"This ain't no place for the weary kind"
I arrived at Syracuse Hancock International Airport with a few minutes to spare before it was officially Friday morning. Fueled on Brooklyn Lager and the desire to touch steel for the first time, I made my way to baggage claim to pick up my massive checked gear bag (FYI they charge your $90 if your bag is over 50lbs….). But who cares?
After weeks of anticipation, we’d finally made it to the land of white walkers and revered lake run salmonoids. On tap was Pulaski (Poohlazkey aka Poohtown aka chrome factory) an incredibly fishy town in upstate NY. Each fall, this entire region gets its rocks off with an epic Salmon run beginning around Labor Day and ending just as the trick or treaters ready themselves for their annual sugar siege. Then the temps drop and this magical little offshoot of Lake Ontario transitions into a top-notch winter steelhead fishery. For those bent on chasing and eventually touching steel, there might not be a better place on the East Coast.
It’s a pretty fly place by our standards.
I cannot stress this enough though—Pulaski is a community entirely consumed and economically fueled by the salmonoids that annually invade its tributaries. It is a staple in the identity of the people here. Only a few establishments in the township choose to abstain from its inherent angling tradition. Hell, you’d be hard pressed to find a local business that doesn’t have some sort of fish mount or tackle on the wall. Even our stay at what we thought would be a generic Super 8 surprised us with wall size fish pictures above each bed.
Yet if you do a smidge of research on the Salmon River, you find that there’s very good reason for this. The salmon and steelhead, similar to being foundational in their role as fuel for an ecosystem, stimulate and often sustain the entire community and region’s economy as well. Talk about a symbiotic relationship. But the locals here get it.
Of all the great lake tributaries, none are more famous than the mighty Salmon. Flush with black water and slick bottom, it flows through the heart of Poohtown, ushering in thousands upon thousands of fresh King, Coho, and Atlantic Salmon from Lake Ontario on their annual plight to spawn and die each fall.
In pursuit of this migrating smorgasbord of fresh salmon eggs and eventually, their rotting flesh, are the big brown trout and steelhead that ultimately make this fishery so darned special. It is also the reason why the Salmon is one of the premier (and most pressured) steelhead fisheries on the East Coast.
Sure the salmon are great. They bring thousands of people to the banks of the river each year and flush the town with tourism dollars. But when the thermometer starts to drop and the salmon run starts tailing off, anglers from all over these great United States and for that matter - the world - come to Poohtown in pursuit of its chrome.
It is a rite of passage for fly fishermen… to freeze their collective asses off in its righteously icy waters…. all for a fish with never ending runs…. inspired by a personal affliction towards the world of man…that you can’t take personally….but somehow always take personally….
In the world of fly fishing –you aren't cool if you haven't done it. You know?
Made that next-level trip to the great white North to fish through bitter cold and never ending snowfall.
Ever pulled up in Poohlazkey to touch chrome, bro?
That epic Great Lake steely gnar-gnar, son?
Stickin’ pigs on the SWING for shibby chomed up props?
Alright, I’m done sounding like a jackass now (above all else, stay fly), but you get that righteous vibe we’re laying down….
People make fools of themselves for these fish.
We are no different (see video below).
So with this in mind, I succumbed to the instagrammed peer pressure and stupifying amount of fish porn on the interwebs and put the wheels in motion for a trip to this East Coast steelhead mecca. Not surprisingly, all it took was a text to my equally intense angling buddy, former college teammate, and best friend, Brogan Jayne.
Three weeks later we found ourselves in the frigid environs of Syracuse Hancock International Airport on a collision course with the salmonoid of our dreams.
The snow was already falling when Brogan pulled up curbside in our hot ride for the weekend -- an ice blue Jeep Patriot. Throwing my gear in the back and hopping up front - we spent the next 35 minutes en route to Pulaski catching up on life and listening to some fly tunes he had burned in advance.
Roaming through the frosty darkness, enjoying the heated comfort of the Jeep, with nothing but possibilities and the ability to fish non-stop for the next three days, it was hard to want anything more (maybe a beer?). Life was good.
