Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Salmon River Steel: Shimmering beneath the Surface

By Spider Rybaak
Raritan, NJ, native Seth Correa with his 12-pounder taken at Altmar.

In terms of temperature, the past few weeks have been pretty much like any other November on the Salmon River. The one notable meteorological difference is that rainfall has been lower than average. And that makes arm-chair anglers worry the stream isn’t high enough to spur self-respecting chromers to storm in to feast on all the salmon eggs laying around.

But steelies aren’t bothered by such petty human anxiety. Indeed, even though the power company has reduced discharges from the reservoirs a couple notches because of low water, the lake’s chromers still have enough wiggle room to run the stream.  

Busy surf-fishing for walleyes on Oneida Lake the past few days, I’ve been hearing all kinds of negative reports from guys standing next to me. One even claimed “the Salmon River is just a trickle of its former self, not fit for fallfish.”

Say what???!!!

 So I went up last week to see for myself.

Boy, was he full of it. The water was running at about 335 CFS, lower  than most gung-ho steelheaders would like, but still enough for the fish; and they were all over the place.

In Altmar, anglers stood shoulder-to-shoulder in both the fly-fishing only section and the regular regulations area. While the fish weren’t exactly tumbling over one another to hit the baits, the steady chorus of “fish on” echoing over the river indicated the bite was decent.

In Pineville, the action was even better. I watched several anglers land nice steelies.

Fish were hitting everything but the kitchen sink (one fella’ fished a large, white streamer he called the kitchen sink without catching anything). Tiny glo bugs and egg sacs, “chuck-and-ducked” in pockets, the heads of pools and along the edges of the current were effective.

Recent rains over the past couple days will raise the Salmon River and its tributaries enough to draw massive quantities of fresh steelies.

The stream’s floor is very slippery. Wear traction devices, a flotation device, polarized sunglasses and a wading staff for safety. 

In addition, the water’s getting very cold. Falling in can result in immediate shock. Protect your upper half by wearing fabrics next to your skin that’ll keep you warm even when wet: polyester, wool or silk. Wear Wrangler’s Fleece lined jeans under your waders to keep your legs toasty.

Autumn Steel

Mike Vitalone does brother Matt one better with this impressive nine-pounder.

Matt Vitalone, Rome, NY, holding a five-pounder he took in Pineville.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Indian Summer on the Oswego River

Syracusan Dave Bentley with a six-lb. brown. 

Frosty nights riding the cold snap that blew through the Northeast the first week on November knocked most of the leaves off Oswego County’s trees. The majority floated gently to the ground, carpeting the woods in crackling bursts of brilliant autumn colors. Massive quantities, however, ended up in run-off, turning the Oswego River’s rapids into a raging kaleidoscope, creating headaches for anglers trying to keep the fallen foliage off their lines while fishing the high waters.

Fortunately, fall has many moods. Along with the smirk of biting rains and cold snaps comes a smiley face: Indian summer. Wednesday morning, November 9, saw one of these happy moments.

Beaming brightly when I got up, hanging in a bright blue sky washed in 50-something degrees, the sun convinced me to head up to Oswego to check out the fishing. To my delight, the river was down to summer levels. Varick Dam, which spewed a frightening torrent of foam and froth just a couple weeks ago, looked like a teenager squirting water between his front teeth. Indeed, the flow below was so low, I crossed the river in hip boots.

Not in a straight path, mind you. The ancient river bed is pretty flat, punctuated with crevices and pools. I started out at the first set of stairs just south of the power plant and zigzagged my way across, ending up at the foot of the falls on the east side.

Still, there was enough water to accommodate a steady flow of spawn heavy brown trout, late running kings—which were in pretty decent shape for this late—and caviar-minded steelhead. Just about every seam, pocket and slick in the rapids had fish.

Downstream of the powerhouse, guys were casting into the channel right at the end of the no fishing zone and walking their baits down, past the stairs to the small group that was still-fishing on bottom at the end of the wall.

Fish were evenly distributed throughout the rapids stretching from the dam to the Utica Street Bridge.

This month can be iffy but we can reasonably expect a couple more unseasonably pleasant days. It all adds up to being your best time of year to get close and personal with a whitewater, trophy brown trout; your last chance to get a spawning king juiced-up with raging hormones; and your first shot at a fall-run steelhead. And if it’s in your cards, you can even have a banner day and get all three.

While a bunch of fish are available from the safety of the fenced wall lining the river downstream of the powerhouse, wading the rapids offers a more personal sense of excitement and adventure. If you’re gonna walk the fast lane, wear traction devices on your boots, carry a wading staff to help  keep your balance, wear polaroid sunglasses so you can see bottom through the water’s glare and a personal flotation device just in case the unthinkable happens and you get swept off your feet. Always pay attention to the falls and if more water is coming over than when you started, or if you hear the siren go off followed by announcements directing you to exit the river, head for shore immediately.

