Angling On The Fly
Salmon River Fly-Fishing Tales is a three-day account of my first-time salmon fishing in the Salmon River, Altmar, NY.
by Joan Mead-Matsui, a five-time award-winning freelance journalist; travel writer, and photographer.
If you’re looking for Salmon River fly fishing tales and stories from my freshwater fishing expedition, you’ve come to the right place.
It’s all here – the angling, flies, bait, encounter with international anglers, and the final word on my success during my first salmon-fishing trip to the Salmon River. My Salmon River fly-fishing tales are more about my experience as a whole, rather than one specific story or incident.
The primary objective for this story assignment was to arrive at the river and learn as much as I could through listening, observing, and interviews with other anglers.
Where To Stay in Altmar, NY
Keep in mind you’ll need a place to rest your weary legs after a full day on the water. My late September trip to Altmar began in Pulaski, NY, with a long-time friend who also loves fishing and culminated with an overnight travel assignment, outstanding meals, and lodging at the Tailwater Lodge.
The Tailwater’s accommodations tie in seamlessly with my outdoor recreation travel writing assignments and that’s why I’ve been a guest writer there four times.
If you’ve never stayed at the Tailwater, it is a phenomenal home-away-from-home upscale lodge that’s an independently owned Hilton Tapestry Collection award-winning property. It’s also adjacent to the Salmon River. The decor offers a lodge-like atmosphere but the accommodations are all about comfort, exceptional casual dining, and exemplary customer service. Bright and early, you can walk out the front door, hang a left, and within 50 ft., you’re on the river’s banks.
Need Room for Fly Tying?
The guest rooms are equipped with a desk and chair so you can set up your vise and tie flies should you deplete your supply.
Now that you have a place to hang your waders at night, the experienced fisher should have no problem catching at least one Chinook, Coho, or (landlocked) Atlantic salmon. The less skilled will learn a thing or two.
Longtime Goals Met Trepidation
Salmon fishery evolved into one of my goals not long after I learned to fly fish eight years ago. Only recently, did I find the courage to schedule a trip.
Why? Because I couldn’t coax any of my trout-fishing friends to take off time from their work. As a result, solo salmon fly-fishing was my only option and synonymous with wading into foreign territory. Despite mind-boggling self-doubt that actually kept me awake for a few hours the night before I departed for Altmar, I packed my gear in my car and embarked on my travel assignment to upstate New York.
A September trip, when the water is warm, appeals to me more than steelhead fishing in late October and early November. A few years ago, on a bitterly cold November day, my friend, our fishing guide and I set out to the Douglaston Salmon Run in search of steelhead. Within an hour, my fingertips and feet were numb and I was chilled to the bone despite several layers of clothing.
In stark contrast were the recent picture-perfect not-a-cloud-in-the-sky fall days with an ideal temperature for wading. Although they set the stage for three relaxing days they aren’t the ideal conditions for salmon migration. Salmon, much like trout, is a coldwater species and the air temperature was 70 degrees or higher by mid-day. That boosted the water temperature, which slowed the relocation.
One fisherman told me to return to the river to see the mass migration in mid-October. He assured me I’d see droves of salmon coming up the river once the weather turns ugly and cold.
My mood turned more serious as my trip was winding down. Keep reading for additional Salmon River Fly Fishing Tips.
Salmon Larger Than Me?
Maybe not that big but I’d heard many stories about the weight and size of an average-sized salmon caught in the Salmon River. Twenty to 30-lbs is the most common range. As a result, I wondered how someone my height and weight could reel in a 20 to 30-pound salmon.
After watching anglers in the Sportman’s Pool the first night I arrived in Pulaski, a neighboring town, I had my doubts if I had the skills to keep a salmon on the line and reel it in.
I awakened at 6:15 a.m. on my first full day in Altmar and was ready to fish by 8 a.m. Breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts took longer than I expected and I decided to make a quick stop at a fly shop on Route 13. The sales clerk offered expert advice but my river arrival time was set back by an hour or more.
