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Steelhead fishing starting to heat up

Published November 07. 2009 09:00AM

PULASKI, N.Y. - Once again, the time of year for the long-awaited arrival of ideal fishing weather for steelhead has come to the tributaries of Lake Ontario.

Those ideal conditions require an ice scraper for windshields, woolen fishing gloves, and insulated parka and a large-capacity Thermos bottle for coffee. Yes, there is nothing like a brisk fall morning for anglers looking for hot steelhead action.

It seems that no matter how early almost winter-like temperatures, steelhead must know what the calendar reads. Whatever the reason, come mid-to-late November, these sea-run rainbow trout, who are native to the Pacific Ocean, but have adapted to the Great Lakes as their East Coast home, provide anglers with 5-6 months of the best fishing to be had in the Northeast.

Battling steelhead on light spinning tackle or fly rods is such a challenge in the spring because these dime-bright silver bullets become aggressive feeders. They enter tributaries in the fall to spawn, hold in those waters over the winter, then are at their aggressive best before returning to Lake Ontario for the summer.

Veteran New York State fishing guide Tom Burke says that steelhead trips are becoming more popular with Pennsylvania anglers than salmon trips. While battling a fall salmon in the 30-pound range is a thrill not to be missed, a 10-pound steelhead can battle twice as hard and is earning the reputation as the lake's premier sportfish.

"During the summer, a steelhead caught on a lake charter can weight 20 pounds and might be mistaken for a salmon because of its size," Burke said. "When you catch one of these fish on a drift trip, there's no mistaking what you have.

"In the river, or one of the other smaller tributaries, steelhead are much brighter than salmon and is speckled with dark spots on the top of the head, the back, upper fins, sides and tail. Steelhead have a white mouth, and the inside of a king salmon's mouth is black and the inside of a coho salmon's mouth is gray.

"Steelhead are at their brightest during the summer, but those caught in the streams often are more desirable for mounting because they are more colorful. Bucks develop a reddish lateral stripe and tint to their gills, and hens develop the same markings in pink."

Backtrolling with plugs is usually more effective in the fall and winter, but not necessary in the spring, when the fish actively strike egg sacks and flies. For that reason, in the spring, Burke encourages his clients to using spinning or fly tackle for steelhead to get the most from their experience of battling these fish.

"In the spring, I like to fish the Salmon River instead of the smaller tributaries because somewhere along the 13 miles is going to be water that's holding steelhead," Burke said. "Using the driftboat allows me to cover more water, has plenty of room for two people to fish and is easy to anchor or put ashore to target a pocket of fish.

"Most veteran steelhead fishermen have their favorite flies and egg patterns, but the best thing for a novice or once-a-year angler is to use our tackle. I do suggest wearing waders, rather than hip boots, because there are some areas where the best fishing might be had by getting out of the boat."

Burke encourages anglers to practice catch-and-release, but does allow clients to keep a fish for table fare. He also allows keeping a trophy to have it mounted, but suggests taking photos and measuring a fish to have a synthetic reproduction made.

Most years, Burke operates driftboat trips into May before switching fulltime to lake charters. There is no need, however, to wait for spring-like conditions to enjoy steelhead fishing, as the action is plenty hot during the fall and winter.

For more information on driftboat trips for steelhead with Coldsteel Sportfishing, contact Capt. Tom Burke at, or call 315-298-2500.

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