saying that the Great Lakes versions of mykiss tend to be larger than their Finger Lakes relatives and were more recently transplanted from the Pacific coastal waters that their ancestors called home.

Well, I challenge anybody who has caught both to choose between the two. A 5-pounder from a Lake Ontario tributary and a 5-pounder from one of the Finger Lakes spawning streams are equally handsome, hard-fighting -- and delicious.

Catharine Creek draws the Finger Lakes' heaviest run of spawning rainbows, numbering several thousand fish in some years. These 'bows average around 3 pounds, but sometimes top the 8- or even 10-pound mark on spring scales.

They often enter the creek between mid-November and late December, though they won't begin to spawn until March or April.

The Finger Lakes tributary season runs from April 1 through Dec. 31, with a three-fish daily limit.

Bait, flies and lures are effective, but only a single-point hook is permitted. That means no treble-hook spinners and no tandem streamers or dropper-fly rigs.


When it's right, "the Cat" is arguably New York's best steelhead stream, with about 50 miles of accessible pools and riffles between its mouth at Sunset Bay up

to an impassable dam at Springville.

 

In Catharine Creek, rainbows must be at least 15 inches long to creel.

Catharine Creek spills into Seneca Lake's south end in the village of Watkins Glen. It's closely paralleled by Route 14 all the way upstream to its headwaters in Pine Valley. You can get there from the Syracuse and Rochester areas by taking U.S. Route 20 to Geneva and heading south from there on Route 14 to the Glen.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation's Region 8 office in Avon is a good source of current information on the creek. Call (585) 226-2466. The folks at Finger Lakes Tourism can provide you with a list of nearby accommodations.

Call 1-800-530-7488.

OSWEGO RIVER
One obvious downside to the Oswego River's urban fishery is traffic noise and the less-than-scenic view of the rear walls of certain buildings that back up to the bank.

On the plus side, steelheaders who renounce solitude to fish the downtown section of the Oswego below Varick Dam need only walk to one of the local restaurants for a warming cup of coffee or a refreshing lunch.

In the last several years, Oswego steelhead runs have increased significantly since local charter captains pitched in with the DEC to start a pen-rearing project. Each spring, the effort climaxes when steelhead fingerlings obtained from the state hatchery in Altmar are "finished" in sunken cages at the Oswego Marina.

They stay in the pen for only a couple of weeks, but studies indicate that steelhead reared in this manner are more likely to return to their stocking location when they reach sexual maturity.

For its mile-long run from the Varick Dam apron down to its confluence with Lake Ontario, the Oswego is from 300 to 400 feet wide. Much of that water is best fished from drift boats. But countless anglers who know how to work an egg sack or a pink and green yarn fly (known as a Frammus) have hooked trophy-sized fish in the eddies along the concrete wall separating the sidewalks of West Side Linear Park from the river currents.

For recent information on the Oswego steelhead action, listen to the DEC's Region 7 Fisheries Hotline at (607) 753-1551.

For information on motels, tackle stores and other amenities, contact the Oswego County Tourism office at (315) 349-8322.

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