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Empire State Winter Steelhead Hotspots

Empire State Winter Steelhead Hotspots

Open-water fishing in December is not for the faint of heart, but if catching rainbow trout over 10 pounds sounds good, these rivers and streams are the places to be this month.

Photo by Dick Swan

By J. Michael Kelly

Compared to steelheaders, ice-fishermen are sissies. Think about it. Dedicated hardwater specialists do their thing during the coldest weeks and months of the year, but they take shelter in tents or space-heated huts, warming their fingers and toes between bites with insulated mittens and boots.

Steelhead fanatics, on the other hand, wade up to their waists in frigid, slush-filled currents, balancing precariously on algae-slick boulders as they work their way through promising pools. To facilitate knot tying, they wear fingerless gloves, or no gloves at all, and invariably soak their fingers to red-tipped numbness within minutes after the day's first cast.

Ice-anglers pride themselves on their ability to catch buckets full of perch, crappies or bluegills, while most steelheaders would be thrilled to stringer one fish a day - and most turn that one trout loose after a hard-fought battle on hook and line.

In fact, one steelie per day has been the legal creel limit on New York's Lake Ontario tributaries since Oct. 1. Previously, the one-steelhead rule applied only to feeder streams in Jefferson County, while anglers in other counties bordering the big lake were allowed to creel up to three steelhead per day.

"Going to one fish per day will spread the resource among more anglers," said Dan Bishop, the Department of Environmental Conservation's Region 7 fisheries manager.

Bishop said the change was adopted after state officials surveyed steelhead anglers on the subject. Approximately three-fourths of respondents wanted either a one-fish limit or no-kill rules for Ontario tributaries.


The new regulation does not apply to streams flowing into Lake Erie, or to the rainbow trout spawning streams that feed the Finger Lakes. In those waters, the limit remains at three trout or salmon per day.

Steelheaders blessed with deep reservoirs of patience and multiple layers of warm clothing should have good fishing this month on many of the following New York waters.


The one-a-day rule adopted for Jefferson County tributaries in 2000 has been well received by anglers in northern New York, who credit the stricture with improving steelhead action along the Black River.

Born as a tiny brook trout stream in the Tug Hill Plateau region, the Black is deep and wide enough to accommodate a flotilla of trolling vessels by the time it empties into Lake Ontario west of Dexter. From the river mouth, steelhead can swim through a fish ladder at the Dexter dam and continue upstream for about seven miles to the impassable Glen Park Dam in the city of Watertown. About 75,000 juvenile steelhead are stocked annually in the Black River or nearby waters of Lake Ontario.

The dam in Watertown is at the head of a long, deep pool that can hold good numbers of steelhead at times. However, many anglers like the choppy water at the Van Duzee Street public access. Another fishy spot, particularly during run-off periods, is the pool below the Dexter fish ladder.

DEC Region 6 biologists, who can be reached at the agency's Watertown office by calling (315) 785-2261, say steelhead of 5 to 8 pounds are the norm in the Black River, although much larger specimens are sometimes landed.

When fishing the Black River, be mindful that wading opportunities are extremely limited due to swift currents and a slippery bottom. Because the river is used for hydroelectric power generation, it may also be subject to unexpected flow increases. While the rising water can limit angler mobility, it also keeps the lower river free of ice floes most of the time.

The 1000 Islands International Tourism Council, at (800) 847-5263, can point visitors toward motels or other accommodations in Jefferson County.


If you've ever doubted the degree of challenge involved in steelhead fishing, consider the results of last fall's creel census along the Salmon River. The most famous steelhead stream in the East gives up its fish grudgingly.

Bishop said fishermen caught an estimated 1,960 steelhead in the river between Columbus Day and the last weekend of November, or about one per 19 hours of angling effort. That's actually pretty good fishing! Surveys started in 1997 show that fall catch rates on the river have ranged from a high of one steelie every 17 hours to just one per 29 hours of fishing time. Surprisingly, the survey usually ends just as the fishing is starting to heat up, which would certainly reduce those hours-per-fish estimates.

Most local experts agree that prime time for steelhead action on the Salmon River is between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That's when the big rainbows that have migrated up-river on the heels of the Pacific salmon run start to settle down for the winter in the river's deep pools.

