Friday, April 16, 2010

My Spring Steelhead Season

After the cold of winter releases it's grip on Western New York, my fly fishing friends and I eagerly await the spring steelhead run. This usually happens in mid March when warmer temperatures melt the ice and snow that locks up most of the smaller freestone tributaries that flow into Lake Ontario(larger tail water fisheries may have a different time table). Then it is a waiting game, until the water becomes fishable again. When that happens, we have a few good weeks of fishing until the spawn is done and most of the fish have made their way back to the lake. And much like the fall tributary season, it is our best opportunity to get large lake run trout that average somewhere between 6 and 8 lbs. There are brown trout and steelhead that have wintered over from the fall, but these fish can become stale, meaning that they have been in the stream for a long time and have seen every fly and fisherman for months. This can make fishing tough through the winter, especially if you have very cold temperatures that freeze the smaller tributaries and have very little run off or rain to bring water levels up to optimal fishing conditions.

The month of March also is the best time to catch the many lake run drop back brown trout that have been in the system since last fall. These fish can be very aggressive and take a fly well. In fact it is not uncommon to catch both steelhead and brown trout out of the same spot when fishing at this time. And if you hit the right spot at the right time, you could have a double digit day of big drop back browns and steelhead. It is what my friends and I strive for each year, but it rarely happens that we hit it perfectly.

The very end of March and the beginning of April usually marks the start of another lake run fish...the sucker! When these guys show up, it usually means that we are at the end of the steelhead run, and can expect to catch drop back steelhead in the weeks to come. Suckers can become a nuisance when fishing for steelhead and brown trout because they take up the very same water as the trout, and they will often out number the trout 10 to 1. You may have to catch 4 or 5 suckers before you even hook a trout. Many fly fishermen will swing large streamers up in the water column to combat this problem, but doing that will often lead to less hookups with trout. The drop back browns and steelhead will feast off loose eggs at this time, so using a pattern that matches the natural, is the best way to hookup with lots of trout, even if it means catching a few suckers in between.

By the end of the first week of April the suckers are usually done spawning and catching them while fishing for trout becomes less of a problem. This is when you will find more and more drop back steelhead. Drop backs are almost an entirely different fish than when they first entered the stream just a week or two earlier. They are a much leaner fish after the spawn, and are now on the hunt for food. These fish can be very aggressive, and on occasion can pull the fly rod right out of your hand if your not careful(this happened to me last year.) The Steelhead fishing will continue to be good until the middle of April on most years, and sometimes fishing until early May will still provide you with a few fish.

This spring steelhead season was one of my best. I caught plenty of fish and enjoyed doing it with friends. And just like years past, I enjoyed some new experiences as well. One of those experiences came on this past Wednesday when I was able to sight fish to a large female drop back steelhead. I changed my rig from an egg pattern under an indicator to a large streamer, and was able to swing it in front of the fish. On my fourth cast, I watched as the fish moved up a foot to take in the fly. I set the hook and the water exploded as the fish went crazy! It peeled line off the reel, it jumped, it shook it's massive head trying to throw the fly....but in the end I came out on top and was able to hold in my hands a 30+ inch drop back steelhead.

Another wonderful event that happened this spring while fishing the tributaries, was the sign of what appeared to be either lake run rainbows or drop back juvenile steelhead from the previous years spawning. We caught many fish in the 14"-22" inch range that looked more like rainbows than steelhead. They were very colorful with bright olive green backs, bright red stripes and lots of spots all over their bodies and tails. Just like what you would expect from a rainbow trout, not a steelhead. And even though they are biologically the same fish, there are different strains that may look differently and behave differently than each other. In fact the state of New York does currently stock both steelhead and rainbow trout in Lake Ontario. So it would make sense that you would catch both a lake run rainbow and a lake run steelhead. So what ever they may be, rainbow or steelehad, I have enjoyed them both this spring.

In fact, April also gives us the opportunity to catch a 10lb. steelhead in the morning on a Lake Ontario tributary, and then catch some brown trout on dry flies in the afternoon from one of our many inland trout streams.

For even more photos of this springs steelhead adventures, please check out some of Lucas Carroll's wonderful photography at his flickr page and blog.

Inland stream trout, hatches and other stories to come in the near future!


Fishpainter said...

I'm so jealous... That is quite the accumulation of photos. Sounds like you have the season figured out.
Nice article.

bfly said...

Bob - I must say that my season didn't start out like this at all. In fact, I went fish-less for a few mornings before things started to come together for me. Thanks for reading!! I'll see you on the stream soon!

Bigerrfish said...

I have never even fished for steel head I woudld love to feel the pressure of one some day... you shure have something figured out with them!