(Red spot is 10mm bead having slipped down the line.)
Salmon River Showdown
A Month of Salmon Surge
Especially on Columbus Day weekend, the Salmon River running through transforms an ordinary American town with a business district into a Mecca with thousands of anglers converging on Pulaski for their shot at king salmon, Coho salmon, and possibly a brown trout better than eight pounds or an early steelhead. Some restaurants post prohibitions against wearing cleats, but none of them disallow wearing waders. From the numbers of vehicles toting rods parked along roads and anglers strolling through town, you would think the river would be as jammed everywhere as Clinton Falls on Opening Day, but my son and I have always found enough room to fight these great fish.
Kings run as large as the Salmon River record, 47 pounds, 13 ounces, and average 15-25 pounds. Cohos are less common, usually 6 to 12 pounds, with the Salmon River record at 33.45. Rods and reels don’t need to be as beefy as you might think. In fact, a noodle rod used for steelhead later in the fall may suffice with 8 pound test mono and good knots. These light power rods, 10 to 15 feet in length, absorb the fish’s power in the bend. I haven’t tried a noodle rod on a king, but others have with amazing play. 6 to 18 pound steelheads test these rods regularly with 6 pound test—not much more line strength would break the rod.
Most salmon chasers use the sort of rod you might use surf casting in the fall with light Ava’s for stripers, 7 or 8 foot medium-heavy power rods with 12 pound test mono. Make sure to use a reel with a good drag set at a third of line test, you’ll need it! Fly fishermen have a great time with salmon, but fly tackle is not necessary to catch loads of fish. Salmon are in the river to spawn, and some of them end up in the hands of fisheries employees who take the spawn, hatch it, and safely replenish the river and Lake Ontario. None of the salmon feed. But for some mysterious reason, they do take salmon egg imitations into their mouths. In fact, a foul hooked fish must by law be returned to the river, but most are mouth hooked. We’ve had the most action on plastic beads, although small pieces of sponge, and spawn sacs (about half dozen eggs in netting) have worked well. We tried homespun yarn flies and got very little action. I think yarn flies seem more like some kind of bug.
By law, hooks must be less than a half inch between barb and shank. We use Mustad #92141 off set hooks, size 4. They are designed to be snelled, but hook fine with 12 pound test fluorocarbon tied directly to the eye. If you do choose to snell, carry several leader wallets because the bottom consumes untold millions of terminal tackle pieces.
Rigging is simple: tie a small barrel swivel to main line keeping about 6 inches leftover. Tie about 18 inches of fluorocarbon leader to the other swivel eye, the other end to the hook. On that leftover 6 inches of line place 1 or 2 medium to large split shot. The amount of shot is determined by drift. Get the presentation down and just clicking rocks so you don’t get hung on every cast and it doesn’t ride high over bottom. Hang-ups are inevitable, thus the leftover line. The split shot usually gets caught and pulls off so that the hook and swivel are sparred. I take along over 300 split shot to Pulaski. Plenty are lost after a hook set grabs bottom instead of a salmon, but most of the time you can tell the difference when it’s a fish.
With 12 pound mono, a medium-heavy power rod casts large split shot rigs plenty of distance. The sizeable river is more like an oversized Musconetcong than Delaware, running 13 miles from Salmon River Reservoir hydroelectric dam. Flow volume depends on the amount of cool water release, measurements posted online. In our experience the river’s packed a punch, but remained altogether fishable as always except for truly torrential rains. Last year a great Nor’easter extended back into Lake Ontario before we arrived, but although two days were shot, we had plenty of success despite turbid, but not thick-muddy water, clear enough for salmon to see our offerings.
Beads come in myriad colors and different sizes, 10mm standard. You will see on tackle shop walls many shades of reds, yellows, beiges, tans, even greens, among others. Salmon seem mercurially selective about color, but how and why I have no idea, besides that I would expect them to take a pale shade resembling an actual egg. Last October this was not the case at all, as we got 4 or 5 hits to 1 on green, of all colors, over reds and pale beige. A twist to the story exists, though. These green eggs measured smaller than 10mm and had a soft plastic texture, and we placed them on the point of the hook, rather than jamming a toothpick in the hole of a hard bead between it and the line an inch above the hook, and breaking off the remainder. Why I don’t know, but my intuition felt strong that the soft texture had to do with our success. A salmon sensing that texture before taking it into its mouth makes no sense to reason, especially since the water was turbid. Who knows? Sponge is also available, many colors even include black. Bring a pair of scissors and cut a roundish piece small as a salmon egg, embed it on a hook. Spawn sacks come in a variety of colors, the netting easily catching the same kind of hook. Salmon are almost everywhere to take these presentations.
The run’s stage determines the section of river to fish. Late September fish are chiefly below Pulaski. By the third week of October there may still be many at Altmar, near the dam. Just ask for info at the many shops. They come in waves, and run in waves, too. They’re available in a foot of water, and we’ve caught them 12 feet deep. Search for spots that allow optimal drifts—3 to 12 feet deep and a good current. Salmon even run up small creeks: Sandy Creek, Orwell Creek, and Trout Brook—25 pound salmon in holes like those hosting suckers for boys.
Go online to get maps. FishSalmonRiver.com has them. Fantastic holes, pools, and stretches await. Best times to fish tend to be early and late. Salmon usually get well on the move with low light, but hit throughout the day. We usually find a run plenty strong in the middle of the afternoon. Few fish hooked get landed. Perhaps a dozen will give you a tussle to each netted. Most foul hooked pull free easily. Powerful currents downstream of where a salmon is hooked engulf some, but most fish pull the hook and some snap lines. Be ready to run as a salmon takes off up or downstream—always run with cleats like Korkers—other anglers will clear the way. Salmon fight tremendously, and sometimes leap 6 feet over water. If it’s your first time trying and you catch one of these fish, after a battle like that, you should be satisfied.