It was the calm before the storm that is a winter steelhead trip without guide, game plan, or any prior experience.
Discussing strategy and expressing our sheer excitement for the opportunity to fish for these most noble creatures, it became apparent we didn’t really have a clue where to go or what to do outside of getting on the water and getting our hands dirty.
Outside of nymphing with egg patterns or swinging streamers on 8wts with fairly heavy leader, we hadn’t really gotten too far in the thought process.
Now, before you start second guessing us here - we didn’t come up here unprepared.
We studied maps for months. Read a nauseating amount of information about Oswego County. Its rig regulations…the perils of Route 13….which tackle shops were cool…which ones were facist and evil…..but it’s different when you finally get there.
Arriving in Poohtown at 11:40, we stopped at the Byrne Dairy gas station in Pulaski to pick up some supplies .
Due to some weird law in Oswego County that requires gas stations to stop selling beer at 11:45, we were in a race against time to get the essentials we would need for the evening.
Decisions. Decisions. Decisions.
In a mad dash we assembled a wicked array of Mangbearpig (Dogfish Head 60), Bells Two Hearted Ale, Lagunitas IPA, and Dales Pale Ale. We barely beat the beer buzzer before having to go back and purchase the other, non-beer necessities (purple G2, bagel bites, and sour gummy worms). Beer in hand, the freezing air felt good. We were exactly where we needed to be.
Hopping in the jeep, we made the short ride over to the Super 8 in downtown Pulaski to set up basecamp and wind down.
Steelhead haunted our dreams.
Day 1: Game on, dudes.
After enjoying a quick Burger King breakfast, we hit the water around 7:30am. We started our efforts out at Ellis Cove—a bend in the river just upstream from the famous Lower Fly Zone in Altmar.
Strapping on our waders and layering up for the day, a car pulled up next to us. Two dudes of similar age and scruffy fly attire emerged from the vehicle and unloaded their waders and gear in similar fashion. Exchanging head nods and friendly howdies, one of them overhead Brogan mention his native soil –Georgia.
Intrigued by the southerners in their midst, we struck up some friendly conversation before getting to brass tax about the fishery and how to approach the water. After a quick look over of our rigs, it was fairly obvious they could smell our rookie-strange from a mile away.
Low flows they said.
Use 6lb test.
Fish beads, drag free on the bottom.
Thanks bro! See ya on the water!
There goes my month and a half on the vice tying up every goddamn egg variation you could think of.
My brand new steelhead leaders (13lb and 12lb test) for $6 a pop? Useless (unless I recklessly tied them down).
But hey— you gotta respect the sharing of local info and the challenge of adapting your game plan on the fly.
So despite only knowing these gentlemen for all of five minutes, we changed rigs and descended the icy parking lot steps to the river bank.
Talk about blind faith.
The first few casts were some of the more focused and intense of my life. But after messing around for an hour or two on our own with little to show, the doubt bug started to creep into the back of my head.
There are few things more confidence draining than stumbling your way through new water. Even if you’ve read every book or article on the interwebs, NOTHING makes up for experience.
So was I a tad relieved when we ran into our parking lot friends again downstream?
Your damn right I was.
Offering up dip and flies in exchange for more friendly advice, we talked shop for a few minutes comparing notes and commenting on how damn good the water looked. While we were rookies in the parking lot, Dan, the more experienced of the two anglers, could tell we knew how to fish and opened up a little bit more after the exchange of tobacco and feathers.
These fish are pressured.
They’ve seen every fly in the world at this point.
The more natural, deep, and drag free you can get – the better off you’ll be. Hence the beads…easier on the fish too.
He told us to meet them down at the Trestle Pool later-an epic pool near a set of abandoned railroad tracks. I had no idea what he was talking about. But I nodded along like I did. "We'll let you in" he said with a smile.
As if he knew what would happen next…
Making our way downstream to the bend where the Trestle Pool gains its glorious depth and flow, we saw Dan and his buddy. We were in the right place. Thank god. They waved us over and ushered Brogan and I to the head of the pool. A rare act of fishing kindness completely void of D-baggery—rarely have I seen anglers go this far out of their way to put some strangers on fish.
