Friday, September 18, 2009

Salmon on the Sticks

*Please note: Night fishing during the salmon runs is only allowed in the short stretch from the last buoy, located between the breakwalls at Selkirk, to the mouth. (See page 30 in the NY Freshwater Fishing Guide for 2008-09, or page 38 in the 2009-10 guide).

Showing off a large king. Photo courtesty of Catch 22 Fishing Charters.

The most exciting time to catch salmon is at night. Problem is they don’t usually hit more than a half-hour or so after the sun goes down. In fact, Al Maxwell of Woody’s Tackle in Port Ontario says “September is about the only time of year when they hit after dark.”

You see, a king’s last September isn’t typical by any stretch. Indeed, in the autumn of its life the urge to spawn is foremost on its mind, driving it to act anything but normally.

I wanted to see for myself and called Captain Rick Miick, (315) 387-5920 late last week to learn what he knew about it. “We’re getting some fish by sitting (still-fishing) off the sticks,” he confirmed. I’m going out tonight with a couple friends. Wanna come?”

“You betcha’” I replied.

We launched at the Salmon River Lighthouse Marina; 315-298-6688) a little after sundown. Rick rowed out about 100 yards off the “long stick” (jetty with the red light) and dropped anchor. Our tackle consisted of some weight to get us to bottom and a floating egg sac to keep the offering waving a few inches above the sand.

“They usually come in a couple hours after sundown,” the captain explained. “The river’s colder than the lake and it draws them. The few fish that are ripe make their way to the hatchery. The majority are fresh and only get about as far as the Black Hole, then turn back for the lake in the morning.”

The still night was magical. The lake was asleep. Not a wave stirred. Above, a silent explosion of stars sparkled like fireworks. North along the shoreline, Brennan Beach RV Resort was lit up with what appeared to be Christmas decorations. Out on the lake, a few charter boats scurried about in the darkness. All around us sat numerous drift boats. The light sticks they attached to their rod tips as strike indicators glowed, making them look like menorahs.

About an hour into the night, a cacophony of spooky splashes surrounded us. For about ten minutes they were breaking the surface everywhere. Excited almost beyond control, we glued our eyes to the strike indicators and prepared for a fight in the night.

But nothing happened. The school must have swam under us and gone up river.

Some of the boats were luckier. While we couldn’t see anything, and no one whooped and hollered, the sound of a net handle scraping the bottom of a boat and a long spell of violent splashing at its side indicated a fish was being landed.

Soon afterwards, some boats started flatlining (row-trolling) with glo J Plugs. Photographic flashes, used to fire-up the lures, popped through the night.

Check the Great Lakes and Tributary Regulations section of the “NYS Freshwater Fishing Regulations Guide” for specific regulations.

This exciting bite starts winding down the last week of the month and all but stops by the beginning of October.

Late September’s nights are extremely black, and can get cold. But this sensory deprivation is what makes this the most intimate form of salmon fishing. Indeed, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve seen a king rising through glimmering moonlight, an arm’s reach away.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Comin’ Home

Fishermen at the black hole in Pulaski

Depending on how you look at it, salmon are the aquatic world’s luckiest or unluckiest fish. To a hedonist, their 3 ½-year feast, climaxing in a breeding orgy followed almost immediately by death, is perfect. On the other hand, from a traditional Western point of view, their lives are gluttonous, violent and licentious, not exactly the kind you’d want your children to lead. But they are what they are and there’s nothing else they can be. This month launches their final hurrah, a tortuous ascent up natal streams to spawn and die.

Like all wild beasts, salmon aren’t good at sticking to a schedule. Some run upriver as early as August, others wait until winter. This isn’t weirdness on their part, or anything like that; it’s nature’s way of protecting the species. You see, something can happen during the main runs, an earthquake, for instance, or even a volcanic eruption, and the early risers and late comers insure the survival of the species.

Keeping this in mind, I went up to the state salmon hatchery in Altmar the last weekend of August. Some salmon were in the river and a few were in Beaverdam Brook. A couple were even at the ladder, waiting for the gate to open and let them into the facility.

I went up again this past weekend and the fish were in the river heavier than I can ever remember for this time of year. They weren’t everywhere yet, mostly in the lower reaches; the staircase, for instance and the rapids between the Black Hole and Little Black Hole. Arriving around 3 p.m. and only staying until 5 p.m., I watched three fish, averaging roughly 20 pounds, landed—not bad for that late in the day.

It appears this summer’s cool, rainy weather kept the water in the lake from warming too much, allowing the ripe fish to come into shore earlier than normal. With the power company releasing a base flow sufficiently high to offer them easy access to the entire river, the fish stormed in.

Currently, they claim the whole stream. My contacts report seeing fish taken from Douglaston all the way to the Upper Fly Fishing Only Section.