The crowd thickened on Saturday as multiple drift boats and a large group of fishers arrived along both sides of the shoreline. More people on the water seemed to have an impact on the number of salmon I saw but a change in travel plans allowed me to stay until late afternoon.
TIP: Be sure to get your hands on a fishing map so you don’t waste your time driving. You’ll find one online beforehand or at the local tackle or fly shops when you arrive.
Fly or Spin-Fishing?
I wanted to increase my chances of catching a salmon so I brought the spin rods my friend loaned me and also rigged my fly rod with a heavier-weight line and attached weight and an egg pattern I bought at the fly shop. I’m skittish about using borrowed equipment so I tried both and eventually switched to my Orvis 9-ft, 8-wt Encounter rod. I set out down the path to the Sportman’s Pool, a popular spot along the Salmon River and joined a group between the deep pool and the riffles.
After walking around fishing gear for more than a mile along the river bank, I was relieved to find an opening spot where the riffles spilled into a calmer pool. That seemed like the ideal scenario for me, a person who doesn’t feel comfortable in water above my knees.
Salmon Fishing Tips and Lessons Learned
- Every year, thousands of anglers toting spinner and fly rods descend on the river but not everyone leaves with a salmon. The beauty is those who don’t catch a salmon, have an opportunity to assist a fellow fisherman.
- Throughout the day, there were times when anglers were elbow-to-elbow but folks came and went throughout the day. You’ll eventually find a vacant spot. Don’t crowd your neighbor.
- Move out of the way of an angler who has a salmon on his line. You might hear the phrases, “Coming up,” “Coming down,” or “Fish on.” As a courtesy, you should move out of the way and allow them to safely follow the salmon. You can also offer to help.
- Female anglers are still a minority. Only a mere 10 percent of the fishermen I saw fishing were women.
- Fewer than 40 percent of the fishermen I watched fished with fly rods.
- Mostly everyone is willing to give advice.
- Watch an instructional video before you go. There is an abundance of YouTube videos that will give you tips.
- Read this Salmon River article and learn more about the salmons’ migration and spawning habits.
- Be sure to have your SmartPhone available to capture videos of the migration. Share your photos, videos, and comments at https://www.facebook.com/JoanMeadMatsuiTravelWriter1115/ or @joanmatsui on Instagram.
- Salmon rise above the water and thrash as though they‘re frolicking. Who knows? Maybe they’re celebrating their last days on earth.
- The onset of the salmon run is similar to a silent alarm that sets off a flurry of activity that continues for months.
- Anglers from around the world fish in the Salmon River.
- Wear wading boots with studs to help keep you safe in the water. Salmon River rocks are slick and the current strong.
When Does Salmon Fishing Begin?
Salmon season on the Salmon River typically begins in September, although weather plays a role in the migration. Suffice to say, schedule your trip from September to November or whenever a dorsal fin is spotted emerging from the water. Colder temps can bring on excellent conditions and you’ll be more likely to hook a salmon.
As you wade, wait, and watch for the shockingly large salmonoids to rear their heads and make their infamous splash, look around you and admire the scenery. A Yugoslavian fisherman told me salmon fishing is his opportunity to wallow in nature and cleanse his soul.
By this time, you’re probably wondering if I caught a salmon. The answer is no and as much as I would have loved to present one to my family, I went to Altmar to learn and observe. I felt a few hefty tugs on my fishing line but to make catching any fish the ultimate goal would take away from the invaluable lessons I learned and the friends I made.
Room for Improvement
5 Improvements I Should Make (Based on a Survey of Fisherman I met)
- According to the Yugoslavian man, the egg patterns I had were not the best for salmon fishing. He recommended a mealworm fly.
- My line was too long
- I needed more weight on my line.
- The salmon ignored my fly because I didn’t move it in front of them.
- My casting needs work.
To Eat or Not to Eat
A salmon is a salmon and they’re all edible, correct?
Not necessarily, I learned. Depending on the salmon’s age and overall condition, not all salmon flesh is pink, flaky, and delicious. One fisherman told me some can taste fishy and others are downright foul-tasting. That was a disappointment to hear, considering I practice catch and release but would have made an exception.