We will be sure to pass it forward.
Before making my first cast, I readjusted my rig to get down deeper, added a few more pieces of split shot, tied on this ice blue, hinged stone fly (ice blue was a cool color this trip), and stripped out my line. After the miles traveled and countless hours at the vice, I took a deep breath and prayed to the fish gods for something cool to happen. But instant gratification would not be found here.
Dan’s indicator shot down and a chrome torpedo erupted from the water. In sheer excitement, he gave chase to the beast downstream and off he ran in pursuit. A moment or two later we saw him walking back upriver, his body language telling us all we needed to know. He’d lost the fish.
Still, knowing you are on fish does wonders for the confidence.
Needless to say, I could feel myself regain focus after Dan’s lost pig. My drifts improved. My casts stopped their collective suck (not sure they ever did, but you know the weight of a fishless day and how it can get in your head). After a few particularly drag free drifts, I had that sick feeling in my gullet that I was going to get bit and to my chagrin, the indicator shot down for the first time.
Heart thumping, I set hard on the fish. The river bottom rose with my rod tip and I felt my first, massive steely headshake. Unfortunately, that was about as far it went. It was over before it could even start. My rig had failed me.
Dan and the gang were heartbroken.
My first taste of steel was nothing but a quick break off....but damn, what a break off it was!
We were so damn close.
After an hour or so of little action after the breakoff, we decided to head back up river to a nice bend we’d noted earlier. With only one bite between the two of us and the temperature starting to drop with the fading daylight, we knew we’d only have another hour and change on the water before it would be too dark to see our indicators.
It was time to give it one last hurrah.
Arriving at the bend near the parking lot, Brogan and I split up on the river bank— him crossing the river way downstream to take the North bank and I residing on the South bank. Taking a minute to observe the whole scene (Brogan on one bank by himself and 10 or so spin fisherman on my bank just downstream), I saw him lift the rod tip and set hard on a bruiser steelhead (est. 15lbs).
The fish exploded from the water, its massive back and dorsal fin protruding from the fast current as it tantalizingly paced itself just out of the victorious reach of Brogan’s net. It was one of those situations from a horror movie. You know the one where one friend watches something bad about to happen to the other friend from a place of relative safety and can do nothing to help or stop it? Yeah…it was just like that.
With no way to tell the depth at the river bend it would have been treacherous/irresponsible/dangerous/badass to wade across (especially considering the plethora of would-be pissed off spin-fishermen who take their steelhead outings very ass-kicking-seriously), I did my best to document the incredibly frustrating moment from a far. But blurry camera pics of a bent rod were all I could conjure up.
As the fight ensued, Brogan got to work. Unable to move the fish in the current and without a net man (I fail), he did the only thing he or any other angler could do in the situation—try to kick the fish’s ass.
Putting his 8wt to work, he applied as much pressure as humanly possible with the rod to turn the fish. But the current and sheer mass of this beast were too much to overcome. Physics –that cruel bastard—was working against us as the rod imparted as much force as possible without breaking. From my vantage point it was bent into a full “C”.
For a minute, the fish even cooperated, slightly relinquishing some ground and inching its way towards the net and calm water. But then the mighty beast actually saw the net…and let’s just say steelhead might hate nets even more than they do people….
In an instant, the fish bulldogged itself back into the main current seam and….. I could go into more detail here, but this isn’t the story of an epic tug of war where we win at the end. It’s sure as hell not the recanting of Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It and his epic slide down the Deschuettes in pursuit of a monster fish.
No. No. No. Steelhead glory would not be achieved on the first day. This game is difficult. It rewards the devout faithful.
Beginner’s luck doesn’t exist.
This ain’t no place for the weary kind.
After losing ground to the fish and allowing it to find its way back to the fast flowing current, the light line eventually gave out with an audible snap. The monster fish returned to its home on the river bottom and we were left with the fleeting memory of its monstrous bulk.
