Checking the spread; note the vortexes in the background
Checking the spread; note the vortexes in the background
Bird watchers at the South Lookout. Judy Thurber is in the tan jacket, seated on the left.
Sign in the parking lot. Note bird feeders in the background.
Late winter's thaws pour snowmelt into Lake Ontario's tributaries, swelling them to two to three times normal size. All this extra water hooks the hormones of ripe steelies out in the lake, sending them flooding upstream. The big rivers are the first beneficiaries of high water, with skinny creeks getting it soon afterwards.
For instance, last week high water dislodged and removed the ice from the Salmon River, and fresh steelies, and a smattering of browns stormed in. However, skinny creeks like the Little Sandy and Grindstone were still half crowned in ice. Even if you wanted to fish them, you would have had a tough time getting to the bank. And if you hooked a trout, it would have gone under one of the fragments of ice cap punctuating the water's surface, preventing you from following in hot pursuit if the fish headed downstream -- And they always do.
By yesterday (March 12) run-off had swept the remnants of ice cap and jams into the lake, opening clear channels in creeks and brooks for the steelies to climb -- And they came. And even though the banks were still lined in anywhere from two to five feet of snow, the water was accessible and the few anglers who ventured out there caught fish.
This is one of fishing's most magical times of the year. Suddenly, streams so skinny you can reach across them with a 9-foot fly rod come to life with rainbow trout ranging from three to 20 pounds. They can run so thick during the night that in the morning anglers find the floors of pools carpeted with the beasts.
Green-backed, silver-sided and spotted, they blend in almost seamlessly with the stream's rocky floor. When you hook one, and it takes off, it'll spook the rest of the fish and you'll see the floor move. It's as close to a piscatorial miracle as you'll see on this earth.
The action is comparable to autumn's salmon runs. The fish are vibrant, brilliantly-colored and full of life.
Currently, the water is so high it discourages all but the most skilled anglers. But it drops steadily as the days to spring peel off the calendar. Soon, the flow will reach a peak and start petering out. By April, the skinny creeks will be down to levels self-respecting steelies avoid. So you have to go soon or the window will close on you.
Morning is the best time because fresh fish haven't been harassed yet and are far more willing to strike than survivors who have already been jumped and stuck.
They'll hit all the usual suspects: egg sacs, worms, spinners, small, and Northland's Scud-Bug Buggy Tails and Slurpy Small Fry Tails, fished on bottom or below floats.
Little Sandy has an official access site on Norton Road (Take NY 3 north out of Port Ontario, turn right on County Rte. 15 at the second flashing light about five miles later, travel about a half-mile, hook a left onto County Rte. 62, then left again a couple hundred yards later onto Norton Rd.). In addition, the hamlet of Sandy Creek offers limited access at its bridges.
Grindstone Creek boasts several access sites on County Rte. 28, and at its mouth in Selkirk Shores State Park, NYS Route 3.
The way this winter's been going, I can't blame my buddy Fred for using pages from Al Gore's "Earth in the Balance" to fire up his pot-bellied stove.
"At least I'm getting some use out of it," he complained.
Then came last Thursday's thaw, sweeping in like a South Sea breeze. A true believer of the Weather Channel, he knew what was coming the night before and called to brief me. "You know weather like that's gonna ignite an explosive bite."
I told him I was sorry he had to work the next day, but promised I'd think about him while I fished.
Thursday found me casing-out the Pulaski area, particularly my favorite skinny creeks. Unfortunately, Little Sandy wore an ice cap only slightly punctuated with moving water. Grindstone moved a little more freely, but ran under ice so often, I figured landing a steelie would have been too much like work. Trout and Orwell Brooks were loosening up but not enough.
The Salmon River was perfect. Its tannic-stained waters were gin-clear, 34-something degrees, and relatively free of icebergs; a combination sure to draw chrome upstream.
The fish were hanging out in deep runs. The Sportsman's Hole surrendered a couple to anglers above and below me, but not to me. The fish averaged a solid 26 inches.
As the sun began sinking in the sky I decided to move to my most favorite first-thaw spot: the School House Pool.
Several dudes got there before me but there was still plenty of elbow room. Catching sight of a fish tail swirl near the head of the pool, I eased myself down the six-foot bank. Setting my float about four feet above a Northland Scudbug (northlandtackle.com), and clipping on a couple BB-sized split shots 18 and 24 inches respectively above the offering, I cast across the current and let the flow do its magic.
Several casts later, the float came to a dead stop, cocked upstream and started heading under the surface like the tower on a submarine. I set the hook and the fight was on.
I saw five other steelies caught within the course of a couple of hours. The guys doin' most of the catchin' were float-fishing with black marabou streamers.
I watched another guy land an ingot of heavy metal just downstream of the Altmar Bridge, in the pool at the bend. He was float-fishing with a trout egg fashioned from hot glue.
Spawn-minded steelies should enter the river in full force during this thaw, and they'll be easily accessible to wading anglers until the Tug Hill's snow melt swells the River to three times its normal size in about a week.
When the water gets that high, floating the river in a McKenzie Boat, and casting egg sacs or back-trolling plugs like Hot Shots, Rapalas and Lazy Ikes will be most productive. (A list of guides is available on the Oswego County Tourism Web site, www.visitoswegocounty.com.)
Still, wading anglers casting small Mepps and Rooster Tail spinners into deep pools like the Black Hole should nail some heavy metal.
Action will start getting fast and furious in the skinny creeks in a few days.