Dean Pitt spends nearly every winter weekend in search of the Salmon River's fabled lunker steelhead. Here's a look at how he does it. (December 2007)
Dean Pitt and friends with a morning's catch of Salmon River steelhead taken on custom-made egg sacs.
Photo courtesy of Dean Pitt.
Steelhead guru Dean Pitt of Glenville, N.Y., has been a scholar of the sport for the past 20 years. He began dabbling in winter steelhead fishing in the mid-1980s. Now, he and his buddies, Pete Biancisino and Richard Holiday, annually plan at least five trips to the Salmon River pools in November and December.
Pitt said the largest steelhead he's hooked was 37 inches long, and that his favorite aspect of the sport is "tiring them out and reeling them in."
Winter steelhead fishing on the Salmon River is world-class.
"Trout fishing in November and December are the two most challenging and rewarding months of the year for me," Pitt said. "The season is open year-round, but fall (mid-September to mid-October) is prime time for the salmon runs.
"Steelhead trout come into the river with the salmon and pick up the eggs as a source of food for the winter.
"Most will stay in the river all winter and spawn in the spring, usually mid-March to mid-April, when the water temperature reaches about 40 degrees."
Anglers will find steelhead in tributaries and the main river.
"October and early November steelies are the target for many Salmon River anglers," Pitt noted.
"But I prefer November and December. The winter months are my most successful for landing the biggest steelhead."
BAITING THE TRAP
Pitt offered several tips on how to prepare for, locate and land Salmon River steelhead in winter. He begins his pre-season preparations by making the baits he uses for bottom-bouncing the river's deep holes.
Pitt's baits consist of salmon eggs gathered from the fall salmon run mixed with borax and wrapped in netting. The sac is then tied with elastic thread.
"When they are ready to spawn in late September to mid-October, the hen will have loose eggs pouring out of her. When you catch a salmon, simply place a bag at the tail of the fish and guide your hand down the belly to assist the eggs into the bag. Place the eggs on ice in a cooler until you get home.
"Keep the eggs on ice for 24 hours. The ice hardens the eggs, which turn a bright orange," Pitt said. "Place the salmon eggs on newspaper and gently pat them dry and lightly sprinkle borax on the eggs. Gently massage the borax into the eggs until they're completely covered -- without breaking the eggs. Then put them in plastic containers and freeze them until you're ready to make egg sacs for steelhead bait."
To make the bait sacs, cut up some mesh or netting material into squares that will hold four to five eggs. Gather the corners and twist the opening closed, and then wrap the loose end with elastic thread and tie it off. Cut off the excess thread.
"This bait may be used for both seasons," Pitt said. "It also works well for stream trout."
Pitt has found that a spinning outfit works just as well as the popular fly rod and reel -- and with it, he can cover more water.
"I always take back-up equipment too, just in case," he said. "One of my favorite rods is a 10-foot, 6-inch graphite, light-action model with a good-quality reel. I use 6- to 8-pound-test line, and an ice-resistant paste to prevent build-up on the line guides. The 10-foot pole relieves some stress on the fish, and I can easily lead them in to land them."
Pitt's equipment checklist consists of the following:
One light- and one medium-action reel, with 6- to 8-pound-test line.
Rods: 9 and 11 feet.
Waders (neoprene, 5mm for winter), wading belt.
Korkers (cleats for shoes).
Sunglasses. "A good pair of polarized sunglasses will help you determine the depth of the river and see rocks on the bottom of the riverbed."
Hooks (No. 4 egg hooks for sacks).
No. 10-12 imitation egg flies.
Leader line (4-pound-test).
Split shot (variety of sizes).
Egg sacks in chartreuse, pink, blue and orange.
Pitt said that preparation is very important.
Dean Pitt begins his pre-season preparations by making the baits he uses for bottom-bouncing the river's deep holes.
"Once you have all the necessities, its time to do some serious fishing. Just remember it's going to be freezing cold out there, and you will need to stay warm and dry. Layered clothing and rain gear are a must."
Pitt and his friends begin fishing at their favorite pool, the Staircase Run, which is below the tall bridge in the town of Pulaski. There's plenty of parking close to the river. The Staircase Pool is filled with 4- to 5-foot pockets that are ideal holding areas for steelhead, including one 18-pound fish that, Pitt said, made all that preparation worth the work!
"The Staircase Run is one of my favorites," he said. "But so is the Schoolhouse Pool off Route 13 in Altmar, at the northern end of the river. It's a popular hole for many anglers because it has plenty of parking and covers a wide area where anglers may play and land a steelhead without getting in the way of other fishermen."
The Sportman's Pool is one of the finest on the Salmon River among anglers, Pitt added, because, the hole has deep water and a rock bottom. Egg sacs fished under a float are an ideal tactic for this pool.
The Old Trestle Pool is also off Route 13 and is accessible to both sides of the road with plenty of parking.
"This pool has some deep pockets on the north shore and is ideal for winter steelhead fishing," Pitt noted.
One more to mention is Ellis Cove in Altmar on Church Street. This spot has many pockets for steelhead, it bends and has the most gravel on the river and you'll have fewer snags.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
"Always bring two rods," Pitt said. "One may be used for dries and one for nymphs or streamers. I like
to use a sinking line with a 5 1/2- to 6-1/2-second sink rate. Sink-tip line is ideal for fishing nymphs, steelhead flies or streamers in fast or deep waters, along with some split shot.
"The faster the sink line, the less likely the fish will be spooked."
Chromers, as steelhead are often referred to, are far from easy to catch.
"You will need a light line and a deliberate, persistent approach to be successful in landing one of these fish," said Pitt. "I cover a lot a water in search of steelhead and I find it often produces the best results.
"Drifting line, backtrolling or bottom-bouncing are my favorite methods.
"Once I've tricked a steelhead into striking, I secure my footing and hold on! It's not uncommon for a chromer to peel line off your reel for 30 to 45 seconds, jumping five to 10 times. And they can fight hard for over 10 minutes. Just when you think they're ready to land, they'll try to wrap the line around an obstacle."
Take the time to assess the water conditions and pools you want to fish, Pitt advised. Balance yourself careful, flexing your knees to create a wide base on slick surfaces. Caution will prevent you from falling.
Go with the flow of the river or stream, he added. It's easier and safer to move with the current.
Try to move ahead or sideways for the best footing. When landing fish, find a spot away from other anglers to avoid tangled lines.
"If you've done your pre-season preparation and think safety, you'll have more than enough action on the Salmon River," Pitt concluded.
"You'll eventually discover your favorite method of fishing, as well as your favorite holes, where you can do battle with these unforgettable winter fighters."