Justin Schwalm, an employee at Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop reports “I got on the river just before noon today (Tuesday) and saw hundreds of fish by the time I left at around 2 p.m. I saw about 50 guys fighting salmon, and losing the majority of the time. Most were getting them on egg sacks or blue sponge.”

And the fishing is bound to get better. Several guides report the kings are staged inshore near the river’s mouth in massive quantities each morning, just waiting for the biological signal to go off, propelling them into the river. Those that aren’t quite ripe enough yet are turned back into the lake by charter boats and the day’s warming temperatures, only to return that evening and try again.

This is the best time to get a fresh fish. In a couple more weeks they’ll start getting really dark, even black, showing signs that they’re close to the end of their life cycle.

The weather forecast calls for relatively mild nights and warm days, the perfect combination for drawing salmon into the river. It’s a good time to fish in the comfort of short sleeves, while dodging 20 +-pounders tearing upstream on their way home to spawn.

Bringing home a Salmon

Kayakers and fishermen sharing the staircase

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Salmon River’s Wild Side

Switchback along the trail to the gorge.

Like most streams in the North Country, the Salmon River has been tamed, its formerly boisterous rapids harnessed by two dams to create electricity. Oh sure, water still surges playfully out of the powerhouses’ tailraces, and in a few spots along its path to Lake Ontario, you could even call it whitewater. But its ancient character has changed utterly, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the prehistoric riverbed which forms a spellbinding gorge between the dams.

While the law requires the power company to release sufficient water to keep the last 13 miles flowing fast and deep enough for recreational purposes, the dam valves feeding this part of the river are barely open, releasing enough to allow the three-something-mile section of the upper river to flow creek-size. Mother Nature made this stretch the wildest, freest, most beautiful slice of the Salmon River.

It’s also the most difficult to access because there’s no trail system. Indeed, there are only three places where it’s relatively safe to get to the bank (see Getting There below). Once you’re down there, the going is slow--and you’ll want to wear hip boots with traction devices.

But the breathtaking scenery makes it all worthwhile. Sheer walls of stratified limestone rise 70 to 100 feet above the water. Polished over the millennium by scouring rapids, the riverbed’s long stretches of bumpy sheets of fractured bedrock are littered with flat stones, and punctuated at the bends by channels and pools. Native flowers and mixed hardwoods crop its islands and pebble beaches. Here and there, huge boulders, calved from the cliffs, rise out of pools like pagan monoliths to ancient gods.

One of the most common hallmarks of natural beauty is austerity. Indeed, wonders ranging from Niagara Falls to the Grand Canyon aren’t exactly what you’d call ideal wildlife habitat. Some would even say they took the pain nature dished out and made it into a song.

The Upper Salmon River fits this category perfectly. But hidden in its nooks and crannies are delightful surprises: trout and smallmouth bass. They can be elusive however few and far between, and the challenge of catching one is what draws an occasional soul into this wonderland.

Smallies are native to the river and have been here since the beginning of time. The best spot for them is the plunge pool below the Salmon River Falls.

Rainbow trout are stocked into Lighthouse Hill Reservoir every year. Those that survive trout season and winter will run the river in spring to spawn. Fast water critters at heart, some stay until rising temperatures force them out, usually in June.

Browns, descendants of last century’s stocking programs, live in the river year-round. These are truly wild; the savviest of the savviest trout species.

Brookies find their way into the river from tiny brooks that drain into it, or into Lighthouse Hill Reservoir.

Progress may have slowed the Salmon River down. Its water all but squeezed out of it, it still runs, albeit much slower, narrower and shallower. It just goes to show, you can take a river out of the wilderness, but you can’t take the wilderness out of the river.

Getting There

Get there from Pulaski by taking NY 13 south. Turn left onto Co. Rte. 22 in the village of Altmar and continue for about 3.5 miles to Bennett Bridges. A fishing access site with parking is on the west side of the road, between the bridges.

To get to the Salmon River Falls Unique Area, continue on Co. Rte. 22 for another mile from Bennett Bridges. Turn right on Falls Road and continue for 1 ½ miles. The parking area is on the right. The footpath to the bottom of the gorge is open May through Nov. 15. The descent is 100 feet. Some areas of the gorge are restricted due to the sensitive environment of this area and visitors need to read and follow the instructions posted at the Falls.

To get to the old Dam Road Bridge access area, take Co. Rte. 22 to the edge of Bennett Bridges. Just before the first bridge, turn right onto Pipe Line Road. At the fork, bear left, slow down and keep your eyes peeled on the left for an old bridge. (The bridge is closed and declared unsafe for pedestrian or other uses so please avoid the temptation.)

View of the falls from the gorge.

Island flowers.

Paradise with a river running through it.