Because the Salmon River is used to generate hydroelectric power, it has good flows of water all winter and does not freeze over except during periods of extremely cold temperatures. Last winter was colder than usual, yet even on the worst days anglers could find ample open water.

The river winds west through central Oswego County and is bordered most of the way by Route 13. From the village of Altmar downstream through Pulaski to the river's mouth at Port Ontario, there are about 12 miles of public fishing access along both banks. Within that area, many of the larger pools are clearly identified with roadside signs and are connected to paved parking areas via well-trod paths.

In December, some of the more productive spots include the long flat below the Pineville bridge, the Trestle Hole (downstream from the village of Altmar off Route 13), the Schoolhouse Hole in Altmar, and the lower fly-fishing-only area, which is immediately upstream from the Route 48 bridge in Altmar.

Also worth fishing is the controversial Douglaston Run, the pay-to-fish stretch off Lake Street in Pulaski. Expect to pay about $20 per day at Douglaston.

Maps of the river are available in most tackle shops in Pulaski and Altmar. The DEC's Region 7 fishing hotline, (607) 753-1551, usually includes a current report on Salmon River action.

For brochures on lodging, guide service and other amenities in the vicinity of t

he river, call the Oswego County tourism office at (315) 349-8322.


Although heavy run-off created difficult fishing conditions, the Oswego River gave up some huge steelhead last winter, including some in the 20-pound class.

The bulk of the catch was made by drift boat anglers, who were able to skim over the raging currents to reach trout holding in mid-river. There were many days during December and January when the river was simply too deep and swift to be fished from the bank. That was a shame, for in a typical year, the lower Oswego is a friendly, accessible place for neophyte steelheaders.

About a mile of the Oswego, from the river mouth upstream to the impassable Varick hydroelectric dam, is available to spawning salmon and trout from Lake Ontario. Most of that water can be fished, at least on the west bank, from the city of Oswego's Linear Park. The park sidewalk is separated from the river by a wrought-iron fence, which serves as a safety barrier and a convenient rod rest. Below the sidewalk, it's about a 6-foot drop to the water, and anglers who arrive at the river without an extra-long net will be looking around for better-equipped friends when they tie into a big one.

On average, about 20,000 yearling steelhead are stocked in the Oswego annually. In the last few years, returns of adults have increased as a result of a stocking program run on a cooperative basis between the Region 7 DEC office and Lake Ontario charter captains. Instead of taking yearling steelies from the Altmar hatchery directly to the river, the little ones are held for about two weeks in net pens in Oswego harbor. The practice acclimates the fish to their natural surroundings and increases the odds that they'll survive and return to the river to spawn as adults.

The steelhead section of the Oswego River flows through the city of the same name, which is north of Syracuse via routes 481 and 57. Turn left on Route 104, which crosses the river. One particularly good shore- fishing spot is behind the post office on Route 48, which parallels the west bank.

The DEC's Region 7 office in Cortland regularly includes Oswego River information on its weekly fishing hotline at (607) 753-1551. For a roster of motels or a list of area fishing guides, contact the Oswego County tourism office at the number listed above.


Technically speaking, the silvery fish that run up Catharine Creek through the villages of Watkins Glen and Montour Falls each autumn aren't true steelhead, but if they look like steelies, act like steelies and taste like steelies, who could tell the difference?

Catharine Creek is the principal spawning tributary for the rainbow trout that live in Seneca Lake, the deepest body of water in the Finger Lakes chain. Every April Fool's Day, thousands of eager anglers mark the beginning of the annual trout season by dunking a line in the fabled stream. Often, fishermen outnumber the fish at that time of year. But the few anglers who make a return visit in the fall will find they have long stretches of Catharine Creek to themselves and plenty of fish to go around.

The season on Catharine Creek, as on other Finger Lake feeder streams, runs from April 1 through Dec. 31. Depending on rainfall and water levels, many of the rainbows that won't spawn until March or April begin to nose their way upstream as early as the previous October or November.

Most years, numerous 12- to 18-inch males and some 3- to 6-pound hens can be found in the creek's deeper pools by Thanksgiving Day. Unlike the shy biters usually encountered in the spring, these early arrivals strike aggressively at spawn sacs, garden worms, artificial nymphs or in-line spinners.

