Maybe it was the wonder of wetting a line in a world-class fishery, the hours of fishing with just one encounter with a fish, or the pure size and strength of the steelhead holding before us in the current. Perhaps it was a combination of factors that had me standing on the bank of the Salmon River, shaken and hot with adrenaline, soaked—my waders filled—with 35-degree icy water.
In honor of spring break, my dad and I headed north to Pulaski, New York, where spring is evidenced by the Salmon River swelling with snowmelt and the newly-arrived steelhead spawning in its waters. The drive up began early in the morning, under a light drizzle.
North of Charlottesville drizzle turned to sleet. A quick glance at the weather radar threatened to prolong our 10-hour drive. 450 miles of heavy snow and sleet added two hours.
Our tires hit gravel in Pulaski, at Whitaker’s Sports Shop and Motel.
The next morning, after purchasing licenses and taking in a late breakfast at a local diner, we identified a point on the river map and followed the highway to the Schoolhouse Pool, on the upper river.
|Upstate New York woods.|
Photo by Matt Reilly.
The first thing that strikes anglers new to the Salmon River is the intensity of its flow. It’s a serious river, where wading can be dangerous. At that, the water level is controlled by dams on the upper river; and conditions can change drastically overnight.
Wading into the tail of the Pool, the water was relatively low. Nevertheless, the current lived up to its reputation. I stripped line from my reel.
What happened next was almost attitude-shattering. When I grabbed my fly to clear my leader of the rod tip, three feet of the rod tip shattered like a brittle twig! Just as I had swallowed the initial shock, icy water began trickling down my left leg. I glanced nervously down, to see a puncture in my waders. So much for being prepared…
We purchased a cheap replacement rod and wader repair kit at another local shop. An hour later, we had a renewed shot at fishing.
We located a small-but-fertile tributary to the Salmon, parked, and hiked to its mouth. The mile-long walk prevented many from fishing the confluence pool, which we had to ourselves.
|Steelhead roe means we're on the right track.|
Photo by Matt Reilly
Anticipating the deeper water of the main river, I tied on a bead-headed tri-colored Woolly Bugger of my own creation. I added more weight to the line, and slid into the river on the edge of a promising run.
Keeping my rod high and fly line off the water, the fly trailed bottom, promising the fly was in the strike zone. After several good drifts, the line stopped, and I lifted my rod to check its source.
The line went tight and nosed upstream before rocketing out towards the opposite bank! A chrome steelhead weighing almost 15 pounds thrashed at the surface twice in front of me, turned, and began a long run downstream.
Two logs extended into the river from the bank just downstream of me. My line was angling beneath both as I sloshed towards the obstruction, rod doubled.
Cold sweat sprouted on my forehead. My line was wedged in the crevice of a knot on the log. So with the cork of my rod in my mouth, I straddled a submerged tree and edged out into the river to grab the line. Line in hand, I hand-lined the fish in several feet, cut the line from the log, and spliced the pieces.
|Backing trailing from a logjam...|
Photo by Matt Reilly.
The first obstacle cleared, I edged towards the second along the river’s bank, watching my footing carefully. The line was more simply caught on the second log. I crawled onto a stout overhanging tree, and edged towards the snag, pausing briefly to test the line for sign of life on the end—still there.
I grasped a shoreline sapling tightly, as I worked forward. Suddenly, I lost my footing. My feet swung, the water rising to just above my chest waders, soaking my chest and legs in freezing water! Enduring, and too far to turn back, I plunged my rod and arms into the water at my feet and passed the rod under the log. The line popped free and connected tightly with a fish one hundred yards downriver.
But the direct pressure inspired a violent headshake in the fish. With that, the fish was gone, and the line sagged.
I crawled out of the water, soaked, but warm with adrenaline, disbelieving. My own fly had produced my first encounter with a Great Lakes’ steelhead—a fish awesomely hardier and larger than any trout I’d ever seen. The water seemed eerily quiet as adrenaline shakes set it and I shed layers of wet clothing.
The day had turned around, but ended in a lost fish. The trip is still young.□
Originally published in the Rural Virginian