In the ensuing moments, the surrounding woods were filled with some choice profanity. But with only a few minutes left of usable light, this was no time to pout. Brogan quickly re-rigged and got his fly back into the seam. That’s fishing…..so when the indicator shot down again a few minutes later, we thought we had been given that rare second chance.
Still separated on the other bank, we repeated the infuriatingly helpless process on a slightly smaller steelhead, which again decided to toy with our emotions and relative sanity in similar fashion. Within a few minutes the apple of our eye found himself freed from the annoying sensation in his mouth and back in the lineup with the first monster on the river bottom.
It was a lesson learned the hard way – don’t split up when steelheading. Two bites in the span of 5 minutes rarely happens…especially on your first day. We had blown our opportunity to catch lightning in a bottle. Always have a net man.
Tired but sure as hell not defeated, we clocked out on our first day of steelheading right as the last bit of light checked out for the day and rendered our indicators useless. Hitting the road en route to Pulaski in complete darkness (it was 4:30pm) the friendly confines of the Super 8 and a cold beer/hot shower combo beckoned us in from the cold. But even as the Jeep’s heater melted away the day’s frustrations and restored feeling in our extremities, it was hard to not think about those unforgiving black waters of the Salmon.
For not touching a single fish all day, I don’t think we’ve ever had more fun. We were chomping at the bit to get back out there.
As fairly serious fly fishermen, Brogan and I are up for the challenges that this sport can present. Nasty weather, tough fish, and unforgiving conditions are something we sort of look forward to. You may be thinking – why is this you sick, twisted bastards? Well, I’m glad you thunk’d it.
Simply put, we want to fish literally every second of every day. It is a damn addiction, passion, and outlook on life that is only understood completely by those who share the affliction. Whether it’s a perfect day or a shitty one, it doesn’t matter. There are fish to be caught and new challenges to overcome. The more conditions you’ve successfully bested, the more useful you are on the water. The more lessons you’ve learned.
For us, Pulaski was a strange, new world with monstrous fish and limitless potential.
Day 2: This ain’t no place for weary kind.
Jazzed up over Brogan’s two hookups and my lost fish, we started discussing what we wanted to do for the next day. Ending your first outing on such a positive note can do wonders for the outlook of a trip. We were no longer rookies. We had been successfully bent over and abused by these fish, but hey—you got to start somewhere.
We agreed it’d be essential to hit our lucky seam first thing in the morning. If nothing happened, we could always roll out. As most fishermen know, first light is far too precious a miracle to waste by sleeping in.
Back in the hotel that night, we googled some access points along the river that looked promising and read through more fishing reports then what should be considered humanly possible. Then that hunger thing kicked in.
Being in upstate NY near Buffalo, the concept of Buffalo wings near Buffalo sounded incredible. A quick google search for a spot with some good bar food gave us all the information we needed for a night out in downtown Pulaski.
Three letters: LDs. Look it up. Enjoy.
The hot wings at LD’s Sports Bar and Bear Naked Pale Ales (Trout Tap aka Trout Beer) were well earned….and incredible….burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth-and-not-care-good…. Making things even better was the addition of a new friend, Justin, who after hearing of our long travels and subsequent struggle on the day offered to take us out on his drift boat on Sunday if the fish continued to not cooperate. We exchanged numbers and agreed to call if “worse came to worse” before we retired back to the Super 8. Finally sated off of grogs of trout ale and spicy, char-grilled fowl we were confident we’d crush the fish the next day.
The next morning we awoke in the complete darkness to the snow falling hard and the temperatures firmly stuck in the low-20s. Most fishermen would wait for mid-morning to find their way to the water. But naturally, we hit the water at first light—determined to get on the same current seam as the previous dusk’s fireworks. We wanted to make sure we were the first to the parking lot… after a quick stop at McDonalds for McMuffins and coffee, of course.
Surprisingly the parking lot was empty. We thought we had won the game. In our minds, there were only so many minutes we’d be on these hallowed banks and we fully intended to take advantage of every single one. If we snuck a few minutes while the majority of anglers slept, that would be more than welcome. But then we saw it— a stupid dark shape that ultimately rendered our rush to wader up and get the sticks ready in the freezing darkness for naught.