Most of the fish caught in Catharine Creek in the fall come from the lower reaches of the stream, below Montour Falls, but heavy rains may nudge the fish all the way up to Millport, about 10 miles from Seneca Lake.

Catharine Creek begins in Chemung County and flows north through southern Schuyler County en route to Seneca Lake. It is paralleled by state Route 14 and is less than 30 feet wide in most spots.

Anglers new to Catharine Creek should be aware of special regulations applying to all Finger Lakes tributaries. For instance, only single hooks with a gap of no more than 1/2 inch may be used on the stream. That single-point rule applies to spinning lures, as well as bait and fly hooks. Also, fishing is prohibited before legal sunrise or after sunset. Other Finger Lakes-specific rules are listed in the current edition of the New York Fishing Regulations Guide.

Seneca Marine Bait and Tackle in Watkins Glen, at (607) 535-6690, is a good source for updates on the status of the fall rainbow run in Catharine Creek. For information on nearby lodging, try the Schuyler County Chamber of Commerce at (800) 607-4552.


While Catharine Creek is an intimate place to fish in December, the lower Niagara River is awe-inspiring at this time of year.

On average, the Niagara funnels 1.5 million gallons of water into Lake Ontario per minute. Below the falls, currents gush at a pace of up to 25 miles per hour through 40-foot-deep pools. The spectacular river gorge is more than half a mile wide in places.

Sound intimidating? It is, but steelhead fishermen who know their way around the Niagara rack up some enviable catches. About 70,000 steelhead are stocked annually in and around the river, and many grow up to be whoppers. For example, Andy Picco of Baldwinsville fishes the lower Niagara at least once every winter, and usually reels in several 8- to 15-pound steelies per trip.

Most of the steelhead fishing in the Niagara is done from 17- to 21-foot boats equipped with dependable outboards and electric trolling motors. The first motor is to assure the occupants make it safely over and across; the second is for precise maneuvering along fish-holding runs or "drifts."

Niagara regulars tend to bait up with golf ball-size chunks of salmon roe still on the skein. Large mesh spawn sacs and colorful yarn flies also work well. Regardless of the bait or fly you choose, figure on using at least a full ounce of weight to keep your hook near the bottom in the powerful flows.

While hiring a guide is strongly recommended for your first Niagara trip, many freelance anglers launch their own boats at the Water Street dock in the village of Lewiston off Route 18F in Niagara County. The most consistently productive drifts are on the opposite side of the river, where anglers must have a Canadian license, available at any Canadian Tire store.

A limited amount of safe shore-fishing is available on the lower Niagara. Try the Devil's Hole and Whirlpool state parks, if you're willing to walk up and down steep, often icy trails, or try the casting platform at the New York Power Authority if you'd rather not.

The Niagara C

ounty Tourism office at (800) 338-7890 has maps to help anglers find these spots, and can also update fishermen on current fishing conditions and nearby lodging alternatives.


Possibly the prettiest of all New York steelhead waters, Cattaraugus Creek is the major spawning stream for the rainbows that live on the New York end of Lake Erie. After crashing over a dam in the southern Erie County village of Springville, the stream winds through 35 miles of gravel-bottomed riffles and shale ledge pools before spilling into the lake. It's perfect fly-fishing water, and long-rodders who swing Spey flies or streamers down and across the Cat may enjoy multiple hookups per outing. In recent years, the fall steelhead run in the creek has been even more impressive than the better-known fishery in the Salmon River. Fish of 5 to 10 pounds are the norm, and bigger steelies aren't uncommon.

Naturally, there's a caveat to this enticing picture - a couple of them, in fact. First, because Cattaraugus Creek is relatively shallow and slow moving, it freezes over earlier than other prime New York rivers. While you can count on open water in early December, many of the Cat's pools will have ice rimming their banks by the end of the month. Second, anglers will need a Seneca Nation license to fish some of the creek's most productive pools. About half of the river below Springville courses through the tribal reservation. You can get the necessary permit at the Seneca Mart on Route 438 northwest of Gowanda.

Be advised that the creek usually has a muddy tinge due to extensive clay banks in the watershed. Fly patterns featuring black, purple or fluorescent orange hues tied on No. 4 to 8 hooks work well in the roily water.

For a map-brochure that shows popular access points on Cattaraugus Creek, contact the DEC's Region 9 office in Allegany at (716) 372-0645.

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