Friday, November 18, 2011

Western New York (Part I)

Oakie Dokie

A salmonoid angler's wet dream takes place in western New York every fall.  Scores of huge salmon descend from the Great Lakes into small tributaries to complete the circle of life by spawning then dying. On the heels of these decaying salmon, countless brown trout and steelhead enter the rivers and streams to spawn and to feast on the bounty of freshly deposited salmon eggs. This annual event brings out hordes of anglers who capitalize on the incredible opportunity of catching trophy fish in confined places. That is fall Great Lake tributary fishing in a nutshell and it's something you should experience if you haven't yet. 

Tools of the trade: a wide array of 10 and 11-foot fly rods.

Anticipation was high leading up to the early November trip, especially on Tuesday nights when our group convened around fly vises to production tie sucker spawn patterns and place orders for plastic egg imitations called TroutBeads. It had been four years since I last made the six-hour run to western New York, but thankfully some of our crew had been every fall since. With their experience we had a pretty good idea of where we wanted to be and what we needed to do. Home base for our stay would be a cabin on the shores of Lake Ontario, just a stone's throw away from Oak Orchard Creek that is highly touted for its incredible run of big brown trout.

Only the essentials made the cut in Aaron's overfilled SUV.

In a SUV packed to the brim, Aaron, Kurt and I made the trek through the night aided by coffee and energy drinks. We arrived on Wednesday morning with an hour to relax before sunrise. Along the riverbank we met Derrick and Tommy, who drove up a night early and gave us a solid report of the previous day's action. First light revealed a river running with an ideal flow and clarity--medium high and slightly stained. The Oak's good reputation for both salmon and trout fishing draws big crowds, so a mid-week outing is much preferable to a weekend. In some stretches you can be literally a rod's length from your neighbor on either side. In an attempt to avoid that, we focused on some nice pools resembling water we look for back home and did a decent job of holding them down. As much as you prepare yourself for a crowded Great Lake tributary, the scene can still make you shake your head at times, but just remember that there are few other places in the Northeast where you can find fish that large in rivers so small.     

First light in western New York.

Bent rods and anglers lined shoulder to shoulder are common scenes on the Oak.
When it came to fishing style, we were definitely in the minority on Oak Orchard. Most anglers employed the "chuck-n-duck" method, straight-line nymphing with ample weight and no indicator. To their credit it seemed effective, but we stuck to tactics very similar to how we fish back home with strike indicators. Our basic set up included a long fluorocarbon leader tapered to about 8-pound test with a Thingamabobber indicator and sufficient split shot above an offering of either sucker spawn or TroutBeads. Both spawn and beads accounted for their fare share of trout throughout the trip, with some color patterns definitely standing out from others. 

Trout food: a King salmon egg (left) and its TroutBead imitation. 
For the most part we were using 10 and 11-foot "switch" fly rods, which can cast like a two-handed spey rod, yet are light enough to be used one-handed as well. These long rods made for effortless casts, helping keep our arms fresh during the marathon days. The backbone of the switch rod was another perk when it came to fighting large trout in tight quarters. A good net and competent friends to wield it were also very important factors on this trip. We all got our cracks at netting fish for each other and, for the most part, did rather well. I won't name names, but the biggest steelhead of the trip was lost to an unlucky net job and became the butt of endless jokes that week. But in the end, he made up for it and then some.

Tommy performing a "Snap C" cast with his switch rod. 

The two and a half days of fishing the Oak were great overall. The action came in bursts, mostly hot mornings and afternoons with a slow pick in between. The size of the trout landed were impressive, but it's all relative. If any of them were caught in a stream back home it would have been the biggest deal since sliced bread, yet on a Great Lake tributary a five-pound brown trout was hardly raising an eyebrow by the third morning. Many of the browns were sporting kyped jaws and spawning colors, which never got old, and several of the females were fat and laden with eggs. And while the Oak is mostly known for its huge brown trout, we also pricked a decent number of nice steelhead that are praised for their fighting skills and acrobatics.  

Derrick with a nice hen to start things off. 

This magnificent brown was Aaron's first hookup of the trip.

Not large, but a very pretty female brown.

Kurt cradles one of the many quality browns that swam in from Lake Ontario.
"Open wide"

Tommy was the preferred 'net man' of the trip, but everyone had their share of the task.

My best brown from the Oak.

The beautiful fall foliage was an added bonus to the solid fishing. 
Tommy with another nice Oak Oarchard brown.

This was the only Atlantic salmon of any size caught during the whole trip. 
Showing up to the river on day one with zero sleep led to borderline insanity.

Kurt hoisting up another kype-jawed male.

The most handsome steelhead I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.

So far western New York was treating a bunch of Connecticut boys pretty well, but by day three the crowds and stench of decaying salmon had taken their toll. A group pow-wow led to the decision to move on to greener pastures and we said goodbye to Oak Orchard for the final time of the trip. Little did we know that things were about to get a little more interesting with much larger fish in a stream about half the Oak's size.  

Coming soon...  Part II: Small Water, Big Fish


  1. Great stuff guys! I've been waiting for the pictures. Looks like you guys have it dialed in, but that's no surprise...

  2. WOW. What a trip. Congrats and thanks for sharing.