After all, there’s a lot of trout and salmon in the river in autumn and we want you back to help us catch ‘em again next week, next year...

 Bob Sedorovitz of Scranton, PA, with a 13-lb brown.

  Fishing at the northwestern corner of the Varick Dam

View of the dam: like a teen-ager squirting water between his teeth.

 Larry Paccione, owner of Extinction's Custom Rods (607-588-7077), Conesville, NY, holding a late-run king.

 Clay Winter, Conesville, NY, with a nice steelie he took below the dam.

 A happy angler, who posed on condition of anonymity, holding a nice steelie and brown he took from the rapids below Varick Dam.

Gerorge White and Jackie Stocum, Corning, NY, with the four monster kings they took below Varick Dam on November 9, 2011.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Oswego River's Monster Bottom Feeders

McGrath helping his associate Darryl Storie hold a 30-pounder.

Autumn swells the world in plenty. Forest, field, lake or stream…it doesn’t matter; they’re all brimming with nature’s bounty, and best of all, everything’s at its biggest and healthiest.

But all locations aren’t created equal; and Oswego County’s greatest claim to fame is its aquatic resources. Salmon, brown trout, steelhead, walleyes, bass, panfish, catfish, you name it, we’re loaded with ’em…big ones.

That’s no idle boast. One wide-eyed local, speaking on condition of anonymity, claims,“There’s so many fish around here this time of year, they’ve been known to overflow the waters.”

“You don’t believe me?” he continues, “check out the Salmon River or creeks like Grindstone and Little Sandy. Walk along the shore. Before long, you’ll run into salmon that beached themselves during the spawning run.”

And it ain’t just salmon and trout. Cousin Staash claims: “from mid-September through mid-November, I celebrate the year’s end by hitting quiet stretches of the Oswego River to take in the last warm rays, watch colors floating in the wind and water, and meditate, all while fishing for monstrous bottom feeders.”

Now, I like to do battle with a powerful catfish or carp as much as the next guy. Unfortunately, Staash likes to fish alone. Still, I figured being related carried some weight.  So I asked him if I could tag along next time he went.


His response was so brutally clear, it almost dragged me down to the bowels of despair. But it wasn’t to be, I guess, because right when I felt I was slipping under, I looked up at my answering machine and saw it blinking. The message was from Mike, owner of McGrath & Assoc. Carp Angling Services (315-469-5039;

“Spider,” it said, “We’re going to the Oswego River on Sunday, for the biggest carp of the season. You’re welcome to come along."

Cool, I thought. This guy’s even better at nabbing bottom suckers then my cousin.

So last Sunday at 9 a.m., I find myself all alone on the lawn below Lock 06 on the Oswego Canal. The plan called for everyone to be there at 11 a.m., but I’m always looking for an advantage and arrived a couple hours early hoping to claim the best spot.

All in vain, though. I was rigged for big catfish but the cold front that dropped the water temperature a couple degrees during the night shut ‘em down. I figured it would probably take the sun till noon to warm things up enough to spark a bite.

Around 11 a.m., I’m biteless - but happy. Overhead, chevrons of migrating waterfowl pierced the sky like noisy arrowheads. In the water off to my right a pair of muskrats was arguing about something, taking turns chasing one another. A couple spent salmon milled around at the base of the wall below my feet. It was like I was in the front row of the balcony over autumn’s stage, and time, its curtain, started new scenes with each passing minute.

Fortunately, the carp master, his son Mike, McGrath associate Darryl Storie and James Daher, owner of Mickey’s Bait and Tackle in North Syracuse, show up and break the spell.And they’re packing a tarp load of goodies: grains, powders, juices and other ingredients Mike uses for chum.

He starts mixing the goodies right away. Grits, dried milk, corn, unidentifiable stuff with names I couldn’t pronounce went into the bowl. Packing the mash into wads the size of hardballs, Mike launches them into the drink with a slingshot.

Baiting a couple lines, he casts out and places the rods in holders.

A minute later, the first carp hits; then another, followed by another, and another… You’d land a fish, re-bait, cast out again and a minute later, sometimes less, you’re into another fish.

According to McGrath, we landed about 1,000 pounds of carp in about four hours. We would have caught a lot more but photos, high-fiving, manly stuff like that takes time.

One was a 30-something-pounder, a carp the likes of which I’ve never seen caught before. My eyes have feasted on larger specimens in aquariums, magazines and on TV, but they’ve never seen a bigger one up close and personal.

Another would have gone 25 pounds. The rest ranged from 10 to 20 pounds.

"The Oswego River's carp fishery is under-fished," claims McGrath, the Pied Piper of carp, adding, "Autumn is the best time of year to get a really big one."

Mcgrath mixing the chum.
James Daher, owner of Mickey's Bait and Tackle and McGrath holding Jim's 25+-pounder.
Mike McGrath holding Mike Jr's. trophy as the boy looks on.