The Kings of Fall

By Dr. Michael Verde

Dr. Michael Verde shows you how to tangle with river run, monster sized Salmon...close to home!

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Each fall brings the salmon migration and the thousands of anglers who target trophy class salmon to the Salmon River, which passes through Oswego County, NY. As these mighty fish set out on a one way journey upstream to spawn, they bring with them the rod bending and drag screaming pandemonium that rivals any world class fishery. Being a saltwater angler my entire life, I often scoffed at river fishing, assuming that the size and number of fish just could not compare to my ocean experiences. After fishing the Salmon River this past year, I have a new respect and appreciation for river fishing! I was blown away by the spectacular action and huge fish that the Salmon river provides.


Stretching over 17 miles long, the Salmon River is one of the most impressive and highly stocked rivers in the North east. Stocked annually with over 400,000 salmon it presents a fishing opportunity that is unparalleled. On an average day on the run you will still see hundreds of fish moving upstream, leaping out of the water and powering through. On a good day, you will find thousands of salmon bumping into your legs as you try to cross the river and find yourself struggling to keep yourself upright. Not only are the fish plentiful, but they are much larger than you’d think you’d find in water only inches deep. Though the average size is in the 20-30 lb range, this river produced a world record Coho salmon of 33 lbs, 4 oz as well as the Great Lakes record Chinook salmon weighing 47 lbs. 13 oz.

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Beginning in early September and lasting through late October the river draws thousands of anglers from all around the Noertheast with salmon fever. The sheer number of anglers flocking to this area can resemble the elbow to elbow fishing we have all seen off Montauk Point, or slightly reminiscent of being railed on a weekend party boat out of Sheapshead Bay. If you’re Ok with tight quarters fishing or are looking to fish inexpensively then there are plenty of access points along the 14 miles of Public River scattered throughout the local towns. A map of the river and access points can be found on the NYSDEC website. If, however, you’d prefer to foot a small expense for a less crowded experience, there is another option. Nestled in the small fishing town of Pulaski, on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario lies a fisherman's paradise named The Douglaston Salmon Run. The DSR is a private 2 ½ mile stretch of property located at the lower end of the river where the fish begin their journey. These fish are just entering the river and as such are unpressured, naïve to our tricks and packed with tons of energy. Access to this stretch of water is limited to keep the conditions comfortable to fish in and the $50 admission price is well worth it to get away from the crowds. In my experience, this is $50 well spent! There have been plenty of days that I have been all alone on the DSR without another fisherman in sight with more salmon that I could possibly handle. There are obviously larger crowds during the weekends and if solitude is what you’re really looking for a weekday trip to the river can’t be beat.


As with any type of fishing, proper gear is essential to success. Universal gear items that will be needed are; a good set of waders with a combination of felt and studded soles, a wading belt for safety and wading stick which will help you navigate the deeper crossings. Don't forget a flashlight for hiking out in the morning and a pack lunch, as you won’t want to be far from the fishing if things heat up during lunch time.


Though many tactics can be utilized to target these trophy class salmon, the two most successful are fly-fishing and the use of spinning tackle. Both are discussed in detail below:

FLY GEAR: The ideal fly rod is one in the 8-10wt size that is anywhere from 10 -13ft long. The length of your rod is key because you will be predominantly “roll casting” throughout the day and the added length will reduce the fatigue of constant casting. For fly reels a 9/10 wt reel that can hold 150 yards of 20lb backing and a matching fly line is key. It is preferred to have a fly reel in a large arbor design for faster line retrieve. My setup is a 10'9 8wt switch rod which I have paired with a 9/10wt Integra reel and loaded with 9wt Rio Steelhead/Salmon line. I feel by up sizing the line in relation to the rod weight I get better short distance cast ability out of an outfit, especially when casting with weights attached to my leader. Fly fishing is my preferred method to target these fish because it allows you throw multiple casts without having to work a reel. You can simply hold the line coming off the reel and let the slack float in the river next to you if need be. I also feel it aides in fighting fish in a river as you can dip your fly line into the current to put extra pressure on a fish or use the current to keep your line tight as a fish changes direction and charges back at you.

