White-Out Steelhead

Winter river fishing means trophy steelies

Outdoor Life Online Editor

New York's most famous winter steelhead fishery is one that traces its roots to fall. Pouring out of its lower reservoir, the Salmon River writhes through a 13-mile-long canyon to Lake Ontario. The flow is powerful, guiding ripe salmon and brown trout back to their natal rapids to spawn. Opportunistic steelhead and domestic rainbow trout ride in their wakes. They feast on caviar carpeting the riverbed.

Come winter, the chinook and coho runs peter out, and most of the browns retreat to the lake. But the chromers remain-indeed, their numbers grow. Active under the coldest conditions, they trickle into the Salmon River all winter long to take advantage of the salmon egg buffet.

Trophies, and Then Some
These aren't your average 8-pound fish, but true 20-pound leviathans. The most efficient and fruitful way to fish for them is from a drift boat. John Kopy, a popular river guide, says, "It's a lot easier to run a Flatfish, Kwikfish or Hot Shot effectively from a boat than from shifting icebergs."

Back-trolling plugs is Kopy's specialty. He has elevated the technique to a science in which his clients actively participate. Every section of river is different, requiring adjustments in the presentation to keep the lure at the right depth. Kopy rows lightly against the current, just enough to give the lure its action as it drifts downstream.

In addition to keeping you on top of fish, a winter float trip opens up an outdoor museum of natural wonders. Ice formations like chandeliers are welded to cliff faces and windfalls. The world is steeped in natural silence, a commodity growing harder and harder to find.

Yet one man's surf is another's tsunami. This dreamy scenery is a wading angler's nightmare. If you're a rugged individualist who would rather hoof it to the trophy of your dreams, February's the best time to do it-but it won't be easy. Shelves of unstable pack ice lining the banks and the endless buildup of frost on your line and rod conspire to make your adventure extremely challenging.

Still, the chance to cast at monster steelies from shore is a powerful incentive, drawing legions of "foot anglers." Their most productive bait is an egg sac. Dead-drifting yarn flies on the bottom and tossing small spinners (1/8-ounce or lighter) are also popular. Some dangle a tiny marabou jig a couple of feet below a pencil bobber.

Dressing for Nirvana
Dress properly before heading out. You'll want underwear made of polyester, silk or wool, fleece-lined jeans, a Gore-Tex jacket, neoprene waders, a hat, gloves, polarized sunglasses, Korkers for traction and a wading staff for stability.

Now you're ready for Pulaski, N.Y., with all its snow and ice. A river runs through this winter wonderland and it's filled with trout as big as those swimming through your imagination.

Contact John Kopy: 800-414-5507; www.littlejohnfishes.com. To book lodging, contact The Portly Angler, 315-298-4773; www.theportlyangler lodge.com.