December 18, 2020
By Matt Crawford
This I can confirm: The water in Upstate New York’s Salmon River is really cold in November. I know this because I had a hole in my waders as I took one uneasy step into the frigid water and everything below my right knee suddenly turned frosty.
The iciness didn't bother me immediately. Yes, my foot was wet and cold, but I was busy trying to not let a 10-pound steelhead take me too far downriver. When there's a bruising, head-shaking, line-stripping steelie on the line, wet waders can wait.
Lake Erie and Lake Ontario tributaries in New York offer world-class fishing each fall for freshwater steelhead. When other folks are chasing whitetails or ducks, or even getting ready for the impending holidays, anglers who chase steelies are enjoying some of the best fishing of the year.
"Imagine being strapped into the passenger seat of a muscle car with an oversized motor and your craziest friend is taking you for a high-speed joyride," says Josh Adams, who guides on the Salmon River each autumn. "That's kind of what it’s like when you tie into a big, fresh steelhead. All you can do is hang on and hope for the best."
And Upstate New York, thanks to a fishery restoration program that's nearly 50 years in the making, just happens to be home to countless miles of rivers that fill up each autumn with big, fresh turbo-charged steelhead.
If we start in western New York and work our way eastward, we must begin with Cattaraugus Creek, which flows into Lake Erie. The Catt is as famous a New York steelhead river as there is, and the section between the small towns of Gowanda and Springville is the epicenter of the action. Steelies in Cattaraugus average about 6 pounds.
"The Catt is our crown jewel over here. There's a lot of water and good public access," says guide Vince Tobia. "The only downside of the Catt is if you get an inch or so of rain, it might be unfishable. But we have a lot of smaller tribs that make for good backups."
The lower 14 miles of Cattaraugus Creek flow though the Seneca Nation of Indians Reservation. To fish on the reservation, anglers must purchase a license from the Seneca Nation.
Some 20 miles northeast of the Catt is Eighteen Mile Creek and its South Branch. Near the town of Hamburg in Erie County, this stretch of river is less than 30 minutes south of Buffalo and boasts outstanding runs of Lake Erie chromers. Although the region can be pounded by snow and cold, Eighteen Mile stays open throughout the winter, and steelhead fishing can be good into January and February. There's almost 1 1/2 miles of public easements on Eighteen Mile Creek, and more than 2 1/2 miles of the main river and the South Branch can be accessed by the public at Eighteen Mile Creek County Park.
"The Eighteen drops its water level a lot more quickly than the Catt," said Tobia. "If there's a lot of rain, it can be fishable while other rivers are still blown out."
Don't confuse this stretch of river with the Eighteenmile Creek that flows into Lake Ontario. That river is north of Buffalo, and while it does offer good fishing, there are some environmental concerns that can be off-putting to some.
Some 60 miles north and east of Hamburg, between Niagara Falls and Rochester, is Oak Orchard Creek and its smaller neighbor, Marsh Creek. Near where it empties into Lake Ontario, the Oak is a big river, and the smaller Marsh offers a quick reprieve during high water on the Oak. Finally, just 4 1/2 hours from midtown Manhattan and half an hour north of Syracuse is the Salmon River. Flowing through the famed fishing town of Pulaski, where businesses will remind you not to enter with studded wading boots, the Salmon can be a busy spot when the fish are in. Besides the fact the Salmon is teeming with fish, there are 12 miles of public fishing rights along the river that can spread out the crowds that gather there.
"There's always talk about how many people can be on the river," says Adams, "But when the fishing’s good, there's a real possibility of tying into a steelhead of a lifetime."
Whether you're fishing the Catt, the Salmon or anywhere in between, there are a few tried-and-true tactics that Great Lakes steelheaders use to consistently put fish in the net. Typically, the steelhead season begins in earnest when water temperatures dip below 40 degrees.
Spin fishermen favor medium to medium-heavy rods that are often up to 9 feet long. Egg sacks (either artificial or real) are the go-to bait for spin anglers and are heavily weighted to keep the eggs bouncing along the bottom. Spin anglers can also find success with spinners, like a #5 Mepps Aglia or Blue Fox Vibrax.
Fly anglers typically use egg patterns, although wooly buggers and large nymphs often work. Adams has his anglers use a fly rod equipped with a Raven float, typically with an egg pattern underneath.
"The technique is basically stolen from the centerpin style of fishing," says Adams. "It's designed to give the fly the most natural drift possible. It allows it to tumble through the feeding zone just like a real egg or nymph would drift."
Fly anglers can also have success swinging flies with spey rods. Spey fishing is not super common in the Great Lakes tributaries, but when the steelhead are aggressive it can be an effective method.
As an added bonus, New York steelheaders may also tie into an Atlantic salmon, a species the New York Department of Environmental Conservation has been trying to reestablish in Lake Ontario.
One last note before you hit the road for steelhead: Pay special attention to DEC regulations. Parts of many waters are fly-fishing only, while others have rules regarding leader lengths.
Go with a Pro
Top guides on New York’s steelhead rivers.
While New York does a fantastic job ensuring public access is available to all anglers, sometimes—and especially for first-timers—the best bet for catching winter steelhead is to hire a guide, some of which even offer access to private water. Here are some recommendations.
Cattaraugus and Eighteen Mile Creeks
Vince Tobia, Cattaraugus Creek Outfitters
Oak Orchard and Surrounding Creeks
Brian London, BGL Fly Fishing
Salmon River and Surrounding Tribs
Troy Creasy, High Adventure Sportfishing
Josh Adams, Great Drake Angling