Lake Ontario’s All-Winter Streams
Winter steelhead fishing in the Lake Ontario tributaries isn’t for everyone. Yet in spite of the difficulties, there are days when you get to watch a 10-foot fly rod bend in half as a big steelie takes off on its first run. In the winter, it is certainly predictable that the most consistent fishing is on the tributaries where there is a dam that has regular releases as they stay open in the winter while natural flows usually ice up and are not fishable. These are the streams to key in on in the winter.
According to Ron Bierstine, owner of Orleans Outdoors in Albion, last season was good. “Sure fishing was good in 2015/2016, but we do face steelhead challenges like other tributaries,” Bierstine said. “We didn't see the same number of apparent thiamine deficient fish like on the Salmon River. Good fishing on the Oak Orchard River depends a lot upon timing. There's the typical fall action mixed in with browns and salmon for fall run steelhead or many domestic rainbows. Then after the fall rush, December and January action depends upon weather and water flows.”
On Oak Orchard where Ron’s shop is located, dam releases are equivalent to what comes into the system from precipitation. It takes rain or snowmelt to get the fishing going. Cold, dry winters are a problem for that stream, and many others along the lake. “My favorite time is the first good retreating freshet, in say Feb or Mar (can be Jan) after rain or snowmelt blows out the Oak Orchard River,” Bierstine said. High flows and stained water bring in the biggest and hardest fighting steelhead and make for the best action. “You'll be up against high and dirty and cold water flows, but that's what the challenge of a 30 some inch chromer is all about,” said Bierstine.
The Niagara River is a tough body of water to fish simply because of its sheer size. Much of the better fishing there in the winter is from a boat. I have a lot of experience with boating in general and personally wouldn’t try fishing the Niagara River without booking with a guide. The guides who outfit on the river know it very well and have the boating skills to provide a safe trip for steelhead in the winter-- an important consideration.
There is also plenty of shoreline access on the New York side of the Niagara. Starting upstream, Whirlpool Park is popular, along with Devil’s Hole State Park, but anglers are going to have to deal with steep banks. There is a mile of access along the Earl W. Brydges Artpark State Park. The Joseph Davis State Park near Lewiston offers some access. The Lewiston Landing Waterfront Park in Lewiston has access as does the Water Street Village Park and Constitution Park in Youngstown. Again, be very careful when fishing from shore in the winter on the Niagara.
Fly fishing rigs are also set up differently for the Niagara. Typically you really need a running line rig set up with heavy split shot to get the flies down on the bottom (the current is heavy and the water is deep). Nymphs and egg patterns will do the trick.
Oak Orchard Creek
Oak Orchard is one of my favorite western New York streams, and I’ve had some great days on it, and of course, days that were total failures. The bottom line is that while it is a great stream, you have still have to be there under the right conditions. Oak Orchard is located near Albion, and is reached off of NY 104. The access for the creek is below the Waterport Reservoir Dam off of Park Avenue Extension.
One of the things to keep in mind with Oak Orchard is there is only two miles or so of fishing below the dam, and you are not going to be alone. As was discussed above, the releases from the dam and the amount of water moving downstream are important.
The section of the Genesee River flowing through the City of Rochester is another possibility for winter steelhead. While there isn’t a dam release in that area, there is a waterfall that blocks fish passage upstream and the turbulent flow is like a dam release, and it is located near the Driving Park Avenue Bridge. There is a public fishing area off of Route 104 on Seth Green Drive where steelhead anglers park and fish.
The trails to the stream are steep and can be icy in the winter, so be careful. The Genesee is also a big river, so safety is paramount in the winter.
The Oswego River also stays open during the winter, and there is fishing access that the City of Oswego has created in the form of walkways along the river. For the average fly angler, the fishing might be tough because there is a railing along the walkway, and it takes a long handled net to land the fish because the walkways are on top of a wall that is about six feet high, thus shore angling is a tough proposition. There are also some guides who run driftboat trips on the river as well, and that would be the best way to access the river.
Of all the Lake Ontario Streams, the Salmon River offers the most miles of angling, but in the winter most of the steelhead action is going to be confined to the upper river above Pineville, especially during a really bad winter. The water below that area can form slush ice or solid ice the further you get away from the reservoir.
This doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of solitude. I can recall one weekday during a fairly heavy snowstorm when there was no available parking in the Lower Fly Zone, so count on having company. The trick is to try and hit the spots that are a little harder to get to, especially if your favorite fly-fishing technique requires a lot of casting room.
I’ve done a couple of drift trips on the Salmon River and it is a great way to enjoy a winter steelhead fishing outing on the river. A drift boat trip will open up areas that are very difficult for people to get to, and can really up the odds on getting into a fish.
Winter steelhead are not very aggressive. They do feed while they are in the tributaries, and you typically scale everything to what they are looking for. These fish are not interested in minnows. The best fly patterns fall into two simple categories, eggs, or nymphs. Presentations have to be right on the bottom, and match the speed of the current. Nymphing technique works well in some spots, as does the standard “chuck and duck” with split shot added to the leader (be sure and check the regulations).
Public Fishing Access maps for most of these streams is available on the NYSDEC website at www.dec.ny.gov, and then type the name of the stream in the search bar. Be sure not to trespass, as there have been issues on some streams. Flow data for Lake Ontario streams is available at http://waterdata.usgs.gov/ny/nwis/current/?type=flow.
Safety is very important for winter steelhead fishing. Be mindful that these waters is that the stream levels can change in a hurry, so keep an eye on the water levels and don’t wade too deep. As a safety precaution, cleated waders are the safest for winter steelheading, especially if you have to walk on any ice. One of the new wading belts with the self-inflating personal floatation device isn’t a bad idea either.
Rob Streeter enjoys fly fishing for many species, especially trout and salmon in the Lake Ontario tributaries. He is the outdoor columnist for the Albany Times Union and freelances for several publications. He is a member of the NYS Outdoor Writers’ Association and the Outdoor Writers’ Association of America.
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