Salmon's Plenitude Tempts -- So Does a Comfortable Bed

It can become plenty crowded in the rushing waters of the Salmon River as fishermen angle for the best spots.
It can become plenty crowded in the rushing waters of the Salmon River as fishermen angle for the best spots. (By Angus Phillips For The Washingston Post)
By Angus Phillips
Sunday, October 8, 2006

PULASKI, N.Y.

First of all, it's pronounced Pulas- sky , not Pulas-ski, and don't ask why because even the locals don't know. "It just is," they say with a shrug.

It's considered "the poor man's Alaska," because where else in America, or anywhere in the world, can a working stiff catch 20- to 30-pound salmon on a fly for free in public water? And it's not an outside chance. Some days it's all but guaranteed.

I've heard for years about the big fall run of chinooks and cohos, plus some large brown trout and steelhead, in the Salmon River 35 miles north of Syracuse. Much of the talk was about foulmouthed locals lining the banks, intentionally snagging fish between slugs of whiskey. You won't find many dry-fly snobs from Trout Unlimited talking up the fall run.

But Jim Clay, a turkey-hunting schoolteacher from Winchester, Va., made the haul up Interstate 81 last fall and came back glowing, with tales of powerful fish in clean, fast water and plenty of them. "You're going to love it," he said. So off we went last weekend for a firsthand look.

It's bleak, economically depressed countryside on the eastern flank of Lake Ontario. Even in September and October it rains a lot here, with menacing clouds racing in off the lake at unlikely times. The roaring Salmon River feeds the lake, and fish by the millions roll upriver in autumn to spawn after three or four years fattening up in open water. That's what draws the masses.

Chilly rain fell as Clay, his 27-year-old son Matt, guide Ray Ellis and I set up alongside the tumbling stream in the dark before dawn. We were on a 2 1/2 -mile stretch of private water at the lower end of the Salmon, downstream of 10 miles of public water. Here in the Douglaston Salmon Run, anglers pay $25 a day to avoid crowds upstream, and guides such as Ellis get to enter before the general public as a special benefit for helping police the stretch.

It's a nice perk but it's double-edged. To get to the hotspots first you have to get up before 4 a.m., then sit on the bank for two hours awaiting sunrise. At 6, the public rolls in, a steady line of flashlights bobbing down the hill. "We call them ants," Ellis said with a chuckle.

We stationed ourselves calf-deep in our waders to stake out a spot at Sycamore Hole and watched the newcomers shoulder in alongside. On and on they came until it seemed every available perch upstream and down was filled by anglers 10 to 15 feet apart, all awaiting the glimmer that signals the dawn of a bright fishing day. If this was uncrowded, how bad must it be upstream?

It was light enough to fish by 6:30. The Clays and I tossed heavily weighted egg-pattern flies into the fast water and let them drift downstream among the rocks. With all that weight, it's not really flycasting, more "chuck-and-duck," but it's the only reasonable way to get the fly deep enough to attract bottom-running salmon, which are said to strike by instinct since they don't feed during the spawning run.

All these complex thoughts were running through my head when on the fifth cast, something immense and powerful snatched the fly and took off. Seconds later it erupted from the water like a misdirected torpedo and landed midstream with a thunderous splash.


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