Empire State SALMON - Eugene Jones
My friend, Casey, and I both work full time, but when he texted, “Salmon are in,” I knew my schedule had to be rearranged. Then he pasted in New York’s Douglaston Salmon Run fishing report, highlighting the active fish movements and favorable conditions. “Let’s go!” I replied.
We live in Little Falls, New Jersey, about 270 miles from the world-famous angling mecca in Pulaski, New York, known for its Salmon River runs of Chinook, coho, and steelhead. These species are also joined by large brown trout that make their way upstream after spending several adult years swimming and gorging in Lake Ontario.
Meadow Lodge at the Douglaston Salmon Run near Lake Ontario, New York. Courtesy of DSR
Lake Ontario’s native population of Atlantic salmon were extinct by the early twentieth century, and Pacific salmon and steelhead were introduced. These West Coast fish now flourish through hatchery programs and abundant natural reproduction. An estimated 70% of these angler-caught Chinook salmon are believed to be wild. Currently, there are also serious efforts to restore Atlantic salmon to Lake Ontario.
After a night at the Tailwater Lodge, we woke early and made our way to Fat Nancy’s Tackle Shop. I imagined that the proprietor’s wife, Nancy, might not appreciate the store’s name, but it was obviously a successful business, its aisles crowded even at 5:30 a.m. My hunch is that she no longer minds the moniker. We loaded up on Estaz flies and streamers in sizes from 4 to 8 in various bright colors – hot pink, purple, fluorescent blue, and chartreuse. “Better get a bunch,” Casey noted. “You can lose a lot during the day up here.” We also stocked up on packaged leaders and 13-pound tippet material.
It was just a couple of miles more to the famous Douglaston Salmon Run, or DSR as its commonly called. The DSR is a private stretch of river that runs about 2.5 miles from the Lake Ontario estuary upstream to the center of town. The property has been owned by members of the local Barclay family dating back to the early nineteenth century. It was opened to the public in 1989, and the daily entrance fee of $85.00 is worth every penny.
Signs for the many promising spots along DSR’s 2.5 miles of the Salmon River. Courtesy of Christine Purpura and DSR
We checked in and headed upstream, given the latest news of fish working their way east. The Wall Hole and Sycamore Hole were already occupied with active anglers, and we eventually stopped at Little Black Hole about three quarters of a mile upstream. We made many casts and saw a few splashes, but did not connect. Back downstream, we came upon a promising stretch that offered a bench to rest our gear and later, we hoped, our fish-fighting fatigued bodies. Called The Glide, this run began at the confluence of two stretches upstream with a long deep run through the middle. Perfect for holding salmon.
I tied on a West Coast salmon fly given to me by my friend in Oregon, and worked my way out to a promising section of the run. Casting again and again upstream, I remember this friend telling me that salmon and steelhead were fish of 5,000 casts—or was it 10,000 casts?
An hour later, Casey and I were joined by two older gentlemen, brothers up for the day from the outskirts of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. They were obviously skilled regulars, and one of them quickly hooked and landed a beautiful Chinook, or king salmon as they often called in the Empire State.
The author with a hefty Empire State king he released.
At one point the elder brother approached me to offer guidance. “From the willow tree, down about 20 yards – they sit on the far side of the run.” He coached me like a caring grandfather: “You need to present your fly in that zone.” He opened his fly box and my eyes widened to the row after row of densely stacked Estaz flies. He handed me several. “We make them by the hundreds,” he told me. These men were not only serious fly anglers, they were caring, gentle souls. This is one of the things that keeps drawing me back to fly-fishing – good people looking to aid and mentor fellow anglers. On the river, there should be no dividing politics or ideologies. Fishing is the common religion.
Casey Angelo of Little Falls, New Jersey, with a well-earned New York king salmon.
The younger brother then gave Casey and me a brief lesson on leaders. He noted his long 14’ leader, connected to the maximum length of 4’ tippet (as governed by DSR regulations to minimize foul hooking). “The trick is to keep your fly line off the water.” He also pointed out that his long 11’ rod helped with mending. He then gave us a couple of their custom leaders to replace our standard packaged lines.
We never even exchanged names. It didn’t really matter; didn’t seem necessary. But we all returned to fishing and they shared their prime spots. The pair quickly hooked more fish, while Casey and I struggled to cast the extremely long, spilt-shot weighted leaders. Finally, Casey’s line tightened. His powerful fish swam upstream then turned hard downstream. Casey looked at his reel, line peeling away into the red backing. After ten minutes, the salmon porpoised right in front of me, revealing its dark silvery length and black-spotted dorsal. New York’s Salmon River fish tend to be darker than sea-run salmonids, but this salmon was obviously lake-fresh and full of vigor as it made several acrobatic leaps. We did not have a net, but Casey worked it to the bank and I grabbed it by the tail—like the Norse god, Thor (a guide in Iceland told me that’s how that the salmon got its caudal shape—Thor grabbed it by the tail). After marveling at the beauty of this 25-pound egg-heavy Chinook taken just a few miles from Lake Ontario, we sent her back on her way to spawn.
I continued my casts; likely passing the 2,000 mark. Both of my shoulders burned and bursitis flared in my hip and elbow. In between casts, I meditated on the river’s history and nature. There are records of great fishing here since the 1600s when native Iroquois speared Atlantic salmon and colonists angled with willow rods and horse hair. Much has changed, but perhaps some of the river and forests look as they did before the American Revolution. The current owner, Doug Barclay, is a direct descendant of Colonel Price, who served under George Washington. A graceful great blue heron swept across to the opposite bank, and hardy white gulls sounded their tell-tale calls, bringing me back to the shores of my youth on Long Island. With the gentle sound of water flowing around my waders almost lulling me to sleep, I was snapped to attention by a powerful take. Fifteen minutes later I had a large Chinook sliding up the gravel.
New York’s Salmon River remains active during Lake Ontario’s winter steelhead run. Courtesy of Mike Tsukamoto and DSR
The sun was beginning to fade, the long drive home looming—One more cast, one more cast. I felt the tight line and firm head shake of a large fish. Casey hooked up at the same moment— Double header! His fish took him upstream where it eventually wrapped itself around a submerged tree limb. He had no choice but to break the fly line, which was no easy task. Then he splashed his way down to assist me. My fish seemed to be fighting differently. It never jumped. It just marched firmly and deliberately up and down the river. I retrieved the line all the way to the tippet six times before it bolted off downstream again. When we finally brought it to the bank, we saw that it was not actually a salmon at all, but the largest brown trout I had ever beheld. A fat, brightly speckled specimen of 28 inches.
Back at the truck, we toasted with bourbon and a beer and I made a few posts to social media, pleased with the fish we had landed. One of my friends called to ask where we had been. “Those could not have possibly been from the East Coast,” he exclaimed. “You must have been out in Oregon or Alaska, right?” “No,” I assured him. “Those were genuine Empire State Salmon!”