Trout and Steelhead fishing in New York in the Fall can be fast and furious. Here are some top New York fall fisheries to catch trout and steelhead.
By J. Michael Kelly
Just to make doubly sure anglers get up and at the big brown and rainbow trout which are vulnerable to bait, lures and artificial flies this time of year, Mother Nature herself keeps anglers in the loop with an advertising campaign that the geniuses of Madison Avenue could never even hope to match. The only thing required by participating anglers is a willingness to watch out for falling leaves.
The promotional show gets off to a great start in my neck of the woods, Central New York, by the second or third week of September, when the staghorn sumac that lines the banks of area trout streams turns brilliant red and purple.
Throughout the Finger Lakes and Catskills, this change coincides with the beginning of the fall spawning runs in famed waters such as the Cohocton River in Steuben County and Esopus Creek, upstream from the Ashokan Reservoir in Ulster County.
The lake-run browns and steelhead of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie feel the same compulsions as those which send their small-stream cousins charging upstream to find clean gravel in secluded riffles.
As a general rule, the more colorful the canopies, including those of sugar maples and the aforementioned sumac, turn neon a couple of weeks after Labor Day. That makes them obvious heralds of the schooling native brook trout which commonly build their redds in tiny headwaters by late September or early October.
The sign posts of migrating brookies are the fluttering pale and orange leaves blown from one hill side to the next.
When a mix of colors spans every steep woods you find on your way to the closest shopping center, maybe it’s time to hurry to trout country — where late October and all of November is prime time to go after trophy browns and rainbows.
Your fishing buddies might tell some tall tales now and then, but the birch, maples and oaks wouldn’t lie you.
By the way, if you are in serious pursuit of rod-benders, but nobody will tell you where to try your luck before autumn is over and done with, don’t hesitate to ask your pals for some new fishing spots. If they say no now and then, that’s okay, but if your friends always say no, you either need to get some new friends or work harder on your personal hygiene.
One very gratifying aspect of autumn trout fishing is the seasonally sparse angler traffic you’ll see along most rivers from early October through Thanksgiving.
Smaller inland creeks, those which do not flow directly into Lake Ontario or Lake Erie, are not overly crowded in the fall. Even the thousands of fishermen who cram shoulder-to-shoulder into the Salmon River at Pulaski or Oak Orchard Creek in Orleans County are mostly short-timers whose vacation days dwindle after Columbus Day weekend.
From the vantage point of retirees or “locals” whose fishing time is abundant, November may provide better sport than the preceding two months together. Let’s look at some of the options available to gung-ho trout anglers during this wonderfully productive season, beginning with a famous Catskills stream. After that, we’ll work our way westward across the state map.
ESOPUS CREEK BROWN AND RAINBOW TROUT
The water which flows approximately 20 miles through a tunnel that starts in Schoharie Reservoir and passes under Balsam Mountain before spilling into Esopus Creek is usually icy cold by the time it emerges from the subterranean darkness.
It’s also very muddy. The trout living in the 13 miles of swift currents from the tunnel opening at Allaben to the creek’s mouth at Ashokan Reservoir thrive even when the water is so turbid they might as well be wearing sleeping masks. Unfortunately, the poor conditions tend to scare off many anglers, especially fly fishers.
In late 2016, the DEC was so worried by a combination of extreme silt loads and the punishing, region-wide drought, that officials ordered anglers to avoid fishing the Esopus for an undetermined period of time.
Water levels were very high by April 1 and most anglers anticipated the state would lift or abandon the no-fishing rule, which was largely voluntary, anyway.
Twenty or 30 years ago, Department of Environmental Conservation biologists proclaimed the Esopus to be one of the fishiest streams in the state, home to approximately 100,000 wild rainbows and about one-tenth as many wild browns.
While the majority of the fish, by far, were said to be cookie-cutter rainbows (most under 8 or 9 inches long), Esopus regulars then and now say the system is still capable of yielding some genuine minnow-mashers, such as a 19-pound, 14-ouncer hauled out of the Chimney Hole way back in 1923.
I firmly believe state officials will eventually resolve the turbidity issues pertinent to Esopus Creek. It’s just a darned shame that I, and most of my readers, will be long-gone by the time all the pieces fall into place.
Meanwhile, you regulars should overlook the coffee and cream-colored water in the creek, which is paralleled west of Kingston by Route 28A on the south shore and 28 on the north.
Either go fishing with wet flies swung down and across (the Queen of Waters and a Royal Coachman work well in tandem rigs) or let a nightcrawler bounce off the bottom. By all means, avoid the flotilla of “tubers,” who ride the river down the creek in inner tubes. Fish miles ahead of the floaters in the morning and start fishing above them in the afternoon.
Fishing is permitted from April 1 through November 30 on the Esopus, and 20-inchers, both browns and ‘bows, can be caught on occasion.
Target browns in the fall, especially in late October through November, when that species swims upstream from Ashokan to spawn.
Big rainbows, measuring twice or three times the size of the little ones found here all year, are available in April and May, during their nuptial rites.
CAYUGA NO-KILL OPPORTUNITY
Catch-and-release, no-kill sections have become so popular in trout streams throughout the state that some enthusiasts now either fish no-kill or not at all. For a prime example of the sport that can follow the enactment of such rules, consider the special circumstances of Fall Creek.
