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July 19, 2010

The Salmon River's Special Fly-fishing, Catch-and-Release Areas -
Where a Trophy is Too Valuable to Catch Only Once

By Spider Rybaak

Anglers can explore ideal conditions for salmon and trout along designated fly-fishing areas of the Salmon River near Altmar.

OSWEGO COUNTY, NY - The Oswego River, half of Oneida Lake and the southeastern corner of Lake Ontario alone make Oswego County a fantasy fishing destination. But there's more, namely, the Salmon River, the most productive recreational coldwater fishery on the continent.

Recognizing the value of this precious resource, the authorities have set aside a couple short sections for fly-fishing, catch and release only, giving trophy salmonids the chance to survive and thrive after their encounter with man; and drawing anglers from all over the world to indulge in the possibilities.

"This special section is unique," says Fran Verdoliva, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's Special Assistant for the Salmon River, "because it's the only year-round, fly-fishing, catch-and-release area in the state."

Don't confuse the Salmon River's special areas with the artificial lures only stretches punctuating famous NY trout streams like the West Branch Ausable, the Beaver Kill and the Delaware. The more common restricted areas allow fishing with any type of equipment and artificial lure. The Salmon River regulations, on the other hand, only allow angling with traditional fly-fishing tackle: a fly rod, fly reel, fly line and tiny, virtually weightless lures called flies, typically made of yarn, feathers, fur and threads.

The Need for Room?

Flies set fly-fishing apart from other forms of angling. Whereas weight-a bobber, sinker, swivel, even the bait...pulls line off a conventional reel after the angler performs a single, forceful swing of the rod, a fly relies on a heavy line to carry it to its destination. A series of false casts (whipping the rod back and forth, stripping line from the reel with each back thrust) get the line through the rod's eyes and when enough is out to place the offering over its target, it's allowed to drop to its mark. Average fly-fishermen are quick to tell you that all that false casting requires a lot of space-open space. They claim the procedure is difficult to impossible to execute properly with anglers, trees, bushes, cliffs or anything else in the way.

Space is the main justification for the special sections. Fly-fishing is so specialized, most guys won't have anything to do with it. Restricting the stretch of water to fly-fishing precludes crowding.

"Fly-fishing is being used as a management tool in these areas because it provides some added protection to the fish due to the fact that the technique of fly-fishing and tackle required can make it a little more difficult to catch fish. We are not trying to maximize catch, yet it still provides angling opportunity," says Verdoliva.

Both sections are fly-fisherman friendly. The DEC has made several improvements to make one of the best holes more accessible to anglers. It used to be rimmed by a steep cliff and was only accessible to those hardy and brave enough to trudge through the deep, slippery, rock strewn water at its head and tail. Purists used to suffer the difficulty because it paid off in the finest quality fly-fishing imaginable.

Now its cliff has been tamed by a stone staircase; its wild, rocky south bank disciplined by a wall of massive stone blocks as smooth as a sidewalk. Best of all, the character of the pool has been changed utterly. Instead of huge boulders forcing the water into pockets of foam laced in a latticework of raging rapids, the flow is relatively straight and only mildly rapid.

"The stream bank improvements were made to offset the severe stream bank erosion that had taken place over the years and to move the current flow back into the natural stream channel," notes Verdoliva. "An added benefit is that we were able to reconstruct the bank to also provide safer access."

Divided into upper and lower sections, the special sections are located a short way downstream of the Lighthouse Hill Reservoir's powerhouse, a barrier fish can't surmount. Drawn from the bottom of the impoundment, the water running through the upper river is the coolest on the entire stream this time of year and slightly warmer in winter, providing ideal salmon and trout holding areas.

Open from April 1 through November 30, the upper section boasts the largest population of trophy landlocked Atlantic salmon found anywhere in fast water from mid-May through July.

What's more, Skamania, the summer form of steelhead (anadromous rainbow trout), also find this stretch to their liking in June and July.

Starting at the upstream side of the county Route 52 bridge in Altmar and stretching for about a quarter mile to the mouth of Beaverdam Brook, the lower section is open from Sept. 15 through May 15, and is most popular for its fall runs of monster brown trout, king and coho salmon, and steelhead from early autumn through mid-spring.

Although landlocked Atlantic salmon and Skamania occupy the upper catch-and-release section all summer long, high water draws fresh runs from the lake. While a heavy rain is usually enough to trigger a run upriver, the surest high water comes from scheduled power company releases for recreational whitewater rafting and kayaking. This year's remaining releases will take place July 10-11 and 24-25, Aug. 7-8 and Sept. 4-5.

Get to the upper section by parking at the fishing access site on county Route 22, upstream of the Salmon River Hatchery, and walking the trail for about .10 mile. The lower section can be accessed from the fishing access site at the county Route 52 bridge in Altmar.

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