Looming off the bank was the silhouette of a drift boat…and he was anchored up right on the stretch we wanted to fish. Like a surfer in a lineup, we waited him out…and then another half-dozen drift boats ….and then another half dozen drift boats….and watched as they proceeded to pound the ever loving sheet out of our desired seam without so much as a bite before vacating the vicinity….then we hopped in.
By that time we got to our desired bank, it was probably too late. The fish were on to the game. Cynical and lock jawed. But we gave it our best effort anyway and after the better part of an hour, we were curious to see what else might be out there. Ellis Cove had been good to us but it was time to move on.
It was time to check out the fabled flows of the Lower Fly Zone.
Running through the small town of Altmar, the LFZ on the Salmon River is a place all fly fishermen must experience at least once in their lives. If I had to describe the scene, I would say it’s Boca Grande during tarpon season meets A River Runs Through It. Pristine flows, countless fly fishermen, and dark, bottomless runs define this narrow chute of prime steelhead water. It might just be the fishiest and pressured stretch of water in the region as far as fly fishermen per square footage is concerned. But from our vantage point looking down below onto the sea of fishermen drifting flies through the oncoming snow fall – we could make out the distinct shape of bent rods and yelps of steelhead driven ecstasy. Would this be where the steelhead monkey finally fell off our backs?
In short, no.
The LFZ wasn’t our jam. Although we knew there were fish here, it was too cramped for our liking and we couldn’t carve out a good niche in the lineup.
If we had more time on the trip we probably would’ve messed around here a little more but being we were in a crunch for time we decided to split. After an hour, we climbed the hill back to the main road and packed up the car for snowier pastures.
Loading up the car, we wanted to find some water where the fish wouldn’t be as pressured and the steel:person ratio much higher. Looking at the map, we found a stretch of water near a set of power lines that looked promising. It required a hike to get to and from the road, didn’t call attention to itself. It was our kind of place. After letting our sticks thaw for a minute in the car, we took a deep breath, ate some trout bum lunch, and allowed for Wale to properly inspire us.
Then we started the mile or so walk in the direction of the river under snowy skies—ready to face the unknown.
There are few images more desolately beautiful than a barren field covered in fresh snowfall …especially underneath an ominous overcast sky. Again, the scene and water were epic. Not a ton of people and the runs were pretty easy to read. But after another couple hours of supreme effort, we found ourselves with limited daylight and on our last legs energy wise.
Like a siren’s song, the prospect of a hot shower, cold beer, and fresh hot wings called to us, but with nothing to show for our efforts it was hard to pull ourselves off the water.
We fished into darkness before the cold and mounting frustration ushered us to warmer environs.
There are some days where you get bit and don’t capitalize. There are others where your opportunities are limited due to weather or a front moving through. Others, there is a mystical force standing between you and the fish of your dreams.
Unfortunately for us, it seemed like the latter option.
Day 3: Making Moves, Spartan Karma, & Location X
With less than 24 hours left to touch steel, our nightly stop at LDs for wings and trout beer was more humbling and convalescent than glorious and victorious. The fish monkey blatantly weighed on our shoulders as we attempted to refuel and thaw out after another long, fruitless day on the icy banks of the Salmon. With each sip of beer and bite of spicy chicken, we weighed our options….which after months of prepping and planning came down to three realistic paths….
It really wasn’t a tough call.
For the second time of the trip, we took a shot in the dark and trusted a complete stranger. We gave Justin a call.
The first attempt came back with no answer. But just as things started to look dire mid-way through the Ohio State-Michigan State game (for both the BCS National Championship Game and our pursuit of steelhead), Brogan’s phone rang.
From the other side of the room I could hear Justin’s roughneck voice on the other end of the phone as he talked logistics with Brogan. He remembered us!
“It’s gonna be gnarly tomorrow. But we’ll show you how we do it up here.”