Fall Creek is my favorite water among all Cayuga Lake tributaries. It spills over a spectacular cataract which slides down more than 100 feet, and into a gorgeous pool that’s roughly 1,000 feet upstream from the grounds of Ithaca High School, off Route 13 on the north end of the City of Ithaca High School.
Rainbows and browns, along with a smattering of landlocked salmon, swim upstream until they reach the impassable waterfall. After a few days in the deep water, some of the bigger trout — including a fair number which weigh 4 pounds or better — drift down the currents and settle into the tails of long, rock-studded runs.
Here they may be not only visible but eager to take a bite of trout eggs, large stonefly nymphs and tidbits.
Until a couple of years ago, fishermen could only go after these silver-flanked trophy trout from April 1-Dec. 31, the same start-and stop dates applied to other Cayuga Lake tributaries. However, anglers wanted more places to fish, and told DEC workers just that, and at every chance.
Finally, state officials agreed to open an extended season between the aforementioned waterfall and the railroad crossing just west of the high school.
The selected section of the creek was designated for no-kill, artificial flies and lures only fishing. Since then the special rules have included catch-and-release of all trout caught between Jan. 1 and March 31.
The main function of these changes is the provision of extra angling opportunities, and it seems to have worked out beautifully. On a couple of occasions since the change took place, I have watched young anglers from nearby Cornell University catch 10 or more fish, using streamers and nymph imitations.
These fish, one and all, were released as quickly as possible, without incurring any wounds or fatalities.
Such brawny, broad-shouldered rainbows could be standing in for you! Anglers who might need more information for spouses who don’t necessarily see the wisdom of fly-fishing in the middle of winter can find out more about the Fall Creek regulatory experiments by dialing the DEC’s Region 7 fisheries office in Cortland, at (607) 753-3095.
While working to persuade their presumably non-fishing spouses, anglers might fish Fall Creek and other tributaries in October and November, when large salmonids serve as an interesting challenge.
ALLEGANY STATE PARK BROOK TROUT
They are far short of being wall-hangers, but the trout that live in the mostly tiny back-woods brooks in the 65,000-acre Allegany State Park just south of Salamanca on the Southern Tier Expressway are trophies, nevertheless.
In my mind, each of the 20 or so little creeks that sneak through culverts and less-obvious hiding places in the ASP (as park rangers and state fisheries biologists sometimes refer to the sprawling semi-wilderness) can be lumped into one of three trout fisheries.
These include stocked brook trout streams, streams that hold both wild brookies and wild browns, and creeks that are home to wild brook trout, alone. You are free to enjoy all three eco-types, as I do, but the real gems in the park are those streams inhabited by “natives,” alone.
When you make your initial visit, consult with rangers and other park personnel as to which streams hold which trout, and be sure to obtain the free map which is available at the office.
Autumn is the perfect time to make your first casts in the ASP, because the lovely brook trout that typically measure between 5 and 8 inches long are in spawning colors then.
Watch those sumacs, and get after the little brookies as soon as the roadsides sprout the tell-tale bright red and purple leaves. You might get a 10-inch trophy now and then, but let your conscience guide you when you decide which fish might be creeled — and which ones ought not be.
Worms are deadly baits in the undercuts and plunge pools here, and any in-line spinners, such as those bearing the Mepps or Panther Martin labels, are also effective, but you will do the fish a favor by pinching down the barbs on bait hooks and removing two of the points on your treble-hook lures.
LAKE ERIE STEELHEAD SPAWNING STREAMS
My final recommendation, for this autumn, at least, is for steelhead fishermen who desire to expand their horizons. If you are loyal to Lake Ontario tributaries alone, notably the Salmon River, you must be prepared to share the air with thousands of other anglers every fall.
Meanwhile, the streams that pull steelies out of Lake Erie as if they were being sucked upstream through a gigantic drinking straw don’t get nearly as much angling pressure. I’m thinking, now, of Cattaraugus Creek, Chautaqua Creek and Canadaway Creek, all of which have superb steelhead runs from mid-October through the following April.
The “Catt,” the best-known of this trio, has good spawning gravel interspersed among patches of slippery bed rock, and when it hasn’t rained for a week or two, awestruck anglers often can see schools of 5- to 12-pound fish.
Fly-rodders fare well by swinging streamer flies in front of such fish, which can be accessed from the state-owned Zoar Valley or at the dam in Springville. Chautauqua and Canadaway creeks, near Dunkirk and Fredonia are essentially mini-versions of the Catt.
I’d rate any steelhead angler who has the habit of tossing himself a change-up once in a while by trying a new watershed as wise and willing to learn more about what may be the greatest of all freshwater fishes.
You could start down this path of wisdom by dialing the DEC sub-office in Allegany at (716) 372-0645 — or, if you are already an Erie expert, contact the Region 7 office listed above for some helpful hints about the Salmon River and Lake Erie.
Editor’s Note: J. Michael Kelly is the author of several books on trout-fishing, including “Trout Streams of Central New York” and “Trout Streams of Western New York,” both available from the Burford Books catalog, at www.burfordbooks.com.