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As far as rods go the longer the better, this affords you better feel as your offering is drifting down river hopefully into a turbo charged salmon's mouth. Most fishermen prefer rods in the 9-13 ft range with a lb test rating of 8-17lbs. A matching reel would depend on the type of line you will be spooling with. For braided lines I found a 2500-3000 size is perfect for mono fisherman you might have to upsize to a 4000-5000 series. The setup I use is a 9 ½ ft St. Croix rating 8-17lb with a Shimano Sustain 3000 loaded with 10lb Power Pro. If you are fishing mono as a main line 15lb is best. I use this outfit as a back up or quick "change to outfit" if I'm in a hot bite and don’t want to waste time re-rigging.


Whether fishing with spinning tackle or flies the idea is the same. From the end of your fly line or main line you will tie a 9ft length of leader material (15lb mono) to a small 35 lb Spro swivel. Coming off the other end you will need another 3ft piece of line (preferably Seagaur Gmax Fluorocarbon 1x -2x) which will be attached to you offering. When you tie this last 3ft section of leader to the swivel make sure you DONT cut off the tag end of your knot, this will come in handy. It may be overwhelming when you consider at all the options for baits or flies on the market so I like to stick to the K.I.S.S method (keep it simple stupid). Understand that these fish are rushing upstream and the females are inadvertently spilling out eggs along the way. This is what 90% of the Salmon are slashing at on their way upstream. I match the hatch and use very simple egg flies in size 8-4. There are many variations of these flies that can be used and it’s important to have a good selection. Some must have colors for your collection are orange, flamingo and green. Now to get your rig down to the fish you’ll need to add splitshot to your line. I've found size #7 splitshot is a very versatile size and you can add as many as you need depending on the current and water depth you are fishing. The splitshots will be added to the small tag end that was left when attaching your leader to the swivel.


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Proper rigging and correct tackle will only get you so far…to be truly successful, the main ingredient is technique. You want to cast your offering slightly upstream and keeping your rod tip high overhead maintain tight contact with you line feeling it bounce along the river bottom. If you’re not bouncing off bottom you’re not in the strike zone and you should add weight as needed. The strike can be as subtle as a slightly livelier tap to as vicious as a freight train trying to rip the rod out of your hands. Once you hook into a fish let the games begin. With light drag these fish can easily spool a freshwater reel so when the fish starts his first run you will have to follow him either up or down stream. Be prepared for multiple runs out of these fish as they are super charged with energy since you are catching them at the beginning of their 17 mile marathon. I've had many a fish begin running down stream on me at such a fast pace that I had to sprint down the bank after the fish, reel still screaming, just to avoid from being spooled. Sticking with your fish also becomes extremely important when there are other anglers near you with multiple fish on and will increase your odds of avoiding crossed lines. Enjoy the battle and pace yourself, because you can only put a limited amount of pressure on these fish with light line, and remember you’re not just fighting the fish you’re also fighting the current at the same time.


Now that you have your trophy on and he's getting close you have to think about your end game. Landing these fish can be very tricky alone and your goal should be to find a shallow portion of river or a smooth bank to beach your fish. This is where a buddy can be invaluable. While you have your fish subdued and holding in a shallow slow moving section of river you can easily guide it towards your partner who can then grab the fish by the tail. By using a mesh glove you can easily tail these fish with confidence. This method is preferred over netting the fish as it does not traumatize the fish and stress them out if you are intending on releasing them. It is worth to note here that these are freshwater salmon; their flesh is white and relatively bland tasting unlike the saltwater salmon that makes great table fare. Keeping these fish should not be on the top of anyone’s to do list. That being said if you are planning on releasing a fish it should be done properly to ensure he has a fighting chance at recovery and finishing his journey upstream. As a general rule, when reviving a fish you should allot the same amount of time you spent fighting the fish to reviving it. With a firm grasp on its tail and a hand gently cradling its belly, position the fish upstream in a fast moving section of water and allow the water to run through his mouth over his gills. The fish will let you know when he's ready to run again as he will kick his tail and leave you with a splash. By following these guidelines we can ensure a sustainable fishery for years to come that will be enjoyed for generations.


By Dr. Michael Verde



#2 George kaiser 2017-01-25 16:15
I didn't know the fish up there weren't red like other salmon.I always here that there are smoke houses and fish cleaning plants up there?
#1 Ralph D 2013-10-29 21:11
Great article! What always surprised me, was how small the river is in some places. It can be like 12' wide and 6" deep, with schools of 20+lb salmon swimming right between your legs.

No Kidding! This actually happened to me...a few times!

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