As if the karma flip was switched, Michigan State took a cleat to the throat of Buckeye Nation, squelching their comeback attempt and in doing so, restoring balance to both the world of men and fish. No saying how this story ends if OU wins…
The next morning we met in the parking lot of Fat Nancy’s tackle shop at 8am. Coffee and McMuffins in hand, we saw Justin’s jacked up 4Runner with snow tires and drift boat in tow come into view. Needless to say it made our ice-blue Jeep Patriot look like….well…an ice-blue Jeep Patriot.
After exchanging remember-us-from-the-bar-the-other-night handshakes, we set off for Justin’s favorite stretch of water – LOCATION X.
As if he were taking his cues from a Jeep commercial, Justin hopped into the cab of his truck and set off into the icy tundra at 70mph. Pedal to the metal. Not wanting to come off as pilgrims, we pushed our Patriot to the limits, bumping tunes and laughing about how we had come to be in this particular situation….following a relative stranger at breakneck speed in a winter wonderland with 8 hours to fish before we had to head home…..
God I love this sport.
Half an hour later, we arrived at LOCATION X…which I can’t really describe, name, or otherwise mention in honor of Justin’s request for it to remain anonymous (sorry, folks).
But maybe you’ll see me out there next winter……
After launching the drift boat, we found ourselves in all too familiar territory a few hours into the day. Sexy water, drag free drifts, and nothing to show for our efforts but ice in the guides and a particularly nasty spill on my part (which rendered my left knee stiff and shoulder totally effed)--great. The cold, which we had ignored for the better part of the trip, began its misanthrope inducing path through our bevvy of layers.
For once in my life, I was starting to have second thoughts about being on the water. It was that moment most anglers are all too familiar with – the moment where your shoulders hunch over, your energy seems completely drained, and each cast is an expression of indescribable effort. You know…that dark place in your mind where there are no fish left in the world…. But goddamnit— you keep casting.
You can’t check out.
That next cast could be the one you’ve been waiting for.
This ain’t no place for the weary kind, pilgrim.
And then it happened.
After 40 or so hours of no-love for our flies or drifts, (can’t speak for Brogan here but) my body tired and hurting, the indicator did the most fucked up thing it could have ever done under the circumstances…..it did something.
The ensuing moments were chaos. An anticipated blur of chrome and adrenaline.
I don’t ever think I will forget the indicator’s hiccup. That slight moment of delayed gratification where you question if your indicator actually just ticked…that act of blind faith that is a hook set…Or the massive flash of chrome upon striking. Or the head shake…or my 7wt loading….the sound of frozen drag….my knees shaking from adrenaline—not the cold….and then that glorious, ungloved grip n grin….of 10 incalculably meaningful pounds of Lake Ontario steel…
I like to think everyone has a highlight reel in their life. This was without a doubt one of those moments that makes mine. Snow falling, body frozen and broken, one of my best friends to celebrate with…and the fish secured in my non-gloved hands….you’d be hard pressed to find a bigger smile on my face. All we needed was Fowler.
After taking a minute or two to savor the moment, I released the beast back into the seam and sat down. I needed to get my shit together.
Then I saw Brogan’s indicator shoot down and I snapped into cameraman mode….I bet he’ll express a similar sentiment as the one written above, but will leave that up to him when the time comes. Bottom line, there is nothing better than catching the fish you came for. After 40 hours with nary the slightest sign of action or life for that matter, we were rewarded in the span of 120 minutes with 6 hook ups (4 chrome, 1 bow, 1 brown).
While I could’ve just wrote this story in a few paragraphs, I couldn’t allow our plight to go untold (and bragging about the fish you catch is horrible, horrible fish karma).
Touching steel for the first time is a rite of passage.
It does not come easy. I can’t stress is enough – this ain’t no place for the weary kind.
But..if you’re down to push yourself, take the risks, and push forward through the adversity of frozen guides, tangles, and slew of drift boats….this might be for you.
Nothing worth doing in life is easy.
Welcome to Poohtown—land of white walkers and revered salmonoids.
We will be back.
Fly dudes doing fly things in fly places with flies. Got that?