Mid October is a busy time to fish Lake Ontario tributaries in New York State. Not only for the fishermen, but the fish as well. Mid-October is peak time for the Chinook salmon run. This is when the bulk of the Chinook and other salmon are in the rivers and spawning. The salmon will have a big impact on the rivers that they inhabit. At this time of the year the biggest impact will be from spawning and their eggs which are deposited into the river, making egg drift fishing a productive pursuit.
Autumn is also the time when the first of the migratory trout, steelhead and then the brown trout, start their spawning run. When these fish first arrive from Lake Ontario, the salmon would have been spawning for approximately two weeks by this time. As a result, the river bottom is saturated with eggs. Even though spawning is the prime concern of both steelhead and brown trout, when they are presented with a feeding opportunity of this magnitude these fish tend to take full advantage of it. Many anglers on Lake Ontario and its tributaries like the Salmon River, find the fall fly fishing to be superior to that of the summer months for egg drift fishing.
The feeding opportunity that these fish will encounter at this time of year in the tributaries of Lake Ontario can rival anything that they have experienced during their time in the great lakes. This feeding opportunity at times can be so large, that I have observed brown trout that have stopped spawning and gone on the feed. It is not unusual to see brown trout alternate between feeding and spawning in sections of the river where the egg concentration is unusually heavy.
Steelhead are several months away from spawning. As a result, these fish do not feel as strong an urge to get to their destination from Lake Ontario, past the river mouths. As with the rest of the fish that are in river at this time, it is not unusual for steelhead to run into a high concentration of eggs. When this happens there’s a good bet the fish will stop running up river and be actively feeding for days.
Despite all the salmon in the river at this time of the year, the egg drift is not a river-wide event. But fish can be caught with egg patterns all through the river. The heavy concentrations of eggs are a local event; the fish are keyed into the eggs. The key is to find the heavy concentrations. This is obviously where the salmon are doing the bulk of their spawning. At these locations the chinook and coho salmon will dig up the river bottom and deposit their eggs. And then a new group of salmon will move in, up past the river mouths, and dig up that same piece of river bottom and repeat the whole spawning process.
Prime gravel beds will have this process repeated several times as fresh groups of salmon come and go. It does not take long for these gravel beds to become saturated with salmon eggs. With all of the spawning activity, salmon digging their spawning beds into the river bottom will cause what I refer to as an egg drift. Surplus eggs knock loose and are sent adrift by spawning salmon.
Understanding what happens during an egg drift will help both seasoned fishermen and novice anglers alike be more effective at drift fishing egg flies. An egg drift is much different from a nymph drift that most fishermen are familiar with. The most important thing to remember is that nature designed eggs to be denser than water so that the eggs will sink to the river bottom and stay buried in the gravel, even withstanding a 30-pound salmon digging the eggs out of the river bottom.
On the other hand, nymphs have the same density as water; this enables them to slowly crawl along the river bottom while they find food. Eggs are denser and have a tendency to stay on the river bottom and are less likely to get caught up in the currents and drift down river. An egg drift is best described as a sub-drift; instead of falling with the currents, the eggs have a tendency to roll down river among the rocks.
Locating prime spots for egg drift fishing patterns on Lake Ontario tributaries can be straightforward – no fish finder necessary. Basically, look for concentrations of spawning fish and then focus the fishing effort in the slots and runs just below the spawning activity. These locations will not only concentrate the eggs, but also the feeding fish, making easy egg drift fishing for anglers. These are spots where fish can be found for weeks after spawning is over. In addition, keep these locations in mind for later in the season.
During water fluctuations, deep water flows will continue to wash eggs into these locations, making excellent spots to fish during the winter. Both brown trout and steelhead will also be mixed in with spawning salmon. This can make for excellent site fishing opportunities. Locate actively spawning salmon and then study the water around the salmon and see if you can locate any feeding trout or other fish.
Now that I’ve gone over the differences between egg drift fishing and nymph fishing, you have to keep in mind that eggs are denser than water. This is why they will sink to the river bottom and then stay where they are deposited by the fish.
On the other hand, nymphs have the same density as water, and this allows them to swim and crawl around the rocks to feed. Remember when a nymph gets washed into the current they can be several inches off the bottom as they drift. Since the eggs are heavier they will stay in contact with the river bottom even when they are knocked loose and will drift in the current and continue to roll along the river bottom.
The best presentation for egg flies while egg drift fishing, is to dead drift. Many anglers need to keep in mind that there are a few differences between fishing egg flies and nymphs. First of all, we need to drift egg flies much slower and closer to the river bottom than nymphs.
We do this by slowing down the drift. The first step should be properly set up. Start with a standard 10 foot, seven or eight-weight fly rod with a weight-forward floating fly line. However, the real secret is in setting-up the leaders and tippets. I like to start with 10-foot tapered leaders and add about three feet of tippets. Using a quality tapered leader helps with casting accuracy. You need to get the fly in the right spot. I keep my line weights above my tippet knot, so that the weight is about three feet from the fly. This is close enough to control the drift but far enough away not to bother the fish.
Like most anglers, in the last few years I have started using strike indicators more often when fly fishing egg patterns in order to maintain the desired depth. The advantage of using a strike indicator is that we can control our drifts much more easily. That way we can control the depth of our drift and steer the drift to the proper line that we want to fish.
If you are fishing a slot or pocket water strike, indicators will help you get the fly where you want it. Setting-up a strike indicator is fairly straightforward. Basically guesstimate how deep the water is that you are fishing and then add a third to that. While fly fishing egg patterns, keep in mind the distance is from the strike indicator to the weight, not the fly.
You may have to adjust after this guesstimate because it is only a guideline. You are aiming for the strike indicator to show periodic contact with the river bottom. What I tell trout fishermen is that the bottom will look like a fish tapping on the fly. When the strike indicator makes two foot jolts to the side, assume they are fish strikes and set the hook.
Fly design can make a big difference when drift fishing, especially during the low water flows beginning in the early fall. I like to keep my fly boxes simple, especially with egg flies. During the fall my favorite egg pattern to use for drift fishing is the nuclear row bug. I use these in three basic colors, Oregon cheese, chartreuse, and orange.
The sizes I use range from size twelve to size eight. Most of the time, I am fishing with the larger size in eight. I have found that glow bugs, though they are popular baits with anglers, do not work as well while drift fishing in the lower water flows that are common during the fall. I still carry a few in the same colors as above. As I said earlier, when I fish, I like to keep the egg fly box simple.
On those days that I find the fish to be unusually fussy, I will adjust my drift fishing technique and reduce the size of a fly and stick with the natural colors. After that, pay particular attention to your presentation. Over the years I’ve learned that for most anglers, it is not always the fly, but how you show the fly to the fish that makes a difference while steelhead fly fishing in and around Lake Ontario and the other great lakes.
Jay Peck is a fishing guide on the Lake Ontario tributaries. With 40+ years of fly fishing experience including 30 years as a licensed New York State guide, Jay has been applying his knowledge of the sport and local waters to help anglers in their pursuit of migratory fish, inland trout, and a variety of warm water species. Jay is also an accomplished spey caster and fly tyer. He has developed several fishing techniques and fly patterns for fishing the tributaries and inland trout streams. To learn more, check out Jay’s youtube channel, and get in touch with Jay at jaypeckguidesflyfishing.com.